E’er since Miss Susan Johnson lost her Jockey, Lee
There has been much excitement, more to be
You can hear her moaning night and morn
She’s wonderin where her Easy Rider’s gone?
I always knew that one day Madam Queen (Queenie to her friends) would vanish, that Stéphanie St. Clair would recede from the world’s view. It would not be a sudden disappearance, nor a frenzied flight. Nor, even, would it be a sinking into dementia’s dark abyss (the sort attributed to manioc ants back in my native Martinique). No.
Rather, Stéphanie St. Clair would succumb to a steady erasure. Like the smear a window washer, paid no mind by those strolling past, might wipe clean in one mechanical gesture.
I was Queen, but am no more, alas! From the very first days of that century called the most brilliant in all of humanity’s history, I had all of Harlem at my feet. Oh, yes, and Sugar Hill, too—the neighborhood of refuge for the Black elite, far from the endless gunfights, and the destitute, miserous négraille. Sugar Hill, but also, yes, Edgecombe Avenue, where I kept a suite in one of New York’s tallest buildings—fourteen stories high. For a long time, I harbored a fear of that diabolic invention that is the elevator—a fact that never failed to get a rise out of Duke, my body guard and occasional man-of-the-moment. He used to tease me:
“Queenie, if you keep dragging yourself up those stairs like that, one of these days you’ll slip right through the floorboard cracks!”
The brute was right. Though no weed, I’d never been a very voluptuous woman, and I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about it. As a young girl, my mother (though mother might be too strong a word) made me eat heapings of breadfruit, Chinese cabbage, and yam; all of it copiously drenched in oil. As she believed, it was my only hope of catching a man’s eye. Not to mention the spoonsful of cod-liver oil that she made me gulp down well beyond my days as a little marmy-scamp. But it never amounted to anything because, gorger though I was, my body never seemed to hold on to any of these foods, so I stayed stubbornly zoklet-lanky and unplumped.
“A mongoose!” My mother cackled.
“A weasel!” Roberto would laugh, much later. Roberto would sometimes introduce himself as a Corsican, sometimes as a Neapolitan, and his sonorous tones enchanted me all along the Marseille harbor; he compelled me, guileless as he was, to open the door of my intimacy to him with no further ado.
And so, I’d climb step after step, floor after floor, alone in the half-dark of that endless staircase, all the way up to the ninth. At each landing I’d look out over the quadrangle of streets teeming with harried crowds scuffling against the current of ever-more abundant automobiles, spitting thick clouds of smoke in their wake.
This little mountaineering feat of mine often recurred two or three times in a single day, and yet Madame Queen never lost heart. On one such occasion, my closest neighbor—a jazz musician and, since 1923, celebrated star of the Savoy Ballroom—stepped out of the elevator, calling for his maid. Breathless, I made my way to the apartment, where a certain resigned Duke awaited. As my neighbor and I crossed paths, he gently ventured:
“I quite understand, Ma’am! Back on those islands of yours, they all live close to nature, isn’t that so? Ah, how you must long for the open air…”
For a long while I simmered rage. Stupidly.
“I am French, understand?” I shot back, as the veins of my neck throbbed. “Je suis française, monsieur!”
“Oui, Madame,” he responded in French, making use of what were undoubtedly the only two words he knew in my language, before hurrying toward the safety of his apartment.
But memory fails me, the way it all surfaces in spits and spurts. See, I’m an old lady now and the century—the twentieth, to call it by its name—is more than half over. Two world wars have come and gone, and in this Queens nursing home where I will finish my days, the way these White nurses care for me—with deference and without the least regard to my epidermal color—astounds me, still. My dear nephew, I see your hand lurching across your notebook. I hope you’ve scrupulously taken note of everything you asked me to recall…even if my words are a bit disjointed.
Of course, I didn’t always live in this handsome building. Like all those dreaming of America, pulses quickening at first glimpse of Lady Liberty, I was dealt my share of vexations. Not to mention, my glimpse of that great statue didn’t come till much later, because on the day I arrived, the fog was so thick that she was invisible to the Virginie—the vessel I boarded in Marseille on a whim, or more precisely, with a broken heart. When we finally made land, the customs officials scrutinized and re-scrutinized my passport, some of them dubious, others incredulous. (“A Black Frenchlady, how about that! Since when did Paris start taking in niggerbastards?”) So they confined me in a storage room while the port authorities verified my claims, and I watched the dregs of humanity file by: filthy, rag-swathed Sicilians, their faces drawn blade-thin by hunger; the people of Eastern Europe, Polish for the most part, bawling at the slightest provocation and baritoning their joy at finally setting foot upon the New World; sickly Jews from all over, searching for the Promised Land with eyes always lowered and hordes of young children trailing at their heels; blond, slim-waisted Irish oozing dignity from deadened eyes as they clutched their battered suitcases. Ah, those rotten Irish…I regret ever feeling compassion for them then! You see, we’d been quarantined in a vast building that occupied three quarters of what we learned was Ellis Island, we the third-class passengers. Meanwhile, the first and second classes entered American territory with absolutely no difficulty. We were waiting for our turn to undergo a medical examination. Passengers from the ship that had arrived two days before ours wandered aimlessly, gripped by despair and clothed in rough canvas tunics that had been tagged with a hastily scrawled letter: ‘H’ or ‘E’. We came to discover that these unfortunates suffered from a diseased ‘H’eart or infected ‘E’yes. And they were left to drift in this state as they awaited deportation back to their countries, southern Italy for most of them. Their American Dream was shattered before it could even take shape! To tell the truth, I never fed myself on such illusions. I only left Marseille on a whim. I could have just as easily boarded a ship bound for Valparaiso or Saigon. As far as I can remember, for the first twenty-six years of my life, all spent in Martinique, I never heard a single soul—neither Black nor Mulatto nor even White Creole—glorify those United States of America, and certainly none of them hoped to live there. No. France was our sole compass.
When my passport was returned at last, (and on this point, the customs officials were reluctant, as I could see their suspicions had not totally dissipated), I took it upon myself to come to the aid of a suffering Irish mother and her family. She was a good deal younger than I and already had three children, including a baby she practically wrestled to keep in her arms. Instinctively, I offered her my help and her husband kept silent. He continued down the quay like an automaton, mumbling something I couldn’t make any sense of (at the time I could only stammer out one or two English words). Had he lost his mind? I had no idea and, in any case, didn’t care. She handed me the baby, and for the first time a little being squirmed against my chest. Me! In my country, I had rejected the horror of becoming a “da” for some grand, rich White Creole or Mulatto family. It was my mother who clung to the idea, and for a long time that nag wouldn’t let it go. She adorned the profession with pretty names: “nounou,” “governess,” and on and on. So, I screamed in her face, “Not never! Pas jamais! You understand me? Not never! Pas jamais!” She was always ready with her defense. Clearly, I couldn’t speak du bon français and if only I’d accept a position with the Beauchamps of Malmaison or the Dupin family of Fromillac, I could learn to speak as well as the Larousse dictionary, in no time at all. Not to mention the excellent wages. Hah! Idiotics!
Out in the street, there was no one to greet the immigrants. Except for a row of taxis, whose drivers hailed their clients in their native languages. One of them, hitching up his nose, agreed to take us but never bothered to ask our destination. Throwing his weight against the horn while crossing what I considered impressively broad avenues, he began crooning a melancholy song. It was rhythmic, though its meaning was lost on me. The Irish family didn’t make a peep. As if they’d decided to abandon themselves to destiny, as if resigned and ready to endure every peril; I, on the other hand, had to contain my enthusiasm. I was in America! I wanted to whoop with joy, to jump out of that rickety taxi and embrace each passerby whose path I crossed. Every fiber of my being, every pore of my skin felt electrified. But suddenly we were in the midst of a half-dilapidated neighborhood whose streets were teeming with grubby-faced throngs of people. Mostly men, some of whom brandished bottles of what I figured were full of alcohol. What a shock! Those creatures who seemed to revel in their degradation were of every race: Blacks, Whites, and, above all, undefinables.
“You’re at Five Points. That’ll be forty dollars!”
Angus, as I heard his wife call him, stiffened. Setting the boys on his knees aside, he ventured in a timid voice that contradicted his imposing figure:
“That’s too much, sir…”
The taxi driver didn’t spare a second on useless bickering. Yelling, he got out of the car and called on bystanders to bear witness, shouting that we were a bunch of Irishit who should’ve stayed put on our shitty island instead of infesting America with our lice and our mange. I couldn’t quite make out the details the details of his ragery, but for some reason each of his strange words had etched into my mind, even before I knew the language. And later, much later, they’d resurface, especially at night in the moments before drifting off to sleep when I’d retrace my life after Martinique—because I must admit, dear boy, my Frederic, that its memory was fading, overtaken by Harlem and my handsome Edgecombe Avenue apartment. My old habit—or obsession, to be totally honest—sent me plummeting into revelry and irritated Bumpy Johnson to no end. Bumpy was my employee, my body guard, my middleman in mafia dealings, and above all, my man… that is, once Duke was fired. But I’ll tell you about that later.
But see, Bumpy had an old habit of his own. As soon as we got into bed, no matter the hour, maybe nine or ten in the winter, midnight or later during the other seasons, he would pounce on my person and wordlessly remove my nightgown before impaling me, after which he would straddle me savagely, all while heaving and moaning grotesquely. I’d watch the massive bump that bedighted the back of his skull—that’s what had earned him his nickname—as it wobbled ridiculously from right to left. During our first meeting—back when I’d just reinvented myself as a banker in the clandestine lottery (oh, the audacity!), putting up the ten thousand dollars I’d managed to save during my stint with the gang of Forty Thieves, then thanks my Jamaican Ginger trade—which I’ll tell you about later—that anomaly (or infirmity, I don’t know how to describe it) disgusted me. But provided you could look past it, Ellsworth Johnson was a strapping man and, above all, he had completely mastered the art of convincing, which was only more exceptional for his ever-so-slight southern accent; it was a point of pride for him, being born as he was in Charleston, South Carolina.
But I digress: That taximan was a fool. A real loon! A nut gone fou an mitan tet, as they say in Martinique. There he was unbaggaging his vehicle, opening our suitcases and, when the clasps wouldn’t unclasp, gutting them with a knife, all while calling upon the world as witness:
“Citizens of the United States, don’t let these bands of savages strip us of all we’re worth! These shitsoaked Irish hicks! Here, I’m confiscating this! And this, too! Get the helloutta here before I call the police!”
He didn’t even notice that I was Black, I told myself at first. I was wrong: he didn’t notice me at all. I was an invisible creature, an insignificant being, or better yet, some domesticated animal that merited no more than a distracted glance. Or maybe he’d taken me for the Mulryans’ servant. We regrouped on the sidewalk in that fleabag skid row, Five Points. We were in a state of shock, incapable of gathering our few possessions that a brutal wind threatened to scatter. Angus held his boys—each of whom was wearing a funny little hat—limply in his arms. Daireen, the wife, wrapped her shawl around the crying baby. I stood there—Stéphanie the Martinican blackwoman—suddenly naturalized Irish by some thick lout. Before leaving Marseilles, I’d managed to learn a few American expressions; I didn’t need to beg a stranger for help to take my first steps (and being needy gets you nowhere!). The man who’d taught them to me, an old man who’d been an English teacher at some religious institution, had intrigued me because every morning when the weather was fine, he’d stroll down the Vieux Port dressed as a sailor, a cap stuck to his head, melancholic. I finally approached him, shyly because I was worried that he’d be afraid of blackfolk, as were many of the inhabitants of that nonetheless joyous city whose cloudless blue sky left me stupefied. Back home in Martinique, miraculous good weather like that only graces us a couple days a year, normally in the very beginning of September, a lull before the season of storms, and in any case, our pale blue has none of the brilliance of Mediterranean indigo.
“Sor….sorry to…bother you, sir” I stammered, making an attempt at an inviting smile.
The man stopped short, inspected me from head to toe, warily removed his pince-nez, then took my hands. His were soft and old with prominent veins. I wasn’t surprised: when I was a child, the Sainte Thérèse priests would come greet us like that during catechism. Back then, it was unthinkable that a man of the church could be Black. Later, much later (after I’d come to America) I let my very first body guard, Duke, bring me down to the Baptist church on 135th Street, and I was shocked to discover a pastor of my race before a modest altar. He wore a violet gown and was jerking about, his arms flailing toward the heavens, as he sermonized with a vengeance before ending up rolling onto the floor. I narrowly avoided bursting into laughter, and Duke stared daggers at me.
“Are you an African blackwoman or an island girl?” the old sailor from Marseilles asked me in a kindly tone.
“I’m from… Martinique.”
“Ah, what a shame! Martinique? But I visited that island, and several times. A magical land if ever there were one!”
And he cited an et cetera of place names: Morne Rouge, Pelée, the Cul de Sac Bay, Rivière Salée, Coulée d’Or, Caravelle. Then he gestured for me to sit down alongside him on the dock. As our feet dangled a couple meters above the dirty water crowded with ships flying a multitude of flags, he revealed the truth. He had never in all his life, never traveled anywhere at all. His knowledge of the world, of the universe, as he so pompously called it, had been gleaned from geography books, atlases, novels, and above all, from contact with the sailors returning to Marseilles from South America, Vietnam, or the African coast. The ones he ended up befriending would, upon his request, bring back exotic souvenirs—parchment from India, bows and arrows from Guinea, caftans from Muslim territories—that offered him a better sense of those lands he himself would never see. He laughed, but not unkindly, at my desire to settle down in any old place in the vast expanse of the world. He suggested America and spent a whole month gleefully recounting the battles between the cowboys and Indians, the Civil War, the mass extermination of bison, and the general impossibility of losing one’s way amid the grid-like structure of those immense American cities whose streets had the benefit of being numbered and not named like those of the Old World.
“Everything here is old, mademoiselle! There’s the Old Port, Old Europe, Old World. Ha ha ha! Try your luck over there! I can’t understand why you didn’t go there straightaway—Martinique is so close to the United States…”
I didn’t dare admit that I’d wanted first and foremost to explore the France we’d learned to revere like a second mother. The fact remains that he taught me the rudiments of English, which, my dear nephew, were of almost no use at all when I landed in New York, a city where thirty-six different accents rubbed shoulders. But it did help me to decipher a sign in that filthy Fifty Points neighborhood where the taximan had abandoned us: For Rent. You see, I hadn’t realized that my Irish companions didn’t know how to read! I was dumbfounded because, in my little native Martinican mind, it was inconceivable that whitefolk wouldn’t go to school. I was ringing the doorbell of what seemed to be a vacant building when a middle-aged lady leaned out a first-floor window and hollered:
“Get lost! Dirty niggerwoman!”
Then, noticing I was accompanied by a White family and that I held their white-colored baby in my arms, she softened her tone.
“Thirty dollars a week, due up front! The blackgirl’s free—if she helps with the housework, I’ll let her sleep in the kitchen. Well?”
The Mulryans had come to America without one red cent! Unless they’d been robbed clean on the ship… In third class, that kind of villainy was standard order seeing as most of the passengers were ex-convicts or other criminal types fleeing their country in hopes of building a brand-new, stain-free life for themselves. Few women voyaged alone, and those who did all turned out to be whores, plying their trade on the high seas in exchange for a couple dollar bills or a bottle of Italian wine (for the least attractive). A maniac Sardinia native, who boasted before god about being a bootlegger of great renown and was sauced from morning to night, gagging and heaving every second step, tried to proposition me in his own rather unusual way. In a show of high hoggery, he accosted me:
“Hey, you! Come let me fuck you, whore! I want to see if your blackness rubs off on my skin. Ha ha ha!”
Seeing that I hadn’t reacted in the slightest (I tended to withdraw myself in such situations, catatonic-like), he was emboldened, groping my breast, which was, admittedly, not well endowed. My Black blood boiled, boiled like the blood of yesteryear’s slaves who’d been lashed by some diabolic master’s rigoise whip. My temples throbbed hot. My pupils contracted. I clenched my teeth, then…BAM! I rammed the toe of my shoe right into his testicular soft spot. The Sardinian collapsed without a word as the other passengers looked on in stupefaction, thrilled at the prospect of a little distraction. He lay curled in fetal position on the bone-cold third-class floor, whining like a colicky babe. Silence set in and it was a good hour before everyone returned to their own activities, quite a feat for the anchovy tin we’d found ourselves packed into with no other diversion than a couple foul-smelling toilets and a dining hall that seated thirty and served two meager meals a day. I was the only blackwoman aboard, but also the only Frenchwoman—a real oddity, in short. But since the day I walloped that Sardinian bootlegger, they began to watch me, some amusedly, others with anxious deference.
Angus and his wife kept silent, at a complete loss for what to do. I had no choice but to come to the aide of those penniless Irish once again. I had felt moved by them when we debarked at Ellis Island, but here all I could muster was pity. It was such a strange sentiment for someone who’d grown up on an island where the whiteman was always on top and the blackman below that I flushed with embarrassment, a profound embarrassment, to tell the truth, as I pulled sixty dollars out of my wallet to pay the weeks’ worth of rent that the landlord demanded in advance. But enough about me. Tell me something about you, my darling nephew! You know, when I first got your letter I didn’t open it right away. To be honest, if you hadn’t written your name and address on the back of the envelope, I most certainly would have left it on my desk to languish. Frédéric Sainte-Claire, 26 Boulevard de la Levée, Fort-de-France, Martinique (French West Indies). Ha! See there? I still have a few crumbs of memory, despite my seventy-six years. So, you say you’d like to know all about my life, but you say you’re not a writer. That’s all right, then, just jot down what I say and try to fix it up later as best you can.
Thank you, in any case, for coming to see me…
Madame St-Clair, Reine de Harlem, published by Mercure de France in 2015, is a polyphonic retelling of Stéphanie St-Clair’s meteoric rise from the slums of Martinique to the lofty heights of Sugar Hill during the Harlem Renaissance. Presented here is the first chapter of the novel, in which we meet Stéphanie as she dictates recollections of her past to Frédéric, a nephew visiting from Martinique. We become audience to her digressive and fragmented memories of her encounters with fellow immigrants, African American luminaries, the mafia, and – in one harrowing episode – the Ku Klux Klan. Her stories come in a stream of consciousness that resists linear convention and aims to dislocate the reader in so doing.
Raphaël Confiant, who is perhaps best known for his Éloge de la créolité (translated into English as In Praise of Creoleness), has outlined his language and race politics with crystalline clarity in his theoretical writing and elsewhere in his Caribbean-based fiction. Although his writing is inherently in dialogue with the pervasive specter of the old colonial/mainland divide, Confiant’s Madame St-Clair is set in 1920s New York, a move that complicates the author’s linguistic and referential protocols, producing a dense and rewarding text whose valences of racial discourse are particularly complex. America become a doubled plane – both here/now and there/then – and is allowed to operate within its own distinct contextual heritage. These two contexts, that of Confiant’s Martinique and of St-Clair’s New York function almost as false cognates, engendering a deceptively subtle sense of “difference” that has been a pure pleasure to render in translation.
As co-translators, our call-and-response practice riffs off our doubled idiolects to create a polyvocal text that, we hope, does justice to Confiant’s subtleties and dynamism.
Patricia Hartland graduated from Hampshire College with a BA in Comparative Literature and Poetry, and is currently a candidate for the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. She translates from French with a special interest in Caribbean and creole literatures. Her translations are forthcoming with Two Lines and have appeared in Asymptote, Circumference Magazine, Ezra and Metamorphoses.
Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg holds both a Master’s in Francophone Studies and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. She is the Provost’s postgraduate visiting writer in translation at the University of Iowa’s Department of English and served as the International Writing Program’s 2016 assistant residency coordinator. Nuernberg translates from French, Spanish, and Arabic; her work has appeared or is forthcoming with QLRS, Two Lines, Asymptote, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.
Raphaël Confiant has been at the forefront of the Créolité movement in his native Martinique and beyond since the 1980s. He is the author of numerous books in both French and Martinican Creole, including Éloge de la créolité and Eau de café, which won the Prix Novembre in 1991. Confiant currently serves as the dean of humanities and literature at the University of the French West Indies, Martinique. A prolific writer, Confiant’s work has been translated into several languages, including Italian, Spanish, German and Greek, however only two of his novels are thus far available in English.
In the sentry box at the port’s entrance gate six photos are glued to the wall at eye-level, next to Tony’s chair, from which he monitors the comings and goings of port officials and employees. Six. One for each of his angel’s birthdays. Sometimes he tells himself that he could have had others. He could have made a tapestry of their faces, to cover that too-grey wall. His wife miscarried a year after the birth of their little prince, and the doctor made it very clear: there would be no more children. But he was so happy with his little boy, his gift from the heavens; he loved to repeat those words. And his little laughing face filled his box with more than enough light, anyway.
