Excerpt: ‘Which Treats of Lázaro’s Account of the Friendship He Shared with a Blind Trafficker in Stories and the Misfortunes That Befell Them’, by Carlos Yushimito

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Image by gskx. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

Have you ever seen out in the country at midday an electric bulb aglow? I have seen one. It is one of life’s bad memories.

—Juan Emar, Miltín 1934

There was a time when I often gazed at the factory chimneys. Each morning they were the same height and their colour resembled zinzolin, a kind of purple that, lacklustre as it is, blended with the red of daybreak. Those details were important to me: they let me know that between night and day nothing had changed. The rain, for example, had not made one chimney grow taller than the other or effaced or discoloured the enamel. It soothed me to note that the black clouds that rose from the chimneys, though unrelenting, would never darken the rest of the sky; the smoke billowed and it seemed to me that I was watching a giant’s fingers as he twirled his hair.

On those occasions I spent hours waiting for the blind man to wake. Between the white eyes of sleep and the white eyes of waking I learned to distinguish a rift: the sun hastened the contours of the chimneys and shortly after his hands began to shake as if they were drowning in the light; after this, now with his whole body shaking and his eyes rolled back, he groped his way towards where I was watching him and, with a couple of blows to my head, cried:

“Open your eyes, Lázaro! With no energy there’s no voice, and with no voice there’s no appetite…”

And when that happened, the streets were already teeming with the same diligence. The blind man gave the order to go outside and not long after he was crying out, “Have a story told, any story!” He left out nothing that the other traffickers in stories thought to say. People passed by, avoiding his voice; the women, especially, sidestepped him and wrinkled their noses as if they were afraid of getting them wet. But there was always someone who, lured by the words cast by that hoarse and almost violent voice, dropped a coin into our little tin and inclined his or her head to listen more closely. Perhaps owing to his blindness, if the blind man said he remembered, the people believed; and if officials overlooked the fact that he dared spout the lies that came out his mouth, it was because in those times, when stories were forbidden, his were ensconced in the impunity of his useless eyes, which were never taken for anything but harmless and devoid of all authority.

This was how we lived: a little here and a little there. When we amassed enough water, we moved south, never north. There, the factories sprouted; the dogs snarled and problems piled up. In the south, by contrast, there was still space enough for solitude. But because the blind man migrated often and we had to return regularly, we secured a basement where we could shelter while we took turns to stock up on more ampoules. All I had to do was shake the tin whenever I noted interest on the face of someone who had heard “Forty-millilitre coins; forty-millilitre coins…” And, as I said earlier, if, with a little good fortune, someone dropped us a coin, the blind man rolled his eyes back and remembered the years when there was plenty of water and mankind reproduced; when factories had not been invented and all the things that people say used to happen did indeed come to pass as naturally as nowadays they do not.

Sometimes, however, someone would arrive wanting to buy another kind of story.

Thereupon the blind man would lower his voice and squeeze my arm.


The man seemed nervous and bit his lip. A longing to be injected with one of our story-filled ampoules had brought him here. I was used to recognising such customers because, since I had been living with the blind man, I had seen that they came in several shapes and sizes. Some, such as this one, peered at us from behind a pair of glasses with transparent frames; these were almost always shy and had sallow skin. Others wore blue tracksuits and dyed their hair white. Their preferences may have often coincided, but they were usually strict in terms of the stories they wanted to experience and the time they had to spare. This was why we went down to the basement. There, next to a small makeshift pallet, the blind man opened the case and exhibited the titles of the ampoules, which were often numerous and came in many sizes. Along the length of the ampoule plastic you could read the name of the story and, if it was selected, I moistened a little cotton ball with disinfectant and rubbed the nape of the person’s neck before guiding the blind man’s hand, and he sunk the needle into the flesh and injected the colours.

When we reached the basement alongside the shy young man with the glasses, the blind man said what he always did:

“A one-hour ampoule of story costs half a litre; a two-hour ampoule costs one.”

You could see the man had been through this before because his mouth tightened and he replied:

“I’ll give you a litre and a half if you get me what I want.”

Once more I felt the blind man grab my arm, and the scraping of his shoes on the steps turned protracted and rough.

“Indeed, indeed,” the blind man chewed the offer over. “A litre and a half is a fair amount. Tell me what story.”

“What I’m after isn’t exactly a story,” the shy young man lowered his voice so much that for a moment I thought he had begun to swallow his words, “but a name: Felisberto Hernández.”

“Felisberto,” murmured the blind man while picking at his mole-specked head; “a strange harvest, no doubt about it, but the distiller will know how to get hold of it if we give him some time.”

“But it’s vital that I experience it today!”

“That makes it tricky.” The blind man hastened to feel out the space before him with his crutch until the edge of the wood caught me in the ribs. “You heard, nephew,” he let three coins drop into my hand, “be precise with what you stipulate and make sure it’s top notch.”


