New Acquisitions: Two From Japan, John Berger, Argentina, Michael Wood

Here are some of the latest books that I’ve added to my stacks.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. Fresán first came to my attention when I published this piece in the Quarterly Conversation, approximately 10 years ago. He’s been a writer of interest ever since. This latest, just out, is a major release of some 750 pages. If you like Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño . . .

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. One of Berger’s stranger, more poetic books.

The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu. A short, allegorical, modernist classic from Japan. Along the lines of Kafka and Bioy, maybe even a little Borges. It’s amazing that this book has never been translated before.

The Face of Another by Kobo Abe. Kobo Abe’s book about a face transplant. What more is there to say?

The Road to Delphi by Michael Wood. As much as I love Michael Wood’s critical essays, I’ve never read a book by him. I’ve just started this one, and it’s pretty good. It’s all about the Oracle at Delphi and the role that oracles play in our civilizations, past and present.

6 Questions for Laura Raicovich on At the Lightning Field

photo credit: Michael Angelo

A couple of weeks ago I recommended the book-length essay At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich, recently published by Coffee House Press. It is a beautiful example of a long essay that responds to a work of art in a uniquely linguistic manner, the sort of thing that I myself enjoy writing, and which I feel we should see more of from creative nonfiction writers. In addition to deploying various ideas around memory, mathematics, and aesthetics, the book combines quotations from authors like Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Raicovich’s own descriptions and thoughts, often made in enjambed free verse.

Since I made that recommendation, I was able to interview Raicovich to find out a little more about her lengthy fascination with The Lightning Field, how her book came together, and some further reflections on some of the ideas found therein.

In addition to being the author of At the Lightning Field, Raicovich works as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum. She is also the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books).


Scott Esposito: Your book revolves around your experiences with The Lightning Field, a work of art left in the New Mexico wilderness by sculptor Walter De Maria. How many times have you visited The Lightning Field? (if you could, please elaborate a little here as to the time frame you’ve made these visits over, how long it takes to get out there from where you live, etc)

Laura Raicovich: I made at least 7 trips to The Lightning Field over a ten year period. At the time, I worked for Dia Art Foundation, the entity that maintains the Field, and part of my work involved ensuring the continuing isolation of the Field. At the time, there was interest in development of the high dessert throughout this area of central, western New Mexico. Many of the old school cattle ranchers were retiring or moving to ranch in areas that were literally greener and less challenging to ranch. During this period I learned a great deal about what it takes run a cattle ranch in the high desert, and eventually we were able to create some long term protections for the land surrounding the Field by partnering with the State of New Mexico and a third generation ranching family to purchase a conservation easement on their land that would ensure they could ranch for at least another generation, and that a major piece of land just south of the Field would be protected from development in perpetuity.

From where I live in Manhattan, it takes a fair amount of time to arrive at The Lightning Field, and this became, for me, a part of the process of shifting from NYC tempo to something altogether different. There were no direct flights to Albuquerque so I usually switched in Atlanta. From Albuquerque, I would arrive, stay overnight, and depart the following day by car. Getting to the Dia office in Quemado was a few hours’ drive, and from there another hour to get out to the cabin in the truck with Robert, the main caretaker. Each leg of the trip had a different texture and vibe, ending (or beginning?) in the austerity of the high desert and its unexpectedness.

SE: Why were you continually drawn back to The Lightning Field, and when did you know that you wanted to write about it?

LR: My first visit to the Field changed the way I experienced the world around me. I loved being there, recalibrating the relationships between sky, earth, poles, landscape, weather, and all of the ideas and thoughts this process evokes for me. Of course, I was lucky that some of my trips were necessary for my work at Dia.

I began to think seriously about writing about my experiences in graduate school. I tried to write some straight-up art history, and in the process located some compelling coincidences of history. I then took a class with Wayne Koestenbaum, and as we wrote homages, or parallel texts, to some of the works of literature we were reading, I began to wonder what writing something similar in relationship to The Lightning Field would look like. It seemed like the coincidences and my experiences out there could combine in compelling ways.

