Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers

It’s no secret that us English-speakers think very highly of ourselves. What’s less obvious is how that pomposity affects the dissemination of media. According to Words Without Borders, “50 percent of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6 percent are translated into English” (Schnee, Mason, and Felman, xi). I could not locate an updated statistic, but the prevailing sentiment holds that we think we’re BFDs, and we’re missing out on a wealth of literature as a result.

Words without Borders (WWB) is a magazine that bridges the gap by translating and publishing international literature. Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers* is a particularly innovative anthology published by the organization in 2007. WWB asked 28 esteemed authors to choose their favorite short story or poem that had not seen the English light of day. Their choices were translated from a wide array of languages: Arabic, Chinese, Italian, and Spanish, to name a few.

I couldn’t help but agree with author Ariel Dorman, who felt disturbed that many stories remain “shipwrecked and without a translator” (Schnee, Mason, and Felman, 344). Nowadays, we are so bogged down by the politics of physical borders that we narrow-mindedly focus on one goal: what is pragmatic? I’m not saying throw rationality by the wayside, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to understand the cultures that we’re turning into numbers? To expand our perspective through knowledge and empathy? Literature is a resource in that regard. What better way to learn about a different world that to hear from someone immersed in it?

As you might expect in an anthology, some stories are better than others. One of my favorites is “Revulsion” originally written in Spanish by Horacio Castellanos Moya. It is the El Salvadorian version of The Catcher in the Rye and it appeals to all of my unintelligible angst. Another favorite is “The Scripture Read Backward” originally written in Bengali by Parashuram. It ironically inverts the India-Britain post-colonial power structure, lending India the upper hand.

After reading this story, my respect for translators skyrocketed. To be honest, I hadn’t put much thought into the process until then. A translator is tasked with capturing the language and the subtle meanings. They must retain the author’s nuances. Even something as straightforward as alliteration proves difficult. Furthermore, you must have a decent mastery of the culture and history behind the text you’re translating. Sukanta Chaudhuri, the translator of Parashuram’s work, had to have a working knowledge of what colonial dynamics were like in order to catch Parashuram’s idiosyncratic jabs at Britain.

Admittedly, there are stories in the collection that I’m not crazy about. One complaint I have is that the majority of the stories hint at oppression in some form. Of course, oppression happens in all nations, including our own; however, when you’re dealing with an anthology intent on increasing access to foreign works, and most of those works have a subjugation theme, you run the risk of associating foreign nations with subjugation—at the expense of other wonderful cultural happenings in that nation. Still, this is a small taste of the many works that WWB provides us and their mission to alter the one-way translation street is laudable overall.

As such, I give Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers 4 out of 5 camel humps. The immense respect between authors is beautiful to witness. Writers we know and love, like José Saramago, go to bat for their beloved non-English works, and we listen to them and learn from them. Reading the collection made me feel like I’d cleansed my Westernized mind… and feel less guilty about forgetting all of the Spanish I learned in high school. To get that same feeling, I recommend you at least check out WWB’s site!

* Schnee, Mason, and Felman, eds. Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Print.

*n.p. Words Without Borders, 2016. Web. 27 April 2016.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Awakening

Let’s get one thing straight: the actions/thoughts of a character are distinguishable from the actions/thoughts of the author who created that character. Perhaps Freud would disagree, but I don’t believe that every writer necessarily gravitates towards stories populated by a bunch of mini-mes. Readers too hung up on Humbert Humbert’s perversion as an extension of Nabokov himself totally miss out on the incredible prose of Lolita. People have imaginations. Artists like to use them. 

For the most part, the men and women of 1899 begged to differ. When Kate Chopin published The Awakening*, people simply could not deal.  A book about a woman, Edna Pontellier, who *awakens* to the notion that she is no one’s possession—not her husband’s, not her children’s, not even her lover’s? God forbid. A book about a woman who realizes her own humanity and acknowledges that sometimes being a human means feeling a little capricious? Thanks, but no thanks. Her Victorian peers could not get past Chopin’s explosion of gender norms, so they shunned both Chopin and her book.

So, what about readers in this day and age, over a hundred years later? They’re certainly less shocked by female infidelity, but some are still not that impressed. Complaints I’ve heard usually revolve around the fact that Edna isn’t unlikable because she values her independence; she’s unlikeable because she values her independence over everything else. Edna is a mother of two when she experiences her psychological rebirth and she’s fairly candid as to how she sees herself in relation to them. She says, “I would give up the nonessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin, 62). She doesn’t hate her kids. Rather, she becomes conscious of the fact that motherhood is only a portion of her identity. The veil of blind contentment is lifted and her socially appropriated role can no longer contain her expanded identity. 

I understand that Edna does not react to her awakening in a totally reasonable, moral way. But would we really expect her to—in a time still twenty years shy of women being able to vote? Her emotions have been tempered and her opinions have been ignored for so long that they are bound to erupt in the opposite direction.  She might come across as immature and selfish but up to that point she has lived her life in a completely selfless way, sacrificing her own desires and needs—her essential self-- for her husband and children. Maybe cut her a little bit of slack?

I never thought of Edna as an asshole, but I did think Kerouac was one. I watched him gallivant around in On the Road, encouraging and enabling his friend Dean to eschew his responsibilities as a father. Maybe Edna’s decision to start doing whatever she wanted to do, even if it wasn’t beneficial to her children, is easier for me to digest because she’s a fictional character. Edna is a symbol for the liberation of women and an important milestone in feminist writing; Dean Moriarity is an actual man (Neal Cassady) who in real-life treated his kids and his (many) women in atrocious ways. Maybe I justify Edna but not Jack and his gang because Kerouac’s writing skills disappointed me whereas Chopin strung beautiful sentences together like it ain’t no thang. One of my favorite sentences in all of literature belongs to her and speaks of Edna—“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was become herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Chopin, 75). What an absolutely beautiful way of portraying Mr. Pontellier’s limited perspective and Edna’s multilayered, enlivening persona.

