Thinner than Skin could be a story about love and the search for identity. But it could as easily be a story about the impact of militancy on nomadic communities in northern Pakistan. How did you bring all this together? Nadir and Farhana travel to Kaghan but then it all unravels and there’s a moment at the end when the conflict becomes unimportant.
I’ve never mapped out a novel. I don’t really trust maps, because the lines change as soon you find them. As if the form of a novel itself demands that you stay open to change, open to surprises. All my novels have begun either with an image and/or a voice. With Thinner than Skin, the spark was an Ansel Adams photograph of a waterfall. The force of the torrent inspired a line that has stayed in the book. All the threads of a novel, at least for me, come together through sensory cues, through acts of faith. There is no plan except to feel my way through it.
You write about glacier mating. There’s an ice-bride and ice-groom which to me sounds magical but in some ways is reflective of Nadir and Farhana’s relationship, blowing hot and cold. How did you come up with this strange use of a metaphor that you play with throughout the book?
My first encounter with a glacier was on a visit to northern Pakistan years ago, and it was the same glacier that the characters in my book trek across to get to Lake Saiful Maluk. At the time, what struck me was the sheer physicality of it — the size, the slipperiness, the muddiness of footprints and jeep tracks, the crevices and knuckles and slopes. Things can live inside us a long time before we know they’re even there. It wasn’t till another visit that I learned the glaciers are named, and even given a personality, a gender and a wedding. The ceremony is mysterious and sacred. Naturally, this fascinated me. But even then I never thought to include it in a book. That process — from learning something amazing to finding it a home in my own small way — is also mysterious. I never know how one becomes the other.
Posts Tagged ‘interviews’
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: … What was astonishing for me was to see was a middle-aged woman like me, well dressed, with a certain dignity, with a small stick looking through the garbage. Also hiding, in a way. Feeling ashamed. Looking behind her back to make sure nobody was observing her.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because she was formerly well off, middle class?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Yes, yes of course.
JEFFREY BROWN: How is what’s happening come into your writing?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: First, it comes into my life because I have to move from this apartment.
JEFFREY BROWN: Move because of economic reasons?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Because we cannot afford the rent any more. To my writing, I think I am writing the way I was always writing throughout my life. But it’s more difficult to concentrate now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Because I have this feeling of almost physical oppression, sometimes suddenly during the day, like an earthquake is approaching. When you go out, you see people begging. Now beggars usually don’t ask for money. They usually ask “Please can you buy me something to eat?” After awhile, I’ve found I’ve stopped giving things. I’ve become selfish. Sometimes I pretend I’m talking on the phone. It’s not that I don’t have the money. It is opening up the purse and knowing there will be another, and then another and another who approaches me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see it having an effect on society, the cohesion?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. At the beginning I thought the crisis could be beneficial, in a way. That it would get rid of many silly things. The idiotic consumerism, the fast lifestyles. I thought it would be a chance to rediscover things like friendship. But I was wrong. It was an illusion. I mean the crisis empties the wallets as well as the souls.
Read in full here.
A fantastic new interview with Uzma Aslam Khan is just out in Pakistan’s Friday Times. Uzma’s fourth novel, Thinner than Skin, has just been released (for those who haven’t gotten it yet!); she also discusses her 2009 novel The Geometry of God:
AA: In the years since you wrote The Geometry of God, the country has seen some of the most gruesome attacks on religious minorities, including inhumane abuses of the blasphemy law. What is your perspective on this?
