Found in Translation.
By Marguerite Duras, translated by Emma
Ramadan and Olivia Baes
St. Louis, MO; Dorothy, a publishing project, 2019, 204 pp., $16.00, paperback
Made in Saturn
By Rita Indiana, translated by Sydney Hutchinson
Sheffield, England; And Other Stories, 2020, 176 pp., $15.95, paperback
I feel unhurried. It is November. Night occupies much of the day, and the rain never stops. Time pools in the mud and filters through the abundant greenery. The raindrops are a temperamental metronome. I've deleted my Facebook, own no smartphone, and will not spend the evening at a bar. For company, I have a cohort of women writers who are distant from me geographically, linguistically, and even mortally. They have my full attention, and attention is a powerful thing. This state of being, separate from structured time and external expectations, is ripe for the reception of ideas. Here, these ladies put on trial the myths and definitions that govern our self-conception. Together we dissect, judge, and sentence them.
The indomitable (and deceased) Marguerite Duras makes part of my cohort, as do her latest co-translators, Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes. This October, the publishing project Dorothy, which launches two books simultaneously by women each autumn, released Me & Other Writing, a collection of Duras's nonfiction. Ramadan and Baes selected pieces that had been published in newspapers, but which refused to hew to the conventions of journalism or even of nonfiction. They discovered that no matter the pieces' stated topics or where they were published, they were about Duras herself. She was enchanted with her own subjectivity. Take, for example, the way she writes about America's 1986 raid on Libya in the collection's titular essay, "Me": "After Seurat's murder, for three days I was gripped by hatred, the need to kill, three days with the dagger, the blood, and at ease, not disgusted." She makes no distinction between reporting on the violence that exists in the world and that which exists within herself.
These essays, which infuse opinion and fiction into their reportage, touch on such diverse topics as Yves Saint-Laurent, current events, translation, true crime, and her family. A resistant reader suffers a bit trying to keep up with the meanderings of Duras's voice. Her essays don't finish where they started, we're often uncertain to whom she's speaking, and she treats punctuation as anything other than a tool to maintain order in her sentences. But a reader content to indulge her, to be swept along in the mesmerizing flow of her thoughts, will be well rewarded. In fact, the greatest success of her translators is surrendering themselves to her idiosyncrasies.
Duras is adored for her transgressions. She describes herself shrugging off commitments and shying away from deadlines. "When I accept invitations to conferences, I always do so thinking I'll be able to attend," she writes, turning down an invitation to the Centre Rachi. "But when the time comes, I literally cannot move. It can't be helped, as you know. It happens to everyone, but I know it happens to me and I accept the invitations anyway. I take responsibility and I apologize." She demands to speak to those who would rather be left alone and eulogizes those who have been silenced. She appeals to anyone who's ever doubted what they've been taught, because whether or not they agree with her controversial opinions and actions, they can respect the confidence with which she dismantles society's assumptions. Her most notable object of inquiry is love, the conventions of which she treats with the same rigorous distrust as she does the conventions of writing. Appropriately so, as love is among the most intimate and subjective of sensations, but also the most suffocated.
Duras's love is the nightmare of the ordinary human. Where love should be a given, it is absent, and where others see only perversion, she finds love in its purest form. In "My Mother Had," Duras disarms the great promise of maternal love. Her mother was mad and violent. She loved one child too much and the others not enough. Duras dissects all the emotions adjacent to love that existed in her home in its stead. In her final accounting, she's certainly marked by what took place in her home, but not necessarily lacking. "Today, my mother, I don't love her anymore. When I talk about her, like I'm doing now, I get emotional. But maybe it's me faced with her, my reflection, that makes me emotional."