SE: The Lightning Field has been identified as a work of Land Art, an artistic movement based in interacting with the landscape, and of which perhaps Spiral Jetty is the best known example. Could you tell us a little about this movement and how The Lightning Field fits in?

LR: There were a number of artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s who decided to leave the confines of big cities to experiment in the landscape of the Western United States. Among them, Donald Judd went to Marfa, Texas where he created a complex of architectural and art installations. Michael Heizer made drawings with his motorcycle on dry lake beds, and started a monumental project in Nevada called “City”. Nancy Holt created her miraculous “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s desert. And Robert Smithson envisioned and built “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. De Maria had been making artworks in the desert for some time, including his Mile Long Drawing from 1968, before searching for the location for The Lightning Field.

SE: In the book you talk about the poles being “a device for seeing something larger, infinite.” This comes in the context of a discussion of certain irrational, or maybe disorderly, systems that The Lightning Field made visible to you. For your text, did you want to mimic this effect at all, in terms of making your writings a gateway toward the perception of things adjacent to the text?

LR: Yes, I wanted to do this both literally and lyrically. In fact, it happens formally with some of the line break choices. If you look at some pages (like 14, or 42, or 82) and turn the book on its left side, the lines of text mimic the poles in the desert. Sometimes the lines appear in an almost-pattern like the work does when meandering off the orthogonal within the grid of poles. And of course, there is a lot that is left out, not recorded, omitted, and left to another imagination.

SE: In a discussion of memory and your engaging idea of “the curve of memory,” you remark that “There is great pleasure in looking at the infinitesimally / small aspects of an experience / as well as the infinitesimally large.” I think I have some idea of what the infinitesimally small aspects of an experience might be, but I wonderful if you could elaborate on the idea of the “infinitesimally large” and how they might relate to your experiences at The Lightning Field.

LR: Infinitesimally large means to me connection to the cosmos, to the expanding universe, to really, really big things that are difficult to comprehend in our day to day frame of reference. Maybe it is because I have just finished Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy, these things include the unknown space of black holes, and space in more or fewer than 3 dimensions. Being at the Field decidedly connected my thoughts to the heavens and where this particular artwork sits on the surface of the Earth, and its relationship to the universe.

SE: Much of At the Lightning Field consists of beautiful poetic renditions of your phenomenological experiences of The Lightning Field. Did recounting these memories as poetry revise your experience of them? Did they lead to certain discoveries?

LR: Recounting them certainly changed them. Particularly as I left things out, inadvertently or intentionally, and as I edited the text over time. I realize now that there emerged very specific rhythms that I kept returning to in the text, as well as my desire to make connections that felt important to me, like to calculus, chaos theory. But I also wanted to make an invitation to anyone reading it to make their own associations. My discoveries, and the coincidences of history that drove me to write about The Lightning Field are really just a small gesture or homage to a work of art that has changed the ways in which I experience the world.

Interesting New Releases — May 2017

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. May 2. Her other book (Last Words from Montmartre) got deserved comparisons to Lispector.

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson. May 2.

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre. May 2. An icon of Haitian literature who has been underappreciated in translation.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World by Jorge Zepeda Patterson. May 2. I would definitely check out anything Adrian Nathan West translates.

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. May 9.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. May 9. A new novel by Colm Toibin. That’s a big fucking deal.

General Intellects: Twenty Five Thinkers for the 21st Century by McKenzie Wark. May 9. A lot of thinkers to know about in here.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. May 16. Fresán is a huge talent, and this is a huge book.

Prose Architectures by Renee Gladman. May 16.

Broken River: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon. May 16.

Wolf Hunt by Ivailo Petrov. May 16.

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto. May 23. Never-before-translated stories by the author of Zama. Need I say more?

The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós. May 23. Eça de Queirós was a god, and this is a translation by another deity (Margaret Jull Costa), so make sure to take a look.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob. May 23.

The Table by Francis Ponge. May 23.

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by César Aira. May 30. More Aira.

Recent Acquisitions: Long Essays, Bolivian Literature, an Italian Discovery, Paz’s Poetry

While I was traveling in Texas, and then upon my return home, I picked up many books, as I tend to do generally, regardless of where I am or why I’m there. Here’s a rundown of the latest.