He made me repeat the name three times and then I ran to the distillery. I often went in there with the blind man; beforehand, we had to cross a little room with walls covered in labelled vials that were full of cloudy water; inside them floated objects that I could not always identify. All of it was under the care of a fat woman who picked at her fingernails and had a decisive character. Yet she would get nervous whenever anyone asked after the distiller, even though such a thing was not out of the ordinary; she would shake her head and make strange faces, as if she were putting up a struggle against words that refused to come out her mouth. If this kept up a long time, she would press a blue button; if a short time, a red one. At that moment the distiller would appear. He was a man with a beautiful moustache who often made apologies, which you could see was because he held the blind man in high esteem. He would take us to a small room where there were two couches, and the pair would sit down to drink a bottle full of the liquid on the walls while they waited for the operator to arrive with a selection of ampoules. The blind man would take a whiff and rejoice; later, sniffing the sample of ampoules, he would say yes to one story, no to another, and one by one the distiller would fill our case, which we would then hide in the basement.

Now I was knocking at the distillery door with both hands; I banged at it until one of the operators stuck his face out the window:

“What do you want?” He was a wide man pitted with smallpox scars and visibly in a hurry.

“The blind man sent me,” I replied; “with an emergency.”

Clearly the blind man was important to them because they let me in right away. The fat woman looked me head to toe and, after listening patiently, pressed the red button. I stood there, unsure of what to say. Her jaw wiggled a good while but, finally, words managed to escape her:

“Wait for him in the other room.”

I ducked under a curtain; it was the first time I had been in there. Behind the curtain there were several alembics dripping stories, and almost at once it occurred to me that it was like watching a group of obese people sweating in a gymnasium. Every now and then an operator with rubber gloves inspected the alembics; he sniffed the filter and later went out of the room carrying a little tray of vials filled with different colours. I heard his heels pecking at the roof. Several iron pipes descended from the ceiling, and the noise that travelled down them went around in a spiral that was like a sluggish digestion tract.

Soon I sensed that someone brushed against the curtain. The folds of the red fabric softened. I saw the bristles of a moustache.

“This will take some time,” said the distiller. “In the first place, it is a tricky item of fermentation. Add to that the whole matter of the tank. We have to search the storehouse, process the dyes, etcetera.”

I suspected the fat woman had munched on my thoughts while I was in that room; if not, I was at a loss as to explain how the distiller knew I had come for such a rare ampoule. I lamented thinking unkind things about her and being found out, but above all I was distressed to think our sale would not proceed and the distiller was saying rushed things as if he wanted me gone. The coins were bulky in my hand and damp; I clenched them and, as if in affinity, my eyes caught their dampness. It was two days since I had eaten and I had got my hopes up.

“The blind man knows these things take days,” said the distiller, convinced he was making a fair statement.

I couldn’t contain myself any longer: my hands found my face and I started to sob.

“Don’t cry, boy,” he said in pity, “there are always alternatives when you’re young.”

My tears were salty and without thinking I licked them from my hands. I realised I was doing something depraved and hurried to tell him:

“I’ll end up eating myself.”

I immediately dried my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt and realised my words would free me from my predicament, as if in saying them I had slyly tugged on a small girl’s plaits.

“Look,” said the distiller, “here’s your alternative: you just have to take another story to the blind man. It wouldn’t be so hard.”

I cleaned my face.

“Might you have a similar story?” I asked, slurping my snot and coming back to my senses.

The distiller stroked his moustache:

“Take another Uruguayan,” he said after a while. “I have several.”

It was the first time I had heard that word.

Together we went to the ampoule draw that said ‘Uruguay’. There were many stories there but I, thinking about the profit I stood to make, turned my gaze to where the remainders were piled and took the first I saw.


The Uruguayan story I chose had a solid sea-green colour. I switched the original label for another that said something very different. Now, along the length of the ampoule it read, ‘Unknown’. I felt fortunate to have found a way to proceed with the sale and keep, for myself, a couple of coins of such large denomination. I was so elated by my windfall—by my skulduggery, as much as anything—that I started to realise my enthusiasm may have spread to the blind man. Perhaps he had not expected me to return with good news or perhaps he was simply happy for the interruption to the long talk I had left them to.

“If times were different, I would have been a musician, too,” the shy young man with the glasses was saying as I went down to the basement.

“And I a spy!” the blind man retorted.

I pulled on the sleeve of his lab coat and he turned his head, searching me out in the air as if he were following a scent.

“Uncle,” I said.

“Ah,” the blind man was swift to interrupt, “the ampoule…”

We lay down a pillow with a clean slip for our customer. I rubbed the nape of his neck with bunched fabric soaked in antiseptic until his skin went red from the heat, and after a while the blind man jabbed him with the syringe. I watched as the level of injectable liquid, which the blind man had drawn from the broken ampoule, lowered until the barrel was dry. Not even a drop was left; then the shy young man crinkled his forehead and rested the left side of his face against the fabric.

That’s how he fell asleep.


This piece was translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer. It appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.