In "Nadine from Orange," she offers her own report on a scandal that occupied the news cycle for a while. A man kidnapped a young girl. When they were found, he was accused of raping her. He committed suicide in the precinct bathroom before the case was ever officially decided (though in the court of public opinion he'd already been condemned). Her article would certainly have read unlike any of the others written at the time:
The love between the man and the child would remain unpunished, death had put an end to it. I fully believe in this love. A. Berthaud and the little girl loved each other. The medical examination was decisive: little Nadine was not raped. Rape could have occurred. It did not occur. It's possible, probable, that the non-perpetrated rape was projected onto A. Berthaud's final act--such a violent love cannot exist without this consequence of desire--but that is for me the very reason why the rape was thwarted: the power of his love for the child.
To protect children, our society has decided that romantic love between adults and children does not exist. The impossibility of a romantic, asexual love is a harder social assumption to justify. Duras, confoundingly, uses precisely the asexuality of this affair to prove the purity of its romantic love. Impossible, icky...yet stunning.
"Summer 80" originally appeared as a weekly column for the socialist newspaper Liberation and was later published as a book. Duras was meant to write about things that were happening in the world in the summer of 1980, but she struggled against the (admittedly minimal) constraints of the assignment, the deadlines, and her own interior process. She touches upon the strikes in Gdansk, the Ugandan Civil War, and the Iranian hostage crisis, what she sees outside her window, and her budding love affair. Some of it is true, but a strand of fiction dominates the narrative--a story of forbidden love between a teenage girl and a young boy. It is utterly hypnotic, incomparable. The fictional teenage girl tells the little boy a macabre story. Within the layers of fiction lies Duras's commentary about all of the other topics.
The young girl asks the child another question, she asks him what he would have preferred, that David kill the spring or leave her alive. The child stops and looks at her, she has also stopped in front of him. He hadn't thought about it, he thinks about it. The response is slow to come, he hesitates, his eyes seek those of the young girl, and then he speaks: That he kill the spring. His eyes remain fixed on hers, he waits perhaps for her to say something, but no, she pulls her eyes from his. They keep quiet for another long moment. Then the child asks a final time: And you?
Giving love back to lovers is perhaps Duras's most precious legacy.
Made in Saturn, a novel by Dominican writer Rita Indiana, dismantles other conventions through other methods. Like Duras, Indiana is a writer primarily, but not exclusively. Her body of work ranges from merengue electronica to sci fi and back again through literary fiction. Her translator, ethnomusicologist Sydney Hutchinson, posits that she is "maybe the only out lesbian in Dominican public life today." Indiana, or La Monstra, as her fans reverently call her, has noted in interviews how warmly she's been received in her home country, the machista culture of which she often criticizes in her work. The nation must have been ripe for a public persona like herself. She's managed to change the social climate for the island's queer inhabitants simply by making her art.
In this novel, the central plot itself demonstrates how cultural myths need not be as self-evident as they appear. What Duras does for love, Indiana does for national historical narrative and the transmission of power. The title is a reference to classical mythology, to the struggle for power between fathers and sons (Kronos, Saturn, and Jupiter), the oppressor and the oppressed. The novel maps the recent history of the Dominican Republic and Cuba onto the ancient story. Yesterday's revolutionaries become todays oppressors.
In this modern incarnation, the protagonist, Argenis, is meant to be a young Jupiter. Having escaped both the hardships endured by his grandparents' generation and the revolutionary moment fueled by his parents' generation, Argenis, an "artist," feels uninspired by the choices life offers him. The things that do inspire him to action include his addiction to drugs, his penis, his art, his passing impulses, and revenge for the injustices perpetrated against him by his father. When we meet him, he's awakened to find himself in exile at a recovery clinic in Cuba. His family, members of the political class, have sent him away. We accompany Argenis through his detox, his cravings, his disorientation, his dreams and illness. The tone is intimate.
Instead of a nose he had a trunk. A disgusting, bleeding trunk. That's why it smelled like blood. Or vomit. A Pepto-Bismol-colored glue with which they'd stuck him to the floor. They had fused his eyelashes to the bronze of the art nouveau railing. When the next thief showed up to rip off a piece with a hacksaw, he was going to get a surprise. A man had been fused to the stairway railing. That, or the line for rice came this far. Old sidecars without motorcycles came this far. Pregnant guerrilla fighters, with their throats slit.