The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz — having long been a fan of the essays of this Nobel laureate and major Mexican author, I decided to fully embrace his poetry. This book was purchased at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, which packs a remarkable collection of indie press literature into a compact space.

A Vittorini Omnibus — this was a new discovery made in Deep Vellum. Vittorini was famously admired by Ernest Hemingway, and he discovered Calvino as an editor. Vittorini was himself discovered by James Laughlin, during his legendary run as the publisher of New Directions. If the first of the three novels in this omnibus is an indication, Vittorini is a force to reckon with.

Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days — found at Moe’s Books. An account of the irascible Austrian’s experiences with a film made about himself, with photographs. What fan of Bernhard could resist this beautiful book?

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard — Also found at Moe’s. So many trusted friends have told me that this is an absolute masterpiece that I must finally check it out.

Wild Goods by Denise Newman — also at Moe’s. Denise is a colleague and the masterful translator of, among others, Naja Marie Aidt. Knowing what wonders she has worked with Naja’s prose, I obviously had to eventually read her poetry.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun — I was fortunate enough to meet the Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún during my time in Texas. People there spoke very highly of this book (and in his short career Rodrigo has received enough honors to equip a trophy room). His translator is the very estimable Sophie Hughes, another good sign. Pictured above is the Pushkin Press edition of his book. Simon & Schuster will release this title in the U.S. soon.

Junkspace with Running Room by Rem Koolhaas and Hal Foster and Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by A.J. Lees — two Texas acquisitions from UK press Notting Hill Editions, one of the great homes of the essay to come about in recent years. Soon its titles will be distributed in the U.S. from NYRB Classics. I can’t wait to dig into these.

Recommended: At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich

I’ve recently finished Laura Raicovich poetic essay At the Lightning Field, just released by Coffee House Press. The book revolves around Raicovich’s experiences at The Lightning Field, a major work of Land Art constructed in 1977 in New Mexico (see more here).

In this book, Raicovich combines poetic narratives of her experiences at The Lightning Field with reflections on mathematics, the nature of memory, artistic theory, and poetry. The result is a substantial, spare long essay that at times functions more like poetry than prose. It’s a delightful little book, the sort of response to works of art that I wish more essayists would make.

7 Questions for Charlotte Mandell on Compass by Mathias Enard

Scott Esposito: Before Compass, Enard’s best-known work in the States was Zone (which you also translated), famously a one-sentence novel of about 500 pages in length, delving very deeply into the life, culture, and history of the “Mediterranean zone,” more or less North Africa and Southern Europe. Could you talk a little about what this new book is, and how it compares to Zone?

Charlotte Mandell: Zone was narrated in a stream-of-consciousness narrative while the narrator was in an enclosed space (on a train from Milan to Rome); Compass has a similar constraint in that the narrator is also in the enclosed space of his bedroom, and the entire book is narrated during one night of insomnia while the narrator, Franz Ritter, looks back over his life and travels and pines for his lost love, Sarah. The scene of Ritter’s travels centers not on the Mediterranean basin this time but on the East — on Syria, Iran, and Turkey mostly. It’s a kind of melancholy ode to the Orient, to an East that exists only in the narrator’s mind now that most of the places he has visited have been ripped apart by war and revolution.

SE: What are some of the challenges and pleasures of translating this book?

CM: Since Ritter is a very well-read Viennese musicologist focusing on the influence of the East on the West, he refers often to Arabic-language and Persian books and poems with which I am unfamiliar; it was a challenge tracking down all the references to books and musical pieces Ritter makes. The challenges were curiously like the pleasures, since I love classical music and grew up listening to it, but many of the pieces Ritter mentions (Félicien David’s symphonic ode Le Désert, for instance) were unfamiliar to me, so I grew to know them — fortunately YouTube was a huge help. Fitzcarraldo has posted a playlist to most (but not all!) of the musical pieces mentioned in Compass:

http://blog.fitzcarraldoeditions.com/compass-playlist/

SE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the geographies of Zone vis a vis Compass. These are places that will exist very differently in the mind of a Frenchman versus an American. Could you tell us a little about why Enard chose to center a major novel around nations like Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and what the reception was like from the French reading public and the critics?