UAK: When The Geometry of God was completed in 2007, there were many documented cases of blasphemy charges being leveled against innocent civilians, particularly Ahmadis and Christians. My character Nana was not based directly on any one person, but I read several case studies, including those involving ridiculous spelling errors, word shuffling, rumor, and revisionism – including of Jinnah’s famous speech in which he emphatically declares us all “equal citizens of one State” – all of which I draw on in the book. And then last year it happened again: a Christian eighth-grader was accused of blasphemy for a spelling error in a poem. For a Pakistani writer, life imitates art all the time. When in the book Nana is falsely accused of blasphemy, he is also called an Ahmadi, as though calling someone this is an insult. His response is to refuse to wear it as an insult by refusing to say what he is. He says instead, “My faith is what they bury when they force me to expose it.” And I think that the increasingly furious pace of hate crimes against our religious minorities – from the attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore on May 28, 2010, which should be declared a national day of mourning, to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, to the present-day case of young Rimsha Masih – all of this, on top of terrorizing those already vulnerable in our society, makes us all guilty, for two reasons. First, for staying silent about what we know to be wrong. And second, because we are all forced to say what we are, all the time. We can’t even get our passport renewed without ‘confessing’ to not being Ahmadis. I’ve even been asked my religion while registering for a blood test. And to whom are we always in need of confessing? Not to God, but to a bunch of people who call themselves the state. If this were a civilized land, faith would be private and proof against those we know are playing God would be public. But in Pakistan, it’s the other way around: Faith is public and proof is private.
Read the rest here.
HP: Your work moves not only geographically through India, the United Kingdom, and the US, but also linguistically. You’ve written in and translate from Bengali, and of course write both creative and scientific work in English, and, I imagine, in an English that encompasses something of the breadth of these locations and dialects. Can you talk about the different languages, including the different “Englishes,” that you have access to as a reader and writer, and how they interact or are given voice in your work?
SG: I had no acquaintance with the English language until I was four and a half years old which, of course, is still very early in life so I had no trouble picking it up. We had just moved to Zambia after living for three years in Ethiopia, where I spoke Bengali with my parents and Amharic with my nanny (the one friend I had then was also a little Bengali boy) and I had no idea that it was possible for people to converse in a language I might not understand. As a result, I was absolutely infuriated that the little English girls to came to welcome me to our new home spoke in such a way that I could make no sense of what they were saying. I learnt to read and write in English at school, but was also instructed in Bengali at home as it was always my parents’ intention to return to Calcutta. When we finally did go back in 1976 (I was then eleven), I was at first enrolled in a missionary school by the name of La Martiniere with a long and distinguished tradition of offering young ladies an excellent and exclusive private education in English, which meant that while I still had a lot of catching up to do, I was still studying Bengali as a second language. But after two years there, encouraged by my father, I made a very conscious decision to switch to an experimental school by the name of Patha Bhavan which had been founded in the ’60s by a group of intellectuals, many of whom he knew very well. I put myself through a course of rigorous immersion in Bengali, devouring the literature—and also starting to write in Bengali—I did in fact manage to publish a few science fiction short stories in little magazines, but I was always attracted to the novel as a form and there are several unfinished Bengali manuscripts gathering dust somewhere in my mother’s flat in Calcutta. These were my formative years, and so I owe as much to the writings of Bengali moderns like Premen Mitra and Jibananda Das as I do to TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf in the construction of my literary sensibilities. Bengali humour—not just humorist tradition, but the use of irony in everyday life—was an important ingredient of my life in Calcutta—whatever ludic qualities there are in my prose derive from this as much as my later exposure to writers like Nabokov, Borges, Calvino. Rather by chance, I ended up in 1984 as an undergraduate at Princeton University, but was still writing in Bengali in my summer vacations back home. In my senior year, however, I decided to attend a Creative Writing workshop with Joyce Carol Oates, and that was when I began write in English.