We teeter with him. The line between recovery and addiction is vanishingly thin, as is the line between forgiving his father and avenging him, and the one between being an artist and a mooch.
Just as Duras liberates herself from constraints like deadlines, grammar, and social constructions in order to approach her subjects honestly, Indiana creates a character who finds the same liberation in his addiction. Though it nearly destroys him, his addiction disrupts the rhythms, patterns, and expectations of society. It creates the space which he eventually can use to come up with a better ending to the myth in which he would be otherwise trapped.
Indiana's narrative capacity thrives especially in Argenis's moments of semi-consciousness. We're tossed about in the fever dreams and indignity of his detox. When he wakes up in the apartment of his transvestite neighbor, the character who offers him the most selfless compassion, he goes to take a shower and ends up "marveling again at how his nails had grown, at this raucous biological drive, immune to human disappointment. Nothing stops nails, he thought, scrubbing himself violently." Later, watching the same neighbor's dance rehearsal, he feels moved to dance as well. "It was a powerful sensation, the same one that makes fingernails want to grow, he thought, marking the rhythm with his bare feet." Though the novel ends before Argenis has truly resolved his relationship with his father, his nation, and himself, we do get the impression that he has found a more compelling guiding force than the mistakes of his forebears.
These two very different texts have one more important factor in common. Duras and Indiana inspired Ramadan, Baes, and Hutchinson to take up the art of translation.
Ramadan and Baes encountered Duras as students, and she marked them. Now, as successful women in their late 20s, they're contributing their voices to the global conversation about her work. Hutchinson is an ethnomusicologist who came to literary translation through Indiana's music--she found her demo in a favorite music shop and became obsessed.
What Argenis describes as the sensation that "makes fingernails want to grow" is a driving force that exists despite logic and probability. The desire to translate, to engage in this hopelessly imperfect act of collaborative interpretation, is born of that same impulse. In these two volumes it flows through writer, character, and translator before eventually arriving to us, the readers, like a river flowing from source to mouth. Literary translation isn't a logical or probable career choice because it makes only a small part of anglophone publishing (3 percent is the accepted stat). Readers' access to women in translation is therefore pitifully limited. The Translation Database, founded by Open Letter Books and the Three Percent Blog, has found that over the period of 2008-2018, only 29 percent of books published in English translation were originally written by women. Economic conservativism makes no small part of the problem. It's hard enough to sell books to people at all, and publishers are unlikely to take "risks." But there is a demand coming from all corners of the industry for more diverse representation, and it is making a difference. For instance, 2014 boasted the inaugural Women in Translation Month, which we now celebrate every August. The British press And Other Stories devoted their entire 2018 catalogue to women writers in response to Kamila Shamsie's 2015 essay in the Guardian calling out the literary prestige industry for its service of the patriarchy. Other independent presses, like the publishing project Dorothy and the Feminist Press, disseminate translated literature by non-men full time.
When we read, we have the opportunity to stretch the limits of our own subjectivity, to try to inhabit that of another, thereby disturbing the assumptions inherent to our world view. It seems to follow, then, that the more variety on our bookshelves, the more freedom we have to choose our influences. It takes courage to cancel the noise of expectation and the ticking clock, to devote true attention to those who are guided instead by the sensation "that makes fingernails want to grow." By joining them, we can begin to purge our cultures of their bad habits. With a blank canvas, a critical mind, a heavy memory, a loving heart, and receptive senses, we just might have the capacity to liberate ourselves from the definitions that have ceased to serve us. Translators are the midwives of solidarity--or at least they can be.
Reviewed by Lindsay Semel
Lindsay Semel is a farmer by day and a freelance writer, editor, and translator by night. She currently works out of Galicia, Spain.
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|Title Annotation:||Me & Other Writing; Made in Saturn|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2020|
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