The other day, she told him that her little man was prettier than a serin bird, but that he was beginning to show some cheek. It’s true that she’s watched him be born and grow. Seven years flew past since Tony first saw her, at the farthest edge of the quay, scrutinizing the sea as if she wanted to cleave it in two, and she is still there. She always returns, though at irregular intervals. The groove at the corner of her mouth has deepened. The worn cloth of her red headscarf betrays a few strands of grey, there, at her temples. But her posture hasn’t changed. She stands like a barbed wire fence, impenetrable, with her back against the city humming behind her. She seems consumed by the sea as if poised to walk into the water, to dissolve into the blue. This is what Tony says to himself on these occasions, when his brain becomes crushed by the weight of summer’s portlouisian heat.
It was on one such day that he finally resolved to talk to her, to offer her a little water. She had stood in her customary place, motionless for so long that just looking at her made him sweat. She didn’t refuse the bottle he held out. A sort of unspoken truce seemed to settle between them. He let her enter and exit the quay, no questions asked. Sometimes he struck up a conversation with her as she passed. Nothing major. A remark on the weather. At first, she wouldn’t deign to give a response. Then, she’d aim a slight nod in his direction, a small grunt of recognition, a few short words. A yes or a no, maybe. Until the day he showed her the photos of his little gentlemen. It brought the flash of a smile to her face, or almost. She was reminded of her youngest, just two years older. She evidently possessed encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of children, and he sought her advice on bronchitis, teething, first nightmares…
In turn, she asked him about the port, its routines, details on the arrivals and departures of each ship. One day, it must have been in 1969, he couldn’t remember the precise month, she leapt at him, almost wild.
“Ki été sa bato la?”
“Sa gro bato dan milié la rad la?”
He doubted weather she wanted to know more about that ship, which had arrived the day before. It was the MV Patris. A vessel for the middle class people that wanted to play luxury cruise. An aging liner, with dining rooms, a ballroom, separate swimming pools for adults and children. It was returning from Djibouti and making a stopover in Mauritius, to the East. A sharp gleam came into her eyes.
“Li pa al Diego sa?” She demanded.
He had laughed. Diego? No, that boat was certainly not going anyway near Diego, it wasn’t sailing up, but down, on a long journey to Australia.
“Lostrali? Ki été sa?”
She had never heard it mentioned. He explained. At least as much as he had understood. It was a new Eldorado, where a number of Mauritians, stricken with fear by the fledgling Mauritius Independence, had decided to try their luck. They preferred the sense of security that came with living in a British colony, especially when compared to the change that, for some quarters, looked more like Indianization than freedom. The MV Patris was transporting members of the creole bourgeoisie who’d rather sell all of their possessions and leave their country than be forced to use rupees. A voyage to Australia, to avoid becoming Aboriginals in the land of the dodo.
Tony repeated a phrase he’d read in a newspaper that riled against the campaign as “ridiculous and unpatriotic.” But Charlesia didn’t ask him the meaning of “Aboriginal”. In fact, it seemed she wasn’t listening to him at all, completely absorbed by the spectacle that was unfolding before her.
For three days she returned to her place on the quay, relentless in her desire to witness every last detail of what was happening at the port. On the first day, she could make out women, their sharp features contrasted by somber headscarves, and tired men dressed in overcoats, all milling about on the lower deck. They must be Greeks, Tony said to her. The next day was full of unrest. Those charged with transporting worked all through the afternoon, carrying cargo and luggage from the quay to the Patris and back again. Finally, the third day was full of good-byes. A crowd swarmed onto the quay as the first glimpses of dawn crept into the sky. From a slight distance, Charlesia watched the exchange of hugs, kisses, well-wishing, tears from some and laughter from others, as children ran in every direction at play. As they made their slow progress up the gangway, the passengers looked down at the scene they were leaving behind. Charlesia was struck by the strange mix of melancholy and forced optimism they all exuded. She stayed there, a couple yards away from the waving handkerchiefs and cries of adieu.
Other ships had come and gone again. Container ships full of an array of merchandise. She often saw Chinese fishing vessels nearly hollowed by rust, as they maneuvered alongside the port harbor. They sat there, placid, exhibiting none of the bustling urgency contained by their crews, fierce men who sauntered through the sweltering capital center, scouring the sidewalks for whores. She didn’t like these ships. She had the vague impression that they had become too accustomed to the sound of tears, echoes of beatings and the violence of bodies against bodies ricocheting against the bridge’s scrap metal; their hulls seemed bursting with it all, even the steel jumbles of their windless, sailless masts were saturated. They were glorified tubs, stinking of fish and violence.
But that didn’t keep her from returning from time to time, hoping, believing that the Mauritius or the Nordvaer would appear at last. Today, again, she is there. She heard from a docker living in the same settlement district as her that a ship sailing from the Chagos has been anchored at harbor for two days now. And its occupants don’t want to disembark. She rushes to the port. The man is right. It is there. The Nordvaer, she would recognize it among a thousand, with its white hull and proud carriage.
The barriers impede her approach, she cannot climb over them, and Tony is no where to be found. Only men in green fatigues loiter within the compound, feigning deafness.
“Les mo pasé. Mo bizin pasé!”
Her cries are futile; they refuse to listen. My God, the boat is going to leave, and she will not be on board, it’s going to leave without her, that’s impossible, she must find a way to embark, she must, she must.
Suddenly, two men approach and raise the gate. They’ve understand her, they’re going to let her board. But forceful hands pull her away, and a convoy of trucks drive onto the quay toward the Nordvaer. The gates close.
Something is happening, Charlesia can feel it. The men are negotiating. Long minutes pour away. Suddenly, a woman appears on the bridge. She approaches warily, almost afraid. She is doubled-over, protecting her chest. She seems to be holding something tightly in her arms, a blanket it seems, the way one might hold…My God, a baby, she’s protecting a swaddled baby at her breast. Charlesia looks at her. She resembles a woman she once knew. What was her name? Rolande? Rosemonde? No, Raymonde. Yes, that’s it, Raymonde. She lived in Salomon, and they met one day at the hospital in Diego.
Charlesia holds fast to the gate. She wants to call out to her, talk to her, ask her what is happening, is she knows where her mother and sister-in-law could be, she never got to say good-bye. But the woman is rushed into a truck with her baby.
The others follow. Many others. She has trouble believing her eyes, to many men, women and children descend from the ship. She never would have believed that so many people could fit inside. There is hardly any baggage. Very few carry bags, while some attempt to hastily collect the odd shirt or clay pot falling from their poorly tied bundles.
The trucks start up, pass through the gates. Charlesia wants to put herself in their way, but the men catch her and corner her against the iron bars. The trucks disappear at the end of the road.
She turns to look at the Nordvaer gently swaying, tied to the dock. He seems so old. The setting sun burns the horizon. He will never return to Chagos again, Charlesia knows it now.
“Hey, Nord, is everything alright? Are you seasick?”
As expected, Aunt Marlene’s interrogation set off an eruption of impish laughter in the courtyard. Sharp mockery pierced with affection.
With his back against a mango tree heavy with ripe fruit, Desiré lifts his head to glare at them, furious. As if now was the right time. As if he hadn’t had enough, with everything that put his stomach in knots right now.
Certainly, they had warned him. His cousin Marjorie’s first communion was a cause for celebration, but not for stuffing himself silly with brioches. It’s better to be considerate, and share amongst his friends and family.
He watches his cousin. She saunters around flaunting her frilly dress, carrying a basket festooned in white and gold ribbons. She distributes fat brioches wrapped in pretty embellished paper, and fills a pouch of envelopes and limp dollar bills, some red, some green, and they slide between her fingers before she clutches them tight with a grim look. He certainly can’t depend on her to share the spoils. She has a talent for business and he dare not grumble about it. But to return the favor, he can always run. One day, when he’s grown big, he’ll show her.
In any case, he’s already managed to take a fair share of the brioches. But even on this point, she must have shown kindly upon him, averted her eyes, maybe. He loves the light aroma of bergamot mingling with the pastry, and this, he thinks, constitutes the only true brioche, the only brioche deserving the name; slightly moist, with a white cross slashed into the crust, devoid of those few sugar crystals sprinkled on the cheap imitations in the bakeries that never fail to turn his stomach. The solid support of the mango tree didn’t quite save him from the carousel-dizziness erupting from his chest, climbing little by little up to his head.
“Nord, hey, Nordver, you don’t look too good. Are you getting queasy?”
Aunt Marlene is insistent and the sound of laughing ricochets all around.
He would like to lift himself up and go away, far from their jibes, escape the sickly sweet odor emanating from their glasses of rum. But he isn’t sure of his legs.
Tania fixes him with big, surprised eyes. She is pretty in her pink dress, too short. It must be a hand-me-down from her older sister. She sees her bony knees, covered in scars. A real daredevil, that Tania. And as curious as a mongoose.
“Why do they all call you that?”
He hears her voice in diffused echo.
“Your name is Desiré, right? Why do they call you Nord? There must a reason…”
He looks at her. There is yellowed splotch on the white of her left eye. He never saw it before today. But she is suddenly diminished by the butterflies of light blinking in his eyes. And the carousel accelerates. Her voice blends into the whirlwind:
“Well, are you going to answer me? What’s all this Nord-va-ear business about? I thought your name was Desiré. Are you going to explain it to me? Hey!”
He only has time enough to get up and rush toward the courtyard. On the dry dirt, he vomits, writhing in spasms, in bergamot perfume.
He had forgotten. Or, at least, so it seemed. Only a distant echo reached him now, from farther and farther away. The vague sensation of an eyelid stubbornly refusing to lift.
He is in his twenties, maybe, when the subject is finally broached again. Most likely during another family gathering, someone’s birthday, and naturally, the aunts make a strong showing. His ear had been drawn toward scraps of an animated discussion in the living room, energy brimming around the leitmotifs “return” and “compensation”.
That night, he had wanted nothing more than to go home, where he could finally interrogate his mother about what he had overheard. Finding himself alone with her at last, he made several false starts, groping for the best way to bring it up. She made no effort to wait for him. Instead, she went into the bathroom, than brusquely emerged ready for bed. She would be working early the next day, her boss needed extra help preparing for a big feast.
“Why do they call me Nordver? Does it come from Norbert?”
In the glass-doored hutch, in the middle of the hodgepodge tea service of green tea cups and multicolored saucers, between the track-and-field championship cup and glass Coca-Cola bottles collected in a barter with patiently-amassed corks, an old pendulum tick-tocked in slow motion.
“M’man, is it from Norbert?”
She tried to evade him, skirting around his armchair in a dash for her bedroom. But she was cornered against the low table adorned by a yellow-eyed cherub touting a conch shell. The evening’s heat pressed down against their heavy silence.
“So…it’s Norbert, right?”
She turned slowly back to face him. He could hardly see her eyes in the dim twilight.
“It’s a boat.”
How genial it was for his aunts to call him a boat, another brainchild of their’s, no doubt. Like the little neighbor they had baptized Chauve-Souris, Bat, because she had tried to cut her eyebrows off to resemble her mother. The name stuck, and all the kids called her Sosouris from the moment they’d understood the craft of teasing. There must have been some foolishness involving a boat of which he had no recollection.
“The Nordvaer is a boat,” she reiterated. I was as if her voice had become disembodied, she wasn’t really speaking to him.
“Well? What else?”
“The boat you were born on.”
It took him a moment to comprehend what she was saying, her voice was so extinguished.
“Born? I was born on a boat? Where…here? On the beach? How? We didn’t have a house?”
He sees his mother’s back give a shudder.
“At sea. You were born on a boat at sea. In the middle of the ocean. And no, we didn’t have a house, anymore. We didn’t have a country, anymore. We had nothing.”
They had lost their house. And their country. That what she had explained to him. But how can you explain a thing you’ve yet to understand? Huge swaths of silence settled over her lips and eyes. The further he pressed, the more she detached. Her eyes no longer reflected him. Instead, he could make out something else. He didn’t know what exactly. A vague shimmering in the depths of her pupils, it resembled waves of heat trembling up from asphalt on hot day.
“What is this boat story all about?”
She looks at him. And she asks herself. How can tell him? Where to begin? His birth, the boat, the land, the other land. The truth. That thing that swelled in her mind and heart, in her belly and guts, every night. The land from before.
Before the fear, the incomprehension.
Before the solitude and the maddening anguish of the sea.
Before the thief-boat conjured sorrow from what should have been great joy.
Before this land, tall-mountained and indifferent, before its distant and scornful residents.
Before the anger.
Before the false resignation contrived to thwart the ineffective rage that threatened to explode into madness.
Before the sagren.
How could she possibly explain this to her dear Desiré, explain the nature of this wellspring she could barely contain?
Desiré was almost disappointed. He had imagined something grander, a menacing shadow, something like the dark and imposing mass of a slave ship that contained a world of anguish, gloom, agony. More than a century after the official abolition of slavery, weren’t the Chagossians treated in this very way; loaded up from the dock, crammed into the ship’s belly, tossed aside without another thought, in the hope that they’d crumble into a brownish dust and get conveniently swept away by a cool sea breeze?
The Nordvaer had no resemblance to all those hideous, sinister representations he’d imagined. In the photo it was a boat, perfectly white, with not one distinguishing feature. Except for its size. Very modest. Too small to believe it had really transported all those souls. There must have been an error.
Desiré had the idea to contact the National Library of Norway, and it turned out to be the right path. After corresponding with a few of the Library’s authorities, above all the director, he finally got a match. And a letter.
The envelope was crumpled, the corners sort of dog-eared and the seal beginning to come unglued. He tore open the brown paper hungrily and discovered a sheaf of printed pages. It was a copy of an article on the Nordvaer signed by T.G. Bodegaard, who had published it in a maritime journal.
His mother’s voice. She is standing behind the curtain that separates his bedroom from the family room. Desiré stuffs the envelope under his pillow and rushes to join her. In the kitchen, on the plastic tablecloth covered in geometric shapes, she’s set down plates of steaming rice. They eat in silence, listening to music on the radio. Desiré senses that his mother is waiting for him to speak. But he’s too eager to read the article, he takes a few quick bites of his food, rises, goes outside to give his scraps to the dog.
His chain has broken. It’s hanging, abandoned, by the low wall that stretches past their neighbor’s yard. The dog has figured out how to escape again. Desiré scours the neighborhood for hours looking for him. Towards midnight, he finally finds him, quivering outside a house that he knows, senses, contains the dog-love of his life. Convincing him to come back home is not easy.
It’s almost one in the morning when Desiré settles into bed, the precious envelope in-hand. Tired, he has to make an effort to concentrate on the words, searing themselves into his eyes.
He holds the screams inside himself. They echo throughout his body, their deafening waves scare away the birds that dare to perch nearby. He tried to confine those strange vibrations, to capture them in the sand, but they fragment the water and take shape again. With even the smallest cry of a bird, silence crashes inside his weathered body.
Reawakened, suddenly. They’re all there. Everyone. Dozens, hundreds, surrounding him, pushing against him, hungry to escape him, but obliged by their desire for a breath of fresh air to press in tight against his walls, they want to escape the press of so many bodies, staggering, colliding.
He never could have believed all this. That he was actually able to carry this excess of bodies without exploding. And yet, he’d proven his endurance through a parade of voyages. Built in Elmshorn, near Hamburg, he’d sailed on behalf of one of the coastal navigation companies of Bodø. In Norway.
1958. A beautiful year for him. Every week he forged across the distance between Trondheim and the Lofoten islands without fail. It was always an agreeable convoy of passengers, no more than a dozen, often elegant British tourists and always polite. On the return trip he’d carry a shipment of freshly caught fish and seafood. He was always proud to successfully regain those islands, flaunting their sheer and perilous cliffs. Ah, those stately lands, that cold and lively sea. It was something totally different than this. Than here. No one was gutted with the shock of dépaysement, with the suffocating impression that he’d felt since the first time he set sail, unhomed, unmoored, into that tepid water; those salty, weighty, Southern seas.
Years passed coming and going without a hitch, without delay. Then the change, the shift. The train, the train’s arrival made him useless, made him a relic. That over-glorified, noisy, polluting pile of scrap metal replaced him without a hint of due process.
Men’s ingratitude sold him off, to the other side of the world. To the Seychelles’ government. His first voyage was a nightmare. He thought he’d dissolve as he reached the equator. But he had a solid constitution. He was used to it, had even learned to enjoy the challenge. Certainly, it was another kind of existence, he sailed across the Indian Ocean, between Mauritius, the Seychelles, Chagos, transporting provisions and products like oil, brooms, and brushes all made from coconut, and even passengers from time to time. He had become essential again, had rediscovered his purpose, he’d begun to enjoy the warmer disposition of these people; they were lively, they served him well.
By the end of the sixties, he was chosen to be pictured on a postage stamp issued to celebrate the anniversary of the British Indian Ocean Territories; the famous BIOT assembly of British colonies of the Indian ocean. With the Queen of England’s profile watching over him on the top left corner of the little square stamp. He and the Queen of England brought together. It was more than worth the pain of leaving his Norwegian seas.
Then he had to endure hard labor. Without a doubt they had grander ambitions planned for him, since he was retrofitted with an upper deck that instantly multiplied his carrying capacity. It was true, his silhouette was changed, but he was impatient to meet with this more glorious destiny laid out for him.
He started to pick up on strange murmurs here and there, on board. Things were clarified, one night, mid-journey. He heard them discussing it. Were they going to force him to exile those people he had grown to enjoy? He couldn’t play a part to their exile. A cyclone, a tempest, a tsunami would come and capsize him, rid him of these schemers, eject them all, drown them, together with their wretched schemes.
But he was left powerless.
They loaded him up recklessly, crammed him with helter-skelter bundles, men women, children, all shoved in without care or consideration. He would’ve swelled wide, broadened his hull, given them a little more space, a little more dignity, if he could’ve, if he knew how.
Throughout the entire crossing he was flooded with words, a haunting ritual: the national hymn of Norway. Ja, vi elsker dette landet, Yes, we love this country. Was this it, death, these faraway memories rushing forth? Was this the herald that opened wide the gate of his demise, his plummet to the bottom of the sea, under the weight of all these people, the weight of suffering that left them all prostrate in his hold?
He remembers a dog that chases after him, barking, and a child that he carries on his bridge, the child lifts his hand, both hands, he lifts his cries and his whole body toward the dog. The dog is bolting, energized by determination, on three legs, the dog is an absolute frenzy on three legs, a distended engine that will not relent, that refuses to surrender. That dog chases him because he’s carrying away the child, like a thief.
The dog runs parallel to his wake and follows him for as long as he has sand beneath his paws. Suddenly he stops short, halted by the sea. And watches him go, erect on his three legs, his silhouette rigid and pitiful, the final look-out with nothing more to watch over. Nothing more to hope.
He doesn’t know how long that dog stayed there after distance diminished him to what could be mistaken as a tiny bird, poised over waning memory. He doesn’t know if he laid there, in place, or if he left with his head lowered. He he survived, for how long. How. With three feet and no eyes. Yes, he carries the eyes of that dog, senses them, incrusted there in his hull, starboard. Everywhere, he’s carried them everywhere, across the seas, as far as he could flee, he even considered drowning them, drowning himself, but in vain. And all that water washes but doesn’t protect him. The eyes that burn him, two torches piercing his side, wrenching open his shell, reaching into his very depths.
He heard them talking about it, in the captain’s quarters, they killed them all before they weighed anchor. All the dogs. They gathered them all up, surrounded them. A few tried to escape. They didn’t get far. Driven back with heavy blows from the men’s clubs. Forced into an incinerator. They closed the door. Packed the oven’s mouth with dry straw. Ignited the fire.
He knows he saw that dog. A survivor, no doubt. They persist, those eyes, howling, louder than a dog that senses the approach of death, with more insistence, more desperation. And those howls mix with cries, silenced cries buried inside human throats, cries unexploded because they’re unable to pass through mouths of clenched teeth.
He heard them all. Hoarse, raw, punctured by fear and incomprehension. He’s never stopped hearing them, no tempest could ever silence them.
They resound in him, those cries silenced, suffocated at the bottom of those men’s and women’s throats, clutched there so fiercely that salty tears flow from their eyes with the effort.
That was the day he started to rust from inside.
If only they had sunk him. They’ve been known to make reefs out of boats grown too old to serve. Maybe beneath the water he would’ve finally been able to stifle those cries, weighted by dark sleep. They settled for running him aground, like a crude piece of driftwood, and the birds, screeching and garish, made a sport of mocking him, fighting and squawking for a place on his hull, covering him with their yellowish feces then flying off again.
Sometimes he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about the Catalina, a twin engine, beached like him. Over there, on the shore of Diego Garcia. Nose pointed to the sky, body awkwardly slumped in the sand. But he, at least, was played on by children, and served a purpose.
The children. All those years later, the trace of their frightened tears remains persistent in his mind. And there had been that hollering, singular among them all. He had never heard the likes of it. He’ll hear it until his death. The howling of an infant seeing the light of day. His whole being trembled with it. He had wanted to sound his alarm, to ring out the joy of the occasion. A baby. A baby was born in my loins. In my belly. I’ve helped give him life, bring him the light of day, I’ve sheltered him, I’ve cradled him. But they carried him away, him and all the others.
island, what’s left to us map’s traces lives veiled in violenced history what’s left to us to cry, to write
imbecile hatred and history’s chain
Diego, your name on the white-washed map Diego, love Diego, bitter Diego, dying
“The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that would remain our property; to eradicate the indigenous population, excepting seagulls who have not yet got a Committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of Birds). Unfortunately, along with the Birds go some few Tarzans and men Fridays, whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully whisked on to Mauritius.” –Extract from a note sent in August, 1966 by the Colonial Bureau of London to the British Mission of the United Nations.