I think English is a wonderful language, and it is possible that it has a unique degree of malleability—it’s hard for me to say, as I do not know any other language as well other than Bengali. Would Bengali, if it had been disseminated as widely as English, mutated into different forms in the same way? I really do not know. The Bengali language itself has a very recent history of evolution connected to the 19th-century phenomenon of the Bengali Renaissance, so it is certainly capable of adapting itself to new circumstances. My general feeling about all languages is that they are all unique and unpredictable, and it is possible to find your own voice within any of them. Naturally, the language itself will condition the voice that you find within it, and the way you think in general. But I do not think that it is useful to have any particular political allegiances with language. Many of us who write in English, even though it is not our mother tongue, have been called upon repeatedly to justify this action, as if it were an obvious disloyalty. I have never been much exercised by this—as far as I am concerned, the only option available to me when it comes to languages is serial monogamy, and I know within myself that the only reason I “abandoned” Bengali was because it was difficult for me to remain immersed in it while living away from Calcutta. Recently, though, I’ve revised my position somewhat upon reading Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s thoughts on this subject. To quote from one of his poems, rather than essays: “Insomnia brings lucidity, And a borrowed voice sets the true one, Free.” We are permanently in search of our true voice, and this has to be mediated through a borrowed voice—to imagine that our mother tongue is less of a borrowed voice than any other is perhaps a mistake.
Read in full here.
But in the meantime there’s been lots of news! A quick recap: Sunetra Gupta’s So Good in Black has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly, the Washington Times (“Sunetra Gupta writes of ambiguities brilliantly”), and most recently and at length in the Common (Amherst College’s new literary magazine, and so an exciting new addition to our local scene).
Alex Epstein’s newest, Lunar Savings Time, translated by Becka Mara McKay, has also been lauded by Publishers Weekly (“Consistently provocative”… “Best read first in gulps, and then in savory sips”), and by Bill Marx over at Arts Fuse, as well as here at the Complete Review.
Also have a look at this interview I had a lot of fun doing with Alex at the Kenyon Review.
Since we’ve been a little slow here, I’d suggest you might like to “like” us on Facebook, which will keep you updated with all things Clockroot when we’re slow on the blog.
EP What particular difficulties did you encounter, translating Sleepwalker?
KE Well, in a book that’s in English it’s very difficult for me to mark what’s in English in the original. When it’s French, I leave it in French. When it’s German, I leave it in German. Usually I say, “He said in English,” or—well, there are a few different approaches, but because of the typographical difference between the Greek alphabet and the Roman, this is much more striking in the original text. You can’t really reproduce that.
There’s just so much English. And people are speaking bad Greek and bad English. And at times even when you know they’re speaking English in the book, it’s written in Greek. It speaks to what one of the characters, Placido, calls “the problem of languages,” which is central to the book. So, that’s one of the things that I wish there was a better solution for.
EP Are there other things that are in that category? Things you never figured out?
KE Sometimes it’s hard to know until you hear what someone else thinks. My brother and I read one another’s stuff all the time and often I’ll tell him, “Michael, that is not English.” And he’ll be like, “Wait, we don’t say that?” Because you know what it means, you have it in your head as something that makes sense.
Sometimes going too close to the literal can be really productive. But you have to know that you’re doing it. There’s this phrase, siga siga, that literally means, “slowly, slowly.” As in, take your time, don’t worry about it, one step at a time. And I have translated that in poetry as “slowly, slowly,” because I think it’s really lovely. And people who know Greek will be like, “Oh, that is a bad translation.”
Read in full here.
The site Babelmed has a new interview with Adania Shibli, author of Touch and 2011′s We Are All Equally Far From Love, on the “new generation” of Palestinian writers, activism & literature, exile & literature, and Darwish. (I can’t help but saying that I’d rather not have descriptions like “young, bright-eyed lady”—but check the interview out regardless!)
This isn’t new, and isn’t in English, but is a treasure worth sharing. Below is Margarita Karapanou’s famous television interview, given a few years before her death, in which she discusses her work, her struggle with mental illness, and her mother, the novelist Margarita Liberaki. (A summary I too must rely on, not able to understand for myself.) The whole interview is up on Youtube. If you don’t speak Greek, it’s a chance just to see and hear Margarita—
To further mark the publication of Granta‘s new issue on Pakistan, Ollie Brock interviews Uzma Aslam Khan and Aamer Hussein on Urdu literature (and, as Uzma adds, on literature in the many other languages of Pakistan). Here’s a little bit from Uzma, on one of her favorite Urdu writers:
[Saadat Hasan Manto‘s] short story “Toba Tek Singh” was my closest glimpse of the scars of Partition that my father never shared with us. His family came to Lahore in 1947 from a tiny village near Amritsar; his grandparents were beheaded before his mother’s eyes. I think he let his children see his past through reading “Toba Tek Singh,” a satirical account of the inmates of a mental asylum who have nowhere to go at Partition, but are forever left in limbo, between Pakistan and India.
