Archive for February, 2010

An interview with Ersi Sotiropoulos & Karen Emmerich

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Greek News Online offers an interview with Ersi Sotiropoulos and Karen Emmerich on the stories in Landscape with Dog (conducted while Ersi was a guest at the sixth International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua).

Greek News: What do you think is most significant about [the stories] as works of art? What is significant about Ersi as a Greek writer/international writer?

Karen Emmerich: It’s hard for me to think about Ersi’s work in those terms; I just think of her as a writer.  She cares so deeply about language –and not just the Greek language.  Yes, she can spend months writing and rewriting the same paragraph in Greek until it’s just right, just how she wants it.  But she also cares just as deeply about her works as they move into other languages, of which she happens to speak many.

For me it sometimes seems like this impulse to think of writers as representatives of their language or literary tradition — Ersi as a literary ambassador of Greece, in a way — confines them to too small and constricting a box.  For sure, Ersi’s writing is often wrapped up in the lived reality of Greece.  But she also reads widely in many languages, travels widely, and is part of literary conversations that are happening across languages as well.

You Can’t be Too Hip to be Happy

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Advice from renowned sports writer Robert Lipsyte on how to watch the Olympics (or read or go to movies, etc) on Laura Flanders’s great show, GRITtv.

A Field Guide to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Hilary has written a wonderful and necessary piece over at the Quarterly Conversation that responds to Claudia Roth Pierpont’s survey of Arabic literature “Found in Translation,” that appeared in the New Yorker back in January. In it, she asks “why begin an essay on what another literature is saying by first expressing what it is we are most interested in hearing?”—a question that plagues us, as we daily confront what it means to publish literature in translation in this country, at this moment.

Adania Shibli and the Beirut 39

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Adania Shibli, whose Touch is forthcoming very soon, is part of the “Beirut 39″—39 writers from the Arab world who are under 39 years old, and will be featured at a festival in Beirut in April. Here’s “Not an Interview” with Adania on the Beirut 39 blog.

Landscape with Dog: “Her deft sense of psychological insight and poetic language… give us portraits of the intimate and the abstract”

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Landscape with Dog and Other Stories is featured today at Three Percent, as one of the works of fiction longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award—here’s an excerpt:

From the very first story, there is a familiarity that draws the reader in, that reminds of something comforting. But Sotiropoulos layers on top of that security a sense of foreboding. There is an ambiguity to her scenes and to her characters so that we are left to question our own instincts. She infuses the narrative of each story with a controlled terror that makes characters’ relationships seem like they could snap at any moment. Yet, she never gives us that release or makes it that easy for the reader, that definitive. The beginnings, middles and ends are blurry and we are left to decide where the story began and ended. This is not to say that the stories in this collection are not definitive, they are. They present the moments in life that fall into the grey area, that at one point may look white and then years later, pitch black. This requires a very deliberate prose, a deep understanding of narrative tension and skilled working knowledge of human behavior. Even more impressive is that Karen Emmerich’s translation lets all of Sotiropoulos’ style and depth showcase itself in a sparse fluidity. …

Read the rest here

Haiti’s Award-Winning Writers

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

When the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, a large number of writers and artists working in varied mediums—some Haitian, some not—were convened in Port-au-Prince for a literary and film festival. For the cause of Haitian literature, there was, outside of the earthquake and catastrophe it unleashed, a great deal to celebrate. Indeed, Haitian authors living in Haiti and abroad won several prestigious French literary awards in 2009: The Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste went to Lyonel Trouillot for his novel Yanvalou pour Charlie; the Prix Richelieu went to Yanick Lahens for her novel La Couleur de l’aube; and the Prix Mèdicis was awarded to Dany Laferrière for his most recent novel L’Enigme du retour. Laferrière, who left Haiti in 1976 and now divides his time between Montreal and Miami, also won two important Canadian prizes: the Grand Prix littéraire international Métropolis bleu (2010) in honor of his overall career, and the Grand Prix du livre (2009) for L’Enigme. (For those interested, Laferrière was in a suburb of Port-au-Prince on January 12 and returned home to Montreal a few days later to discuss what he experienced in Haiti after the earthquake. An English translation of the interview is available at the Huffington Post.)