Diego Garcia, 1963
The brass bell tolls, resounding in echoes through early morning’s tepidity, and when it quiets at last absence reigns. It’s five o’clock, Charlesia gets out of bed, still dressed in sleep, walks to the front door, opens it just enough to slip outside. Last night’s darkness has not yet lifted from the humid land. But she doesn’t need light to make her way to the adjacent kitchen, even deprived of sight her bare feet guide her true, four steps then her hand extends, opens the sheet-metal panel. The matchbox is in its usual place, on the shelf above her head. She pulls out a match, feels for the sulphured end with her fingertips. The sudden glow of flame makes her blink. She holds a pot full of water up to the light. Alas, the tin of straw tea is almost empty, there’s just enough for this morning, she knew she was forgetting something when she went to the shop the other day. It won’t be open today, but Clemence or Aurelie will let her borrow some until Friday.
The drink is paler, more diluted than usual, but it’s hot and sweet, the way she likes. She finishes her cup in one gulp, serves one to her husband who’s just come to join her.
Back in the hut, she slips on the dress laid out on the chair by her bed, takes her hat from the table. She can hear her children’s rhythmic breathing in the adjacent room. Mimose lets out a chuckle. Even in her sleep, she laughs! She was born exactly eight hours after the death of her great-grandmother. Everyone in the family says she inherited the elder’s vibrant sense of humor. Charlesia leans over, takes in the smell of warm sleep, smoothes the girl’s hair, sets out to join her husband waiting for her, lantern in hand. A little later, at seven-thirty, her neighbor Noeline will wake up the children and bring them to school, along with her own.
Charlesia and her husband move swiftly to catch up to the other lights moving toward the center of the island, swaying along the path.
“Alo, Charlesia, Serge, ki manyer?” A neighbor welcomes them as they join, asks if they’re well.
“Korek Tasia, tu?” Charlesia responds.
One after the other the halos of approaching lamps converge on the path, each signaling the presence of a new arrival, each one greeted in turn. The dance of sparks gradually extinguishes, replaced by the pail light rising from the horizon, rousing the chattering of birds in the tall palms. At five thirty, the usual little crowd is assembled in front of the office of the administrator, who arrives promptly, wearing shorts that fall just to his knees, thick socks pulled up over his calves, with a domed hat tucked under his arm. ‘Hellos’ are exchanged. The two men in charge divide everyone up according to the thirty-six types of work on the island. Some are sent to the Big House where the administrator’s wife decides if they’ll clean or work in the kitchen, while others are relegated to maintenance jobs on certain parts of the island, and others still are sent to plant or harvest crops, or tend to the livestock. But the majority of them are assigned to the coconut groves, usually to work on either the dehydrator or incinerator crews.
With about fifty other women, Charlesia goes to work on the dehydrator. They had amassed hundreds of coconuts the day before, so were now tasked with decorticating them all, one by one.
“Alé bann madam, travay largé.”
The work begins with familiar organization. Charlesia takes hold of a fat green coconut, lifts it above her head, smashes it violently against the cement platform where it cracks open, and water flows from it down the hill, into the ocean. She thrusts her fingers into its new fissure, tears the husk, its fibers resist before finally breaking apart, then she sets it aside, open-mouthed, to dry. The movements string together. The coconuts accumulate.
“É Charlesia, tan dir toi ki pou fer séga sa samdi la?”
Charlesia lifts her head. Her companions have all stopped moving, waiting to hear her response to Maria’s question with one shared, anticipatory breath. Yes, she’d like to host the Saturday sega at her place this week, but she’s not sure if it will be possible. Her belly has started to grow heavy. She mustn’t overtire herself. And there’s the matter of the extra shifts Serge was asked to take on, which seems more likely with the incoming shipment of provisions at the port.
Work begins again. Little by little the air fills with the succulent green and gently sweet smell of coconut, as the juices evaporate into the sun.
Charlesia picks up one last coconut, it had rolled off to the side, and with one strong blow she makes it explode. She exhales, draws her feet under her body, puts one hand to the ground and lifts herself up while dusting her skirt off with the other. It’s time to leave, she has to ensure that a number of things get done before evening.
First, she must see Serge. She hurries toward the incinerator; in fact, she need only follow the strong odor of burnt coconut fiber to locate it. Surrounding the huge, slender oven men busy themselves in a heat that liquefies the skin and dries the eyes. Some of them continue to stuff the gaping mouth with dry hay, feeding the fire which roasts the coconuts, to then extract their essence: the copra which earned Chagos the nickname “oil islands”.
Charlesia locates Serge on the other side, his silhouette blurred by the vaporous haze emanating from the oven.
“Serge, ki to pansé si nou fer séga lakaz sa lamdi la?”
He pauses in thought. He’s loves hosting the séga festivities at their home, but perhaps she should take care not to overtire herself. And their reserve of baka and kalou libations likely won’t be enough for the crowd, and the alcohol percentage won’t be strong enough if the fermentation process is cut short. Okay, they’ll talk about it later, Charlesia says. She trudges down to her hut to retrieve her fishing rod. She promised the children a good catch of fish for tonight. Passing by the school, she hears them all, the full choir of them reciting the alphabet under Miss Leonide’s firm direction. She stops at the window. Ah, Mimose isn’t there. Lately she’s begrudged having to go, says she’s too big now, that she’s annoyed in that mixed class of all-ages, she’d rather rollick around the island, free. But the administrator insisted: children must be in school during the day. Mimose has surely made up some story to save herself, on the pretext of some note of excuse or other which—surprise, surprise!—she’ll fail to produce if pressed.
In any case, she’s not in the hut. Charlesia glances around, takes the fishing pole propped in a corner, reconsiders, then doubles back to drink a glass of water. She tidies up a few things the children left around, and prepares to leave.
“Kot mo sapo?”
She combs over the place without finding it. Her hat. She’s sure that she set her hat down in its usual place when she came in, on the back of the chair against the wall by the door. She’s certain it was on her head when she left the coconut grove, so it must be here. She hears a giggle from behind the door, Mimose’s no doubt, impossible to mistake that impish trill. Of course, she must have taken the hat to go gallivanting on the beach with her little gang. Charlesia reminds herself to weave one for her soon, just for her, with a broad brim and a pretty ribbon to tie at her nape. She looks out the window. Mimose is already out of earshot, she runs gripping the hat against her curly hair, as it threatens again and again to fall off. Charlesia sighs, picks up the red handkerchief draped on the table, nimbly ties it over her hair and leaves.
On the beach she sets down her fishing pole for the time it takes to tie up her skirt, secure it by her hips. White seafoam laps around her ankles. She wades into the tepid water until it brims up past her thighs, casts her line, the thread chirps through the air before the bait plunks beneath the surface. She keeps still, her body becomes one with the sea, the sand beneath her feet, the sun warming the fabric of her headscarf. Beyond the zones of green-then-blue, her eyes drink in the stretch of white, with its belt of coconut palms, their island, behind her, before her, a jeweled backdrop; comforting, calm. She waits.
The line plunges down. She reels in a spinefoot fish speckled with grey, which thrashes as she dispenses it into the canvas sack slung over her shoulder. And before its strength is completely exhausted, it’s joined by a blacktip grouper weighing at least two pounds, enough for a satisfying bouillabaisse, flavored with a handful of bilimbi cucumber fruits plucked from a nearby tree.
But Charlesia wants something else. She steps out of the water, crosses the peninsular strip of land to the other side. Nearer to the outer waters, where the sea deepens, where the sea is a deeper blue, charged with an energy that comes from afar, from beyond the horizon, from another world.
In a few minutes, Charlesia catches three banana fish, their firm white meat is her favorite. This will do the trick for tonight. She climbs back up to the beach, settles into the far-reaching shade of a takamaka tree. From the bottom of her pocket she takes out a piece of wood with two nails driven into it, and with brisk strokes rubs this against the fish’s grey flesh. Iridescent scales fly through the air, stick to her fingers.
She then walks into the forest, in search of young growths of coconut palm. She pulls away the palms to reveal the tender hearts, and chooses the best among them. Returning to her hut, she sits outside the front door and peels them.
She thinks of the baptism of her sister’s youngest son. She’ll have to ask the administrator when she can expect the priest to come to Mauritius. It must be almost a year since his last visit. He needs to return soon.
The milky juice coats her fingers, the right consistency. She rises, throws a few branches and twigs between the four flat stones of the hearth, strikes a match. She waits until the fire is well-kindled before setting her karay pan with its domed top over the heat. Flames lick the black cast iron, heating it gradually. She poises her hand a short distance above it. As soon as she feels her flesh warm, she adds the bowl’s content to the pan and gives it two spoon-stirs. Yes, she needs to talk to her sister soon, to discuss the preparations. There are a few scraps of white satin left over that her cousin brought from Mauritius. She could make a pretty dress for the baby’s church ceremony. They’ll have to get a bit of pink ribbon from the shop. Maybe hers will be born when the priest comes. Then they could have two christenings at once. The administrator will certainly want to give them a nice hefty pig, the kind with tender, juicy flesh fattened on coconut pulp and sprouts.
The pan’s sizzling calls her back to the hearth. The liquids have nearly evaporated, cream stagnates at the bottom, tiny pools of oil float on the surface. She waits a few seconds, takes the karay by its handles from the fire then pours its contents slowly over a tin sieve, and collects the golden, fragrant oil that pours from it into a bottle. She sets the filets of fish into the karay, well-coated in the oil, and they immediately react with the hot oil, little bubbles of heat and steam leap up in a crackling crescendo as the skin begins to crisp. Then she adds a touch of finely shredded coconut and a variety of spices.
In the distance she can hear the joyous clamor of school day’s end, and all five kids burst out of class without wasting a second.
“Mimose koté? Tonn trouv Mimose?”
No, she hasn’t seen Mimose. Well, hardly. When they ask where they can find her, it’s a kind of unspoken code, a complicit ritual, because they know exactly where she is. Charlesia tries to keep them there, but the raucous little tribe has already darted for the beach, in unison. Only the youngest boy hesitates, approaches her, throws his arms around her neck, plants a wet kiss on her cheek, then trails after the others hollering for them to wait up. Charlesia watches him disappear, he’s the most affectionate of the bunch, he reminds her of their other child, taken from them three years earlier by an evil fever that could not be quelled. She’ll carry flowers to him on Sunday, in the cemetery by the church.
The fragrance wafting from the karay leads her back to the hearth. Her seraz is cooked to perfection, she extinguishes the fire, then brings some order to the turmoil of backpacks strewn about by the children in their haste for the beach.
“É Charlesia, vinn get sa!” Serge beckons excitedly from outside. He must have something to show her. Charlesia sighs, sets down the backpacks, peers out from the threshold. He’s there, down below, with Rosemond and Clément, pulling up a big stingray by one of the fins. Charlesia assures herself that the long tail is lifeless, grabs the other fin to help Serge drag it up to their hut. Spread out in the grass, the animal’s wingspan stretches wider than Charlesia’s extended arms. Its slate-gray skin, edged with white, is beautifully supple. Serge strokes, presses, measures it. He could fashion two beautiful drums from its hide, which would resonate under the beat of the men’s palms, and drive the rhythm of their upcoming séga soirées. And there would even be enough of the flesh leftover to share with the neighbors.
Charlesia leaves Serge to his task and descends toward the beach. The children are on board the Catalina. The little broken plane marooned in the sand points its ridiculous nose up to the sky. It crashed there one day, she doesn’t remember when anymore. Some say it happened sometime during the Second World War, when the British used Diego as a telecommunication relay station. Others claim it’s simply a rumor, and affirm that the Catalina was just a pleasure plane that crashed in a bad stroke of luck. She herself has no idea which is true, she simply has the impression of it always being there, part of the landscape, like a fallen coconut palm that the children scramble over, waging little attacks and, imagining themselves as fighter pilots, making the engine sounds with their mouths. There they are, maneuvering through the sky, sitting astride the rusty fuselage, corroded fuselage by the salt air.
Charlesia watches the children play, her legs outstretched in the sand. They climb from the cockpit then disappear into another cranny like a flock of happy songbirds. The sea has pulled back, the shore sighs easily under dusk’s endless rosy glow. The children suddenly leap away in unison, farther down to the left, toward the tortoise cove. Seeing this Charlesia jumps to her feet and chases after them, hollering in an attempt to stop them in their tracks. They’re going to gorge themselves on tortoise eggs and ruin their appetite for dinner.
Three huge tortoises lay motionless in the sand. The children surround them, isolate one, the plumpest, and team up to carry it back. She fights them a bit, tries to push them away, twitching her flat feet, but soon she surrenders with little resistance. Beneath her the children reveal a beautiful treasury of eggs, and everyone picks at them at once. Charlesia takes one, too. She weighs it in her hand, cracks it, peals away the bits of shell and gulps the warm contents, letting the smooth liquid pass against her cheeks before swallowing. At her side Mimose eats four of them, the shells form a little heap at her feet. Charlesia straightens up, remembers why she chased after the kids. It’s time to go back. Serge is waiting for them.
On the coconut fiber rope strung across two posts on the left side of their hut, the dried laundry has been pushed to one side to make room for the stingray hide, suspended there like a great grey cape. Serge washes his hands at the faucet, makes known he’s hungry.
Charlesia relights the fire, the smell of fish curry mixes with the mosaic of aromas in the falling night. Standing in front of the door, Serge pricks his ears toward the sound of approaching steps, preceded by a lantern’s oscillating light.
“Alo Serge, korek?”
It’s the Commander’s voice asking after Serge, confirming the apparition of his face illuminated from below, like a mask of deeply furrowed grooves crisscrossing over themselves. The administrator charged him with assigning a few men to work extra early the next day to clean the coconut plantations on the other side of the island. Serge accepts with a nod. Charlesia asks the Commander to stay for dinner. He’d like to. The fragrance of the meal-to-come cannot be contained by the karay, wafts temptingly in his direction. But it will have to wait for another time. He still has to gather up a few more men.
Charlesia doles out great heaping spoonfuls of rice onto each tin plate, then coats each plate of rice with the unctuous seraz sauce. Seated in a half-circle around the hut’s door they eat in silence, their movements slowed by thoughts of sleep.
Diego Garcia, 1967
The call came early, just shortly after the bell tolled, as it did every morning, summoning everyone to the administrator’s office door, where he’d distribute chores for the day. The are was sweet. Charlesia had just settled in to her place at the dehydrator and had begun to decorticate her share of coconuts when she’d heard the very welcome announcement, mixed with an eruption of satisfied cheers sent up by her comrades.
Three months had flown by since the Nordvaer last docked, and there he was again, like clockwork. The men stationed as look-outs in the tallest casuarina trees along the shore had just begun to bellow the news of their sighting from far off, a tiny tear in the uniform line of the horizon.
“Ship ho! Ship ho!”
Their shouts echoed throughout the morning as they tracked the Nordvaer’s progress around the jetties’ wide curve till it drew alongside the port. For the last few years the captain made habitual use of porting techniques that the Chagossians called maneuvrage. Time was marked and steadied by the comings and goings of the ship. Everyone knew, for example, that about three months had now passed, which was important for just one reason: a new shipment.
The captain anticipated his arrival in Diego with particular excitement, before moving on to Peros Banhos and Salomon, the two other principal atolls of Chagos. Even his ship seemed to hasten, as if anxious to get through the seven or eight days of navigating so that he could set sail for the north again, toward the center of the Indian Ocean, halfway to the Mozambique canal, to arrive at last, finally in view of the Chagos archipelago, which materializes like a dream-turned-reality on the horizon. Each journey felt like arriving in a new world, as soon as he approached those islands he could breathe easier, differently. If he’d had the chance he would have loved to extend his visit well past those brief stop-overs.
He’d wondered if he should try to find a job on-land, to stay there, to share in that simple existence with the people he’d come to recognize and appreciate. But he knew he risked feeling claustrophobic. For him, the sea was his territory. And the promise of land. An intense sensation filled him every time he came close enough to smell the island, a perfume of land and salt carried on the breeze, so different from the harsh and saturated odor that wafted from the continents, too big for the winds to sweep them through.
He could recognize that Chagos perfume even if he’d embarked blindfolded on a ship with no knowledge of its coordinates. Sure, Mauritius had its scent, sugary like its cane fields that extended, almost monotonous, up to water’s edge. But Diego had something all to itself. Toasted bark. Springwater. Sand. Sweat.
From much farther off than his sense of smell could carry him, when Chagos appeared as no more than a black dot held captive in his telescope, an indefinable feeling overcame him, approaching a port he couldn’t love more, transient as he was, it was a place of comforting permanence. But today that feeling was unsettled, and as he neared the archipelago, the crux of his stomach pinched tight.
The ship’s arrival was nonetheless a lively event, a morale boost for the whole island. On this morning, the Commander had assigned the men to prepare for the disembarkment. They divided into groups, ready to load their shoulders one-by-one with the newly arrived crates and bundles of supplies, meant to last until the next shipment in three months’ time. The sun struck against their bare torsos, conjuring a sheen that contoured and defined taut muscles; a glistening of deep bronze skin. Their antlike comings and goings between the hull and storehouse, a three hundred-meter trip, were heralded by jeers and bursts of laughter, and lasted two solid hours.
After he supervised the unloading with the administrator, the captain greeted a few familiar faces, and climbed back into his ship to finish with the usual formalities. As the sun began its descent toward the horizon and work was done, he made his way to the administrator’s house, where he was normally hosted until his next departure, which would be the morning after next when he’d move on to Peros Banhos, then several cable-lengths from there to Salomon. With its triangular roof and pretty windows dressed with green shutters, the Big House stood out among the tiny scrap-metal huts scattered throughout the flat land, shadowed by coconut trees. The administrator’s wife stood at the front door waiting with a warm smile on her face to welcome the captain.
Her candle wax-white skin, framed by her blonde hair, had taken some color since she arrived on the island almost one year ago. The captain enjoyed his conversations with this woman; especially after her initially aloof, haughty demeanor gave way. She was quite different from the previous administrator’s wife, who most considered idiotic beyond redemption.
The administrator, in turn, welcomed him with his strong, jovial voice, proudly inviting him to taste his kalou palm wine, fermented himself. The first time he tasted the stuff, he thought he’d lost his tongue and palate forever. His men had offered it to him, obviously as a test, and despite his initial aversion to the strong smell of fermented coconut wafting from the tumbler, he swallowed its contents in one gulp, surrounded by the delighted jeers and hollers of his men as they good-naturedly clapped him on the shoulder. With his held tilted back, he felt the liquid set fire to his throat, wondering for a fraction of a second if he should spit it all out, fast, before the flames reached into his stomach and destroyed his guts. God only knows what that would provoke. Suffocating, unable to breathe, the others roared with laughter and came to his rescue with a few brusque slaps to his back. He was sure he wouldn’t survive. To do him honor, as they say, they’d served him one of their oldest kalous, and had steeped for three months. When he managed to regain his breath, he didn’t fail to notice how his taste buds seemed to awaken,
Their three children, faces smattered with freckles, burst with laughter as they return home from the beach, and it’s clear that their stay on the island has filled them each with a confident vitality. The administrator listens to them distractedly. He didn’t realize how festering the political problems had become. He finds himself torn. He wonders if Mauritius wouldn’t be better off as a British colony, rather than embark on the treacherous road to Independence, and asks himself how much faith he should put in the new leaders who campaign on the promise of making Mauritius a state of India.
The captain continues to nurse his glass of kalou, skeptical. He’s not of the same mind. But he admits that his companion is convincing. Several of his acquaintances have already committed to leave Mauritius in search of better prospects in Australia. One of his cousins, half-joking, asked him if he’d take them on his boat, just in case. He tends to think people are over-reacting, anticipating more danger than reasonable. To his mind, everything will happen as it should, and he’d prefer to maintain that conviction. That the time for decolonization is now. That Mauritius is more than ready to take charge of its own destiny. But of course, it’s not unreasonable to keep a back-up plan in mind, if things go bad. And the administrator has already figured out that plan. He and his wife have family in France and South Africa. So they won’t have much of a problem, either way. But he’d prefer not to dwell on events he can’t change, or waste time uselessly worrying.
The sun has begun to drip toward the sea’s horizon, for a brief instant bedazzles the last wisps of clouds. A first star has appeared to the West. The floorboards creak as a woman carries a plate of fried fish, places it on the low table between the two men. The administrator reaches for the crispy skin with his hand, still too hot to be touched.
“And have you told them, yet?” The captain asks.
The pitter-patter of a lizard sounds across the tin roof, where waves of heat still undulate and the absorbed heat begins to exhale. The administrator brings a glass to his lips, empties it in a single gulp with his head tilted back.
