Saturday, November 27, 2010

Call for submissions for ASYMPTOTE: a new international journal of literary translation

Here's another segue: my friend's setting up a new journal of translation called Asymptote! (Yeah, I was originally drama editor, but I couldn't commit the time. It's still an important effort.)

It's founded by multi-genre polyglot Singaporean writer Lee Yew Leong, but we've got other editors based in Germany and the USA. Our first issue is coming out in Jan 2011.

If you're a writer in a non-English language or a translator of non-English literature into English, we'd love to see your work. The deadline for submissions is 20 December 2010 and the guidelines are here.

Ooh, and get a load of our landing page, here:

Some very cool international writers have already agreed to be featured in the Jan 2011 edition. We'll be featuring:

- a dispatch from Afghanistan about the plight of women in the context of the ongoing war
- an essay from Japan comparing "Literature and Mathematics" (which we thought apropos for the launch issue of a magazine called Asymptote)
- a group of poems by Melih Cevdet Anday, writing in the manner of a famous 17th century folk poet, translated from the Turkish by Sidney Wade and Efe Murad
- an interview with the award-winning lyricist who not only brought the 2010 World Cup song into Mandarin but has done some amazing (literary) things across Mandarin and Cantonese as well.
-excerpts from Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa'at's "Nadirah", last year's prizewinning script at the Life! Theatre Awards.

Hope to read your stuff on the site soon!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book 37, St Maarten: W. R. Groman's "Oasis of the Sea: Sint Maarten Sonnets"

Blogger has stats now, so I know what countries my readers come from (Singapore=453; USA=425; Brazil=22; UAE=13), and that my all-time most popular page is my review of the unknown, younger-than-me, just-published-this-year-on-Kindle-author Ze Lin Xiao from American Samoa.

Who'd've thunk? But now I'm gearing up for another hitstorm, because I'm reviewing another unknown, younger-than-me, just-published-this-year-on-Kindle-author, W.R. Groman from... well, I don't know where he's from, really.

He has a poetry blog, where he writes in both English and Spanish. He's one degree of separation from me via Facebook, so I know he's Brown '04 and Harvard grad school. But that's it in terms of biography. I could assume he's American, but who knows for sure? Ze Lin's Samoan, and she's at Stamford.

His poems are verbose, cerebral and weirdly archaic (they're Shakespearean sonnets after all; slant-rhymed, but still!). None of the expected paeans to the sun and the sea; instead we've got lizards and satyrs and dusty streets with discordant jazz music, but not in a social realist style either - no, the true nation of the 28 sonnets in this chapbook is Groman's head. He occasionally lights on a theme directly related to the setting: oil slicks, orange blossoms, Spanish vocabulary, black boatmen - but certain sonnets are simply about his mind wandering, trying to find its place in the universe between flesh and ether and "the panorama/of sand and lizards and children and streets/washed over by the goats' glaze and drama".

Honestly, I'm not engaged. There's no hook - the language is unexpected but not fresh, obscure but not musical, not magical. I can't find a good reason to follow him on his quest for truth.

Structurally, the poems are rather fine, of course: this isn't a Creative Writing 101 emo-fest, but real products of skill. Plus, I rather like the fact that he's dwelling on grunge rather than rose-tinted tourist brochure shots.

(What's rather odd is that he does pepper the text with rose-tinted tourist brochure shots of the beaches and landscapes of St Maarten. Very odd effect. It's like throwing in photos of the Lake District or Guilin into the folder notes of a Nine Inch Nails album. This is one of the clues that makes me think he's not an actual native of St Maarten... but who knows, really? Maybe he's estranged.)

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Small grumble, though: if I'd been thinking properly when I read A Trip to the Beach, I would've realised that only the southern half of this island is the Dutch country of Sint Maarten, part of the former Netherlands Antilles; the upper half is the French collectivity of Saint Martin, administered by Guadeloupe.

So by coming directly here from Anguilla, I'm actually violating one of my own rules about crossing other nations on the way between stops. Bugger. The god of literary blogging will forgive me, I'm sure.

I'm including one of the few poems in the the chapbook that I really like. I know the fair use claim is iffy here, so I'll take it down if he asks me.

Representative quote:

The rain has softened into fresh linen,
but these bloodshot eyes still remember,
on this island of goats, fruit and venom,
in this month six months before December:
the porch was on fire, the hammock singed
down, and the lovely light green almost grayed
away into nothing - a light bulb binged
and purged on its own power and sprayed:
This whole island is purgation, vomit-
even the waves spew forth firewaters,
and certain hooves dance on tails and dumb it
down, and the lights leak lies made of fathers:
This must be the oasis of the seas,
where sand and salt and steel forge reveries.