Carlos Yushimito has published, among others, the story collections Lessons for a Boy Who Arrived Late (2011) and Forests Have Their Own Doors (2013). Included in anthologies across nine countries, several of his stories have been translated into English, Portuguese, Italian, and French.

Elizabeth Bryer’s first full-length translation, Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning debut Blood of the Dawn, is out with Deep Vellum (North America). In 2017 she is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant to translate Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests.

Call for Submissions: Translated Works

Are you a translator? Have you unearthed some amazing piece of writing that the English-speaking world is missing out on? If so, we’d love to hear from you – because we’re currently looking for translated works for our flagship quarterly attack journal.

Like everything we do, our translations will largely focus on works from the margins: people who live and write from demographic margins, and/or writers whose work sits in the literary margins, and/or translators who interpret the translation act in surprising ways or stretch the bounds of what ‘translation’ means: your work might be cross-modal or cross-genre, might include insertions, erasure or collage. Try us!

If you are translating a work from a language or perspective that is underrepresented, or a part of the world that doesn’t see a lot of its literary output translated, we want to hear from you. If you are working on a translation of oral texts, ancestral languages, and/or some other project tied up with language and identity, get in touch. Self-translations are also welcome.

We’d prefer to received translated fiction between 2,000 and 4,000 words, but if what you have is an incredible piece of non-fiction or a suite of poetry, send that through, too.

If you have a translation that you would like to share with us, please send it via our Submittable – we don’t accept pitches or submissions by email.

At the beginning of your document, make sure to include a brief note on where you are at with permissions. (Are you in touch with the author or rights holder? Have you formally asked for permission for the piece to be published in English, or not yet?)

We will look favourably on submissions that include a brief translator’s note to contextualise the piece of writing. (What is so exciting about this author? How does it fit in with the author’s oeuvre and other writing in that country/language/genre? What are his/her influences? etc.)

What are you waiting for? If you have translated someone’s work into English, we want to hear from you – please hit us up via our Submittable. Submissions close midnight, March 22nd – and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact our translations editor, Elizabeth Bryer, at elizabeth@theliftedbrow.com.

‘“So It Can Flourish as a Whole Within Me”: an Interview With Poet and Self-Translator Alison Whittaker’, by Elizabeth Bryer

To celebrate The Lifted Brow’s foray into publishing translated books, TLB’s new Translation Editor, Elizabeth Bryer, talked to Gomeroi poet, essayist, and self-translator Alison Whittaker.


The Lifted Brow: To start with the general picture: How, if at all, does translation or self-translation inform your creative practice?

Alison Whittaker: In a way, it’s all the creative practice I’ve got! I work mostly in the English language, so I’m always changing concepts and codes from this Gomeroi formulation I have of the world. Even when I’m working in my own language, Gamilaraay, my understanding and my expression is mediated through English as my first language. So, even though I’m working from a language frame that’s at the foundation of being Gomeroi, using Gamilaraay in my cultural practice is almost a double translation. That’ll change as my language knowledge grows, I hope, and I’ll be less bound by this colonial language frame. Translation’s at the core of what I do, wanted or unwanted!

TLB: ‘Wanted or unwanted’: This makes me wonder what the relationship is between language and oppression in your opinion. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s decision to forsake English to write in Gikuyu springs to mind. He said in an interview,

It was a revelation for me, in a practical sense, that you could write in an African language and still reach an audience beyond that language through the art of translation. Through the act of translation we break out of linguistic confinement and reach many other communities.

This view might be putting a rosy filter on things, but do you think translation can be a tool to work through the relationship between language and oppression? If there are losses along the way, how do you think these can be mediated, challenged or counteracted?

AW: I suppose it’s always bound by the context that clads a language, isn’t it? If I didn’t have that double-translation binding, maybe translation from Gamilaraay to English in order to expand a readership should shake a bit of the oppressive context of meaning-making in English. But it’s not that simple, and meaning-making in language isn’t always just a question of perspective or emphasis that’s explored through other words. The words themselves make the meaning. What is easily expressed in Gamilaraay might have no proper answer in English, and why would it? So much of colonisation has been about edging us out of our own meaning-making and ideas. If that meaning is at the level of the word, not just in a perspective that can be reflected in English, then translating into English is going to suppress that meaning. There’s little getting around it.

Our emphasis in translation needs to shift if we’re seriously thinking about it as a decolonial tool. I think it can be one. Readers themselves need to engage in translating (which might mean an incomplete translation or reading notes or guides), or translation has to eschew perfect readability for integrity. That’s integrity both in the ethical sense, and in the structural sense of meaning-making. And that means translation as an act of deep listening to a text rather than trying to depict a text.

TLB: Let’s talk a bit about specific examples in your work. Heteroglossia is an important feature, including in ‘O, Eureka!’ and ‘Sharp Tongue’. In the final two stanzas of ‘O, Eureka!’ the implied translation that happens in the space (and friction) between the juxtaposition of the ‘languages’ of Nan and the academy is very powerful. There is of course an aesthetic dimension to using different ‘languages’ within the same language, but how is your use here political?