Tell them? What is he supposed to tell them? None of the information he’s received has been clear. So far he’s under the impression that the company will end its activities soon, that he’ll be required—in anticipation of this shut-down—to gradually send them all to Mauritius, without warning them. Explain it to them? He hasn’t understood any of it, yet. His contract as the island head expires in a few months. He wants to be gone before it lands on him to make the announcement.
The captain shakes his head. Distantly, the sky is veiled in a papery muslin transparence, the air as light as dream. The silhouette of a woman with a child straddling her hip slowly crosses into his field of vision. She’s walking, determined, to the front of the Big House.
“Rita! Ritaaa? To la?”
The two men hear her voice ring out through the house. The child on her hip prattles sweetly. Another woman responds from inside the house, rushing out of the kitchen where she’s been working.
“Yes Charlesia, mo la mem. Ki to lé?”
The captain and administrator have no problem following the conversation in the still air. Charlesia has come to ask Rita if she could watch little Rico the day after tomorrow, so that she can go to the shop for her rations. Rita would be happy to, but her husband, Selmour, has already planned to go fishing then, and since she has to host that evening’s sega, she’s afraid there will be too much to do. Perhaps she should ask Leonce, who loves Rico and could go collect her own rations after Charlesia returns.
The two women bid farewell to each other with a quick kiss.
Silence settles on the veranda. The administrator leans over the small table and pours himself another generous glass of kalou.
“Their big sega is tomorrow night. Go have some fun. It might be your last chance to see it,” he says to the captain.
A gecko’s cry resounds through the twilight, his tongue clicking doubtfully.
Seven-thirty. Sprawled across his mattress, little Rico watches a bird nestling into the heat of the straw roof with rapt attention. Charlesia didn’t need to go find Leonce. She’s standing at the door. Rita let her know the day before, and she didn’t need to be asked twice. She never misses a chance to play with the boy, she loves to tickle him into fits of laughter and shower his round cheeks with loud, smacking kisses.
“Monn fini donn li boir. Li pa pou soif aster la,” Charlesia mentions to Leonce.
Yes, the baby just finished nursing at her breast, he shouldn’t be hungry for a long while. At eighteen months old, he still drinks his mother’s milk to his fill, but she knows it’s time to wean him; he hasn’t been gentle with his new teeth.
Charlesia puts on her straw hat, takes her large bag made from woven coconut leaves and sets out for the store, the only one on the island. As on every Saturday, it seems like the whole island has converged there at precisely the same time. Today the crowd hums energetic, the new shipment on everyone’s mind. Daisy and Eliane are being served nearby. Charlesia is patient, chatting amiably with Laurencine, who mentions that she and her husband have decided to move across the island to a place on the Eastern point, to the house in which Mea and Augustin used to live. She doesn’t know where they’ve moved; perhaps to Salomon. Or maybe to Mauritius, where they were said to have family. In any case the administrator said their house was available.
The shopkeeper calls Charlesia to the front. She hands him her bag, which he fills with her share of the week’s rations: two pounds of rice, five and a half pounds of flour, one pound of lentils, one pound of dahl, one pound of salt, two bottles of oil.
“Ou bizin lézot zafer, madam Charlesia?”
She ponders for a few seconds. They need a bar of soap, too. There’s still some milk left. Definitely tea. And some coffee, she’d used the rest of last month’s coffee ration during the death vigil for old Wiyem. Cigarettes and matches. The shopkeeper serves her, tallies up these last items and records it in his book. Then he moves to the next in line.
“É missié, ou pa finn blié narien?” He calls out wryly.
The shopkeeper always teases Charlesia, feigning innocence until she scolds him. She holds out her bag to him again and this time he deposits the two liters of wine, reserved for her and her husband, between the rice and flour. She knows that Serge thinks her taste for wine is too pricey for their means. It costs one rupee fifty per liter and he only makes thirty-five sous for each full day of labor. But she likes it better than the baka or kalou, that seem to lick the throat with flames with every sip. She’ll savor her glass of Monpo tonight, sweet and refreshing on her tongue.
Some men have come along to help the women carry their goods. Serge isn’t among them. Charlesia calls out to Rosemond.
“Serge kot été?”
“Li paret inpé fatigél Linn res la ba mem.”
She hadn’t noticed his fatigue before. She told him not to drink too much baka last weekend. She’ll have to keep an eye on him. Charlesia hoists her bag onto her shoulder, sets out on the path back home. Leonce and Rico have left to play with the children on the beach, but Serge is sprawled across the bed, curled onto one side. His loud bursts of snoring leave no doubt: he is deep asleep. Charlesia swears. He’s left a full quarter of pig outside in the sun, delivered by the administrator this morning, who’d killed and butchered the animal himself. She’ll have to clean and portion it soon, and he knows she doesn’t like that job. But he doesn’t either. But it needs to be done.
She tries to wake him but he grumbles that he doesn’t feel well, rolls to his other side and falls back to sleep. That’s that, surprise surprise. She saw this coming so, for dinner, took a chicken from her coop, with a fresh brèdes sauce, but it’ll be a pity to let the pig go to waste.
But now she has to put away the groceries. And she’ll have to mend her long skirt for tonight. It was torn during the last séga on a nail jutting out from a doorframe at Mea’s place. She spreads the froth of white cotton ruffles across the children’s bed, three good meters of wispy fabric, threads a needle, repairs the tear. She can hear Serge rustling in his bed nearby. After a moment he sits up, goes out to the yard to splash his face with water. She watches him from the window as he turns back to the cottage. It’s true, his features are particularly drawn today. She’s going to make sure that he drinks a tonic of fresh coconut water; nothing matches its healing qualities.
“Ki to gagné?”
Nothing, it’s nothing, he murmurs in answer as he enters the kitchen and reaches for the butcher’s knife on the counter. He sits next to the pig quarter on a flat rock and begins portioning. But Charlesia catches him, from time to time, massage the right side of his torso with the palm of his hand. Ok, if he doesn’t get better she’ll bring him to see the nurse. Mule-headed as he his, she’ll have to drag him there, surely, but she’ll have the last word.
For now, she takes the knife from his hands. Go on and rest, now, she’ll take finish up with the pig. Nope. Out of the question. He started the job, he’ll finish it. Charlesia hesitates then goes out to the backyard to trim a few sprigs of thyme and some brèdes leaves, for a nice bouillon to accompany the pig fricassee, clearly there’s plenty that needs preparing before they go to the séga.
The first beats of the drum rang out at eight o’clock, when Charlesia and Serge joined the others on the path leading to Tasia’s hut. They converge with the dozens of others, distinguished by their dancing lanterns, chatting jovially as they made their way to the promised night of celebration, where they would be until sunrise.
In the yard, the men have set a pile of straw on fire, it crackles and sparks. All evening, they’ll take shifts tending to the flames which they use to heat their drum skins. In a corner Tasia’s son Tonio proudly shows off his instrument. He made it with a beautiful manta ray skin, stretched taut over the rim, that he’d caught two weeks earlier. He had followed Oreste’s instructions perfectly, carefully washing the skin to remove the salt, hanging it to dry, then moistening it with fresh water before he stretched it cross the wooden circle carved from a fouche peepal branch.
Oreste has mastered the art of crafting beautiful instruments that sing in deep resonant tones at the slightest touch, vibrating through the air. On a recent trip to Mauritius they told him how, over-there, they make a similar kind of drum called a ravann, but it’s made with goat skin, far less vibratile to his touch. For him, nothing equaled the ray’s supple membrane. Tonio agrees: for the last drum he made, he used a donkey hide, and it doesn’t even come close to matching the beautiful tone of the drum he boasts tonight. From the moment he nailed the skin to the wooden circle he felt as if it responded, reacted to his touch. It resonated with a strange impatience as he cut the edges at regular intervals, slowly introducing it to the circle, over small iron rods, the four pennies that would bring a tinkling sonority to every beat.
“Fer tambour la kozé!”
With her strong, carrying voice, Tasia has announced the opening signal across the gathering. Yes, the time has come to make the drums speak, they’ve been heated over the straw fire to tonal perfection. The drummers form a half-circle, the first hand rises, then falls to the stretched ray hide in five quick, measured beats. A brief silence, the vibration extends in concentric circles until it meats another membrane, invisible, under the belly’s skin. Then, the beats unfurl in synchronized momentum, a cavalcade erupting into a gallop, the beating inhabits the space, syncopates the blood’s pulse, lifts a primordial wave from the most profound depths of the body. The drums, suddenly, silence. Charlesia’s voice, made of cinder and salt, launches from her throat into peaks, soars then dissolves over the heads of the other participants.
Bat ou tambour, Nézim bat ou tambour
Beat your tambour, Nézim beat your drum
Ah Nézim bat ou tambour
Ah Nézim beat your drum
Nézim dime Wiyem alééééé…
Tomorrow to Wiyem, Nézim you’ll go-go-gooo
Tann mo la mor pa bizin ki to sagrin
Hearing Death’s words you’ve no more need for sadness
Pa bizin ki to ploré
No more need for tears
To a met enn dey pou mo tambour
O Nézim, my tambour mourns you
Tonight they’re taking up this song again, composed just weeks ago, for one of their best drummers, dead from old age. Wiyem didn’t want tears or sorrow. But he made them promise to render homage to his drum, his life. All throughout the vigil, between games of cards and dominos, they discussed. A little melody, a few lyrics were hummed. But they needed to until the days of mourning concluded. And now, tonight, they were keeping their word. They sing, they sing for Wiyem, they sing for his drum, for their drums seizing the limbs of an irrepressible vibration.
The women approach. Their feet landing flat on the earth, in one jolting movement their backs curve in a liberation of movement and trembling. The voices respond. The cadence accelerates. The infinite layers of ruffled skirts begin to swirl, sweeping the ground in great arches of movement, then hands catch the hems to lift them to reveal swaths of white petticoats covering their legs right down to the ankles.
The melodies overlap and transform in the yard, where the light of oil lamps dance in the night. The musicians take turns reheating their drums when they start to soften again. It is out of the question to interrupt the rhythm, or to let the atmosphere descend. Tasia doesn’t need to be asked twice for draughts of her famous kalou, concocted from a mix of lentil and corn mash set in a gunnysack to ferment, with a little sugar added from time to time. It’s even stronger than baka.
The hours disappear. The sky starts to pale above the sea. The men let the fire die into a quiet sizzle. One last dance, then it’s time to return, all together, to converge at one point, where they will join the next assembly preparing for tomorrow evening at Amelia’s, on the other side of the island.
“Alé nou alé, nou gété ki sannla inn fer pli zoli fet!”
In the middle of fits of laughter and teasing, the troupe strolls together to the beat of their drums. Yes, no self-respecting Saturday ends without a friendly squabble to determine where the most fun was had. Soon the sounds of other drums will reach them, accompanied by a stream of voices asserting victory.
Heavy eyelids squint against sun. The two groups squabble, each claiming superiority over the other. They review the details of their evening’s finest exploits, each insisting that their group pulverized the record of history’s most glorious ambiance-setting.
The only way to settle the debate is to organize one last, ultimate dance, right then and there, with the sun as final judge. Surrounded by shouts and applause the final showdown begins. The adversary-drummers measure each other up, provoke, combat, heckle, retort, then rhythmically unite in a last conflagration that sends the dancers into a frenetic whirl, until finally throwing them into the sand, breathless, straining with laughter.
Little by little, they collect themselves from the ground and go their separate ways, each to his own hut. They have just enough time to change their clothes and rush to mass in the little church, where the administrator officiates at the pulpit, between brief visits from priests en route to more sophisticated ceremonies and places.
Charlesia hastily splashes water on her face. The children had all returned home yesterday night, as they began to feel sleepy, and now they were beginning to wake. But what is Serge doing? He certainly knows that he needs to get to the spigot before the children, or else they’ll never be ready in time.
“Serge, kot to été?”
Charlesia calls out to him once, twice, and gets no response. He must be in the deep sleep that so often comes over him after the séga.
Charlesia enters the hut. Hunched over the edge of the bed, his face flushed, Serge contorts in pain, gripping his right side.
To introduce The Silence of Chagos to readers is to introduce a complex political landscape in which whole populations become pawns, and whole islands become subject to seizure in the name of military prowess. The Chagos islands are an archipelago, a series of four larger and smaller curling islands which consist of a total land sum of 21.7 square miles some 1,200 miles South of the coast of India, and—until the years cited above—was home to the Chagossians. The Silence of Chagos is Shenaz Patel’s polyphonic fiction of reportage, inspired by a series of interviews she conducted with the people of Chagos she encountered as a journalist. Shenaz works to un-silence the Chagossian story, weaving together the voices of the people subject to forced exile between 1967 and 1973 from their native Chagos islands, an exile unceremoniously enacted by the British government, which resulted in the essential ‘sale’ of the islands to the US for the development of a strategic military base, currently active.
I first met Shenaz Patel at the International Writers Program in 2015. She stood among a room full of writers and students, and introduced us to the project of her work. Her voice was full of an urgency that I would soon discover also flooded and propelled her text, Le silence des Chagos. It is more than a novel, it pours light into a dark shadow of our collective recent history: the forced exile of an entire population from their native island to squalid shanties in Mauritius, where they and their children remain as the political world tries to do what is most convenient– forget. I hesitate here to categorize it as a novel of fiction, or documentary account, since throughout our conversations about writing, Shenaz actively resisted categorizing—labeling and thus limiting or restricting—what she harnesses in words.
Patricia Hartland graduated from Hampshire College with a BA in Comparative Literature and Poetry, and is currently a candidate for the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. She translates from French with a special interest in Caribbean and creole literatures. Her translations are forthcoming with Two Lines and have appeared in Asymptote, Circumference Magazine, Ezra and Metamorphoses.
Shenaz Patel was born and lives in Mauritius. Journalist and writer, she has published four novels, numerous short stories in French and Mauritian Creole, four children’s books, two plays and two graphic novels.
She likes to define herself as an explorer. “Try to approach our secret humanity, dig deeper into things and people’s lives, with the broken but stubborn nails of words” : this is what she pursues through her writings. Attached as much to the inferiority of the individual as to the way they relate to a particular social organisation. Nurturing the voluntary utopia that writing could change the world…
My people offer themselves as a gift.
They will devour him
who moves toward the army.
We are different.
Wulf is one island, I am the other.
The island is secure & surrounded by fen.
Bloodthirsty, the men on that island.
They will devour
if he comes toward this band of men.
We are different.
I think of Wulf’s long departures—
when it was dark skies & I sat sobbing—
when the battle-bold arms embraced me—
that which brought me joy also brought misery.
Wulf, my Wulf! The thought of you
between seldom comings has made me sick.
An anxious mind never goes hungry.
Listen now, Ead: the cowardly cub of “us”
lured this wolf from its woods:
A thing easily falls to threads
that never was entwined—
the tale of us together.
the thought of you
the cowardly cub
the woods will devour
what never was tied
I think of Ead—
the bloodthirsty island
that joy brings
Wulf! the dark skies
when the battle
joy / pain
Wulf, the cub
WULF AND EAD
as if one offers herself
We are different—
when the arms
I think of wandering
visits of joy
Listen now, : o ur wretched c ub
Your fearful heart
drives a wolf from the woods
I am surrounded
when the battle
that whi ch
brought me joy.
was whi ch
The wolf returns
that brought me
the battle of lāð
and seldom comings
mīn renig weder
WULF OND EADWACER
Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīc is ūs.
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Fæst is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum, wēnum hogode,
þonne hit wæs rēnig weder ond ic rēotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
Wulf, mīn Wulf! wēna mē þīne
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.
Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer? Uncerne eargne hwelp
bireð wulf tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
We know the Old English poem “Wulf ond Eadwacer” due only to its survival in the Exeter Codex, the largest existing anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which dates back to the 10th century. Since no original manuscript for the poem exists, the date of its composition, its provenance, and the identity of its composer are all unknown.
Even within the poem itself, ambiguities abound: the identity of the speaker is unknown, while the relationship of the speaker to both Eadwacer and Wulf, the poem’s setting, and its narrative content are all subject to conflicting interpretations. Most scholars think that the poem describes a love triangle in which the unnamed speaker (who is represented as “&” in my translation) is separated from her lover, Wulf, by threat of violence from Eadwacer, who is commonly viewed as either her husband and/or captor. It is also ambiguous if the ‘cub’ to which the speaker refers is her and Wulf’s lovechild or her and Eadwacer’s legitimate son. However, the poem has also been interpreted as a riddle, a ballad, a wen charm, an elegy, and a beast fable. As Peter S. Baker notes in “The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer,” half of the poem’s nineteen lines “pose lexical, syntactical, or interpretive problems.”
But the challenge of interpreting the poem is only part of what makes “Wulf ond Eadwacer” an anomaly. The poem is also formally radical, both for its departures from Anglo-Saxon prosody, and for its inclusion of elements like repetition, and refrain, which were uncommon in Old English poetry. For this, and other reasons, some scholars even believe that this compellingly mysterious lyric poem might itself be a translation from the Old Norse.
As the act of translation cannot be divorced from interpretation, the mysteries of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” would seem to begird the translator, to restrict the strategies and outcomes available to her. Indeed, it seems sensible to decide what a thing is and what kind of effect it should have on the reader before translating it. But the reader should not have to pay for the translator’s convenience, and perhaps the least faithful translation of this enigmatic, polyvalent anomaly of an Old English poem that might have been born Scandinavian in the first place would be to present it in the absence of its complexity, to pin the poem down to a definitive interpretation, to lock it into a linear narrative that it never loved.
The poems at hand are part of a translation that aims to release the poem back into its radical complexity—to restore the lacunae, the indeterminacy, and the strangeness that make the Anglo Saxon version so haunting. Code-switching between the original Anglo-Saxon and Modern English, Wulf & Eadwacer embraces this proto-feminist, disjunctive voice so that its enigmatic plurality can fully be explored for the first time.
 Baker, Peter S. “The ambiguity of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No. 5, Texts and Studies, 1981. “Eight Anglo-Saxon Studies.” University of North Carolina Press.
M.L. Martin is a prize-winning poet and translator whose experimental translations of Old English can be found in Waxwing and The Literary Review. Her poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Fiddlehead, The Massachusetts Review, PRISM international, and many other Canadian and American literary journals. She is the recipient of the Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellowship, the Bread Loaf Translators’ Fellowship, and the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. She currently lives in Tulsa, where she is a 2018 Literary Arts Fellow with Tulsa Artist Fellowship.
People always said heat waves weren’t what they used to be. Every morning the humidity crawled in from the swampy gardens, seeping through the mosquito nets and into the mattress. The bedroom’s discomfort would ignite and he’d have to put it out with the hose from the house next door. Just before waking, his dreams would turn vivid and continue whatever had happened the night before. This-guy—symptom, loner, trudger—thinks mornings are strange, out of place.
As he descends the stairs, he’s met with the occupations his father used to threaten him with, like a line-up of ghosts: this-beggar reading tarot cards on a bench in the square; this-numbskull selling water bottles on the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand; this-busybody reading a book, sprawled out on the sidewalk, covered with that blanket that this-guy, this animal, stepped on yesterday as he made his way home from work on East 11th; this-guy falling, feeling the city’s pavement under his back; dirty streets scorching in the sun.
The concrete boils. He sees it in the celestial wakes that rise up from the asphalt and the smell emanating from the pee-puddles trailed by the garbage trucks as they cut across the city with their sculptural workers on board. The sidewalks are vaguely sticky. The block-dwellers now occupy their front steps. Some have brought out chairs and fan themselves with the pages of half-read newspapers. Others water the plants to refresh them, and even the moss that reaches like a jungle up through the fence and the red brick walls. He closes the gate behind him, a heavy backpack slung over his shoulder. He seems to be hearing his father’s recriminations, his practical voice. This-guy—dog, gringo, milksop—can’t bear it.
The street is silent for a moment before the cicadas chime in again; they’ve been complaining for months now. The interjected rip-rip sound of the broom was only an interlude: a bus, the beeps of construction trucks in reverse as they drill into wet ears and houses with renovated façades and wealthier inhabitants. Meanwhile, the shouts of people seeking shade beneath the elms, bare feet, shorts clinging to ass-cracks, pants hanging from hips, sleeveless t’s, muscled chests abandoning their shirts atop their bicycle seats, clothes translucent with sweat, thick braided hair gathered as far away from their bodies as possible, which cook in the sun. No one is spared.
This-guy—demented, transcendental—opens the car door and slams into the dense smell of old things. He is forced to lower the windows and confirm, circling the car, that nothing has come loose during the night. Not a single piece, right, Dad? The once-gleaming leather seats, now looking more like armadillo scales, start to air out. And as soon as he can bear touching his bare legs to the grayish surface, he starts the ignition, hiding his face. Shame sweeps through him a little. Maybe no one would notice, huh, Dad? The smell of gasoline fills the car. He grunts. Almost a miracle that the car starts at all, said the mechanic who’d fixed the dent just after he bought the car directly from its twenty-sixth owner, the one who offered to repair the mark, mend the o around the inverted y decorating the chassis, remove the brown stickiness slicked across it, replace the lost tire, the missing wood panels, paint over the scratches keyed onto it (who knows where or in what neighborhood) by some passer-by who’d glanced at the ’79 Mercedes and seen a millionaire to be despised. Who’d seen a proud family man, a father like his own, with children and purchases filling the trunk where this-guy, reneging on his father’s designs, now keeps a blanket and an orange traffic cone in case he gets stuck somewhere. This mirror, this metal. What had happened with the car had also happened with the father: reneging on the son’s designs, he had departed forever in a car like this car, perhaps the very same. Both car and father, then, had left him with a vague memory of a snazzy suburb in a city booming with the automotive industry. Just watch out. Tomorrow it might be you.