Next book: Jean Heyn's The Governor-General's Lady, from the US Virgin Islands.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book 36, Anguilla: "A Trip to the Beach" by Melinda and Robert Blanchard

Back south again to the Leeward Islands now! This book's another chance discovery: I was convinced the library didn't have any books on Anguilla for the longest time, simply because I kept misspelling it like the Arabic surname, Angullia.

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Discovered the error of my ways and settled down with the Blanchards' self-help book Live What You Love: Notes from a Passionate Life, which I was fully prepared to hate, since it's a about them being an American power couple fulfilling their dreams by opening their own restaurant on a Caribbean island and thus inspiring others to live out their aspirations too; something I suspected I'd find infuriatingly kyriarchical after reading a 19th century Bermudan slave narrative.

Not so. I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. I'm sure another reader would find it seething with unexamined privilege, but I guess I needed that shot of positivity and gung-ho-ness; I appreciated the levels to which they really showed love for their Anguillian staff, flying them all the way to Vermont to ski with their friends; and of course I was drawn in by the descriptions of the food: from Belgian waffles and devilled eggs to jerk chicken and endless Caribbean lobsters.

What bugged me was that there wasn't much about the experience of living of Anguilla itself. Not the Blanchards' fault, though. More the National Library's fault for not having copies of their original memoir, describing how they'd set up their resto to begin with.

What's a bibliovore to do? BUY THE FLIPPIN' BOOK OVER AMAZON KINDLE STORE, that's what.

And yes, I'm glad I spent the US$9.29, because this book hits the spot: descriptions of gorgeous floury sand, turquoise beaches, a workable alternative political and economic system (allowing for far fewer social problems than the casino and crime-ridden neighbouring islands nearby), boat races, hurricane devastation, and loads and loads of talk about FOOD.

Conch chowder, calf's foot stew, guava and passionfruit ice cream, barbecued ribs, johnnycakes, baby green beans, fried plantains, cornmeal pap, Thai red snapper, mahimahi, banana bread, salt fish, portobello mushrooms, dorado, crayfish, veal chops, sweet potato wrapped in sea grape leaves, tuna steaks with coconut rice cakes, ginips, wahoo, gumbo, mango, rum: yum.

Yet at the same time the memoir reveals how simplistic it is to read their story as a "follow your dream" narrative, because the tale includes all the anguish the couple go through when things go wrong - everything's more expensive for a non-Anguillian to rent, customs is a bitch, everything but the seafood has to be airflown in from St Martin or Miami (seriously, the carbon footprint of a gourmet meal at Blanchard's must be horrendous), and Melinda keeps on crying. Seriously.

But the writing's casual, with everything described from Mel's point of view, so it's pretty bizarre how this weeping never leads to soul-crushing depression the way it would for me and many of my friends. Just a glance at the gorgeous palm trees or a fat lady shopkeeper friend makes everything better.

(Was going to write "fat black lady shopkeeper", but that just throws in a bunch of weird racial tension into this mix which isn't really there. The way the Blanchards tell it, they're pretty damn integrated into the island's society, and treat folks as equals, though they themselves are rather richer equals, who get to fly back and forth between Vermont and Anguilla willy-nilly.)

(And really, the most fascinating postcolonial reading of the book lies in Anguilla itself. It's a laid-back hick country that's scared of losing its exclusive charm and native economic benefits, and it's willing to make sacrifices to keep its way of life at the expense of huge tourist and tech investments. This isn't a lazy native inheritance but a system engineered by a generation of revolutionary founding fathers in the sixties, one of which dies in the book, refusing to let the island be sidelined by the political administration out of St Kitts and Nevis. And meanwhile the people are happy and healthy and live to the age of 85 with the bodies of bronzed thirty year-olds. An alternative utopia, indeed. Or so they say.)

Gah, this writeup's going all over the place. Bottom-line is: this book's a good read. Don't take it as literal fact, though: the authors admit that they condensed the stories of ten years and two restaurants into the space of maybe 24 months and a single shack on Mead's Bay. Caveat lector.

Representative quote: Anguillians had watched St. Martin lose its innocence. Over twenty short years, the arrival of giant resorts and casinos combined with a poorly managed immigration department had made it a haven for unemployment, crime, and a population that had lost control over its own destiny. "Not in Anguilla," Joshua always told me. "Daughter, we will never let that happen here," he would say. "Never."