The story made me deeply suspicious of easy categorization, particularly along ethnic and religious lines. It also made me understand that I come from a country that wasn’t shaped by those who migrated to it, like my parents, nor by the many indigenous tribes who’d lived there long before any one presumed to scratch lines across their land. Mine is the first generation of writers to be born in Pakistan, so, like my parents, I also carry the weight of beginning. The need to look in Pakistan’s looking-glass and know the slippery ghosts of my history has been imperative for me as a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hungering to know my place in these chaotic layers. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said. It’s the terror of being left as voiceless as the inmates of the asylum.
Read in full here—
Emily Toder is a poet, translator and student of library science. She attended the UMass Program for Poets and Writers and the University of East Anglia’s Masters in Literary Translation. Her translation of the Argentine poet Edgar Bayley’s The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi has just been released by Clockroot Books. Clockroot intern Leora Fridman sat down with Emily to discuss her process of translation and Bayley.
LEORA: When did you start translating and how did your interest in it develop?
EMILY: I’ve been translating for about six years out of my own drive. After college I was living in Spain and, quite simply, I had favorite poems and literature that I wanted to show to my friends who didn’t speak English, so I started translating James Tate, and it went from there. I took Spanish in middle school, but didn’t take it seriously until my twenties. I’d studied abroad in Alicante, a small seaside city in Spain, and when I graduated from Oberlin I knew I wanted to go back to a big Spanish city. I went to Barcelona and enrolled in a TESOL certification, but ended up doing all kinds of odd jobs and taking a class in literary translation. At the time I was writing 2-3 poems a day – you know, you just couldn’t stop me! It seemed inevitable to go into translation if I was obsessed with language and living somewhere where I was moving between languages all the time. In 2004 I got a job doing technical translation, and I’ve been doing it since.
Does commercial translation relate to your literary work?
Commercial translation is just so straightforward after literary translation – the style is dictated in a very basic way and the emphasis is on conveying the meaning. It’s a very simple act of communication – you communicated the idea or you failed. It’s a yes or no thing. It’s not that I don’t worry about how it sounds, but it’s not the same kind dilemma as it is with literary translation.
How did you find Dr Pi and why were you drawn to it?
Writers always lead you to other writers. I found Bayley when I was translating something by another Argentine, Sergio Checjfec. I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table translating this very complex poem with lots of literary allusions, and there was an epigraph with a line from Bayley. So I thought, “I better read this Bayley guy to figure out what’s going on.” So, I took out everything they had of Bayley out of the UMass library. I sat down that night reading Dr Pi, and I was captured. I got started right away.
How did you decide to translate Dr Pi?
When I sat down to read Pi, I completely forgot about not only that poem but the entire world – I could not prevent the translational impulse to see how it would sound in English. I was just very enchanted by Pi and totally mystified. In Pi there’s a sense that the reader doesn’t know at all where he’s going, and that Bayley also doesn’t know. It’s a really sense of spontaneous absurdity that is absurd and banal at the same time. It really whisks you away. There is also something very inclusive about his style. All literature is based on the cultural reference at some degree but Bayley is certainly not stuffy. He wants you to come along. In that way he’s a very generous author.
In the process of translation, what elements of this book did you think were most important to preserve?