CM: Énard teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona and has lived for long periods of time in both Syria and Iran. Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria; just as Europe looked on while Yugoslavia burned in the 1990s, a similar thing is happening now with Syria. While the narrator of Zone was half-Croatian and fought in that Yugoslav war, the narrator of Compass is half-French, and speaks both German and French fluently. One of the themes of Compass is the importance of the Other and the danger of over-identifying with one particular nationality; the only way we as humans can grow, spiritually and emotionally, is to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures and to realize that nationalism is a construct — there is no such thing as a fixed identity. I think this message resonated with the French reading public, since Compass received glowing reviews and won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, France’s highest literary honor.

SE: Could you talk a little more in-depth about the relationship of the musicology to the concerns of the novel at large? Reading your response, I’m instantly reminded of Mann’s great Doctor Faustus, where of course the ideas behind twelve-tone music become enmeshed with the long history of the Germanic people and their fall into Nazism. I’m quite intrigued to know more . . .

CM: Franz Ritter is interested in the influence of Eastern composers on Western music; we tend generally to think of the two traditions as being completely separate and as developing independently of each other, but his argument is that throughout the nineteenth century, and even before that, Western composers like Liszt, Félicien David, and Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated Eastern themes and musical tropes into their work. Some examples: Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, which incorporates a Turkish march into it; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on The Thousand and One Nights; Schubert, who set to music some poems of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, itself based on the poems of Hafez. And then in the other direction there’s Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the famous opera composer Gaetano; in the Levant he was called Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha and became the music teacher to the Sultan of Constantinople Mahmud II from 1828 on.

​Thomas Mann is an important figure in Compass as well, since Ritter holds a long conversation with him in his head at one point; he comes up with a very funny division of all European artists into two kinds: the tubercular, or the public, the social; and the syphilitic, or the private, the shameful. He also inveighs against Wagner for his racism and isolationism, and for his poor treatment of the great Jewish composer Meyerbeer — whom he imitated in his early works.

SE: One aspect of Zone that was fascinating was all of the little- known historical episodes that Enard weaves in. What are some of the episodes here from Eastern history that might surprise people?

CM: This isn’t Eastern history, but at one point Ritter quotes from a text written by Sarah (another great Orientalist scholar, with whom he is in love) about Balzac’s friendship with the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, which led to a text in Arabic being included in the second, 1837, edition of La Peau de chagrin; this text was not present in the first, 1831 edition.

Another surprising historical tidbit is that the Germans and Austrians launched an appeal for global jihad in 1914 — they wanted Muslim troops to rise up against their enemies, the English, French and Russians. The Germans actually created a camp for Muslim prisoners of war outside Berlin; it was called the Camp of the Crescent, or the Halbmondlager — you can see the Wiki entry for it here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halbmondlager

SE: This book starts in the deeps of night and ends just before daybreak. Would you call it a hopeful book?

CM: ​The book ends with the “sunlight of hope” filtering through. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that against the hopelessness of death and war there is the profession of love, which is always a hopeful (and timeless) thing.

SE: What do you make of the titular metaphor, a compass that points not North but East, and which was owned by Beethoven?

CM: One of the themes of the book is the importance of learning that one’s identity is not fixed but fluid; a person is not defined by his or her nation or genes but by their openness to the other, to the seemingly foreign, to the new and strange. Beethoven broke new ground in his music, as in his Opus 111 which Franz points out has only two movements instead of the usual three, and features an incredible syncopated section in the second movement that heralds the rhythms of jazz. By owning a compass that points east instead of north, Franz (and Beethoven) show us that everything is relative: nothing is absolute, since everything is filtered through the subjectivity of each individual consciousness. In a Tibetan mandala, for instance, the main gate of the palace always faces east, not north. The important thing is not to take anything for granted, to keep one’s mind open to other realities and not to posit one’s own reality as the only one, since that way madness (or terrorism) lies.