Next book: W. R. Groman's Oasis of the Sea: Sint Maarten Sonnets, from St Martin.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book 35, Bermuda: "The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave" by Mary Prince

Surprise! I decided to skip the US Virgin Islands for the time being and instead head north, to a country that's Caribbean only in the loosest sense of the word.

Wasn't gonna do it at first, since the only books I could find about Bermuda were snorkeling manuals, scuba detective novels and Bermuda triangle conspiracy screeds. (Incidentally, there've been no disappearances in the Bermuda triangle since they invited GPS. Guess we finally outwitted the Cthulhu-worshipping aliens. Score one for science!)

But then, while surfing the Kindle store, I discovered this:

It's the world's first slave narrative by a woman - and the UK's first autobiography of a black woman. It was published in 1831, before Frederick Douglass, before Hannah Crafts, before Harriet Jacobs (and of course before Harriet Beecher Stowe). It's a canonical text in Black History and Diasporic African Literature. And its author, Mary Prince, was born and raised in Bermuda.

It's a great read. Not just because it's short, and not just because its publication was actually instrumental in drumming up local support for the UK's Anti-Slavery Society. No, what moves me is the graphic brutality of the abuses that Prince describes - nothing quite like this in the more genteel Douglass and Jacobs - floggings with cowskin whips, suspensions in the air while the master's son pierces your foot with a bayonet, being forced to work in the salt ponds of Turks and Caicos Islands causing blisters on your legs, wounds eating your flesh to the bone, full of maggots.

And all in this eloquent, measured 19th century English - "To be free is very sweet," she says. To be sure, she didn't write the whole text herself, being partially literate, but it was copied down almost verbatim, so the Anti-Slavery Society says, putting in footnotes to explain what she means when she calls white folks Buckras.

And here's the other thing. It's also moving to skim the editor's supplement to her own narrative, showing how much work the Buckras of the Anti-Slavery Society put in to prove Prince's credibility as a witness, arguing eloquently against the slander of her former master whom she left (he'd brought her to London despite slavery being outlawed in the UK itself, expecting that she'd never have the will to run away).

God bless these white folks who recognised the horrors of 19th century capitalism, and who worked so hard to end them. God bless Thomas Pringle, the author of the supplement and her subsequent employer; God bless her friend Susanna Strickland, who transcribed her story; God bless also the white washerwomen who took pity on her and helped her with her chores when they saw how sick she had fallen under her master's abuses.

And God damn *us*, for daring to live in a world where there are more slaves than in any other period in history, and doing so little about it.

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Representative quote: Oh the horrors of slavery!--How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave--I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.

Next book:
by Robert and Melinda Blanchard's Live What You Love, from Anguilla.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book 34, British Virgin Islands: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I made fun of Shelbi for doing Dracula for her Romanian book, and now I, too, am interpreting a country through the Victorian fantasy thereof. What to do? I scoured the library and Kindle catalogues and couldn’t find a single writer who was a British Virgin Islander him/herself.

Stevenson never actually visited the Caribbean, but he based the story off his mariner uncle's tales of Norman Island and Charles Kingsley's memoir, At Last: Christmas in the West Indies. So it kinda counts. And anyway, I’ve never read me this classic. The only film version I’ve seen is Disney’s Treasure Planet (haven’t even seen the Muppet Treasure Island!). And this is ur-text for pirate lore itself: the fount of peglegs, parrots yelling pieces of eight and yohoho and a bottle of rum.

It’s a marvelous distraction, surprisingly better toilet reading than New Malaysian Essays 2 (although maybe it’s the Kindle that makes it so convenient to dip into), and man do I love all that archaic language and elevated, unself-conscious prose - after all, it's narrated by the virtuous yet bad-assedly heroic teenage boy Jim Hawkins, with occasional interjections by the Doctor Livesey, both of whom believe ardently in the virtuous of good Christian faith and the damnededness of rum.

Of course, having watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, you do have to give some leeway for the fact that in this book swashbuckling hadn't yet been pushed to its psychedelic, octopus-bearded limits. I mean, all the pirates get spooked out about on Skeleton Island is a single skeleton and the voice of the half-idiotic Ben Gunn (ah, the wild man archetype!). On the other hand, the book presses home the fact that it is by no means easy for Long John Silver to get about as a middle-aged man on a wooden leg - he stumbles on uneven ground and roars at the Captain when he refuses to give him a hand up when they're both sitting on the sand - a touch of realism which isn't quite grit, but which makes bloody sense.