AW: I use the friction between different languages—including between English, Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay—to highlight how they make and use power. When I wrote these poems, this friction was at the front of my mind. How can one language or way of knowing elevate itself over another? What kind of strength can push back? This is especially the case when we’re looking at language as a way of being precise and conveying expert truth as I was in ‘O, Eureka!’, or when looking at language as a way to revive as I was in ‘Sharp Tongue’.

Now I think I want to move beyond using Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay only to resist English, even though I think this use is important. As limiting as it is to work within a power dynamic if you reject it or disregard it and make it invisible, I’m now trying to pull my language use away from the friction it must withstand in coming up against English so it can flourish as a whole within me. That friction’s pretty significant when you’re up against a majority language. I want to know: what if my use of Aboriginal English or Gamilaraay just is, just sits on its own? I want to assert their worth prima facie, not just in terms of what they can push back against, but in their richness and complexity as self-standing ways of knowing and expressing. It’s a way to translate or do language without making Indigenous languages a flat, ‘anti-racist’ answer to English, I hope.

TLB: Sounds very exciting! What about your translation of your poem ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ into and then out of Gamilaraay for Seizure Edition Four. Your first English version of course already had Gamilaraay influence. But after translating that version into Gamilaraay and then back into English, were there any changes between the first and second English versions that surprised you? If there were, what do you attribute those changes to? And what do you think the effect could be for readers of seeing on the screen not only the English versions but also the Gamilaraay?

AW: So many surprises! The big shift was the movement towards sustenance and reconstruction in the latter version. Whereas the original ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ had a focus on friction in conflict and sexuality, relying on innuendo to get its point across to those with the requisite cultural knowledge, the second English version shifted its focus towards an ecology of relationships, selves and places. I attribute that to a few things. Like, for instance, the different architecture and focus of Gamilaraay as a language. Where I see English as descriptive, Gamilaraay is something else. Even its nouns seem to verb, for me. Only a little of that can come back into the second English version, which I guess is what English readers see in its transformation. It’s important that readers see the poem in Gamilaraay on the screen as its own poem, not just as a catalyst to change the meaning of a poem in English. I hope the effect of this is that readers might get their mouth around the words (especially since the text is a poem), or at least be able to understand how the transformation takes place. Even if they don’t, those words must still be there.

TLB: It’s an incredible poem, and fascinating to get to sound out those Gamilaraay words and read your translation of them. Is there anything you’d like to add about translation, either in your own creative practice or more generally?

AW: Thank you, Elizabeth! The only thing I would add is that the most crucial component of translation is the act of listening and reading deeply.


Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and essayist from the NSW floodplain fringe. Alison’s writing links the visceral with the political, drawing from her scholarship and work in cultural studies and Aboriginal women’s law and policy. She has words in Meanjin, Colouring the Rainbow, Archer, Tincture and the UTS anthology Seeds and Skeletons. Her debut verse novella, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, winner of the State Library of Queensland’s 2015 black&write! Fellowship, was released by Magabala Books in March 2016.

Elizabeth Bryer is The Lifted Brow’s translations editor, and wants to see your translation submissions (see guidelines here). Her translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning novel, Blood of the Dawn, is out with Deep Vellum Publishing this month. Recent writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin and Best Australian Science Writing, and she curated Seizure Edition Four: Translation.

Please Welcome Our New Translations Editor, Elizabeth Bryer – Also, We Are Looking for Translated Manuscripts!

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Image by Percy Caceres.

The Lifted Brow is delighted to welcome Elizabeth Bryer who has joined the team as our new Translations Editor!

Elizabeth Bryer is a writer and translator. Her translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning Blood of the Dawn is out with Deep Vellum Publishing in November. Recent writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin and Best Australian Science Writing and she curated Seizure Edition Four: Translation.


The Lifted Brow are passionate about promoting the art and business of translation. With that in mind we are now seeking proposals and manuscripts for books that could be translated into English.


What we can consider

The Lifted Brow is always a publisher of work that can be classified as ‘literary’, and we seek to champion work that pushes boundaries and challenges assumptions.

Like everything we do, our publishing of translated books will largely focus on authors from the margins: people who live and write from demographic margins, and/or writers whose work sits in the literary margins, and/or translators who interpret the translation act in surprising ways or stretch the bounds of what ‘translation’ means: your work might be cross-modal or cross-genre, might include insertions, erasure or collage. Try us.

If you are translating a work from a language that is underrepresented, we want to hear from you. If you are working on a translation of oral texts, ancestral languages, and/or some other project tied up with language and identity, get in touch. You might be translating a contemporary work, or have a case for an older work that never got the attention it deserved in English: either is fine. Self-translations are also welcome.