He focuses on the maneuver. It takes half an hour just to move it to the other side of the road. He doesn’t look at anyone, although he notes their presence on the stoops and sidewalks. A blue tide surges from the hot exhaust pipe and it makes children cough, old men curse, and youths cover their mouths in the attic of the house next door. This-guy—violent, crease-browed—pretends he doesn’t hear them; he’s dedicating his own internal insults to the father he barely knew. Right?
It’s going to explode. Outside the car’s grimy windows, he confirms, the world looks even hazier and more toxic. Doan yu theenk? He struggled to fix his eyes on the origin of the hoarse, forced voice. A body seated on the stoop of the house next door. One of its eyes obscured by hair, the other half-closed and streaked with makeup melted in the heat. I don’t think so. The colors reappear along the road. The woman sitting on the stoop, the notebook-neighbor, wipes the sweat from her hand on the piece of pant-leg hanging from her thigh and tucks her piled-up books under her arm when she gets to her feet and climbs the stairs. Her fingers are stained with ink. Have you taken it to the shop?Cars aren’t supposed to give off blue smoke, she coughs. Who, beneath this heavy sun, could possibly know more about cars than this-guy—foppish, pinched. His father, perhaps.
At a table in the library, he rereads a novel about an urban project that transforms a dilapidated industrial city into a model city occupied by artists. According to the narrator’s plan, each artist would be assigned a bedroom and studio in the old buildings, refurbished with a rich state’s cash, as befitting their experience and résumé. Artists would come to this model city wearing only the clothes on their backs and would be provided with everything else, and likewise would be obliged to construct everything else. In their role, which would fall somewhere between creation and unemployment, the artists would receive paltry salaries until they managed to establish themselves. He’s flooded with laughter as he reads. A real man is a working man, right, Dad? He makes a note on his computer: after the successive failures of automotive industry, the US can be interpreted as model of failed hyper-industrialization, with an income equality typical of poor countries. A country that belongs to two worlds, both colonial and imperial. Does the novel suggest that there’s something respectable about being unemployed? He stops typing at the memory of a termination letter, an empty job, a suburban garage with no car in it.
When he gets home, various neighbors are chatting from their front porches, calling over their gates. Asked about his writing, this-guy offers a vague answer, determined to obscure his doubts as to whether two years of solitary interpretative work on Detroit’s automotive industry could make any sense to anyone other than himself. They inform him that the neighbor is also writing her doctoral dissertation. Then, gesturing across the street, they mention that the couple who recently moved into #1454 are writers, too, and swimming in money. They look at the dark façade, suddenly more ornate under the construction tarps than anyone had ever seen. The neighborhood is, then, the model city. Isn’t it? Its small quarters and floor-divisions serve only to lodge the pencil-artists who need nothing more than a desk and a window. This-guy—corrosive, vegetal—gives a final glance at the moving van before saying goodbye and going in.
He peers attentively into the screen. Perhaps the true protagonists of Lelouch’s 1966 film Un homme et une femme are not in fact the characters played by Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant, but rather the car, its speed, the rain. They’re damaged souls. A Formula 1 driver races along French highways and into the arms of the woman he’s been romancing. Both are recently widowed. Her husband had worked as a stunt double and was killed filming a car sequence; his wife, increasingly distressed every time he took the wheel, had committed suicide. Condemned to repeat their trauma, much of the film involves the racecar driver traversing the distance and a harsh atmosphere evolving between him and his new love. Death inhabits the past; death approaches with its foot on the gas. The racecar driver, however, reaches his destination in his supercar—the latest model Alfa Romeo—that will plunge off a cliff at the toss of a stone.
At night, this lost soul, this animal in heat, dreams he is carrying on a conversation with his neighbor in which she argues that writing a dissertation could become a method of automatic writing, as practiced by the surrealists and other artists obsessed with the subconscious, if it could access the part of the subconscious that retains empty forms over and over again. In the dream, the neighbor explains her theory by sketching a brain with blue pen. This-guy feels the pressure against his temples. Instead of unleashing the imagination, her hoarse voice continues, you enter a place full of lugares comunes. The drawing is now a turban heaped with flowers, pineapples, other fruits, the one Carmen Miranda wore in the movie about Rio de Janeiro, or about Havana, or about anyplace with dark skin, red lips, a flat belly, and a Latin accent, like the neighbor’s. The dream features young women who have been trained to say, in English, Americans always say my hat is high.
He wakes with a headache. When he sees the neighbor eating a banana, this-guy—small, drowsy with heat and insomnia—thinks of her strong accent. In Detroit it was cars; in Brazil, bananas and women. Don’t you think something interesting could be written about this? Gud moarning. That evening, she would write a chapter about the guy who would speak to her in a distant dream. Carmen Miranda was catapulted to fame in a dress characteristic of northern Brazil. Her physique was convenient: fair skin, almond-shaped eyes, perfect smile; the perfect banana da terra. The lady with the tutti frutti hat. Despite her millions, Carmen Miranda tried to escape the stereotype. But, as usual, the pact wasn’t quite so easily broken. World War Two suppressed the national appetite for exoticism, replacing this business with the white-skinned arms trade.
He pauses beside the window of the rattletrap. This-guy—docile, eternal son—keeps his eyes on the ground. The battered bumper. The yellow paint like a wayside shrine from another era. The blue blankets disheveled in the trunk, expelling a smell of forest and pasture. This shit’s gonna explode. The hot coffee searing his tongue, but not as hot as his neighbor’s attic, where she swims in books and movies. Earbuds always in her ears. A little notebook where she writes things down.
The conversation gets off to a vague start. This-guy—very quiet in the corner—fucking hates cars. He’s going to put this personal anecdote in the first pages of the introduction. He was born the same year Saddam Hussein received the keys to the city of Detroit. His father worked in one of the offices on the outskirts. He earned good money until he fell prey to a mass layoff. The house in the suburbs started to come apart at the seams with a despondent father inside it. Don’t you believe me? His voice is a thin thread. This-guy barely remembers him except for the ’79 car he bought in hopes of it being the one that once belonged to his father, repairing it in hopes of repairing his memory of his father. This-guy—stereotypical, automatic—would write the best academic article.
The fountain-pen-resting-on-the-marble-table-neighbor, the coffee-cup-neighbor, tells him she’s writing about people who travel by plane. One woman, pen in hand, took a flight to keep from disappearing like the people in her novels. A few years before, she’d shattered a champagne glass in her hands after feeling humiliated by an award she hadn’t received: it had been promised to her; it was, as they say, cooking. But she was never much of a cook, you know? Then she’d fired a gun she always carried around in one of her patent leather purses, a gun with a crystal handle that she fixed on an old boyfriend she hadn’t seen in a decade. She came to Nu Yoark in 1944, this Bombal woman. She changed her hairstyle and avoided looking at herself in the mirror because it called her Luisa and it called her María. She only allowed people to take photos of her in places where she’d already located a small glass within her field of vision; it contained, according to her, a small dram of her health. She picked up a pen and got married. What else could she do with that exquisite education and the absent mother she bore like a transparent, ghostly body? Maybe in California, or here in New York, her pen could set the limits she’d so struggled to describe, constantly repeating the word Luisa, the word María from afar. She could even marry a count who would give her a noble daughter; she could even write a screenplay that the count would sell. But in the end she just went back to Chile, without a pen and with various broken glasses.
This-guy—scrawny, foul-smelling—and the coffee-cup-carrying-neighbor now make their way toward the art gallery. As a teenager, this-guy, this piece of garbage, spent lots of time with his friends in abandoned suburban houses, spray-painting and sometimes destroying them with machetes and fists, music and beer. His drawings always depicted car parts, just like the Peruvian artist who had part of a car in half his studio. When this-guy tells the coffee-cup-neighbor and the car-parts-artist that he writes about the automotive industry and unions in Detroit, the paintings-man tells him that his agent had bought an entire neighborhood there. To found an artist’s residency. Every house cost him a dollar and he pays the property tax in artworks.
This-guy—singular, enchained—walks around the gallery, observing the pieces on the shelves. It’s as if he were looking through his father’s eyes. This-guy zipping up his pants in the bathroom, brushing a hand across his face in the mirror, brown socks. Taking out the trash, a line of black garbage bags accumulating on the sidewalk in front of identical houses painted different colors. Doing the numbers with a five-dollar calculator, his fingers laced in his black curls, sweaty and slick. Sitting on the subway with half a cheek turned outward, about to get up at any moment. Dialing an always-busy phone number and eventually leaving a hesitant message. Later, scraping shit from a shoe, wondering what the fuck he’s doing at 11 p.m. when the neighbors greet him with a shoe covered in shit. Spying on the neighbor on the stairs of the house next door from his own window, imagining her: the neighbor squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush, the neighbor walking down the street, the neighbor stopping in front of a stained glass window, sitting down after pulling out several boxes of books. This-guy drinking coffee in the middle of summer, reading on the subway, in the house of the neighbor who has no family in this country. And this-guy, who does he think he is?
At nearly a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the metal seems alive. And so this good-for-nothing leaves it stranded in the middle of the road again. The rolled-down windows and uttered insults make him lower his eyes. His white muscles try to move it a few centimeters toward the sidewalk. Isn’t that better, Dad? The men who linger in the street every day, the men this popinjay doesn’t so much as wave at, stare at him from a distance without altering their day’s affairs, their impalpable commerce. The strength of such arms would move this car like a feather. Library body, he hears like a whisper. It was bound to happen. The tow truck guy sits for several minutes in the driver’s seat, texting, despite the horns blasting on both sides of Dean Street. This-guy—chicken-skin—is getting anxious, tormented by the pages he’s stopped writing. Maybe it’s time to sell it. The sentence hits him with a drop of acrid sweat. The hoarse voice reads his mind. The neighbor appears with her short-shorts, skinny legs, belly bared, damp shirt, bag on her shoulder, an expression somewhere between irony and concern. It was bound to happen.
They watch the operation in silence. In Chile, we could get in with him or go in your car. They stop a green cab. This-guy opens the door for her and immediately regrets it a little, is a little ashamed of such chivalry. Don’t you think? The neighbor watches him count his bills and warily chews her gum. Her gaze shifts as she maybe wonders why she offered to come along and whether she can still get out before things get weird. This-guy—foggy, firm—tells her he can’t sell it, no one would buy it anymore. It was never expensive, he clarifies at the jobless neighbor’s incredulous look. Typical. Look at this-guy. In Detroit, buying a German car was read as an act of defiance. This model has electric windows, a sliding roof, air-conditioning, interlayered windshields, a collapsible steering column, central locking, an electric mirror on the driver’s side, automatic transmission.
This-guy—who doesn’t take his eyes from the driver in front of him—talks incessantly the entire way, unsure whether the sweaty-skinned neighbor is listening. The inverted-y turbo diesel model appeared in 1979, a novelty for this kind of family car. Its six-cylinder 0M167 engine has a 125-horsepower capacity, like this one, exceeding 320 kilometers per hour on test drives. The model, which can accommodate a stroller, was designed for suburban life and fantasies of far-off travel. At 179 centimeters wide and 149 centimeters high, it leaves a lot of space for its seven possible passengers. The roof rack measures a little over one square meter. The body is steel and the fuel tank is located above the rear axle. Its design ensures the very highest safety standards, right, Dad? It absorbs shocks and enables maximum visibility in all directions. It saves the lives of young bourgeois families, offering a soft-close mechanism with child-proofable pin locks on the doors and panoramic windows. The broad bumpers, embellished with elastic material and wide rubber edges, complete the design. The glory of days past. So what was your father like?
The heat falls onto them and sears their skin. The notebook-neighbor shields herself with a copy of El Especialito that she’d pulled from the newspaper dispenser on the corner. Looking out onto the street, she lets the flitting heat-stunned bugs alight on her arms. Even smashing them would be too much work. This-guy—he who seeks the remnants of his manliness—thinks as he closes his wallet that he should probably shoo them away, shouldn’t he, Dad? What are the chances of a man forever shattered by a father’s absence? This-guy thinks of Roberta, who was traveling around Denmark the last time they spoke. I didn’t know we’d come all the way to Jersey City. The neighbor’s forced, almost sleepy voice seeps out of the old radio that was the humidity itself. This is Kennedy Boulevard. This transplanted underdevelopment that our families flaunt. Conspicuous, incongruous. This-guy—dazed—moves his jaw from side to side as he always does when he doesn’t know what to say. They walk from the bus to the ferry and lick red and blue popsicles, like the flags of France, Texas, and Chile, with the little choo-choo-train chugging along in the poetry of Lourdes Casal, transformed into una revolucionaria on Kennedy Boulevard. Since she was a distinguished diplomat and intellectual, no one dared to say lesbian. Ensconced at home or at the office, some swore on their loved ones’ graves that they’d met the boyfriend who’d broken her heart and left her this way: sort of masculine, devoted to the life of the mind. She came here as a Cuban, a rosary around her neck. She came here black. The Yuneited Esteits, the need to become a revolution. I carry this marginality, immune to all turning back.
At the entrance to the public library, this-guy—he of the millenary void—has lost all desire to write. He sits and promptly falls asleep. When he opens his eyes, the keyboard has marked its squares into his cheek, so crisply inserted that it hurts to pull away. Through the window he sees Kowalski’s tight pants, the ones he’s been dreaming of these past few nights. The small body is surrounded by snow, getting into a white car, and this-guy, who knows nothing, realizes it’s November. According to the photos he’s pulled from various abandoned boxes, his father looked nothing like Barry Newman. His father looked taller, and only in one photograph was he wearing such tight pants. Vanishing Point came to theaters in 1971. His father must have been in Los Angeles, bound for Detroit, or maybe even in Mexico City. It meant something, didn’t it, Dad, that the film was showing in theaters while his own slender body and prominent nose were getting into a car and driving around the US, as he’d previously done in who knows what border town of a country divided in the ’90s. It must have seemed like quite an adventure, right? Watching TV and staring at the screens of wherever you were from.
On a beat-up VHS, this-guy—invertebrate, practically Iberian—watches the movie again. Kowalski’s trip from Colorado to California in record time, sleepless and hyped up on speed, is intercut with various flashbacks informing us that he is a Vietnam veteran, an ex-cop discharged for reporting his partner’s perpetration of sexual abuse, an ex-motorcycle racer, an ex-Formula 1 driver no one remembers, and the lover of an ethereal woman who is no longer there. The melancholy, ethical, suicidal masculinity of Kowalski, who has no first name, never sleeps. The women are all one woman or they’re the sweet sun on the horizon, the fantasy of death. The lonely man in the desert. With his car. On fire.
In the first scene of Vanishing Point, the white Dodge Challenger—Challenger could easily be the character’s first name, come to think of it; the father’s—hurtles down the highway at top speed, such that man and car simultaneously embody Renaissance and Futurist ideals. The final scene repeats this to the death. The consciousness of an evaporating country.
The final collision could also be interpreted as the purest, simplest form of propaganda. During the years prior to the film’s premiere, numerous complaints were filed regarding faulty car-manufacturing at the Ford and General Motors plants in Detroit, including the most popular and exclusive models. Sales dropped by 93%. The fact that an expert driver like Kowalski crashes of his own volition into earthly bulldozers shifts blame from the industry, engulfed by confrontations with unions and popular movements, to the client—creating, in the process, the fantasy of heroism that outlives anyone who dies at the wheel.
I’d check the crash reports if I were you. When this-guy tells the whole story to the neighbor, who is buying a cup of coffee at the corner deli, she tells him that the screenplay was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. There can’t be too many cars like that one. Can there? This-guy, who doesn’t know exactly who that is, mumbles something about the screenplay. The neighbor, not taking this-guy—strapped, fetishistic, calculating—very seriously, smiling slightly on the third floor of a house with a mattress on the ground, hands him a copy of Tres Tristes Tigres and tells him that the screenplay is archived at a nearby university.
And what you write is suddenly real. The ink-stain-on-the-face-neighbor closes her fingerless gloves around a steaming cup of coffee and glances up, sheathed in a black wool hat, to the thirty-fourth floor. The thing is that writing can never be automatic enough, because the writer always has to come back, pick up the pen, get hold of a body to print things onto. She looks at him steadily. So I can’t have been the one who said that in your dream. Pero qué sucede if you don’t have a body when you come back, she said to the guy who was a family man in last night’s dream.
The full-bag-of-books-neighbor is standing on Mercer St. before her writing day at the library. Ana Mendieta left her country in a fish tank. She was put there when she was twelve years old. From the other side, she saw her father, the one who kept the guns, the one who went to jail, saying goodbye to her. She kissed the Miami ground when she got off the plane, as she’d seen a priest do before 1959. She turned from a messiah into a child in a refugee camp, a house in Iowa, an orphanage. From family to family, her strong Cuban accent was perceived as a mark of inferiority. She used her body as a transformative entity; so, too, the language she shared with her mother and her mama. Her body left landmarks in galleries, in pits she dug in fields, in museums in Britain, Rome, Berlin. On city streets, in the voices of New York, in photographs, in tracts of land outside Havana, was a silhouette of Ana Mendieta’s body. A silhouette was left when she fell from the thirty-fourth floor, naked, as in her performances. ¿Un cuerpo que escribe su futuro?There’s always an open plaque on the floor.
The back-pain-neighbor sneezes and covers the viscous liquid that jumps from her nose. She stays in position, tissue at her face, as if counting the seconds it took Mendieta to hit the ground. Lo que debe haber sido. This-guy knows she’s murmuring in her most intimate language, the one she speaks deepest inside herself. It sounds to this-guy like a lament for who knows what. Walking, taking little sips from her coffee, the neighbor tells him that she’s looking for work. This-guy—he of the raised eyebrow—doesn’t understand what this has to do with the Cuban artist’s suicide. What happens in the model city isn’t a real job, right, Dad? Sometimes people who catch sight of him on the street think he does something feminine, like keep a diary. When they part ways, he sees it’s snowing and realizes he never asked her where the jobs she’s looking for are found.
The street is lit by burgeonings of snow. It falls from the trees; it falls from the rooftops; it falls, like this-guy’s gaze on the third floor. The notebook-neighbor now has a suitcase she takes out for a walk several times that month. He doesn’t see her for days. The frigid mattress, the solitary nights—they intersect with the stripped tree branches tossed by wind like a falling, falling angel. At night, looking out the window from the corner of his eye, his drowsy eye, this-guy—mute, blank—confuses the snow with people walking down the middle of the road. Bodies are unrecognizable under coats, parkas, hats, boots, gloves, balaclavas. The snow illuminates the street; there are shadows where there didn’t used to be. Less light. They file along after the last big snowfall as if on a movie set, orderly, one a night, while this-guy shovels snow around three in the morning without a single light on. One night he sees a big man with a child in his arms. They’re wearing the same garments; they’re the same person on different planes. The next night he sees two people walking side by side, a man and a woman. Every so often the woman slips, moving awkwardly in a way he recognizes at once. Roberta. Holding the hand of another man whose face he doesn’t see. He doesn’t stop, just tells her it’s unwise to walk across the layer of snow that sifts between them. When he wakes, he sees that the storm has passed and the snow has heaped up on cars, in the streets. The night allows him to make out a single silhouette, a slight body dragging along a suitcase. He of the shovel-in-hand hurries to help, but he hears a car engine behind him, a shuddering accelerator. When he turns around, this-guy, blinded by the light, wakes up.
“Cars on Fire” is told, careeningly, from the third-person perspective of an unnamed English-speaking, US-American male narrator (referred to only as “this-guy”). This-guy lives in New York and has three primary obsessions: 1) Detroit, the city of his birth, the subject of a novel-in progress, and the place where his father abandoned his family; 2) his ’79 Mercedes, which is the same model of the car his father abandoned him in; and 3) his neighbor, an unnamed, Spanish-speaking, Chilean female Ph.D. student, with whom this-guy shares scattered conversations and interactions throughout the story and the several seasons of the calendar year it covers—and whom he otherwise spies on and pines for in the aftermath of an uncertain separation from his girlfriend. Even before translation, the story is essentially and profoundly bilingual: Mónica Ríos chronicles, in Spanish, the perspective of her monolingual English-speaking narrator, who observes and overhears his neighbor go about her daily life in a language he cannot understand—and who becomes, obliquely and provocatively, a co-narrator of the story itself. My primary challenge as a translator was the question of how to recreate this refracted bilingualism in the other direction. In Spanish, Ríos scatters the text with English-language words and phrases, and she has occasionally used Oulipian techniques to sow her rich, erratic, sometimes marvelously spiky syntax with unexpected adjectival combinations and descriptions that can border on surreal. In these ways, among others, Ríos transforms a structurally simple narrative—a love story, ultimately, that progresses through the seasons of a year in New York City—into a set of vertiginous, kaleidoscopic ruminations on language, culture, relationships, intimacy, loneliness, and loss. The version of the text published in Anomaly is a long excerpt from the full ~7000-word story.
