Our contributors elsewhere + other links

“I can read, as I just did, stuffing my face with a disgusting greasy croissant, and I am still totally immersed in the world of this poem which resists weeping so desperately the whole thing feels like spring to me, all desire.” PEN America 10 contributor Lucy Corin on Frank O'Hara's “Morning” over at The Rumpus.

“...what stops me is a remark that Franzen makes about his Chinese guide. David Xu has 'the fashionably angular eyeglasses and ingratiating eagerness of an untenured literature professor.' In that throwaway phrase, in its quick malice and wit, I come home... I realize that I'm a sad provincial; for years, I've been living in a place called the English Department.” -- PEN America contributor Amitava Kumar in the minnesota review.

You can read four of the essays from Burn this Book, published by HarperStudio in connection with PEN American Center, at DailyLit, starting with a speech by Toni Morrison, which you can watch her deliver here. See also this review in the Los Angeles Times.

The first story in Knockemstiff, by recent PEN honoree Donald Ray Pollock, is available online.

Jedediah Berry, former associate editor of PEN America, recently published his first novel, The Manual of Detection, and he talks with Geoffrey H. Goodwin at The Mumpsimus. He also gets a nice review from Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books.

PEN America 10 includes a poem by Kyi Maung Than called “Deeperinga,” which is the ancient name for Depeyin, in Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi -- a leader of the National League for Democracy -- and her motorcade were ambushed in 2003. Now, as PEN America contributor George Packer notes, she has suffered a very different kind of ambush, one that may have been well-meaning, but which has nonetheless resulted for her in a stay at Insein Prison, a new trial, and the likely renewal of her current six-year house arrest.


New fiction for the long weekend

The new issue of Granta is a "New Fiction Special," with work by Paul Auster, Amy Bloom, Ha Jin, and many more. Ha Jin's story, "In the Crossfire," is available online. (You can read Ha Jin's tribute to Chinua Achebe in PEN America 8: Making Histories; Paul Auster's tribute to Samuel Beckett in PEN America 5: Silences; and Amy Bloom's tribute to Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen right here on the blog.)

The issue includes a short, untitled piece by Chris Ware -- whose work is also in the new Bookforum, illustrating fiction by Holly Goddard Jones. (And for some animation by Ware, stop by VQR's blog.) Bookforum's new issue includes five other works of fiction, all with illustrations by noted graphic novelists; I'm particularly interested in this excerpt from The Cave Man by Xiaoda Xiao, "a survivor of seven years of forced labor on an island in Taihu Lake in Jiangsu province, where he served in one of Mao’s infamous prison labor-reform brigades." The illustration on the left (click to enlarge), which nods to Yeats, is by Lauren Weinstein, and accompanies fiction by Terrence Holt, introduced by Junot Díaz.

Bookforum also has an interview with Aleksandar Hemon, whose conversation with Rabih Alameddine is in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.

Lastly, the "Spring Books" issue of The Nation is out; among the many essays and reviews is this one on José Manuel Prieto's Rex, written by recent PEN honoree Natasha Wimmer. (And speaking of PEN's recent honorees, here are some highlights from speeches at Tuesday's awards ceremony.) Prieto's tribute to Gabriel García Márquez ran in PEN America 6: Metamorphoses.


Bolaño’s fears, Armenian fiction, etc.

Elissa Bassist has cataloged the phobias in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for The Rumpus -- a catalog that, though I’ve not yet read the book, naturally caught my eye. Among the fears:
Tricophobia: “fear of hair” (where some “cases end in suicide”)

Optophobia: “fear of opening the eyes” (this is “even worse” than the fear of eyes because “in a literal sense, it leads to violent attacks, loss of consciousness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and generally aggressive behavior”)

Phobophobia: “fear of fear itself” (Campos comments, “If you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle.”)
Last night, it so happens, Natasha Wimmer received the PEN Translation Prize for 2666. According to the judges, Wimmer’s “moving translation... perfectly matches the considerable emotional heft of this vast, man-faceted novel, now rightly seen as a milestone in world literature.”