Below are some translated books that we love – and if your writing/manuscript is close to any of these, then we are definitely interested in hearing from you:

  • The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, written in Zapotec and self-translated into Spanish by Natalia Toledo, translated into English by Clare Sullivan;
  • Mouth Eats Colour by Sawako Nakayusu with Chika Sagawa from and into Japanese, French and English;
  • Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka, a poetry-braille-art book;
  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser;
  • The Story of My Teeth and Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeny;
  • Seibo There Below and Santantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes; and
  • Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.

Submissions are welcome from translators who identify as Australian. (For now, our focus is on unearthing Australian translators and work – sorry non-Australians!) We particularly encourage people who identify as queer and/or trans and/or intersex and/or are of any colour, religion, or gender, and/or have a disability, to submit. There are of course no age limits.

We currently accept unsolicited submissions in the categories of fiction (including short stories), poetry and non-fiction – but we also encourage works that blend these and any other categories in the one manuscript.

We read all manuscripts carefully but are only able to publish a very small number of those we consider.


What to include

Submissions should include a minimum 7,000-word translation sample alongside the source text, your translator CV and a bio of the author. It would also be very helpful if you could include a translator’s note or similar to contextualise the work – tell us what it is about, why you are so enthusiastic about it, why it has literary merit, what the reception has been in the source culture and translation challenges you have navigated.

In your cover letter, please include a synopsis of the work, a bio, and also please briefly answer these questions:

  • In what category would you place your translated manuscript?
  • What three books would you see as the closest comparisons titles to yours?
  • Why you are the right person to translate this book?
  • Are the English-language rights for the book available?

What happens after you submit

When you send us your submission, you’ll receive an automatic email acknowledging receipt. No other acknowledgement will be sent to you.

Should we wish to pursue your project, we will be in contact with you via email within a month. If you haven’t heard from us after a month, feel free to give us a little prod. Please note that if your work is declined, no further correspondence will be entered into, and we will not provide you with reasons for our decision (because we simply do not have the time and/or resources to do so!).


Queries

All questions can be directed to translations@theliftedbrow.com.

‘The Relingos of Beijing: An Interview with Valeria Luiselli’, by Emily Laidlaw

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A relingo—an emptiness, an absence—is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.

— Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks


Sidewalks

It’s my first time in Beijing and I find myself reading Valeria Luiselli. We’ve come separately to Beijing to attend the Bookworm Literary Festival; Luiselli is promoting her new novel The Story of My Teeth, whereas I’ve come to sit in the audience and learn about literature in translation.

Luiselli is a writer of empty spaces, or ‘relingos’, an architectural term she adopts as a motif in her 2013 essay collection, Sidewalks. Her book maps out the landscapes of Mexico City, Venice, New York and elsewhere, with a focus on areas, real and imaginary, left to abandon. It feels appropriate to read Luiselli in Beijing. It’s a city so geographically large, so densely populated, yet to the keen eye, filled with absences.

Beijing has been knocked down and rebuilt many times. When the Communists took control in the middle of last century they wanted to destroy all vestiges of feudalism and their solution was to smash any reminders to the ground. So how do you read a city like Beijing? How do you look past the gaps, physical and political? How do you look through the smog, thick as concrete?

Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book, so concludes Luiselli’s essay ‘Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces’. But she goes on: The metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments will be bridges; words will be like scaffolding which protect fragile constructions.

Luiselli shows a deep love for cities in her books. I feel drawn to her writing, in the same way I feel drawn to large cities far from the Australian one I call home. Her essays make me want to slide on my boots and explore unknown pavements. I’m never alone when I’m part of the crowd.


Faces in the Crowd

When critics talk about Luiselli’s writing, terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘fragmentary’ are routinely used. It’s probably because her books transcend the tidy three-act structure that we’ve absorbed as the traditional way to tell a story. I make a point of deliberately not calling her writing experimental when I meet her at the festival café, and she thanks me. “I don’t consider my work experimental at all – at all”, she says, raising her voice, in mock anger, her smile dropping, though. “It’s a label that I refuse as much as possible because I think it’s kind of lazy. It suggests that there isn’t an effort to tell a story or build a character or that it’s just experiment for the sake of experiment.”

You only need to read one of Luiselli’s books to see how carefully she’s composed her interlocking narratives. “Small fragments,” she claims, come more naturally to her, never chapters. “I would concentrate for periods of time on creating something very compact and small and very detailed and delicately crafted,” she says about her 2014 novel, Faces in the Crowd. It’s a process which takes time. “Ten years, three books, all very thin,” she says with an air of disappointment. But from this process comes something sturdy.

I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them, one of the characters, also a writer, says in Faces in the Crowd. This quotation is one of the ways we can read Luiselli; one of the ways of seeing scaffolding, instead of scattered debris.


In the station of the metro

Beijing is “knee-crushingly huge,” an Australian expat tells me, and I very quickly see what he means. Fortunately its subway, which services some nine million people each day—one of the largest networks in the world—saves my legs from exhaustion. A large bulk of my trip is spent navigating the dense underground system, crossing one side of the city to the other.