Robin Myers was born in New York and is based in Mexico City. She is the author of several collections of poetry published as bilingual editions in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. Her translations have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Asymptote, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Waxwing, Inventory, and elsewhere. In 2009, she was a fellow of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA); in 2014, she was a resident translator at the Banff Literary Translation Centre (BILTC). Her translation of Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s book La lírica está muerta / The Lyric is Dead is forthcoming from Cardboard House Press in 2018.
Mónica Ramón Ríos is a writer, scholar, and editor. She is the author of the novels Segundos and Alias el Rocío/Alias el Rucio, as well as the short story collection La paciente (forthcoming). She has published the essays “La escritura del presente,” about scripts by writers, and “Cine de mujeres en postdictadura.” She also contributes to La Tempestad (Mexico) and Buensalvaje (Spain). She has been a member of the publishing collective Sangría Editora since 2008. In 2017 she created the feminist literary gathering AFest. She teaches at Fordham University.
what begins in a thigh. bending the knees appears as prelude to elevation. what begins in a thigh. “Nobody has ever mentored me, not even when I was a child!” (George Enescu)
beat(ing), positive or pejorative: in a wind’s blow, I’ll beat you to death, batt(u)allia, blowing up the lake to stir the fish, a time when mountain cocks flap their wings to mate, tapping the ground with your foot then jump etc
all possibilities came down to one: the inevitable. look at the hen tapping. hold it, hen, I’ll cut you: crescendo, tremolo, martellato, flageolet, pianissimo.
“as early as in 1669, Raoul Feuillet came up with the first choreographic notation. he proposes a basic notation of steps, the gait direction and the figure sequence. there are no indications regarding the movement of the arms or of the upper parts of the body.” (Dancing in the 20th Century, Isabelle Ginot, Marcelle Michel)
[Aurora sees the old woman’s knitting needles tapping a 2/4 measure. it gradually turns into a charming waltz in 3/4. break. a cry in pain. Aurora is bleeding. eight 4/4 measures, very wide. Aurora starts to dance and gets dizzy. people are amazed. Aurora twirls as if bit by a tarantula, then suddenly collapses.]
[and nothing could have come out of their cry. a coral reef formed around her neck, jewels, so precious any other necklace would be imitating its art. when she opened the mouth her teeth were blunt, like a sea mammal’s. only swans carry such defense camouflage.]
[swans – broccoli. in and out of water. neck under, they are like a silky bouquet. broccoli. who would touch a submerged swan.]
[she pulls the leash; the animal gets out. it wags its tail at her feet, moves around the fallen skin. devilish skin, a sea devil. she takes it in her arms. her body smell wakes the animal. the beast begins to wash her, unnervingly. she lays it down and heads to the horse. the horse’s huge head, eyelids half-closed. the smell is there. millimeter by millimeter, an eyelid opens. the horse chews the skin, then desires to be lifted. man positions himself under the animal and lifts it. they prance synchronously, then let the skins drop.]
[let’s turn our attention from legs to arms. (…) the art of gestures is crammed in between margins too narrow, for great effects. (…) what is lost at the level of legs will be found at the level of arms. (…) the body is no longer a way for the soul to escape; on the contrary, it gathers around it.]
“I wish I could fly, to see with my own eyes things hidden underground!” (George Enescu)
what helps you be in flight fly? air: a mixture of gases that form the lower layers of atmosphere, indispensable to aerobe organisms. under ground, memory contains every gesture.
for now, we limit ourselves to events on earth:
“We bind sheaves on fields,
with sweet wine in a jug
Tra la la la la la la la la la la la la la” (Romanian Rapsody no. 1, lyrics by Georgeta Moraru, music after George Enescu)
in an atmosphere of calm and normalcy, no horse touches ground, dead leaves are pulled out of their hooves daily. wherever they go, the grass they collect fills the stable. their muscles firm more and more every day and, if you touch them, you feel the warmth of a body in motion.
when they’re groomed, a rope is tied around both sides of their bodies. when they want to laugh, they raise their back hooves and keep them up in the air. you need to quickly sit them down and caress them. you ask something, they thump out a tune with their front hooves, until you stop talking. our heads touch in this silence. they lightly ruminate through my hair, the air they breathe out smells of hay. nothing is similar in getting close to them and other animals. what happens in the space where the huge muzzles breathe has no cognitive memory. thus, Green Beam is about to foal. she fell in love with a Hungarian horse. as a sign of appreciation, they put a Romanian flag in his stable.
it’s not an unnatural posture – the tips of the legs facing outside, in a rotating forward motion, that begins in the thigh, engaging the entire leg. with every song coming from the speakers, the horses keep the music going. they dream of treating it as a material, like lights, cinematic projection or dance.
“like the algae on the bottom of the aquarium, lunatics move in front of the world’s sad people, who notice them full of remorse.” (Bernard Castelli)
welcome to a storage space of gestures. they are collected from living bodies. one lies down, another jumps, a third twirls, then ideas start coming.
“at some point the author stops, angrily pounds the table and shouts at the singer: ʽc’est faux!’ ʽit’s out of tune!’”
the player retorts: ʽit’s not out of tune in the least bit.’
ʽisn’t it? I can see la here and you are playing sol!’
ʽit’s the same!’
ʽwhat do you mean?’
ʽit’s your chord that’s out of tune, it sounds dissonant! it contains both sol and la. it means I can choose. I prefer sol.’
ʽand yet, it’s la! the author insists hopelessly.
they left it at sol! and they went on. (Alex. Cosmovici, George Enescu, His Music and His Family)
you come out of a wound slowly. if you think of it, without it.
you bend your knee and force your foot over the tip.
your identity fuses with your parts.
your identity fuses with the group.
you come out of a wound slowly.
the exit gives the body a voice.
“a quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange.” (Anne Carson, Decreation)
she creates the things she hears
who controls danger
stepping in your own text, sliding into your own subject, without any clear proof about what is factual and what is fictional. who acts upon S? the horse, for example, must be helped. the actor has not become his character. the actor must be hit by the horse to really cry. the domesticated horse must be shoed.
the room is changing: the more an object lies inside itself, the livelier its outside throbs. I’m not changing anything, a hole deepens on its own. details get mixed up and frequencies become unstable. what can we believe in?
(id)entity of rain: if the rain stays where it falls, it would form a layer of a certain height
“it is not advisable to repeat art forms. each work must have its internal origin, free from the formalism
of a conception that we thought (or really was) successful on another occasion.” (George Enescu)
it is not nice to quote from a body.
you have captured: a finger
the rule is: to startle the palm
with one glance
I hold my self in all the elements that make me.
today: in the museum yard, Red comes out to onlookers in his funeral garment. an army of flies dance
around his head. his muzzle is closed for ever, sealed by black ashes. Red, Red – the programmatic character of its symphonic suite.
even the passers-by watch him with no reaction. Red is the most beautiful colour, “those odd sounds in nature, the swish of leaves, the tumult of swirling waters after a brief storm, the birds’ chirp, the larks’ concerto – it carries our thoughts to the house in the forest of Tescani.” (Enescu Today by Viorel Cosma)
in the afternoon, the one dead is resurrected by the indifferent passers-by, who lie about never having had any dead of their own. Red is deathless. Red, carried in a wheelbarrow and buried by the priest-guard-stoker-museographer-artist-friend-of-all-positive-and-negative-dead-or-alive. „Voix de la nature is a substance of unmistakable mioritic essence, a poignant Romanian ethos.” (Enescu Today by Viorel Cosma)
you can’t see those passers-by anymore, with their heads bent and fallen shoulders, their dull color, their stained color. Red hits the piano keys, using a “whole arsenal of musical means, from heterophony to modal climate.” Posthumous in Red! Posthumous in Red!
Anca Roncea, poet and translator. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently attending the University of Iowa’s MFA program in Literary Translation. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Bucharest in Modern Greek and English followed up with an MA in American Cultural studies. In 2012-2013 she was a Fulbright visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She was born and raised in Romania and now lives in Iowa City where she writes and translates poems, working on an experimental translation of Tristan Tzara as well as her first book of poetry. She explores the space where language can create pivots in the midst of displacement while incorporating the aesthetics of Constantin Brancusi. Her work can be found in the Berkeley Poetry Review, Beecher’s Magazine, and the Des Moines Register.
Monica Manolachi is a poet, translator, editor and lecturer at the University of Bucharest. She is the author of three poetry collections, Joining the Dots (2016), Fragaria’s Stories to Magus Viridis (2012) and Roses (2007). In 2016, Antologie de poezie din Caraibe received the Dumitru Crăciun translation prize at the Titel Constantinescu International Festival of Creative Writing, Râmnicu Sărat. In 2017, her study entitled Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry was published by Ars Docendi, Bucharest. As a researcher and critic, she often delivers presentations at literary conferences in Romania and abroad.
The slow fish knocks
up the room
opening to the sky.
dwellnumerous ImpregnableGambrelsOccupation —
I saw myself going — not yet
of charge, of flame.
numerous Visitors — fairest — Occupation —
If I’d worn a better
number, washed my hands
of the judge’s robe.
Possibility — House numerous Superior — spreading To
I know you see me
& stay unaroused.
The day takes
a leak & I know you
see me empty of birds, absent
of any more days.
Lose something every
losing practice losing
meant travel disaster
losing have losing’s master
I did not wear thirst
in the end. I imagined
a river. No,
you laugh, look
& see—it is your misfortune.
closed myself fingers
In 2013, Pablo Neruda’s remains were dug up from his seaside grave in Chile. Scientists then asked his bones to tell the story of the day he died. Was it prostate cancer that killed him or had he been poisoned? This story fascinated me—that his bones, that all of our bones, carry hidden messages. This is when I began my own search for alternate voices within the very bones, the letters, of poems.
To create these experimental translations, I start by finding Spanish words living within poems written in English. For instance, a Spanish river (río) runs through the middle of “mysteriously” and the word “losing” contains the Spanish word for without (sin). I then select a constellation of these unintended Spanish words and translate them into English to compose new works. The three poems here arose from Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” by E.E. Cummings.
This process of re-creating poems continues to astound me with the images and sounds and connections that emerge. This sense of discovery and surprise fuels my obsession with locating alternate voices inhabiting well-known poems. At the same time, it feels incredibly important to me to show these two languages, English and Spanish, inhabiting the same page, coexisting within the same sentences, within the same words. I’ve lived in Arizona for the past decade, and this is my own small way of trying to unbuild the wall between us and our neighbors to the south.
There have been many influences along the way to arriving at these experimental translations, and here I’ll offer but two thank yous: to the editors of Found Poetry Review for their 2014 National Poetry Month challenge that introduced me to the text-altering techniques of Oulipo, and to Señor Ruiz, the Cuban exile who landed in a small town in New Jersey and taught Spanish at my high school. As for Neruda’s bones, the first round of scientists found no evidence of poison. Later scientists, however, found an unusual strain of bacteria they can’t account for. All of the stories collected in Neruda’s bones have not yet been told.
Kelly Nelson is a poet and anthropologist who teaches Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University. Her experimental translations have appeared in Structo, Interim, Forklift, Ohio, Best American Experimental Writing and elsewhere. She is the author of two chapbooks and teaches ekphrastic and found poetry classes at her local library. More at kelly-nelson.com.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an American poet whose first collection, North & South, was published when she was 35. She served as what we now call the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1949 to 1950 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956, four years after her mentor Marianne Moore won the same prize. Bishop’s life and work were written about recently in the New Yorker.
e.e. cummings (1894-1962) was an American poet whose first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, was published when he was 29. cummings’ poetry experimented with form, punctuation, syntax and spelling and he received many honors including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Ford Foundation grant and the Bollingen Prize. cummings also published plays and an autobiographical novel based on his experience as a captive during World War I.
and all I wanted was to see the ocean in malaga. I had the pilgrim’s notion that you could see africa from its shores. qué huevón. I’d been in madrid for two days and I was scared. scared of the thousands of eyes appraising me from above like some rare breed. if there weren’t so much fucking ecuatorianito here I think it’d be different. I might even pass for a piece of folk art. but no. in madrid it starts to get cold, te cagas, and here I am in this shitty suit jacket like a cultured thief. better put, like a chinese-suit jacketed thief. because in ecuador everything they sell to you as “american” or italian or french is chinese. even what you get in the shoppings, the worst really: do not wash in washing machine. do not expose to direct sunlight. do not iron at high temperatures. how the hell do you pay $150 for a suit jacket if the mere act of donning it causes damage. to the jacket and to you. and so on.
in madrid you feel like a strange bird. scratch that: like a brown piece of shit on the royal palace sidewalk. and the cold isn’t the “achachay” of quito. no. here it stitches your skin together with an enormous “s” of mountain sickness. but the cold passes. the elegance of these huevones is so unbearable that you understand how moctezuma must have felt confronted by cortez’s lead. the worst is that it all sticks to you and in two hours you’re already saying macho and joder and que te den por el culo. saying, fuck you up the ass, like it was nothing. but in madrid you’re still the chinese-suit jacketed weirdo like a dead rat on a street in caracas. there in el callejón de la puñalada. what’s perhaps surprising is that an andean latino who ought to be cleaning tables is dressed this way: a sort of neo-baroque dandy. a unique specimen who sits down to eat 20 euro pork shoulder and potatoes. the fucking potatoes that they would never have eaten if they hadn’t raped my great-grandmother. everything I think is, of course, subnormal: sub-developed sub-terranean sub-urban. but the words escape my throat and I say them to a chilean immigrant who also gives me a look as though I had offended her.
the thing is it’s muy jodido to live in madrid. my entire scene is the following: hostel basement in san mateo number 20 in front of the museum of romanticism. high heels of spanish women who talk too fast and pass by too fast in their silken pantyhose. well-mannered children who say: que se ha machao, madre, mother, it’s stained! la puta que les parió, fuck the cunt who begat them. and once again I feel like the underdeveloped sudaka who thinks himself somewhat cultured but has no one to talk to about literature or film or music or about anything. that’s why it’s been such blessed relief that they put spanish porn on TV at midnight. my first time making love to a spanish woman. it’s a saying. because to quote fogwill, “the love was already made.” in ecuador it’s all youporn with swiss poles russians and rumanians. all that mass of blonds that must have come out of a flea market but so long as the end purpose is served, who really cares.
my uncle lives here. he’s a migrant. he rents out this cold basement and sublets it to a chilean and an ecuadorian who show up about twice per week. migration is an underworld. ecuadorians here are like a plague. they’re useful as well. they do what everyone knows how to do, what the spaniards don’t want to do, or what they do in accordance to their level of poverty. the ecuadorian here suffers from a vital schizophrenia: mind divided, living off of nostalgia. but they’ve also become used to the comfortable way of life offered by this strange so-called first world. when they return to ecuador they feel out of place. they speak differently. dress differently. they even regard their roots with contempt. this is a rematch. the racism they suffer here they bring back to take out upon their own, redoubled. the ecuadorian identity crisis transforms the immigrant into a cultural monster.
my uncle is a guy who works in hospitality. waits tables and washes dishes at a seafood restaurant. people stand in endless lines to get into the place. this means I’ve been able to eat odd things like razor clams and barnacles and brown crab. I’ve also tried callos a la madrileña, beef tripe stew; what we call guatita in ecuador. but the best by far is the wine. everyone knows that. for a euro you can buy a harsh, sour wine that would cost ten dollars in ecuador. everyone knows that.
I’ll be here three days. even so I’ve managed to grasp some idea of this world. I’m far more interested in the lives of the characters known as immigrants. the spaniards are highly predictable. extremely conservative. they’re smart about exploiting the tourists though. but that’s another story. south americans in general are a richer phenomenon. their condition has turned them into something more complex. their own language has mutated in an extremely odd way. it’s laughable to listen to them saying tío, joder, macho, que te den por el culo alongside their own cultural idioms. the ecuadorian and the bolivian stand out in this jungle. they’re savage drinkers. the few resting places they have are dedicated to drinking beer: whichever’s strongest. they take refuge in their apartments with a steadfast conviction for self-destruction. fights are thus frequent. and jealously. the sexual explosion in their (our) countries is sinful. oh spain remove your sex from me.
I’m no immigrant. I don’t want to be an immigrant. I regard them with ire. but I find myself obliged to enjoy their delirium. there are those who want to return and those who don’t. the former retain a sense of self out of nostalgia. the latter have mutated. they have no idea what they are. or they do. they’re not going back. in that resignation lies their conversion into spaniards. the others will never manage to adapt. they work themselves to the bone to send back money and forever think of ecuador as the promised land. for them it’s a struggle, a lucha. work is a sacrifice. those who gave up live for the day and day-to-day. they want to bury their past. generally they’re the younger ones. they want to be included. they go out with spaniards. dress like them. eat like them. generally they regard ecuador with distain. they’ve grown.
my uncle’s friends run the gamut from one extreme to the other. there’s one, for example, who’s from one of those ecuadorian coastal towns where poverty and violence wound the days and take over the nights. he lives with a bolivian woman in a study, a single room that serves as bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen, normally occupied by students, in the center of madrid. the woman is fat and indianized and wouldn’t stop talking about the tragedy of her job with a smelly old man that she had to put up with all day. one of those unbearably racist spaniards. she’s fed up, but a good person.
we have ceviche for dinner. every good costeño knows how to make a good ceviche, he says. how long have you lived here, I ask. I came fifteen years ago and haven’t been back to ecuador, he responds. they don’t like me there, ñaño. if I show up, they’ll kill me. some sons of bitches swore it to me. I put three bullets in a careverga who was screwing my woman. so I stay here. I don’t want problems. I’m rehabilitated, my bróder. why don’t you have a drink; do you like wine? and he takes out a bottle of marqués de cáceres nipped from the restaurant he works at.
that’s what my uncle’s friends are like. all with sad stories to hide. they’ve buried their past. those who go back, only go for a few months because they’re not used to it anymore. their country, our country, is precisely an imaginary line, a space filled with abandoned women and children, or in the case of the women, with abandoned men. be in spain and long for ecuador, be in ecuador and long for spain. that mental divide turns them into acculturated cabrones.