Also celebrated last night were the PEN Translation Fund Grants, which “support the translation of book-length works of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or drama that have not previously appeared in English or have appeared only in an egregiously flawed translation.” Most of these projects are currently without publishers, though if the past is any guide, that will likely change after this recognition.

Among this year’s recipients is Geoffrey Michael Goshgarian for The Remnants by Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), a historical novel widely considered, according to the citation, “one of the greatest masterpieces of Armenian literature,” written in the early 1930s “to save what remained of our people.” You can read an excerpt at Words Without Borders. The introduction to that excerpt describes the book as
a literary reconstruction of the pre-genocide world of the Armenians told through the horrific collapse of a family -- the Nalbandians. The book was to have three parts, but Oshagan was unable to write the third part, which was to be devoted to teh extermination of the Armenians, depicting the twenty-four hours during which the Armenian population of Bursa was annihilated.
The Armenian genocide has been in the news here lately, since Obama -- who said that “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide” during the presidential campaign -- has been treading carefully through the matter lately. And, of course, Orhan Pamuk’s frank acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide is what got him in trouble with the Turkish government -- trouble that, sadly, has recently revived.

In happier news, via the Literary Saloon, Pamuk’s novel Snow recently became the first of his books to appear in Armenian. And speaking of both Armenian artists and The Rumpus, that fledgling website has a new interview up with Atom Egoyan.

PS. I’ve updated the previous post to include a link to Rawi Hage’s piece in the new issue, which is available online. And as long as I'm updating that post, this letter from an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel makes, I think, for a powerful coda.


“Words falling like little drops of arsenic in our body politic”

Barack Obama has apparently changed his mind about releasing up to 2,000 photographs of alleged abuse at American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan; he has decided that releasing the photos might endanger American troops. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers asks “why it is so important for the photos to be released,” since “we know that this behavior occurred,” to which Sullivan replies:
Without photos, we would never have heard of the mass abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.... When the photos were uncovered, revealing clearly what the anodyne words “stress position,” “mock execution,” “forced nudity,” etc., actually meant, we finally were able to hold the government accountable for the abuse it authorized.
This is likely true -- but we might also start to recognize the horror in those “anodyne words.” In a conversation about torture that PEN and the ACS put together in December -- and which appears in abridged form in the new issue -- Scott Horton refers to our many euphemisms for torture (“harsh interrogation techniques” and so forth) as “words falling like little drops of arsenic in our body politic.” Consider the sworn statement we reprinted in the new issue, which we obtained from a book published by the ACLU, The Administration of Torture:

I told ______________ a story I heard in Afghanistan of a dog used during an interrogation. The dog was trained to bark on cue and would bark any time the interrogator had reason to believe the detainee was lying during the interrogation. I told him that this would probably not be allowed, but that the presence of barking dogs in the prison might be effective. I told him of a story of an interrogator using a Pride and Ego Down approach. The interrogator took a copy of a Koran and threw it on the ground and stepped on the Koran, which resulted in a detainee riot. I explained to him that an adjusted sleep schedule was used on detainees in Afghanistan. The process was closely monitored and used to disorient the detainee. Subsequently, I explained that basic approach strategies would be most effective within the first few hours of capture and that they needed to do timely interrogations. The more comfortable a detainee gets with his surroundings, the stronger his resistance becomes.