Nine Questions for Emma Ramadan on Anne Garréta, Sphinx, and Not One Day

In addition to being one of the most impressive new translators to come onto the scene in recent years, Emma Ramadan is a good friend. I was very pleased to see her translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx become a huge success, and I was excited to see that Emma then began work on a second translation of Garréta’s. That book is now with us, Not One Day, a sort of catalogue/journey-through-memory of Garréta’s experiences with women. That book is now published.

When Emma is not translating, she is preparing to open a new independent bookstore called Riffraff with Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions and the prestigious French bookstore, Albertine, on New York’s Upper East Side.

I reached out to Emma via email to learn a little more about Not One Day, as well as her experiences with Sphinx and Garréta.

Scott Esposito: Most people reading this interview will know of Anne Garréta through her first novel, Sphinx, which you also translated. That novel has been very often described as a “genderless love story,” and, indeed, never revealing the gender of the two lovers at the center of the novel is that book’s foremost constraint. Sphinx granted Garréta entry into the Oulipo, where she would continue to write books employing various constraints. So, can you tell us a little about what the premise of this book is, and some of the constraints employed therein?

Emma Ramadan: Not One Day begins “Why not write something different, differently than you usually do? Once more, but with a new twist, rid yourself of your self…Since you can no longer conceive of writing except in long and intricate constructions, isn’t it time to go against the grain?” But unable to resist her self, Garréta proceeds to set up a series of constraints that have come to feel characteristic to her writing. “If you aim to thwart your habits and inclinations, you might as well go about it systematically.” And so we get the constraints. Garréta vows to write every day, for 5 hours straight, for a month, teasing out the memory of one story of desire each day, a woman she has desired, a woman who has desired her, (hence the idea not one day without a woman), or a different kind of desire altogether. Written in the order they come to mind. Arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically. No pen, “nothing but the keyboard,” no draft, no notes, writing only from memory. Not writing things as they happened, or might have happened, or as she wished they had happened, but as they appear to her in memory in that moment. No erasing, no rewriting, “syntax matching composition.” The ultimate aim being to dissipate herself through this process, “in order to dispel the desires that you still feel.” These constraints are clearly laid out in the Ante Scriptum at the beginning of the book, but Garréta hints in the Post Scriptum that some of these rules may have been broken in the process.

SE: To talk about Sphinx for a moment, this book has been very successful in your translation, and you’ve had the opportunity to do events in support of that book and to represent it in various capacities. Can you tell us about some of the reactions to this book by readers you encountered?

ER: I was blown away by the incredible response to Sphinx. People really seemed to connect with the book, which I think speaks to the power of Garréta’s fictional world to embody precisely what it is people seek out in their own realities, but are often unable to inhabit because of the nature of the society they live in. Ultimately Sphinx is the demonstration that gender is just one more false binary that has been imposed on us by outside forces. Many of us feel a disconnect between our lived experience and the ways we are told and expected to live in the world. By creating the possibility for a new way of talking about love and relationships that doesn’t have to subscribe to typical constructions of gender, Sphinx has carved out a space where people can project themselves onto these genderless characters in a way that they can’t always with characters in other books, providing a different experience for each reader. It was pretty fucking special to meet and talk with other people who found this opportunity in Sphinx to be as necessary and effective as I did.

SE: Do you feel that Not One Day provides some of the same opportunities for the reader to project him or herself into the text?

ER: Yes, but maybe not in such a straightforward way as in Sphinx. Not One Day is, essentially, one woman’s memories, experiences. And while many of those experiences may be relatable for some, many of them won’t be. But the conclusions Garréta draws from her memories, about desire and the way we talk or write about desire, the way desire is expected to play out versus the ways it manifests in reality, those conclusions can certainly be adapted to anyone’s experience, and are meant to provoke thought in everyone who reads the book about their own relationships. So in a lot of ways, the take-aways do resemble those of Sphinx, but they’re grounded in one person’s reality rather than taking form in a fictional space.

SE: What were some of the challenges of translating this book? Some of the pleasures?