I already know that two or three nights aren’t enough to perceive a way of life, but this has been my first impression. my first contact with what would be called “my own kind.” like the last night before leaving for the mediterranean. we went to a disco in south madrid. it was sunday. I couldn’t believe it. in quito sundays make you want to kill yourself. nothing’s open. people flee. here it’s the day the immigrant goes out on the town, because a lot of them have mondays off, blessed day of the hangover, the resaca, the chuchaqui, the guayabo, the ratón, the cruda. sunday nights fill with the scent of sudaka cologne. the women go out heavily made-up in snug dresses they’ve bought on sale. or with out-of-style fake leather jackets. it’s like being in the 80’s. even the music they dance to is about 30 years out of date. it’s living off of nostalgia. so fucked up, but such great fun. they dance pressed against their dance partners, while the tables fill with pails of beers and bottles of rum.
salsa, perhaps, then cumbia, then bachata, and to top it off some reggaeton or vallenato. they’re eating it up. it’s like a quinceñera party. the men always have gelled-back hair and colored shoes and flowered shirts to attract attention. almost always a gold chain gleaming against their bare chests. it’s like kusturica’s underground but with south americans. young and old, all sharing in the same tastes. there’s consensus. here no one has issues unless you look at their girl. or their guy.
the thing is there are three of us sitting here with an insatiable desire to drink because it’s my last day in madrid. my uncle insists that I ask a girl out to dance and take her with me. no problems here, loco, he says, it’s all easy. they’re all crazy to fuck. I laugh with enthusiasm and tell him to wait, be patient, that I’m not that fired up just yet. and we toast to the joy of seeing one another after all these years. we’re friends now, we’ve moved over and beyond blood ties. to that, cheers. come whenever you want, ñaño. my house is humble and it is yours. thank you, brother, I’ll be back. and so on.
then I see that one of the guys who’s with us, also ecuadorian, gets up and goes over to another table where there’s a girl alone and asks her to dance. he draws her against his body but clearly has no idea how to follow the rhythm. it’s Cantinflas-esque. she tries to pull away, pushes him a bit and he says something into her ear and she laughs. she’s brown-skinned, long-nosed, wearing a turquoise dress with some type of flower over her right clavicle. she has mid-forehead bangs that suit her quite badly. she’s terribly unattractive but her ass is terrific. the guy looks at us and winks. we laugh.
suddenly a man approaches our friend and shoves him to the ground. our friend picks himself up and the squabble begins. we stand up from the table to get a look at what’s happening and kicks and punches start flying every which way. I take shelter to one side to observe the action. I see my uncle in the middle of the dance floor defending himself with a beer bottle. I come up behind him, grab his shoulders to calm him down. the bouncers arrive and throw us out of the disco, shoving us roughly through the door. just like that. the night ends in the middle of madrid with a bottle of whiskey and laughter. it would seem that all is normal.
the nights’ immense din has fed my fleeting pleasure. I also drank a large quantity of its beer to gather courage. terrible, by the way: water with alcohol and a pinch of gluten. I recall that the worst swill in Havana—by way of example—was three thousand times better than this insalubrious ferment that I’m now drinking in malaga because I can’t sleep. it’s the jet lag said a german whose looks could get him whoever he wanted, the hijo de puta. while we’re on the subject.
and now in malaga matters have deteriorated. so many other well-dressed miserable drunks. of course I’m in the tourist sector all-paid for in a shitty dorm and I can’t complain. this is my way of complaining. I came for a scholarship and I’ve begun writing a tale of resentment, of complexes, of a mediocre ambition for literary self-improvement that is somewhat lacking in comas—their brief silences. the good thing is that here they don’t catch on to what I’m doing. they’ll probably never figure it out. what would they know, these zombies taking pleasure in those beautiful faces of theirs. the women from malaga are so gorgeous that it’d seem they don’t need to have bowel movements like normal folks do. that’s to say, like mestizos do. and if they do you have to ask yourself how they’d clean that gorgeous ass.
the malagueñas have faces like god’s mercy. they stare dissolutely to the front, encase their venom in dark miniskirts. their hair falls like a mass of varnished cherubs. blond by force, some, between the menace of their dark eyes. redheads by force, others, between the menace of their olive skin. by night they can be seen cornered by robust men in the doorways of old romantic purlieus. the discos become awash in the bottled-up scent of their sexuality. the malagueñas embellish themselves with sand from a sea in which they never bathe. touching them inspires fear, of sullying the blouse revealing their pale sternum. where do the women of malaga go to hide should they trip on the tip of their slender stilettos? and when they speak, ah, when they speak, it’s like a vampire who might suck your blood, devour your arousal-swollen artery. they chop their words short in order to maintain their restraint. the malagueñas copulate with themselves and have seething orgasms upon the carpet of the chasm. they hate and love one another like queen bees. but never, hear me—never—will they betray the sick passion that devours them when they stand in front of a mirror.
all I wanted was to see africa from the coast of malaga and here I am piss drunk and downcast. the desire to suffer is immense but the realization of my smallness makes me laugh instead. I live on duque de la victoria street number 9 floor four in front of a hospital. sometimes in the morning I watch women in the adjacent window nursing their newborns white like michael jackson I think and laugh to myself. here the women don’t look at me like a rare breed but rather like an exotic animal. something has changed. maybe one time they saw a movie about the conquest and think that I’m one of those actors that played the inca cacique. and they like me. I parade around with my long scarf. I stare at their creamy tits and envision a porn scene so decadent that henry miller would get horny but from shame. I don’t talk to them of course. I barely flirt and with a generous decency that I’ve developed from I don’t know where or out of what. he’s probably some actor or primitivist artist or folkloric music dancer they must think. that’s my illusion. because as I’ve already said a gaze can also be sidelong or construct an impression. what I am is vergüenza ajena, cringe-worthy.
now they’ve put roberto goyeneche on a local radio station. my joy is boundless. I feel more latin american than ever. because I’d never written so much before and I go back to drinking this disgusting beer and I step out on the balcony to contemplate the cathedral dome and the sea of enviable drunkenness below in which I can’t partake because I’m not of this world. I carry a bolaño novel as heavy as a bible. in my mind I carry the long night of the 16th century that I feel as though I’d lived. in my bag I have a pair of sandals to walk through malaga’s sands like a crab and gaze at the coast of africa. it’s hard to know if this semi-zombie will become someone. if someone will be able to read this other contemplating himself with wonder and disgust. accepting myself would be like returning to a kind of normalcy that doesn’t exist. accepting yourself is finding the unsought prize that mutes the penetrating voice of your consciousness. accepting yourself is allowing the face of the other to be what you desire and knowing you’ll never be what you want. because what you want is gone as soon as you want it.
I have so many quotes swirling around in my head that just now someone told me that it’s hard to believe that an ecuadorian has read so much. I laugh angrily because in my country there’s a load of idiots who’ve read far more than I and think themselves the literary crème de la crème. I met a writer once. I’d read a few not-too-bad stories of his in my university years. but I hadn’t seen him in person. and that would have been for the best. one of those types who thinks that they’re the nabokov of ecuadorian literature. one of those fat grey-jacketed types. one of those guys who calls up journalists to “grant” them an interview. one of those types who has a fawning boot-licking sect of mediocre writers trailing behind him. sometimes it’s better not to meet the person behind the book cover. almost always better. in summary, we were in caracas, at a writer’s conference organized by the venezuelan state. on one of those nights, I’d gone to have a drink in the hotel bar. I sat at one of the tables to contemplate the deformed landscape of intellectuals. a bit of everything: spiders, moles, leaches, dinosaurs…
one of the sorts who paid homage to the gordo loco recognized me and asked me to come sit with them, since the writer was alone—as though that was a terribly lamentable condition—and I made the idiot mistake of following him. in effect, we sat down around a table, as anyone does, except for a hideous reality: the second-rate nabokov was seated right in front of me.
and you qué, he said.
qué de qué, I replied.
what do you do, what’s your profession, why are you here?
nada. I drink, I said.
ah, another chumadito who thinks he’s a writer.
I remained silent, although not without the desire to spit in the drink that they were just starting to serve him. the waiter went around the table pouring tender streams of rum over the oh-so-cold ice in the glasses.
don’t go thinking this is free, he said to me. no one mooches drinks here.
then in a criminal impulse I grabbed the glass, tossed its ice-and-rum contents over his bust-like face, and left. one of his vassals, the one who knew me, insulted me, but his voice collided with the image of my erectile right middle finger, triumphant, like a penis.
important is that the avocado seller in the market laughs like my abuela. important is the joy of the dockworker who sighs when he thinks about the body of the colombian prostitute who he got to fuck once.
I don’t know if I could dance pegadito with a woman here because when they’re all done up they don’t let anything near them that might get a hair out of place. the beer, for the moment, swirls in the murky well of oblivion. everything I’ve left, everything that has withered into the sludge of memory is now a desert or perhaps better a cold and taciturn snow-capped volcano. I want to bury the image of myself but it comes now and shows me to myself from a shattered mirror and I see myself there, face cut, with the deformed mouth of one who can’t speak his own name. such are things.
they’ve always called me willy, since I was a kid. I hate coming from a spanish-speaking country and being “little willy.” it’s like being chinese and calling yourself eduardo. it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes it happens. that’s why people change names, or have to bear the weight of it their whole lives. willy, go do the shopping. willy, look at your sister. willy, clean your nose. willy, take out the dog. willy, don’t get drunk. willy, look me in the eyes, don’t hurt me. willy, vete de aquí, get out of here, I don’t ever want to see you again.
being called willy in ecuador is a huge joke. they deform your name until it becomes obscene. willy the kid I liked. willy the kid hates gringo movies dubbed in spanish by spaniards, he prefers subtitles. willy the kid in malaga is a parrot in a cage. you could have been called john or peter or walter. but not willy, por dios. you’re pitiful. vergüenza ajena. and yet you have to learn to laugh at yourself because if not they’ll break you. that’s why willy had to study and be the best, like his father said. but who thinks to study literature in ecuador, in an imaginary country? willy the moron, that’s who.
so, willy, who is me, is sitting in his dorm room with the window open smoking like a fat and lonely whore. up above, across the street, the illuminated dome of the cathedral, which they call the manquita, can be seen. in ecuador dawn must have already broken and thousands of mestizo bugs will be filling the streets like rats in a great flood. because they seem to reproduce in litters. I would happily fly over quito in a helicopter tossing out condoms. there’s no right to be so irresponsible. legions and legions of idiots birthing workers, just breakfasted, silently dreaming about a new pair of shoes. such are things.
most of what one writes isn’t worth it: inconclusive novels, decapitated stories, lines like ugly children that die because there’s no one to nurse them. you write because you can’t stand to see your sick mother in bed, because you you’ve grown horns instead of wings, because what you have to say is yours and therefore legitimate and varied; you write because you resent your parents, your condition, yourself; you write out of desire, the most beautiful expression of absence; you write because you want to give importance to the diminuta flecha envenada, César Dávila Andrade’s “tiny poisoned dart”; you write because you’re the persona non grata of your own life; you write because you’re a bookworm freeloader who feels pain just like the bank teller staring at you through the glass, face imprinted with the misery of your bank account. you write because you’re human and you suffer. y punto. I said.
it is however an act of surrender, a wager in which you risk life itself in pursuit of “salvation.” juan josé millás put it well when he said: “being a writer, at least a certain type of writer, means living in panic, sensing shapes that move from one compartment to another, with wet socks.” but there’s no romantic pretension in it, the writer can literally be burnt by the flame of their own insubordinate language. and that which is set upon the page begins to rebel against its father or mother like an angry child. I said.
one would think that conrad couldn’t have written heart of darkness without the vision, during six months, of a congo devastated by the belgian king leopold II. and one also realizes that such “motivation” is only commendable in accordance with its result. the fact of malcolm lowry’s having rewritten the same novel multiple times would be distinct if it were not the case that under the volcano is a masterwork. the examples, of course, exceed the reality—in the nietzschean sense—from which is taken the assumption that the writer is a good reader. but who legitimizes the literary deed as valid, or not? do we assume that there’s a subterranean consensus that ennobles the work at a determined moment? the factors are perhaps multiple. and perhaps therein it’s possible to make out a purpose: literature is an arduous exercise of language in which the writer confronts the firing squad of their own annihilation. I said.
from that also that every work, conceived as such, paradoxically attends a funeral and a birth. or only the former. when the two events occur, literature has begun, which is born out of the displacement of its creator, even when its content shows itself to be autobiographical. for a great number of authors, literature is a way to explain their circumstance, but between them and the object, language mediates, upending any original intent. language is not a means of expression, it is a means of implosion. that produced is a linguistic shattering of the senses. I said.
the senses allow for assimilation of the work as such. the mere conjugation of alternating words doesn’t produce the feeling. even in the most surreal or inscrutable forms there is a framework of meaning that makes the text accessible. that’s why literature is always masked, an unfaithful portrait of itself. in and of itself, it is playing with the translation of an intimately known language, which some call originality. and that is likewise a purpose, a quest that the author seems destined never to complete. if they do complete it, they never write again. I said.
as such, said framework of meaning is articulated by the pulse of a trade learned through effort and reading. and with that, the hypertextual relation is superior to the literary deed: every text makes reference to another text, and ad infinitum. that’s why literature in general is a form of plagiary, perhaps the most lovely of its forms, the most aesthetic. but don’t be confused: said plagiary has been devoured by the machinations of bibliophagy, which on the other hand may cause indigestion. I said.
It is no less true that the writer tends to deny, if not their writing, at least their motivation. it causes discomfort. the writer would rather go forward blind, know that the goal is más allá, just out of reach, but when this is named, it vanishes. the writer avoids the objective so as not to be broken. in the end, every writer is evasive. if it were direct it would be senseless. the writer arrives gropingly, blindly, as a drunk arrives home. but always knowing how to arrive. I said.
the ethical commitment with language or with discourse—over time—must also transcend the prose, mere accessory of literature. the fact of turning into a “writer” is also accessory; or perhaps the result, among other things, of the search. and yet, every writer believes that their scream or howl has some importance; yes, in some way appreciated, even in extreme cases like that of kafka. yes, the writer ennobles their ego, in irony, as language’s excess breaks it. forever paradoxical, literature is like a label that swathes a text in potential: a fixed object that drops its robes and places its wounds on display. multiple wounds that show us, in turn, the experience of the journey of a being, who, horrified by mortality, writes. I said. I was very very drunk.
This translation is an excerpt from the first part of Ecuadorian writer Santiago Vizcaíno’s debut novel Complejo (La Caída Press, 2017), a loosely autobiographical work drawn from the author’s time living and studying in Malaga, Spain. The story telling is somewhat non-linear and flows between the protagonist’s inner musings and tormented reflections on self, the writing process, and language, to a more traditional narrative of his observations and experiences while living abroad. The protagonist, Willy, is intentionally unlikable, but as the title suggests, he is multilayered enough, with a biting wit and a keen talent for observation, that the reader’s reaction is likewise mixed, their perception challenged. As the author himself put it:
“If you were to ask Willy who Santiago Vizcaíno is, assuredly he’d laugh. He’d respond that he’s a pot-bellied guy who doesn’t have the balls to leave behind poetry. Because Willy’s like that. He doesn’t have hair on his hands, sorry, tongue. I, Santiago Vizcaíno, would say that Willy, the character in this novel, is a bullying machine, a tender and brutal complex-ridden man obsessed with women. Willy uses Santiago and Santiago uses Willy and it’s as though they had sex between two men, the purest love, they say. At one point I confused Willy with myself but I erased that chapter. One is too boring and politically correct, domesticated by the utilitarian hypocrisy of adulthood, by the correctness of academia. Willy in contrast is a beautiful adolescent beast, a neo-baroque dandy…”
In the remainder of the novel, Willy meets and describes the other international residents in the University dorm, pursues various women, falls in love, and finds himself in a shocking and somewhat sickening predicament. Much has been made of Ecuador’s so-called “national inferiority complex,” and this work takes those issues and places them nakedly on display in the form of its central character.
In translating the novel, I was at times unsure how much to allow myself to use the resource of leaving certain words and phrases in the original Spanish; however, I felt that doing so lent a certain flavor and sense of place that would have otherwise been lost. I likewise hope that such inclusions will broaden and deepen the reader’s experience, and give them further insight into the language and culture of Ecuador.
Kimrey Anna Batts (1983) grew up in rural East Tennessee and went to the University of Michigan, where she studied Anthropology and Latin American Studies. She moved to Ecuador in 2006, and her lifelong love of literature and language gradually blossomed into a career as a professional translator. In 2011 she went to Barcelona to pursue a M.A. in Literary Translation at University Pompeu Fabra, before returning to Quito in 2013. Her literary translations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Lunch Ticket, Bitter Oleander Review, Ezra, Cordite Poetry Review, Mantis, Asymptote and Exchanges, among others.
Santiago Vizcaíno (Quito, 1982) has a BA in Communications and Literature from the Catholic Pontifical University of Ecuador (PUCE). He was awarded a Fundación Carolina scholarship for study at the University of Malaga, where he completed an MA in Management of Literary Heritage. He is currently the Director of the PUCE Center for Publications. His works have received numerous recognitions, including the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture’s National Literary Projects Prize and the Second Annual Pichincha Poetry Award. In translation, his poems and short stories have appeared in a number of journals including Bitter Oleander Review, Chattahoochee Review, Words Without Borders, Connotation Press, Eleven/Eleven, eXchanges, Lunch Ticket, The Brooklyn Rail and Ezra. His poetry collection Destruction in the Afternoon was published in translation by Dialogos Books in 2015. His first novel, Complejo, from which this fragment was taken, was released in 2017 (La Caída Press).
Lie down –facing up as if you were going to die or give birth to yourself.
the slope of the years
in the dark.
Arrive at the threshold pass through it / submerge yourself in the deep, narrow, stairway of oblivion.
Tell me what you see.
Confront it / confront
who you were even before memory.
Do you recognize yourself? Continue. Yes, now you recognize the road that has brought you here. Its clarity reveals it —a blue dream that is projected on the blue screen of time and begins making sense.
Do you see yourself?
Ask why and accept it
–whatever the answer is
–I have come to say goodbye to you –respond.
Don’t say more than this
without any rancor.
It will try to make you stay
to answer once again what you already know
what you have already heard it say
perhaps in another way.
Lower your eyes and create
–with the gaze only–
a path on the ground
–a groove of wet earth and ash.
You will see a fire rising a wall of fire –a cold fire– between you and your failure. Say goodbye. Turn your back to it. Resume the road –the same: the blue dream against the blue of time.
Ascend the steps of the deep, narrow stairway.
Arrive at the threshold
pass through it and descend
the dark slope of the years.
Return to your body
do you feel it? –a pain in your womb or in your chest
as if something of yourself has been torn from you
alerts you that you have beaten it.
The pain will go
you will remain with yourself.
(The memory of the hollow
will follow you wherever you go.)
Situación para romper un hechizo
Acuéstate –boca arriba como si fueras a morir o a darte la luz.
la cuesta de los años
en lo oscuro.
Llega al umbral traspásalo / sumérgete en la honda, estrecha, escala del olvido.
Dime qué ves.
Enfréntalo / enfréntate
a quien eras antes aun de la memoria.
¿Te reconoces? Continúa. Sí, reconoces ahora el camino que te ha traído hasta aquí. Su nitidez lo delata –un sueño azul que se proyecta en la pantalla azul del tiempo y va cobrando sentido.
Pregúntale por qué y acéptala
–cualquiera sea la respuesta
–He venido a decirte adiós –responde.
No digas más que eso
sin rancor alguno.
volver a responder lo que ya sabes
lo que ya le has oído
quizás de otra manera.
Baja los ojos y crea
–con la mirada solo un reguero en el suelo
–un surco de tierra húmeda y cenizas.
Verás alzarse un fuego una pared de fuego –un fuego frío– entre tú y tu fracaso. Despídete. Dale la espalda. Vuelve a tomar el camino –el mismo: el sueño azul sobre el azul del tiempo.
Remonta los peldaños de la escala honda, estrecha.
Llega al umbral
traspásalo y desciende
la pendiente oscura de los años.
Vuelve a tu cuerpo
¿sientes? –un dolor en el vientre o en el pecho
como si algo de ti te hubiese sido arrancado
te anuncia que has vencido.
El dolor se irá
tú quedarás contigo.
(La memoria del hueco
te seguirá adonde vayas.)
Avenida Paseo Colón y Cochabamba
F told me about this place, the night half-excavated underneath the autopista. The guidebook does not mention it. He’s in his studio, painting a boy he knows, the curse or spell of beauty. He waits for the face to dry and then paints over it with white. I hold a brush in my outstretched arm, a mirror or a magnifying glass. The guidebook falls asleep. I ask each passerby to pass it over me, until I’m gone enough. The paper bodies of the detained begin to climb the beams. What holds the traffic in place? There is no cover from the sound of it, the smell of diesel, the vibration of these passages. The light shocks them out of shadows and glues them to the wall. They are photocopies of photocopies. An officer is here to guard them. I ask him what it means. In his orange vest, he sways back and forth on the ground beneath his definition. It has something to do with magic, he says, like to get a girl to fall in love with you. There is a softness in his throat, but I sway on the uniform beneath his uniform, the half-excavated night. There is no cover from the sound of them, the curse or spell, plastered on the wall.
Perú y Cochabamba
A mouth opens in the concrete. I think of the rubble behind its grid of metal teeth, the words formed before they are spoken, the heaviness in direct proportion to the waiting. I want to give my gravity away. I ask a stranger what it means. It’s to put yourself up on something, he says, like a bicycle or a horse. I think of him, up there on his infinitive, throwing away the clocks and pronouns, covering the sidewalk like confetti. In the beginning, the first person climbed on top of the second hand. I think of this when I am alone at night. It is the only thing that keeps me from floating to the ceiling. He walks a few feet away and stops to look at me – in fact he is dismounting – in order to be here, as if the street unzipped itself.
Humberto 1° y Bolívar
She knows the sound but not the definition – maybe it’s a wall, like this one, covered in graffiti, the opposite of how to tell me. I run my hands over her shadow, hoping my skin will hear something. I want to stand all day, here against this wall, until someone offers to take my place. The color behind our stillness will change. Our collective refusal will be a painting. I want to stand against my scrawling, my ever almost happening. I want to throw it, this how, up against the wall, until it breaks, until it’s not a poem anymore. An older man walks by and I ask him what it means. He points to the flat rectangle of marble, chipped in the left hand corner, at the entry of a door. How can a door about to be written or erased be the same thing as graffiti? I want to walk through the hole inside the scratching, the aerosol. I want to walk through the blown-up photograph of a boy, his naked torso. A paper diamond, as if released only seconds ago, floats just above his howling. I want to stand inside the moment right before it leaves his lip, but I cannot get a foothold.
Humberto 1º y Balcarce
On the face of the no longer patronato, the word for childhood is covered with weeds. In the broken window hangs a photograph of ice. The elsewhere of a continent, a translucent advertisement. The word for Antarctica is Antarctica. It swings back and forth in the aftermath of glass. They say photography is the coldest continent, but I can tell that people are squatting here. Their clothing illuminates the string between the empty buildings. I pluck it with my question. A woman walks by and answers me with homophones. It’s a motorbike, she tells me, or that you and I, as if she knows me, we have good energy between us. Across the street is the Registro Nacional de las Personas. I empty my pockets in search of the breath of former inhabitants. A person is a string between the homophones. A person is a continent at the bottom of a continent, a window at the bottom of a window, broken from a name.