In the United States, too, 2009 was a luminous year for Haitian literature. Here, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat won a MacArthur “genius” grant for “enriching our understanding of the Haitian immigrant experience” through her “insightful depictions of Haiti’s complex history” in books such as her family memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2007). And 2009 at last saw Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy published in English for the first time (in a Modern Library Edition). Chauvet, who died in New York in 1973, is one of Haiti’s most esteemed post-occupation writers, and Love, Anger, Madness is considered her seminal work. Originally published in Paris in 1968, the book was critical of the oppressiveness of the Duvalier regime and created such a furor when it appeared that Chauvet was exiled to New York. Out of fear for her family’s safety in Haiti, she also ended up buying and destroying most of the copies of her book. The literary importance of Love, Anger, Madness is such that its translation into English was supported by a Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

In a Wall Street Journal article published a few days after the earthquake, Danticat recommended a list of books and music that people freshly interested in Haiti might consider looking into. In addition to her list, I would say, read Danticat, read Chauvet, read Trouillot, Lahens, and Laferrière. While the most recent novels by the latter three authors have not yet been translated into English, other works by them are available in translation: Trouillot’s Street of Lost Footsteps, Lahens’ Aunt Résia and the Spirits and Other Stories, Laferrière’s Heading South.

Reading these writers will give you a sense of the complexity, depth, and lyrical beauty of some recent Haitian writing. They might also lead you to begin exploring some of the many other great works of Haitian literature, so be prepared for immersion.

—A’Dora Phillips

This week at Clockroot: Two readings by Ersi Sotiropoulos and Karen Emmerich, and one art opening

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Please join us!

On Tuesday, February 9th, Ersi Sotiropoulos will read from Landscape with Dog and Other Stories with translator Karen Emmerich, at the Gallatin School at NYU. The reading is at 6, reception and signing at 7. For more information and location, see here.

On Thursday, February 11th, Book Culture and Columbia University’s Hellenic studies program will host a reading and discussion with Karen, Ersi, and professor Karen Van Dyck, celebrating Clockroot’s three new translations from the Greek: Landscape with Dog, and Margarita Karapanou‘s Rien ne va plus and Kassandra and the Wolf. 6:30 pm, at 536 West 112th St (between Broadway & Amsterdam), NYC—see here.

And up in our neck of the woods, artist Ihrie Means—whose fantastic paintings are the cover art for Kassandra and the Wolf and Rien ne va plus—has an opening at the Cummington Community House, Saturday, February 13, 6 to 9 pm.

Fully Immersed: Karen Emmerich on Translating Margarita Karapanou’s Rien ne va plus

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Translation is an act of collaboration. The final result is not just the hard labor of a cloistered translator, surrounded by brick wall and one small window that barely lets in light.  What goes on between writer and translator is a tricky relationship that involves a balancing of words, as well as interpretations and re-imaginings of those very same words.  And when the writer’s dead, that relationship gets even trickier.

Clockroot has been lucky enough to have Karen Emmerich translate the late Margarite Karapanou’s book Rien ne va plus. This book is complicated, the kind of novel that teaches the brain how to read it.  Intellectually thrilling, emotionally tumultuous, trying to imagine it in another language seems somewhat unreal.

Could you talk about your relationship to Karapanou’s work?

KE: I started reading Karapanou when I was in college, as a freshman or sophomore, with very bad Greek. Someone had recommended her to me because her language is fairly simple, and she tends to write in short sections—so for the beginning reader of Greek, her work is a good place to start. You can take a section a day, puzzle it out with a dictionary, and feel like you’ve achieved something by the end. So in a sense, Karapanou was really one of the people who taught me Greek.  I started with Rien ne va plus, and it just entranced me. I read everything of hers that we had in the library at Princeton, but it was always Rien that I kept returning to. Almost fifteen years later, I still find it fascinating, but I think there’s something about the book that can be incredibly powerful for a young person—and particularly a young woman—still trying to figure out this whole business of human relationships, and where the mental and emotional coincides with the real. At some point I decided to start translating the novel. I was helped along the way by Dimitri Gondicas, who heads the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton. He’s one of the busiest people I know, but was enormously generous with his time. We would meet and sit down and read through the novel line by line, and he would point out any mistakes or misunderstandings. When I look back on it now, it’s just incredible, that he would have done that for me, and for her.

But I think Karapanou is the kind of writer who inspires generosity in others; people felt things for her even when they had never met her. I certainly did.