ER: The biggest challenge for me in translating this book was the same I faced in translating Sphinx: Anne Garréta is a genius who puts her genius ideas into writing in a way that can be difficult for the average human to understand, let alone rewrite in English. The Ante Scriptum and the Post Scriptum are pure thought, and Anne and I Skyped and went over almost every line of those chapters so I could better get in her head to translate them. Another challenge was that I strongly believe in the idea of translating constrained writing by applying that same constraint to yourself, as I did with Sphinx, but for this book it just wasn’t possible. Translating each chapter in five hours without any editing just wasn’t going to be feasible, particularly not for a book like this.

The biggest pleasure of translating this book was how personal it is. It was a new experience for me to delve so deep into the life and mind of an author, especially someone like Anne whose writing I think of generally as deeply intellectually driven. There’s a lot of vulnerability and humanity in this book, and it’s a nice change to translate someone’s life as opposed to someone’s words.

SE: It’s clear that Garréta’s writing has touched you really deeply. It I’m not mistaken, Sphinx was the first book of hers that you read. Could you talk briefly about how you discovered Sphinx and why you wanted to translate it?

ER: I read about Sphinx in Daniel Levin-Becker’s book Many Subtle Channels, which is about the members of the Oulipo and their work. I was curious to see how it had been translated in English, since gender works so differently in the French language than it does in the English language. And when I realized that no one had translated it yet, I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.

SE: Which episodes from Not One Day did you like the best?

ER: I loved translating B*. It felt very real, this idea of pacing the room, replaying your encounters with a given person, debating whether or not to make a move. I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind, could feel Anne’s anxiety. I also liked translating K* because as I was translating it, I felt as though I was discovering along with Anne her true feelings for K*. The process of realizing things as you flesh them out in writing is on full display here.

SE: I like that idea, using the same time constraint to translation the book that Garréta used to write it. You mentioned that she wrote this book in a month. How long did the translation take?

ER: To be fair, in the Post Scriptum at the end of the book, Anne reveals: “As for writing every day or even every night, that was rather optimistic… Did you really bank on so easily curing yourself of your cardinal vice—procrastination?…What should have been a month’s work was disseminated over more than a year.” It probably took me, also, just over a year, editing time included.

SE: Which constraint of Garréta’s (from any book, story, etc, translated or not) do you find most fascinating?

ER: Anne’s novel La Décomposition has as its protagonist a serial killer who systematically assassinates the characters of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anne once showed me an enormous binder full of the notes she used to write that book. She has called it “a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text.” Which is pretty great. But Sphinx‘s constraint is still really exciting to me, it has so much explosive potential to it, I’d like to see everything from Greek myths to nursery rhymes to the literary canon rewritten without any indication of sex or gender.


SE: What’s next for you and Garréta? Another book? Other projects?

ER: Honestly, I’m not sure! I heard a rumor that she’s been producing a lot of new writing recently, so who knows…

Read Sergio Pitol!!!, aka The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol is coming out next week. It completes Pitol’s “trilogy of memory,” which begins with The Art of Flight and continues with The Journey.

Pitol is a true master, and these are incredible books. The words that currently come to mind to encourage you to read them feel inadequate . . . I will simply say that you should experience them. You will be better for it.

We excerpted two essays from The Magician of Vienna at The Quarterly Conversation: you can read them here. And BOMB magazine excerpted The Art of Flight. Read that here. (I am linking to the Google Cache page, as something appears off with the actual webpage.)

And here, for good measure, is a photo of Pitol and Bolaño together. It was taken on the occasion of Bolaño being awarded the Romulo Gallegos Prize for his novel The Savage Detectives. (You should also read TSD, if you have not already done so.) Pitol, a member of that year’s jury, awarded him the Prize.

Four Questions for Deepak Unnikrishnan on Temporary People

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan is a book (variously described as a novel, short stories, and something in between) based around the lives of people who come to the United Arab Emirates and, in the author’s words “are eventually required to leave.” Indeed, the UAE has become infamous for importing foreign-born people in order to build the massive infrastructure of a booming nation, only then to be told to go when their work is complete.