 Indeed, Chopin’s novel is ahead of her time in content and in scope. Her use of the sea as a symbol of Edna’s endless possibilities is effective. It also adds to the novel’s sensual undercurrent, if you will. Describing Edna, she says, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (Chopin, 34). Chopin is not overtly sexual, rather she seamlessly intertwines sensuality in her work, as when she writes, “…the same glance which had penetrated to the sleeping places of her soul and awakened them” (Chopin, 131).

                Overall, I think that The Awakening is a significant book for men and women alike and it deserves 5 out of 5 camel humps. When you read it, ask yourself how you feel about Edna. Are you inspired by her renewed sense of wonder or are you put off by how she redefines the concept of a caregiver? Should she have to attend to others if she’s not allowed to attend to herself? These questions are ultimately moral dilemmas that are relevant to today’s society as well. Consider how your response to Edna might reflect your own expectations of women and how those expectations shape the social-equality landscape today.

*Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Bantam Books, 1899. Print.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Fight Club

            The first rule of reading this book blog is that you tell everyone you know about it. The second rule of reading this book blog is that you tell everyone you know about it.

            Sound familiar? I know that it’s Fight Club* and we’re not supposed to discuss it, but this is a group hell-bent on defying the rules so I think they’ll honor an exception. If you’ve been living in a hole and haven’t read Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel or seen David Fincher’s 1999 film, here’s a brief rundown for you without giving anything major away:

A run-of-the-mill man (unnamed narrator--Edward Norton) encounters a charismatic man (Tyler Durden--Brad Pitt) who offers him a new perspective on life. Both men are caught in a love triangle with an unstable, adventurous woman (Marla Singer--Helena Bonham Carter).  The unnamed man feels dissatisfied despite the fact that he’s accumulated a near-perfect furniture set in his apartment. And don’t even get him started on his refrigerator! He’s “collected shelves full of different mustards, some stone-ground, some English pub style. There were fourteen different flavors of fat-free salad dressing, and seven kinds of capers” (Palahniuk, 45). But he’s treading water. He’s experiencing life in such a dull, zombified way that he actually craves death as an event that would liberate him. Tyler swoops in just in time as his deliverance. He doesn’t come bearing Buddha’s recommendation to strip yourself of your possessions and discard your mustard collection in order to reach nirvana. Instead, he insists on total anarchy. Destroy everything in the current system and rebuild! Society has devolved such that everyone is a slave to their job and their bank accounts just so that they can make a bunch of money to buy shit that they don’t need. Maybe the only way to truly feel alive is to take back our own dominance and dignity by emancipating ourselves from the institutions that control us and abolishing the rulebooks of our generation.

So, Tyler gives the narrator a new set of rules in the form of Fight Club. Men come together, rip off their shirts, and beat the living daylights out of each other. A microcosm for how Tyler thinks we should be reacting to our present fates and a chance to taste the sweetness of death so that the fighter might really live. When Fight Club stops fully scratching the morbid fascination itch, he ups the salvation ante with Project Mayhem—an organization designed to wreak havoc on the world. He states, “the goal [is] to teach each man in the project that he [has] the power to control history” (Palahniuk, 122).

Project Mayhem geeks me out. Members tag cars with “Drunk Drivers Against Mothers” bumper stickers (Palahniuk, 144). Tyler leaves the following note: “I have passed an amount of urine into at least one of your many elegant fragrances” next to a table holding a hundred perfume bottles that belong to some rich prick (Palahniuk, 82). And indeed, the novel and the film are very funny, even while brutally preoccupied with mortality. After all, it’s a satirical work and Palahniuk is as comically inventive as he is candidly dark. What started out as just a seven-page short story unfurled into a two hundred-page masterpiece that leaves you laughing, angry, disturbed, and depressed.

Fight Club takes the sentiments of Office Space and hands them to a deranged insomniac. We’re somewhat accustomed to the representation of this kind of daring and disastrous defiance of conventions in film today, but audiences were less prepared back in 1999. Many reviewers balked at the film, which rarely deviates from the text and more often than not uses direct quotes. The impassioned, polarized responses matched the intensity of the message in the film, with some viewers concerned by its potential promotion of violence. But the enormous cultural impact eventually overshadowed the film’s box-office disappointment. It’s a cult classic that struck a nerve with many Americans steeped in consumerism and frustration.

I watched the movie prior to reading the book. When I first saw it, I loved it because I was 18—I didn’t know anything about anything and Fight Club posed some edgy questions that appealed to my desire to be *different*. I had zero reason to feel deeply dissatisfied with the current order, but I admired the film because it was raw, in-your-face, and incredibly entertaining. I still think those things, but now I appreciate the satire. The book and the movie are so similar in execution that they’re practically inseparable in my mind. They both provoke an urgency to confront an important issue: you are definitely going to die, so how are you going to live? Not to mention the impeccable casting. Edward Norton perfectly resembles the punk ass bitch you imagine the narrator to be, Brad Pitt is an obvious idealized version of manhood and strength, and Helena Bonham Carter is, as always, believable in her quirky sensuality. In fact, Palahniuk insists that the novel is a romance.

I’m sure that the book + film are upsetting to some, but if life isn’t always rainbows and Chili’s, then our media shouldn’t be either. I respect Chuck Palahniuk for not backing down at all in the narrator’s quest to control his own life and redefine the concepts of completeness and perfection. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a disturbing twist and a constant thread of dark comedy. As such, Fight Club (the novel and the movie) each receive 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996. Print.