Many years have passed since then, and the translation went through too many drafts to count before it was published. When I started reworking it for publication a few years ago, everything had to be rethought anew—I had changed so much, as had my thinking about translation. So I guess in a way, this was also a book that taught me to translate. I later embarked on an earlier novel by Karapanou, as well, The Sleepwalker, which you’ll be publishing next year—and while I love that one, too, my relationship to Rien still feels special.

The back of the novel features that wonderful quote by the author: “Every time I want to write, I want to write love stories. But as soon as I pick up the pen I’m overcome by horror.”  This sentiment provides a sort of tonal infrastructure to this book.  As a translator, how did this tone affect– or complicate– your rendering of the novel?

KE: I guess I would say that there’s this kind of brutal emotional honesty to the book. There are all kinds of things that many readers might see as clichéd language, or clichéd scenes. There are parts of the book that are, for that reason, sort of embarrassing to read. The prose feels so exposed—and my impulse as someone responsible for bringing that prose over into English is to swaddle it a bit, give it some protection. Of course it’s an impulse I fought, especially after Karapanou’s death. The novel has come to seem to me a kind of document of her, as well.

I was recently at a talk given by Foteini Tsalicoglou, a close friend of Karapanou’s who edited a volume of letters to Karapanou from her mother, the writer Margarita Lyberaki. Tsalicoglou said something during that talk about Karapanou’s ability to make clichés come alive. She told a little anecdote about doing a reading with Karapanou for the book Perhaps, which the two of them co-authored, and at one point Karapanou turned to the audience and told them all, “I love you.” Just like that, simply, not in any affected way, with a kind of childlike sincerity that felt real, and was real, and moved everyone but maybe made them sort of uncomfortable at the same time.

For me, that’s the real essence of this book: the way it discomfits you, the way it makes you feel things you might not always want to feel. The reality of the emotions, even if the story itself is always put under erasure.

“Part Two” of the novel acts as a sort of interlude. It almost seems to define the concept of “rien ne va plus,” as this abstract space where anything can happen. Could you talk about how you came to see this section in relation to the rest of the novel?

KE: I think anyone else’s guess as to that second section is as good as mine—I’ve always found it puzzling. It’s definitely a meditation on creation, particularly literary creation, on the relationship of truth to fiction, perhaps on the inevitable fictionalization of all fact, on how any relation of an event is always going to involve some amount of interpretation.

Finally, could you say something on the duality of Rien Ne Va Plus?  Obviously a novel where the narrator tells two versions of the same dissolution gives the reader plenty to think and talk about. As immersed as you are in the material, though, what insight can you give us on the shape and structure of this piece?

KE: I’m not sure how much insight I can give—I may actually be too immersed in the material to see exactly what’s going on. The narrator gives two versions of what is ostensibly the same story: her relationship and marriage to a man named Alkiviades (a name that might have looked more familiar had I chosen to translate it as Alcibiades). In the first, much shorter version, Alki is something of a monster, and treats her pretty despicably. In the second version, she’s the one who treats him badly, running off to live with another man in the U.S. right after he proposes, things like that. At the end of the book—and I apologize if I seem to be ruining the ending, here, but I really don’t think I am—we’re told by the narrator that the first version was just a novel she wrote, her fictionalization of their life in which the roles were reversed, and life thus transmuted into art.

On the surface, that seems like a fine way of explaining the doubling in the book. But it’s just too easy, and there are too many holes. First of all, the “novel” of the first part is really only thirty or so pages long. Does that really count as a novel? And if we’re supposed to take the second version as the “truth,” what are we supposed to do with passages like the one describing the narrator’s stay in Connecticut, when a huge rainstorm creates an epic flood in which neighboring houses are washed from their foundations and go floating by like ships at sail? In other words, the retelling is full of things that are explicitly marked as fictional. The first version never departs from anything that could actually have happened, while the second version is far more fanciful. It also draws on all kinds of stereotypes, too. There’s one scene where the narrator spends days on end watching movies in bed—romances, thrillers, porn. Well, her narration also incorporates set scenes that seem at times to be lifted from those kinds of genre films: the visit to the psychiatrist’s office, the thriller-like dreams involving her aborted baby. Nothing in that second version of the story can really be trusted. And of course at the end of the novel we slip into a third-person narration of events; the narrator actually disappears into the text itself.

I guess what I’m getting at is, the book is far more complicated than it might seem on a first read. The line between fiction and reality is constantly being blurred, even within the world of the text itself.