Another thing about Long John Silver. He's perhaps the only really Caribbean character of the lot, given that it's mentioned that his wife is "a woman of colour". (I'd thought this was perhaps an idiom of the time for a scolding wife, a woman of choler, as it were, but later on Jim says "I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot] Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small."

There really is very little mention of Caribbean culture in the book, other than the name of the ship (HISPANIOLA) and a stopover in Spanish America, where young Jim is "immediately surrounded by shore boats full of Negroes and Mexican Indians and half-bloods selling fruits and vegetables and offering to dive for bits of money. The sight of so many good-humoured faces (especially the blacks), the taste of the tropical fruits, and above all the lights that began to shine in the town made a most charming contrast to our dark and bloody sojourn on the island." They take on a few hands there, but the ones we meet on the journey are all Englishmen, picked up on the docks themselves.

On the other hand, there is that old ruse of the dangers of the tropics - the pirates' great misstep is camping out in a malarial bog, after all. Bah, not completely inclined to do an entire post-colonial reading of the book. Though it does bear mentioning that this is the same guy who wrote, in A Child's Garden of Verses:

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
O! Don’t you wish that you were me?

The poem's deliberately ironic. Let's the embrace hipster culture and love it for being so.

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Representative quote: "The score!" he burst out. "Three goes o'rum! Why, shiver me timbers, if I hadn't forgotten my score!"

And falling on a bench, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. I could not help joining, and we laughed together, peal after peal, until the tavern rang again.

"Why, what a precious old sea-calf I am!" he said at last, wiping his cheeks. "You and me should get on well, Hawkins, for I'll take my davy I should be rated ship's boy. But come now, stand by to go about. This won't do. Dooty is dooty, messmates."

Next book: Jean Heyn's The Governor-General's Lady, from the US Virgin Islands.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Google tells me it's Robert Louis Stevenson's 160th birthday.

Ain't that a coincidence, given that I'm reading Treasure Island right now?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book 33, Puerto Rico: “Macho Camacho’s Beat” by Luis Rafael Sánchez

Back to some genuine World Literature now: this is one of those novels that that takes the tropes of European modernism and makes them groove (with shocking success) to a more equatorial, phantasmagorical beat.

Written stream-of-conscious style with internal rhyme after rhyme, block repetitions and neologisms and multiple points of view over a single day, by author Sánchez, alias Wico, all to the tune of a genuine musicial guaracha beat. Shame upon shame that they had to alter the original title: La Guaracha de Macho Camacho, which really condenses the rhythms of this wonderful book into a single utterance.

Even though the character of Macho Camacho never appears: he’s merely the author of the song that permeates the airwaves in the story, his rhythms infecting every other character from whose perspective we view life in the brokedown American semicolony of Puerto Rico; neurotic figures like the nymphomaniac megalomaniac Senator Vicente Reinosa (Vince is a prince and his ideas convince); his Donald Duck-tantrum wife Graciela Alcántara y López de Montefrío; their good-for-nothing Ferrari-sexual son Benny; the wise woman cooking tripe on her stove Doña Chon; and of course the idiot boy The Kid, normal at birth but something went wrong, who gets spat on and abused by the other kids, the symbol of Puerto Rico herself.

Once again, as in the case of so many texts in this series, I say: I want to write like this. (Or at the very least, translate like this. Gawd, Gregory Rabassa, how did you do it? Such an epic smoosh of Gabo and Joyce and Spike Lee, hey-prestoed from island dialect to Anglophone noise. Qué padre!)

Many thanks to the Puerto Rican poet Jorge Acevedo for recommending this book to me out of all the Puerto Rican books in the National Library: sorry that we don’t stock Luis Palés Matos’s Selected Poems/Poesía Selecta, which you similarly lauded.

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That’s it for the Greater Antilles, though: now we progress to the Lesser. Slower progress down the chain of islands.

Representative quote: “The sun like an onion will beg your pardon and do its best to give you a hard-on,” said the Mother: conclusively, going to the door, letting Macho Camacho’s guaracha take up residence in her waist, twisting and twisty, guarachose and triumphant in imaginary cabarets, surrounded by a focus of lights that made the imprecise lines of her vivid makeup precise, guarachose and triumphant and trapped by waves of applause: life is a phenomenal thing, giving the microphone to the MC.

Next book: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, (sort of) from the British Virgin Islands.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book 32, Curaçao: "The Other Side of Blue" by Valerie O. Patterson

Yay for Curaçao, which is as of last month officially a country! (Turns out they actually have a larger population than Aruba.) Again, I'm afraid I couldn't find a work by a native Curaçoan (?), but this book will do just fine.