“Adjusted sleep schedule,” “basic approach strategies”: the sterile language contrasts starkly with the photos that we have already seen, and no doubt with the others possibly still to come. The language of the statement also contrasts with the plain speech of Mourad Benchellali in “Postcard from Camp X-Ray,” published, along with the sworn statement, in PEN America 10. “Postcard” is excerpted from Benchellali’s memoir, Voyage vers l’enfer (translated by Antoine Auduoard and Ruth Koral Marshall, but not yet published in English), and it describes his arrival at Guantánamo:
There are two openings in the wire mesh of my cell door. One is at hand height, the other is level with my ankles. When we’re called over for whatever reason, we’re required to stand close to the door so they can handcuff and chain us through these holes. We’re given plastic flip-flops. The guard barks. I don’t understand, but the gesture’s clear, so I huddle at the back of the cell. He slides two buckets towards me. One is filled with water, for washing. The other is for relieving ourselves. We get a toothbrush with a very short handle, and a tube of toothpaste. Then comes a thin foam mattress, a blanket, a towel. The water bucket has to stay close to the bars. The guard fills it from a hose he pushes through from the other side of the wire fencing, just as you would do for a wild beast.
Another contrast to the “anodyne words” of the sworn statement can be found in the language used by Anouar Benamalek, both in the conversation about torture and in his accompanying one-page statement, also published in the issue, entitled “To Be Human”:
The task of a writer is to repeat endlessly that the person we are torturing is a human being and that when we torture a human being we are no longer human. We must repeat again and again: To torture is not to be human. To torture is to accept disgrace for oneself and for one’s nation. The writer must repeat this again, again, and again.

We chose the title of the issue, “Fear Itself,” with the stories of Benmalek and Benchellali in mind; we did not yet know we would find echoes of their stories elsewhere in the issue -- in particular in the works of fiction by Etgar Keret (in a fable-like and more lighthearted -- but still frightening, I think -- depiction of torture) and, especially, by Rawi Hage. We adapted a piece from Hage’s novel Cockroach in the issue, and the excerpt happens to feature an Algerian professor (Benmalek taught math at the University of Algiers, and in his statement lays out the responsibilities of intellectuals, as he sees them) who is in some indistinct way connected with torture in his native country.

Each time we put together an issue, though, we find echoes and parallels that only become evident (to us, at least) after several readings; discovering them is one of the more rewarding things about working on the journal. These echoes make evident some of the ways that writers respond, however obliquely, to their circumstances, and how these writers can both reflect and illuminate our own experiences, and those of others.

See also: Mark Danner in The New York Review of Books, Gareth Peirce in The London Review of Books, the ACLU blog, and PEN's Campaign for Core Freedoms.


Notes after a busy week

More congratulations are in order: shortly after receiving the good news about Cynthia Ozick's essay, "Ghost Writers" -- published in PEN America 9: Checkpoints -- we were alerted that a short story from the same issue has won a Pushcart Prize. "Soap and Ambergris," by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (the photo on the right is by Beowulf Sheehan), is a powerful piece of fiction -- and the Pushcart folks aren't the first to say so. It's adapted from Yousef's novel The Bottle, which has not yet been published in English -- and which, as The Washington Post reported in 2005, angered some fundamentalists in Yousef's native Saudi Arabia. You can read more about Yousef and other Saudi Arabian writers in this recent article from The National.

I met Yousef at last year's World Voices festival, and I'll have much more to say about the writers at World Voices 2009 in the coming weeks (and even months). For now, I'll simply note that the event celebrating our new issue was terrific -- with a good crowd, excellent readings (by Patricia Spears Jones, Paul LaFarge, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh), and lively conversation (among Jeffrey Lependorf, Colum McCann, Amitava Kumar, and Anya Ulinich). We'll have audio of the event eventually; for now, you can read a thoughtful write-up by Kristen O'Toole.

You can read many other festival write-ups, by the way, at PEN.org; at Words Without Borders; at the Complete Review; and elsewhere. And audio for several events is already available.

Lastly, on a more disappointing note, Wyatt Mason has written the last post for Sentences, his Harper's blog, where he recently made the case for close reading -- and also performed it beautifully (e.g., in a two-part discussion of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland -- which, as you may have heard, President Obama has been reading lately). It's sad to see Sentences go -- though if it leaves Mason more time to write about books elsewhere, that might be a tolerable trade.

Update: Patricia Cohen wrote a nice piece for today's New York Times about the Ken Saro-Wiwa tribute held Saturday as part of World Voices (and co-sponsored by Guernica). Audio from that event is available here. PEN America 2: Home and Away includes an excerpt from Ken Wiwa's book In the Shadow of a Saint, as well as an essay by Larry Siems about Ken's father entitled "Ken Saro-Wiwa: The High Price of Dissent."