Style is paramount. Style is everything. There’s not a way you could do something and sacrifice style, because style is in every battle. That said this book was not so tricky to translate. I struggled with some small references about the city of Buenos Aires. For example, the reader might not know that two places are far from one another, so I slip in the phrase, “all the way to” to indicate that something is far away. But there were not major cross-cultural obstacles. The book has a universal aspect of the adventure story. It did not need a lot of coaxing to work in English. Pi is appealing to something that is very expressible and experience-able across cultures.
Are there parts of Dr Pi that you think were lost in translation?
Some things are lost that are cultural references. For example, there’s a word morocha for something kind of like mamacita – a brunette sexy chick of sorts, but in its Argentine usage it isn’t derogatory or gross. I used the term “brunette.” It’s a cultural difference in our America that it’s a little bit sensitive to be describing people’s characteristics. Everything referring to skin tone is going to sound bigoted. We don’t have the same machismo culture, so if I used a morocha kind of word, it would just sound disrespectful, which isn’t how it sounds in the Spanish.
That’s interesting, because I as a reader definitely got that sexy, seductive kind of character when you refer to “brunette” in the book, even though it doesn’t necessarily have that connotation in English.
Yes, and that’s because you know Pi – he helps to inform what “brunette” means for him.
What was your working process with this book like?
I’m an impulsive translator. I think like that, I write like that, too. I’ll translate like touch typing. I’ve got the book behind this plastic polyurethane cookbook holder. I’ll just touch type while reading the book, and if I don’t know a board I’ll leave it bold in the Spanish, then go back later and fill it in. I go through it ten or twenty times to make sure it sounds good to me. I also check it with a native speaker if I have doubts about the context.
Did you complete Pi while you were getting your Masters in Literary Translation this past year?
It was my plan to translate Pi as my thesis, but I ended up actually doing other poems of his because it became clear that Pi wasn’t going to require that much more work by that point.
Given that there are so many different dialects of Spanish, and that you learned your Spanish in Spain, how did you adjust to translating Argentinean Spanish?
When I was learning Spanish in Spain I had many Latin American friends, so I was exposed to their accents and slang. I had a very wonky accent for a long time from all the different exposures I had! I love the sounds of Argentine Spanish – I’m very partial to their double-L sound. Recently I also listen to the public radios of Argentina, Mexico and Spain – the internet makes it really easy to the point where it’s inexcusable not to expose yourself to multiple sounds and sources.
What is the intersection for you of being a poet and a translator?
I believe that they derive from the same thing but they are not the same. They both derive from general interest in language’s capacity to say something. It’s really important for a translator to be kind of smith in that sense, and to have a linguistics competency that is very developed and self aware. I think they go hand in hand.
However, I’m hyper aware of inserting my own partialities into translating. It’s like you try something on and your body is in there but you’re wearing something else. You don’t get confused that the fabric of what you’re wearing is your body – you are just wearing it. Or, you’re babysitting and you know that the child is not your child, but you are just keeping it alive until its mom gets home. You’re kind of a custodian… there are really so many metaphors for translation it is ridiculous!
Do you relate to translating as writing?
It’s inevitable that your own writing will get inserted in translation, which is precisely why you don’t need to make it obvious and purposeful. If someone else translated Bayley it wouldn’t be the same. This is my translation. It’s always an interpretative, subjective, act. When I’m writing my own work, I change voices from poem to poem, anyway. There are certain tendencies in writing that I know I love – like repetition and certain words – but that won’t make me use words in translating Bayley that he doesn’t use.
How do you feel about the book of Dr Pi now that it’s published?
I haven’t looked at it – I’m scared to look at something that is called final and to which nothing can be done! Reading my own translation is also nerve-wracking the way it is to listen to your own voice.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on Bayley’s poetry. He has about ten collections of poetry that are not translated. I did about fifteen of his poems for my master’s thesis. I would like to translate as many of his poems as I can and see where it leads. I’m going exhaust the Bayley supply. Translating also gets to be better when you’re really familiar with the author. There’s a level of familiarity that assists you when you come into a dilemma, a familiarity that is guided by your experience with that particular author. That’s also why I’m compelled to do more of his work.