It's shelved under young people's fiction, which I generally eschew for the purposes of this project. But since I'm considering writing for young people, this is terribly useful: it points out to me that I don't have to write like JK Rowling to make it to the market, because you can even succeed with a first-person, present-tense coming-of-age-and-angst story from the viewpoint of an overweight 14 year-old daughter of a successful artist mother.

Yeah, it's pretty cool. Quite different from everything I've been reading: strangely earnest, coming from the viewpoint of someone so young, communicating the utter discomfort in one's body that so many young girls face. Paired together with the descriptions of the sea-and-sand-swept landscape, yummy Caribbean food and a mystery story about the death of the girl's dad.

What's a little annoying is the way the theme of "blue" keeps on being pushed - from the mother's tubes of ultramarine and Prussian blue paints to the protagonist's name, Cyan, and the name of their villa, Blauwe Huis, to the Curaçao liqueur and the blue taxis and the Casa Azul restaurant and the sea, always the sea.

(But I love the way the mother's so distant, and that competition with the daughter of the mother's fiancé - how one's own mother can turn into a wicked stepmother during remarriage. So 21st century, the erasure of traditional birth relationships.)

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I can't quite write something like this, though: it's too dependent on an understanding of the vulnerability and complexity of being a girl. Us guys are a little more thick-skulled. (Ooh, and those are the ABC islands up above - Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire. We won't be stopping in Bonaire, even though it's the only one of the three anyone I know has visited: namely my sister, last year.)

Representative quote: From the studio windows, I notice the sea is the color of tumbled blue-green glass, roiled and unsettled. Last June after Dad died, his seat between Mother and me on the plane going home sat empty until just before takeoff, when a red-faced, sweating tourist weaved her way down the aisle and claimed it. She stuffed an oversized tote bag under the seat in front of her, leaving me to huddle against the window. As our plane rose into the sky, I couldn't take my eyes off the sea. I thought the color of the water might change with the light, but it didn't. It appeared deep blue, almost black, and dense as oil. No light penetrated the surface; we were left with the dark skin of the sea and no answers.

Next book: Luis Rafael Sanchez's Macho Camacho's Beat, from Puerto Rico.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book 31, Aruba: "An Island Away" by Daniel Putkowski

Yep, we're doing a detour from the Greater Antilles to the former Netherlands Antilles! And I say former, because regardless of what FIFA codes and World Wide Web drop-down forms indicate, the Netherlands Antilles no longer exist: on 10 October they were dissolved into the countries of Curacao and St Maarten, as well as the municipalities of Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius.

So I've decided to cover a few of these countries on my tour. Aruba kind of qualifies because it was once part of the Netherlands Antilles (gosh, it's irritating typing that out over and over again) but gained autonomy back in 1986.

And honestly, I'm rather glad I made this detour. Although it's written by an American author whose politics I find both ludicrous and dangerous (look at the Universal Healthcare horror novel he published last year), it's a thoroughly good read.

Though it's got loads of scenes from the viewpoints of guys drinking themselves silly in bars, and the expected snapshots of tourists and luxury hotels and gorgeous beaches, the heart of the tale is the rake's progress of Luz, a Colombian prostitute trying to get by a sanely and classily as she can in the red-light district of Rembrandtstraat. Hawser Press claims that the book reveals how prostitution cannot be called a victimless crime, but of course it's more complex than that - the women in the story are abused by some, but use their intelligence to survive and even prosper, coming out with far more dignity and power than their pious sisters and mothers sitting at home in Bogotá, praying to be rescued by their wayward menfolk.

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Great characters too: the young shipwrecked American tugboat captain Beck, the hard-partying fifty-something Sam, the rotten-toothed but polyglot beggar Frankie, the evil procuress Marcela and the backstabbing whore Inez. But be forewarned: the book's thick. Didn't quite register for me at first 'cos I bought the Kindle version.

Representative quote: "You know what some of the Americans say?" Inez asked as if Luz had a dozen American friends. "They say the only thing better than Colombian cocaine is Colombian pussy. That's what they think of us. Coca y cuca."

Next book: Valerie O. Patterson's The Other Side of Blue, from Curaçao.

P.S. And yes, I changed the template of the blog. Realised the old pattern wasn't very easy on the eyes. Like this one much better - I'm riding on the waves from nation to nation, looking through the window literature. Something liddat.