In the days before my interview with Luiselli, I reread Faces in the Crowd. The book is narrated from shifting viewpoints. In it, a woman living in Mexico City, reflects on her days living in New York City, where she was haunted by the ghost of real-life Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, one of the authors she’s assigned to translate. Fact begins to blur with fiction, and Ezra Pound’s poem, ‘In the station of the metro’—The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough—recurs throughout the plot, as characters flash by one another, like a speeding train, only to intersect and diverge in increasingly surreal ways.

I keep thinking about a line from the book: A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway. Jammed up against all the other peak-hour commuters, it’s impossible to make out the face of anyone, let alone your own. It’s hard to focus on just one thing. I start to disappear.


Stuttering Cities

“Beijing is a terrible city to be a writer,” an American expat tells me. He’s not talking about the government censorship. He’s talking about the noise. There’s no space. You’re too busy reacting to everything around you, he stresses.

What is the ideal environment for writing? I wonder. Is silence really conducive to making art? I repeat to Luiselli what this man said, and she laughs: “I don’t write against the noise or try to create a little bubble of solitude in which to write—quite the contrary. I always rely on what’s accidentally going on around me to nurture and spur on my writing. I’m not one of those clichéd type of writers who sits in a café all day, waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time in my life.

“But I do often walk the city, taking notes, and I bike the city a lot. I’ve always lived in rather noisy places. In my current neighbourhood, everyone shouts all the time. I live in a house with children and chaos, and even though I write in the night, I’m always surrounded by some kind of activity. All that I allow to leave an imprint in my writing.”

This imprint can be heard in the pages of her books—sounds not uncommon to Beijing. Buildings being torn down; the sound of chisel hitting stone. The cry of children in the next apartment. A food vendor pushing his cart along the street. A plane coming into land. The gentle sounds of a writer typing at her computer, long into the night.


The Story of My Teeth

China is one of the largest manufacturers in the world, which is why the air is the colour it is. Some days I swear I taste it at the back of my throat. But for the most part, I catch a rare window of blue, a stroke of luck which colours my perception, literally, of Beijing.

By its nature, art is opposed to mechanical reproduction, but of all things a Mexican juice factory is responsible for Luiselli’s latest book, The Story of My Teeth. In 2013, she was commissioned by Groupo Jumex to write a work of fiction for its art collection, which is housed in what she describes as a “wasteland-like neighbourbood outside Mexico City”.

Luiselli was less interested in writing about the workers than writing for them. So she came up with an idea: drawing on the mid-nineteenth century tradition of the tobacco reader—a practice pioneered in cigar factories in Cuba, where workers were read stories to break up the tedium of their shift—she would write a serialised novel to be read aloud to Jumex’s staff. Chapbooks were produced, and the reading sessions were recorded and sent to Luiselli in New York. She would then write the next installment based on the workers’ comments.

Three years later comes what Luiselli describes as a “novel-essay” about “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and culture”. Isolating that quote makes it sound kind of earnest, which it is anything but. Less fragmented than her earlier work, and more comedic, the book is a hyperbolic tale about an auctioneer named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. We follow his many misadventures, including the bumbled sale of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth.

Luiselli waits until the afterword to explain the book’s unique writing process. (It’s fun to go back and reread it from the start, bearing in mind the many factory workers who helped shape the novel behind the scenes.)

Much like the 2006 video installation, Whose Utopia? by Chinese artist Cao Fei, (who also used factory workers) it’s hard not to think critically about the human side of industry when reading The Story of My Teeth. As Luiselli writes in her afterward, There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and factory… how could I link the two distant but neighbouring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?

Similar thoughts can be had walking around Beijing’s 798 Art District. There, Soviet-style, decommissioned military factories have been converted into workshops and galleries in the middle of the vast expanse of concrete that is Dashanzi. I visit on a particularly smoggy day and shelter in one of its more expensive galleries. In the window is a sculpture: the words ‘Made in China’ in colourful block letters. Like The Story of My Teeth, it playfully symbolises the tension between art and commerce. Two worlds not so separate.


Other Rooms

One day a truck gets stuck down the street—or hutong—where I’m staying. Its carriage gets caught on the overhead guttering of someone’s home, and it takes several men to wedge it free. People live very close to one another in these narrow alleys. Whenever I walk down my hutong I have to stand to the side every few metres to let cars or bikes pass me. Rapid urbanisation over the past decades has lead to the construction of high-rise dwellings where many of the hutongs used to sit. I congratulate myself for staying in what feels like an older, more authentic neighbourhood, whatever that means. It’s considerably more residential than some other hutongs which have been developed to include souvenir shops, bars and restaurants.

I keep thinking back to a line I like from Sidewalks: The more often you spend the night in different places—rooms, pensions, hotels, borrowed couches, other people’s beds—the better.

I’m pleased that I was able to find my hostel in the first place, in a city where my normal anchor point, Google Maps, is blocked by the government. Walk towards the 400-year-old tree and there you will find the entry, read the rather Confucian directions from the hostel. And fairly quickly that tall tree, sprouting from the concrete, its bare limbs framed against the alternatingly grey-brown-blue sky—the hue depending on the air-quality index that day—becomes my anchor home. The unfamiliar quickly becomes the familiar.