Avenida Independencia y Perú
What does it mean to walk between one word and another without stopping? The words I seem to know are see-through. Their letters fall from the dictionary, disappearing before they hit the sidewalk. Clarity, a stranger tells me – bien claro – and then what it’s not – oscuro – and some in-between word I do not know. Perhaps darkness is umbilical, perhaps forgetting is the first ingredient of memory. I am always looking across the street to see the ground where I am standing, as if the traffic were a camera in reverse. I want to see my body disappearing before it hits the photograph. There is a ghost falling out of the parking lot. Perhaps forgetting is the first architect. A fragment of continuous brick, a bruise that outlives the body. The color falls out of paint, leaving just the signature, Grupo Muralista del Oeste. There is evidence of circular scraping on the furthest wall, now exposed to the day. A tree grows out of its center, some in-between word, an umbilical cord.
Avenida Independencia y Perú
When tree is moving imperceptibly, tree appears to be tree. It presses into, and then disappears from, the wall outside this gomería. If I am still enough, I can see the names of the previous shops, paint beneath the paint. A worker steps out to light a cigarette. I tug on the smoke between us. It rises to the strips of cloth above me – just now I notice them, tied around the branches. Who put them here, the names and ages of who and why?
How like leaves they are, translucent, written on the day. A young man smiles and stops for me. I put the word inside his hand. Before he unfolds it, he asks my name. I appears to be I. Is my question a plea to be a name, evaporating in his hand? The sky inside the tree begins to shake. He tells me it’s an intervention. When the light is slow enough, it strikes me as a kind of writing. He says it refers to a truth that’s hidden, for example, something political. The names continue to shake. In my country, an activist from Code Pink stands up inside the Senate: “178 children killed by drones in Pakistan. And Mr. Brennan, if you don’t know who they are, I have a list. I have a list with all the names and the ages.” The sky unfolds its loneliness and sends it off to hover. It catches fire from the inside.
Avenida Independencia y Chacabuco
He puts his hands in front of his face, the little square he draws with his thumbs and index fingers, as if he is holding up the air, the us that floats between him and me. Us is not the sum of singular pronouns, only the between. The L of his left hand and its backwards brother seem to bow, and I think, which one of us is me? Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. If I were to actually look inside it, would I see the sound it makes? Accidentally, I give him two copies of this door I am trying to make out of someone else’s window. He returns with the extra one and what is the difference between translation and a screen. I put my hands where his had been. I lean my back against his before. I bow my head and the cracks in concrete appear to me as chlorophyll, a photograph holding its breath inside a tree.
The pigeons are still enough to be my shadow. It is winter here, after all, even if I am elsewhere. In what I call my elsewhere, I lean my back against the present tense, a season and its backwards brother. I want to tell you, dear reader, I get lost and lost inside the screen, inside the never ending elsewhere, but the truth is, I cannot enter it. There is no one here to hold it still for me. There is only the machine, and the tracelessness of the air between the pronouns. My cartographer says I should invite you to come and live with me. I can hold my breath, I can bow my head, I can be still enough to be your shadow. Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. I want to close my eyes and tell you this as you type it into my computer. I want to turn off the light so you unscrew the bulb and put it in my hand. I want to hold it there until it stops burning, the us that floats between us.
Avenida 9 de Julio y México
The seeds of the palo borracho fall through the notwithstanding winter. What is it to be prior? Like a tuft of fur, my friend who taught me how to say so. In the photograph, he is pointing to the tree in the park that autocorrect keeps turning into “lash eras.” I see him sometimes, a little green pulse on the screen, how to say so falling through the continent. I walk on cobblestones. They cover the former rails, where loneliness continues to dress up as the word I can’t define. Soon I will come upon the past tense. This is the lash era, the widest avenue in the world. How could this be fury? The out of place falls through the fact of me.
Avenida Independencia y Solis
It’s not a word, he tells me, so I push it back against the roof of my mouth. His face is a question I have rehearsed and repeated. I reach into my pocket for the poem and he unfolds it, still wet and fluttering, in his hands. He tells me his name, and then, do you like to read? Maybe it all comes down to this. A name leads one question to another, or the pattern of these bricks, an imprint that is not a word. It’s something on the ground but he doesn’t know for sure. Maybe it is this, an unmarked path between the tongue and paper. I cross the street to where the sun can warm me. The woman begging on the sidewalk and the blank pieces of paper, still wet and fluttering, in her hand. Currency, the little erasure that is not the sun. My face is a question she has rehearsed. I reach into my pocket, but not until I am through with my translation. I take it, the unmarked path between us, and let it dissolve inside my mouth.
Avenida Independencia y Avenida Entre Ríos
In my notebook I write young woman – a mark. Who slides across the hyphen? She says that’s what it means, and here I crank the clock into a corridor I can walk through, hands against the condensation on the wall. I ask her what kind. Like a mark on the road, a path, she says, pointing to the ground. Sometimes I feel that this city is written in invisible ink. How can I walk inside it if I go? I won’t remember the ground between us, only that it sinks and sinks until we can stand on it. At my desk, it spreads inside me. Like a lover, I beg and beg the mark to leave a mark on me, a groove, erasing me with sweat and teeth. A word floats on top of a word until the road becomes an alphabet. How can I land on what happens when I go? I take a photograph of a telephone pole, painted sickly green, the twine around it holding nothing but rust. I stick out my tongue and taste it, my translation, coming through.
Combate de los Pozos y Humberto 1°
When do all the things I discard become the street that holds me? There’s a strike going on. One summer vacation, I brought home a documentary for my father about his union, but I never set foot in the factory where he worked. When does the body become the body? I walk down the street, removing one piece of clothing at a time. My cartographer walks just a few feet ahead of me, and he gives me his coat when I am finally naked. I would like to choreograph this performance, the city through us moving through it in this way. I would like to walk the city from end to end, exchanging what is fleeting with every willing stranger.
I know what you’re going to say. Ever since the invention of the microscope, human touch began to flare. Still, my love for visible geometry, like the metal scaffolding holding up this billboard from the backside. More tender and ambiguous than advertisement or warning. A handsome boy approaches, his hands in his pockets, singing, or speaking to himself. When I ask him what it means, he offers me a sentence: Hoy fracasé en arreglar el auto. He says he can’t concretize it, he cannot find a synonym, it’s not poetry but… and then his voice trails off beyond the edges of my memory. What is mine is failure unless it is briefly. At the bus stop, two people get off as if there is no synonym, a choreography from different doors.
Combate de los Pozos y Avenida San Juan
I ask the cartonero what it means and he breaks the excess syllables into chau. What is the difference between goodbye and the instruction to say so? We carry our life around in a cardboard box that we empty again and again. It has this name – say goodbye – before we even fill it. Chau, a variant of the Italian, coils around the word for slave, schiavo. Not go with God but I am yours, forcibly. I walk toward the underpass, where pigeons flutter in their small round cages beside a makeshift tent. My cartographer frees them in the night and brings me their cages. Here I am, tossing my words into the metal hollows, trying to remember the shape of wings.
Avenida Pavón y Sarandí
On the concrete slab in front of the gate: Nadie es capaz no pueden cobrar mis recuerdos. The roots of the tree tilt the sidewalk, pushing grief’s white letters to the surface. Nobody is capable and then a vine eats away at the barbed wire fence. Nature multiplies the No: they cannot take away my memories. A boy from this housing project died in January. I take a photograph of the mural, his arm stretching towards me, thumbs up, his eyes open but somehow looking back into the wall. He was not yet twenty-one. Nobody is capable. Part of his face unpainted, as if the masonry contains him. The garbage strike is still going on, and everywhere the sun gets stuck in plastic. When I reach the intersection, there’s a furniture repair shop, chairs stacked upside down. A man steps out and I ask him what it means. He says it’s something that comes out of the wall, and he runs his fingers across the moulding. I’m trying to think of how to climb a stair for which there is no railing. The little cave where dust collects, the memory.
Subterráneo Linea E, Estación Pichincha
Below the pageantry of history, people try to make a living. They will put a question mark in your hand. It will likely be made of plastic. If you refuse it, you must feel the weight of all the hands that held and did not keep it. As the train jerks its way through the tunnel, a woman is tearing her medical condition into small pieces of paper. Into my hands, her otherwise geography, she places not her body but the splinter. I hold it, the fire of uncontrollably, a single piece of paper. Her doctor has signed a statement, affirming, on the opposite side, the pain of wrong division. What is a body if not a collection of the strangers who are torn from us? I am thinking of Felix Gonzales Torres’ portrait of his lover, Ross, an installation composed of 175 pounds of candy. I take the candy in my mouth, the fact of his weight diminishing. I hold the cellophane wrapper in my hands. I look through it. What is a body if not a broken window?
I first encountered Mercedes Roffé’s work at a bookstore on Avenida Córdoba in Buenos Aires. I was immediately drawn to this poem, “Situation to Break a Spell,” because of its haunting use of impossible instructions. I had begun an experimental project of translating Argentinian poetry through somatic ritual, and I knew at that moment I wanted to translate Roffé’s work. I was interested in how a poem might be an echo of the city itself. To begin, I made a rough translation of the poem without a dictionary. I then went looking in the streets of for the “definitions” of the words I didn’t immediately recognize. I started at a memorial to the disappeared underneath a freeway in the neighborhood of San Telmo. For every word I didn’t know, I made myself walk the number of blocks corresponding to the line in which that word appeared. Once there, I would try to ask a stranger about their own associations with that word, and then take notes about our conversation. I also wrote down raw descriptions of the physical surroundings and my emotional impressions. In this way, Roffé’s poem pulled me through the streets, into unpredictable encounters with the city and its inhabitants. At my desk, I began to collage these notes into a series of poetic definitions. A selection of these appear as “Street Gloss,” following the original poem in Spanish.
Note: “Situation to Break a Spell” has also been translated by Judith Filc in Talisman. Filc is the translator of Roffé’s book, Ghost Opera, published in 2017 by co-im-press.
Brent Armendinger is the author of The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying (Noemi Press, 2015), a finalist for the California Book Award in poetry, as well as two chapbooks, Undetectable (New Michigan Press, 2009) and Archipelago (Noemi Press, 2009). His poems and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Aufgabe, Bloom, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and Web Conjunctions. He is a recipient of fellowships from Headlands Center for the Arts and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He lives in Los Angeles and is an Associate Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College.
Mercedes Roffé is one of Argentina’s leading poets. Widely published in the Spanish-speaking world, some of her books have been published in translation in Italy, Quebec, Romania, France, England, and the United States. In the UK, Shearsman Books has published the anthology of her poetry, Like the Rains Come (2008) as well as her poetry collection, Floating Lanterns (2016, translated by Anna Deeny). Translated by Judith Filc, her book, Ghost Opera, was published in the US in 2017 by co-im-press.
She is the editor of Ediciones Pen Press, specialized in contemporary world poetry. Roffé was awarded a John S. Guggenheim and a Civitella Ranieri fellowship.
The morning appeared like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post– undeterred, it continued to march like a fearless tank until it reached the edge and almost fell—I dragged my body outside and tried to follow its footsteps, but I forgot to take my face with me and left it on the table, smiling stupidly like a dark dream. Although I was unafraid, the morning quickly passed like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post—it continued to march until it reached the edge and almost fell—I dragged my body outside and tried to follow its footsteps, but I forgot to carry my face with me and left it on the table, smiling stupidly like a dark dream. Although I was unafraid, the morning quickly passed like the barking of a distant dog—it flew past our neighbor’s house, arrived at our house, and crossed the garden where it collided with the lamp post—it continued to march until it reached the edge… etc… etc…
My father rolls up his sleeves and digs into the night’s heart. As a smile falls off of his mouth and breaks like an old Babylonian god inadvertently fallen out of the archaeologist’s hand, he says:
Someone opens a gap in the magician’s book, and I’m afraid of being endlessly tormented by the secret.
At the time, I did not know the secret, and I did not pay attention to what it said. I was asleep next to the boat of Danish pirates and sailed with them to the other side of the world.
After I remove the rust from the mouth of the poet,
I can confide the secret to you
We are here—in this room—almost every day of the year. We mow the grass, and we mow it again when it grows tall. When our mothers delivered us, we were philosophers, but over time we became mere farmers whose only task is to mow the grass.
We are here almost every day of the year. We only leave this room on holidays, and when we do, we discover that in this wasteland nothing grows, nothing at all. The faces we see on our eternal march look exactly like our faces; when we talk to them, we realize that they babble in a foreign tongue, and to them, our tongue is foreign too. For entertainment we always give them 10-centimeter tall statues to take back to their rooms, and this is how they remember us when they mow the grass.
Often we find statues erected in our rooms, just like the ones we gave to the other philosophers, and it seems to me that it is the other philosophers, who speak in foreign tongues, who have given them to us.
A Disguise Party
While the king and the minister stare at a statue of Jesus, the minister suggests that the king wipe the virgin’s tears. He gives him the handkerchief, but the king trembles, and his hand stumbles by the tree that is painted on it. Jesus falls, but only breaks his nose. No one is saddened by the accident; it was a cheap statue.
This time we do not laugh at the clown. He is one of the invited, just like us.
Three Draculas compete next to the neglected fence. My girlfriend says: I saw the fourth one hide in the basement.
The mailman hands me a letter; he says it is from Mr. Noah. I open the letter and see an ark and flood. At the bottom of the letter, God watches what happens. I fold the paper and give it to my girlfriend. I tell her that we are at a disguise party. I assure you that this ark will never sink, Jesus will never break, Dracula will never hide in the basement. Everyone will go back to their homes, take off these clothes, and lay down naked on their beds, just like us.
A Life That Doesn’t Want to End
Baudelaire is actually Mr. Noah himself. Six hundred years ago, we used to call him Mr. Holago. A boy from Al-Thawra flips the pages of a book that says: “We were prisoners in a camp on the outskirts of Baghdad, but we were able to escape accompanied by Danish pirates to distant lands.” It also states: “During our stay in the cave, we have neither raised a prophet to guide us to the end, nor invented a new word for grandchildren, nor plucked a flower at the beginning of the year. We were incessantly counting our fingers the whole time until someone broke the secret to him; we found him right in front of us holding a kitchen knife. Terrified, we scattered across endless roads and houses. Now, we are writing our answers to philosophical questions; we are writing, attempting to persuade our British neighbor that we hardly escaped the wasteland safely.”
A Watch in the Stew Pot
A letter from Mr. Plato arrived; he says:
“Dear poet X,
After your absence, we have found a watch in the stew pot. It is as dead as the time that is empty of you. On your behalf, we buried it in the city cemetery, and on its grave we placed a toy as a headstone. As far as we are concerned, we live outside of time. What we really fear is that we won’t be born again.”
I wrote back to him:
“Dear Mr. Plato,
There are no poets in this room. No one among us bears that name. We are merely philosophers who look exactly like you. We are also waiting for another watch in lieu of the one we found in the stew pot.”
Chris George is a poet and translator who lives and teaches in Dallas, Texas. His work has been published in numerous journals, including The Arts United, Entropy, and Sarah Lawrence’s LUX. He has forthcoming translations in Asymptote and in Words without Borders‘ new podcast Play for Voices.
Salaiman Juhni is an Iraqi poet who left Iraq for Denmark in 1991. His poems, which are written in prose or free verse, have surprised readers through their use of fantasy and surreal worlds, where time and space are fluid, yet are defined by a keen sense of place and history. Memories of childhood in Iraq are mixed with events that happen in modern Copenhagen; nightmares of years of war and dictatorship are imbued with contemplations and dialogues between classic and modern thought, from Plato to Nietzsche. English translations of his poems are forthcoming in Asymptote.
Ali Kadhim was born in Iraq, but has lived and worked in the United States since 1998. His Arabic poems have appeared in many literary newspapers, journals, websites, as well as in two anthologies featuring Arabic poetry in exile. He published one poetry collection in Arabic in 2002.
For abdominal pain, malaise, or social decay, for a white collar, cramps, corruption, place a pot of water in the anafre until it comes to a boil. Add a handful of rue, marjoram, sweet acacia. Let it stand (time is measured differently, not by saying five minutes, not like dropping in an alka-seltzer or some pepto-bismol) before bringing it back to a boil. Now, letting it stand once more, serve while the person, well covered, reclines.
It seeps in you,
the plant’s murmur penetrates you.
Like smoke it wisps into your body, ideas, indignation, reflection.
When they reach your navel the plants, the concoction, will say a prayer or give an order, and the unease, the non-conformity will leave you. They expel it, whatever there is inside you, they’ll rid you of it.
We’ve known this always.
I feel a crackling inside,
for a long while, agitating inside me, it won’t stop from boiling.
She stands and it’s a saber in the glare. Delivering a spring of blood there. Stabbing. A network of veins. Again it charges and. In her face, a constellation of reds. The droplets wipe clean as if painting a mask. Open and the teeth. Eyes wide. White and white form that gaze and it’s hatred. The strips of glass flinch between her fingers, with the neck it swells until the scream is a hole. And she stands with fear. Sweat, sweat in her pillows and in the viscous blackness. But then it smells, smells like her husband, smells like the same nightgown as always. She finds her glass of water and drinks. She drinks it all. She wants to cast off her hair but her clinging hairs are tendons adhering to her neck. Blindly she guesses her feet into her slippers. Mangled, she mutters on tiptoes, like bound feet. She passes through the hall and her steps are swallowed in its walls. It’s not only in the darkness that we fumble blindly. Febe comes to the study to get a feel for the living. The heart never, never the heart, not even when we’re distracted, stays asleep. She turns on the light: the jar, the opacity of saturated tow-gray taupe. She grabs a book from the shelf. She reads, delves in, gets lost in a children’s story that Larca never liked. Now she understands it, everything is elucidated alone.
On this strange outing we’ve seen exotic plumage, strong shanks, their cunning eyes taking refuge in nests of hard earthen sticks, sculpted by dry feet. Beak sculptures of precious material, brilliant jade or coral, dying their necks when they eat it. Indifferent eyes fixed like the holes of masks. Binoculars fixed on eccentric worlds of birds flying in circles, of proud headdresses, warriors moving clumsily around their prey and dancing, the squawk from afar, drawing in on the snail. With their proud costume of feathers and stones, they fly in you, in this tunnel we wear from our eyes. Coming toward us, more present than ever, to eat snakes and grasses, what’s left of worms, or a museum’s data sheet. And in its elegant repose on the altar, we must see ourselves in its obsidian black. It picks at entrails, later to sing as if beckoning, the incomprehensible language, those songs, the distance we hear in our observation. Look, in their feathers the bright radiance of the water heralding markets and hatcheries. Look how strange it is, how it moves, how it prays, how it eats the little bit that it eats. And its hard skeleton. And its inner tension, ignoring you you know, snubbing you, that bird that’s very cruel, very cruel in its violence.
all of the time an all of the time seeing the sky
imagining imaginary beings
touched on the forehead accessories of war
strange technology unusual knowledge
all of the time an all of the time seeing the sky
and with the passing of the years discovering, firmament,
that in the sky there is nothing
that in the sky there is nothing
We’re damned, Moctezuma, condemned to disappearing. Your world and mine are marked for extinction. In you it was intuition, in us certainty, in you a hunch by way of a comet, in us the sign that it’s melting. Your world was consumed by an unfamiliar culture, mine by a culture without rival.
From here the volcanoes without snow are frightening. They’re the sight of the brigs approaching the coasts of Veracruz. They’re the beginning of the end of an era, an epoch, a civilization. From the height of a glen someone sees the stains of boats spreading in the sea. We don’t know what that person thought. What would they have felt?
From here the volcanoes without snow are frightening. Something stops short like a gallop, like a tangle, like a cold arrogance beginning to thaw.
Formol is the story of a family heirloom, a heart in a jar of formaldehyde. A metaphor for Mexico, the heart is often only a meeting place, a formal center out of which Faesler’s cross-genre exploration expands and contracts. The novel interweaves contemporary life and historical landscapes as it shifts between the poles of fiction and poetry. Themes of obsession and the diffusion of cultural history inform the story’s treatment of contemporary family life and adolescence. Our understanding of contemporary Mexico City cannot be separated from our understanding of Mexico’s historical past.
Formol is full of poems: prose poems, concrete poems, poems that resemble recipes or sets of instructions. These are not a departure from narrative. Rather, they often enact an interstitial space wherein thematic and narrative concerns meld, wherein voices converge or disappear.
The meeting of form and content in Faesler’s prose is perhaps best described as a pulsing, a contraction and expansion, a circulation that is both mimetic of the “human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar” and the productive overlap of the contemporary and the historical. I hope that the reader will occasionally feel the presence of the original text, not as something concrete but as a quiet “hidden pulse.”
Adam Greenberg is a recent graduate of Brown University’s MFA in poetry. His poems and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Poor Claudia, Columbia Review, and Brooklyn Review, among others. Adam lives in Washington, DC and teaches writing at George Mason University in Virginia.
Carla Faesler’s poetry has often challenged genre descriptions, not only in the form of prose poetry but also as visual and conceptual art. She has written four books of poetry, Mixcóatl (1996), No tú sino la Piedra (1999), Anábasis maqueta (2003), and Catábasis Exvoto (2010), as well as the novel Formol (2014). She was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura Gilberto Owen for Anábasis maqueta. Carla Faesler was born in Mexico City, where she currently lives.