For this book, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, as Unnikrishnan himself is a immigrant to the United States. This is his first novel, and it has been getting rave reviews, in venues like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Unnikrishnan has also recently been on a book tour throughout the United States for Temporary People, and of course this is a strange time for a book that so deeply deals with the immigrant experience, particularly when it occurs Middle Eastern context. Below, we talk about the book, what it’s like to be releasing a book like this at this political moment, and about home, migration, and related subjects.


Scott Esposito: Temporary People is based around transitional workers who come to the United Arab Emirates to do the work necessary to build up the country and are then forced to leave. As you mention at the beginning of the book, “Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” Do you have any particular sources or experiences that underlie the lives depicted in these pages?

Deepak Unnikrishnan: I am the child of Indian parents who have lived in the UAE for over four decades. I am the nephew of uncles who have lived, or continue to live in the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf). My family has a warm and complex relationship with the Emirates, so in that sense, yes I understand what it’s like to live in a city that hosts you for a while, not forever. I also have friends from high school who have either left or stayed. And some of those who stayed are raising their own children in the place my mates and I were raised. So you could also say, yes, I’m aware of certain states bodies occupy when their documents buy them a fixed amount of time. I’m also hyper aware of the privileges my sibling and I have enjoyed, proximity to parents sitting pretty on top of that list. None of my first cousins grew up with both parents by their side. Their fathers sent money from the Khaleej. Their mothers looked after them. And if you’re from here, if you’ve paid attention, you see men and women who have come from elsewhere; people who’ve left much behind and you can read such sorrow on their faces. But then if you wait a little bit longer, you can also spot the drive and the joy and the craziness of what being a temporary resident means to these people. The hopes they carry in their heads, the stories they’re itching to tell. When I tell people Abu Dhabi raised me, I’m not just talking about the city. I’m also talking about its people, those who’ve been here a while, those from here, and especially those who may not last long, but help the city run. And it’s interesting you call these people who populate my book transnational. I am not sure that’s what they are. I’m not sure what they are, but transnational feels like a stretch, or some form of happy lie. What I’d say instead is that these men and women who reside within the pages of Temporary People are people who are conscious of time, all the time. And that state, where they are always thinking of their futures, does something to them, something visceral. Because you see, they are not forced to leave. They just have to leave. There’s a difference between those two scenarios. I suppose when you know you have to leave, often you’re just wondering about how to leave. And that can break some people. Others thrive.

SE: Temporary People is publishing in the United States at an interesting time, when we are having our own debates over the degree to which this country welcomes outsiders, and how we see their contributions to this country. You yourself were raised in the UAE and immigrated to the U.S., and this book won the first Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. So two questions: what do you feel that these stories of the UAE bring to an American context, and will this book be published in the UAE?

DU: I am the son, nephew, and grandson of migrants. My parents raised my sister and I in a city they didn’t fully understand at first. Yet they expected us to prove ourselves worthy to live in a place they were afraid to claim, but went to anyway. We were always expected to behave and be respectful, not embarrass them or ourselves. And with my folks having aged in the Khaleej, the place represents something else now to my family, part history and memory, something sacred, joyful, and sad. They care about the Khaleej, my parents. It’s home, you understand. But they care about India too. Americans may understand this basic need to acknowledge/accommodate two nations, one that raised you, and the other that adopted you. But what they may not get is what it means to return to a nation after you’ve left it for a while, what it means to return to the place where you were born, so that you may die. And it’s perfectly fine to not understand the significance of this voluntary act, without veering towards pity, or professing rage. But in an age where attachments are questioned, people corralled, questioned and bullied over nationality and paperwork, certainly in the States, there’s something instructive in contemplating why/how people cherish a place even when they aren’t required/expected to do so. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to romanticize any of this, the leaving part especially. It’s hard to leave a place, man. It sucks to be a creature perpetually wedded to paperwork, but my hope is when people read my work, they are not only ingesting the language of temporary people, they are also thinking about vulnerability, why living elsewhere is often an act of sacrifice (especially if you are a parent), with the expectation of hope; and if you’re lucky, good fortune. I hope some people in the States (and elsewhere too), the ones who rage against foreigners – especially the most vulnerable, children, refugees, and the undocumented – come across the book, maybe skim through it, then contemplate over what it must be like to explain yourself all the time to people who assume they know what you are, people who wonder whether you’re harmless, that you’ve hopefully got something to give. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are migrants or temporary residents the world over just fed up with explaining themselves. I’d wager some of them don’t know what to say anymore and that they are tired. And you bet I hope readers in the UAE will get to read the book.