Return ticket

Luiselli has lived in the US for eight years but travel has been a big part of her life. Born in Mexico City in 1983, she’s lived in places as different as South Korea, South Africa, India, and now New York City.

I ask her if she can see glimpses of Mexico City—a city which recurs again and again throughout her three books—in other places she visits. Of course, it’s unfair to ask someone to evaluate a city they’ve only spent a few nights in. But I’m aiming for the perfect bridge between my thoughts, to construct some symmetry. Interviewing can be parasitic like that. She tells me, “One is always trying to understand through comparisons. Thought is comparative. One also has to guard not to compare too much because often comparisons blur important nuances and differences.”

This has always been my biggest weakness. Isn’t all writing about building some connection?

“When you walk along the hutongs there’s something not unlike certain parts of downtown Mexico City, and of course certain parts of India where I lived for two years.

“The hutongs have a Mexican version which are the vecindades. In these, clustered dwelling spaces are organised around a central patio where neighbourhood life is very intense because people live close together, often sharing small rooms with many family members and just basic living quarters with others. And that is very interesting because it’s extremely similar to how the Mexican working classes originally lived in the city. What’s happening now with the hutongs being torn down and re-edified in their prettier version didn’t quite happen in Mexico, although vecindades in Mexico were to a degree romanticised through film and books and stories and photography.”

Often, when I walk along my hutong, I peek into the open doorways of people’s homes, but quickly turn my head if someone appears in the entranceway. I never want to intrude. I never want to be that tourist who blatantly interferes, who romanticises, who waves their camera, trying to take a souvenir of something that isn’t theirs to take.


Cement

If the disappearing hutongs feel like Beijing’s past, then the expat neighborhood of Sanlitun where the festival is held feels like its shiny future. Here, the booming Chinese economy of recent years glitters. Skyscrapers and shopping malls tower into the smog, and billboard-sized screens loop advertisements for Givenchy and Apple. Some people—by whom I mean Westerners—refer to it as the ‘most Western’ part of Beijing, erasing any nuances or differences that exist, in order, I guess, to feel at home.

It’s an interesting backdrop for an international book festival. In Australia, I wonder if our reading cultures are too focused on the Anglophone world, too insular? Where is the hunger for Asian translations in Australia? I share my thoughts with Luiselli, who argues this is not just an Australian problem.

The idea is foreshadowed by her narrator in Faces in the Crowd, who works as a translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems’. This sarcastic description is followed by the deadpan remark: Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion.

“In society there’s still little space for anything foreign that doesn’t in its foreignness confirm the prejudices or the ideas that one has about that foreignness, whatever it is, be it Chinese, Latin American,” Luiselli says.

When she arrived on the scene in 2008 “there were few contemporary Latin American writers translated into English. There were some paradigmatic, experimental-ish—I hate the word, now I’m using it—a specific type of writer similar to [Enrique] Vila-Matas but that was it. There was very little translation between the boom and [Roberto] Bolaño, except for the commercial, post-magical realism cheesy writers. Now there’s more writers than I can count with my hands that are translated or are being translated into English. Writers who are very interesting.” She lists some of her contemporaries: Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrera.

“The only problem is we skipped an entire generation in the middle—people that were writing at the time when Bolaño was. We’ve just jumped to the writers that are about my age and a little bit older.”

She mentions a Chinese writer I haven’t heard of, Can Xue. I add her name to the growing list of authors I’ve learned about at the festival but am yet to check out: A Yi, Shuang Xuetao, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Of course, once you fill one reading gap, another opens. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the idea of all the books I’ll probably never get to read, all the places I’ll never travel to.


The Cartography of Empty Space

On my days off from the festival I walk and walk and walk around the huge city that is Beijing, ticking off all the tourist sites. I try and imagine CPC officials taking a sledgehammer to the golden sandalwood Buddha at the Lama Temple, or the green and red pagodas of the Forbidden City but I can’t. The recklessness is too much. I feel thankful for the politicians who had enough foresight to spare them a dismal fate, who stopped them from becoming relingos in the patchwork of Beijing.

Genre-wise, Luiselli’s three books span different territories but they all converge at some point: wandering, both the physical and mental kind, is an ongoing theme. “A lot of the books entail going out into the city and just walking around and taking notes and observing,” she says, describing her creative process. “Sometimes it’s not something I do programmatically, it’s just that while I’m writing a book I’m writing it all the time so wherever I walk, whatever happens, is kind of being written inside my head while it’s happening and eventually becomes part of what I’m writing.”

But in this moment there is no writing. We’re both sitting in Sanlitun. A day ago the cafe surged with people but now the festival is over it feels empty. No one has turned the music on; the only disruption is the whirr of a coffee machine, the jangle of plates dropped in the sink. The city disappears.

