Summer Staff Picks
A selection of what our editors have been reading and recommending this summer:
Ashley Nelson Levy, Publisher
Last month I had the opportunity to participate in the Litlink Festival, which brings international authors and editors to Croatia each year for a series of readings and events in different cities around the country. I spent June reading around the region: works from Daša Drndić, Ivo Andrić, Miljenko Jergović, and Dubravka Ugrešić.
Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions) is a stunning novel from the nineties about a life in exile, translated by Celia Hawkesworth. It begins with a list of objects found in the stomach of a walrus—a pink cigarette lighter, a small doll, a compass, a padlock, a woman’s bracelet (probably silver)—and what follows is a similarly strange aggregation of memories, in the form of photographs, diary entries, six stories with an angel, reflections on art, history, loss, and family folklore. Hybrid novels are found more frequently these days, but as I read I felt like Ugrešić was truly inventing the form, capturing how a life’s story splinters when there is no longer a homeland to hold it upright. Her most recent novel, Fox, has just come out this year with Open Letter Books.
Adam Levy, Publisher
A class is given two texts, one a translation into English from the French, the other the French original, and asked to critique the translation. How would you go about it? What are the things you'd look for? Predictably, perhaps, the class comes up with the usual stuff—the writing's clunky here, stiff there, etc.—only the labels of the two texts have been swapped. What the class was led to believe was a translation was written first in English, and the French "original," its translation. In her wonderful book This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo), Kate Briggs describes this scene to demonstrate the way the so-called promise of representation and its accompanying categories, like original and translation, "orientate and determine, in quite striking ways, the way writing gets read." Briggs's book is an expansive, critical inquiry into the way we engage with texts that have been, you could say, re-effected in another language. It's also a lot of fun. A strong contender for my most scribbled-in-the-margin book this year.
Liza St. James, Editor-at-Large
A Brief Alphabet of Torture (FC2) is, at times, a torture to read, but in a way that feels vital. Every story in the collection opens out into a new universe, each with its own concerns. In “I Ask the Sentence,” Vi Khi Nao writes, “I ask the sentence to move across the carpet floor. I ask it to not drag its paragraphical legs while doing so.” Nao holds her sentences to a standard that makes her grammatical constructions and word choices as surprising as the actions in her stories, from one in which frying fish is used to stink a neighbor out of an apartment building to a sexual fantasy/horror story featuring a watermelon-man. Her work is risky and unpredictable—sometimes humorous, sometimes gruesome, often sexy, and often filled with pain. Nao is so prolific across genres that she has already published two poetry books since this collection was released: Umbilical Hospital (1913 Press) and Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit), as well as a chapbook, The Room (Projective Industries). While it’s tough to keep up with all her work, it’s oh so worth it.
I read Jennifer Hayashida’s debut poetry collection, A Machine Wrote This Song (Gramma), all in one go, and then went back and did so again. Also a translator, Hayashida brings a translation-centered perspective to her poems, and as I read I felt her language break down, interrupt, revise, and rematerialize itself. Syntax here seems sentient, and polyvalences arise in accretion. Between languages, geographies, bodies, families, memories, and machines there is both connection and loss. In “On Tourism”: “Each port hole a moon socket, the poem a lazy eye cast upon capitols of / industry and import/export, the canal a phenomenon of necessity, near-tectonic / interventions prompted by the ideal line between Here and There.” It’s out recently from Seattle-based Gramma, and I’ve also loved their colorful Risograph-printed newsletter, the “Monthly Gramma.” The first one I received in the mail had “Proxies,” one of my favorite poems from Hayashida’s collection, on one side, and poems from their online “Weekly Gramma,” excerpts, events info, and intriguing thirty-word reviews on the other.