SE: You’ve been on a book tour, doing events for this book in New York City and San Francisco, and elsewhere throughout the country. What have been the responses to this book? Have these events veered toward the political context here in the U.S.?

DU: Let me be frank. I didn’t think many people were going to come to the readings. Don’t know why, but I didn’t buy that folks wanted to hear some stranger they’ve barely heard about talk about the Khaleej, or hear me recite myths and tales mined from the place, but I’ve been surprised and humbled by the response. I’ve bumped into people I’ve gone to high school with. I’ve had people come up to me saying, Man, that happened to me too! I’ve seen brown and black and white people in the audience. I’ve had questions that covered multiple topics: home, language, and yeah, cities. And sure: politics, too. That comes up a lot, and I find myself wanting to talk about the state of the States. It’s home too, you know. I mean some of us are frightened. I have friends who are angry, who’ve turned soothsayers. And we don’t know why we’re all behaving this way, and then we know why. I ‘d like to think people want to talk about the current state of affairs, but a part of me believes most folks have also made up their minds. It’s as though we’ve got to pick this camp or that camp, and that scenario frightens me. I’ve also had little old ladies come up to me in the Midwest to apologize, to state that the current administration doesn’t speak for them. And I remember being moved by that. They didn’t have to do that, walk over to the brown man and try to calm him down, but they did. So there’s hope. At the same time, there are people who voted for Trump. And a part of me wants to know why. And a part of me is afraid to know why. But it’s important to know what’s going on with the country. It’s important to talk. I’m not saying we should all hold hands and pretend everything’s okay. Everything’s not okay, more reason to have difficult conversations. Something broke. What?

SE: I’ve seen this book variously described as 28 stories and as a novel. How do you see it, and why? Are genre conventions like these something that may hold more weight here in the States than in the literary culture of the Middle East?

DU: I identify as a short story writer. Writing a collection, that’s what I thought I was doing when I began the work. But gradually I realized I was also toying with things, language most certainly, and to an extent, form. So the work began to morph. I started calling it “the book,” because that made more sense. As more time passed, it became clear the chapters, as I call the tales, needed each other to speak to one another, as well as to speak over one another, to create something almost animal-like and city-like. Because I wanted my book to sound a certain way, you see. I wanted readers to hear these people, temporary inhabitants with accents and myths, and I wanted them to appear and disappear, maybe reappear. That meant I had to break certain conventions, explore what a book was supposed to do, then burn certain rules. But some of these breakthroughs were unintentional. I’d like to claim that everything was thought out. But no, I hadn’t really given architecture of the book much thought until I started studying at the Art Institute. And all of a sudden, I was like, wait a minute, I want the languages in the book to mimic streetlights and road signs, take the reader somewhere familiar yet unexpected, wild. And I suppose it helped that I didn’t have much of a literature background. I was a bit of a novice, and slightly stupid, plus arrogant, useful qualities if you’re trying something new, and you don’t know you’re trying something new. But yeah, genre holds a lot of weight in the States. I’m in fact super pleased the book has not only been described as a collection or a novel, but also been reviewed as either a fragmented collection or a novel held up by some-short-some-long stories. There’s been no universal consensus on what the work is or what it’s become and that’s pretty wonderful! But to be fair, I think genre matters in other nations too. And I’ve been guilty of wandering over to certain sections at bookstores, seduced by genre. And that’s a shame, because at the end of the day I identify as a user of words, someone who deploys language to express his thoughts about imaginary and realist realms. Shouldn’t that be enough? At the risk of sounding pompous, it might be helpful to ditch categories from time to time and relearn how to read, especially if the work stems from someone’s imagination, especially if we want our minds blown.

The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard

Over at Lit Hub, as part of their April recommended releases, I recommend the Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard.

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.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2017. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.