She tells me a nice anecdote about The Story of My Teeth: “The recording was full of these little accidents that were so beautiful. One day it was pouring outside so you could hear the voices of the workers but really more than anything you could hear the pouring rain outside. It was like this very deep contact with Mexico City while I sitting there in my New York studio, closing my eyes, being there somehow with them.”

Writers need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.


Emily Laidlaw is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She was recently awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant to research literary cultures in Asia.

An Interview with Nicolás Casariego

 

There’s nothing quite like the price of tobacco in Australia to spark conversation with an international guest to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Nicolás Casariego (Madrid, 1970) author of the recently translated Antón Mallick Wants To Be Happy (Hispabooks, 2014) was blown away not only by the duty-free restrictions on cigarettes but also by the tawdry, brandless packaging imposed on Australian retailers. It’s the way of the future, he laments, pulling an indistinguishable cigarette from the packet and lighting it with a well-travelled Bic lighter drawn from the breast-pocket of a stylish sportscoat.

That perhaps sums up the peculiar mix of pragmatism and romanticism that shone through in our conversation at a café on Spring Street. The author expressed pleasure at having worked in collaboration with translator Thomas Bunstead on Antón Mallick, but also acknowledged that a foray into the English-language market is something every Spanish writer working today looks forward to. Casariego says that when writing the novel, which appeared originally in Spanish in 2010, he employed a style and rhythm that he thought could be easily conveyed in translation.

“There has never been,” he says, “such an obligation as there is today to be happy.”

Born into a renowned family of creators, Nicolás Casariego is the son of a famous architect and has two siblings and a sister-in-law who are all published authors. He anticipated my next question by admitting that this didn’t always make for stimulating dinner-table conversation: like any family, sometimes they talked about football or politics, but nonetheless the author had great admiration in particular for his deceased elder brother Pedro, whose poetry inspired parts of the novel.

Although his first to appear in translation, Antón Mallick Wants To Be Happy is Casariego’s second novel, after his debut work Cazadores de luz (Light Hunters in English),a science-fiction novel, was published to great acclaim in 2005, when it was a finalist in the Nadal Prize. There are many different narrative strands at play in Antón Mallick, but what drives the story forward is middle-aged insurance worker Antón Mallick and his quest to beat depression.

What might sound like a sombre read is in fact quite the opposite – the book is interspersed with excerpts from classic treatises on happiness (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard) and chirpy self-help titles, all underscored by the black humour of Antón as he records his quest in a diary. Whether or not you think Tony Soprano was on the money when he said that today’s world needs more Gary Cooper-types, Casariego sees two sides to the modern quest for happiness. “There has never been,” he says, “such an obligation as there is today to be happy. This obviously causes a lot of depression. But depression is not a new phenomenon, it might have different names and guises but it’s clearly there and can be read about in even the earliest books.”

 

In the novel, Antón is encouraged by his psychologist brother and academic sister to “read” his way out of depression – hence the excerpts mentioned above. When I ask Casariego if he thinks reading can be a tonic for depression or even an escape from reality his answer is thoughtful: “I tend to agree broadly with (Italo) Calvino and his approach to reading the classics – it’s best to go in with an open mind and draw your own conclusions. When we sit down to read we’re not actually looking for answers, but more questions. We look to make our minds work. Personally, no matter how depressing a novel might be, reading books makes me feel alive.”

“When we sit down to read we’re not actually looking for answers, but more questions.”

The idea of an active reader is something Casariego aimed to deploy in the novel as well – it contains many different forms and registers, including that of a diary, fragments from emails, Skype conversations and excerpts from a fictional memoir. He says today’s reader is comfortable with such a mix of platforms – the reader of novels is also a mobile phone user, an internet browser – and that as an author he has full confidence in the reader’s ability to absorb complex structures. The most important thing is to maintain a rhythm that will keep advancing the story.

In addition to his work as a novelist, Casariego has published in just about every other genre imaginable. He was a travel correspondent for major Spanish newspapers, has written children’s books and also co-wrote the script of the film Intruders, starring Clive Owen. The romantic in him separates his passion for the novel and the necessity of trade publishing. “My other projects were about learning and surviving – unfortunately today it’s no longer possible to live from writing the way it was possible even twenty years ago, so collaborative projects and translations are important. With a script, you work in a team and you work hard but you don’t bring it home. I spent five years walking around with my novel inside my head at all times.” When I ask if he thinks new technologies might kill off the novel, he gives a wry smile: “Well, they’ve announced the death of the novel quite a few times already, haven’t they?”

Samuel Rutter is a writer based in Melbourne. His fiction, criticism and translations have appeared in journals including Kill Your Darlings, Island and Overland. He is an editor of Higher Arc and teaches Spanish at the University of Melbourne.

Nicolás Casariego was born in Madrid in 1970. He has written long and short fiction works, essays, children’s books, travel articles and is co-scriptwriter of several feature films. Cazadores de luz, his second novel, was finalist for the Nadal Award 2005. In 2008 he was awarded the Writers Omi residence fellowship for international writers at Ledig House, New York.