Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Are there unintended consequences to imaginary travel?

Immersed in an imaginary Galápagos--translating Beyond the Islands--I have been travelling, mentally, for years.  I hope people will read the translation and "travel" as well. And yet, a fragile ecosystem like that of the Galápagos Islands can only support so many visitors. Am I part of the problem? How many people might finish the book and them jump on a plane? What will happen when they get there?
Visitors to the islands marvel at the extraordinary richness of life (and marvel that life survives at all) yet worry about the islands' destruction, a dynamic common to both fiction and travel guides. The numerous guides to the islands' flora, fauna, and tourist accommodations are, to varying degrees, at once advocates for their preservation and promoters of the islands as a unique and desirable destination. The foreword to Pierre Constant's Galápagos: A Natural History Guide extols the islands' beauty, then sounds the alarm, citing rising numbers of visitors and residents, among other threats, and concluding that "the Galápagos must be safeguarded as the innocence of the world. [. . .] The magic of 'Las Encantadas' may one day disappear under the surface of the waves, but by then, humans would have gone long before" (9). The reader is placed at the threshold of Eden, on the verge of expulsion yet, perhaps, with a chance to turn back--Shades of Vonnegut's Galápagos, with its apocalyptic premise and misleading brochures. Overuse of natural resources places the Galápagos at risk, as another guidebook puts it, of "too many tourists 'loving' the islands to death" (Smith 288). The authors of The New Key to Ecuador and the Galápagos write, "We do realize that we are promoting tourism to the Galápagos with this book, while at the same time lamenting the increased numbers of tourists. Our hope is that appropriate quotas are enforced and that tourists to the Galápagos respect the animals and land while contributing to the benefit of the park" (Pearson and Middleton 405).
Ecologically, the threat of looming catastrophe is hardly far-fetched. The islands have seen huge increases in settlement and in visitors, as well as in problems caused by over-fishing. In 2004, some 108,583 people visited the islands (Constant 7). In April of 2007, the government of Rafael Correa declared an emergency in the Galápagos; in June of that year, UNESCO declared the archipelago "endangered." Some 35,000 colonists now live in the Galápagos, more than double the estimated 12,000 living there in 1990 (Bassett 12, 14).
The Galápagos evoked in Alicia Yánez Cossío's Más allá de las islas/Beyond the Islands are both real and unreal. Blending humor and social commentary, Yánez Cossío uses the islands' isolation and the overlapping discourses surrounding them (evolutionary biology, ecotourism, pirate stories) to address issues also present within mainland Ecuador. She draws on the history and folklore surrounding the Galápagos, including varying accounts of their discovery and settlement, their scientific importance, and the place of the archipelago in world tourism. The setting is not accidental, as these specific islands invite readers to think about change and evolution (and about chance and accident) in particular ways. At the same time, the narrative treatment of the islands is not limited to a strictly realistic representation. The name of the islands appears only twice in the novel--one of those times in the Latin name of the Galápagos hawk.
Taken in the context of the multiple threats posed by settlement, tourism, and climate change, the novel's title suggests that tenable, sustainable solutions can be achieved only by somehow reaching beyond present realities and terms of debate. This is perhaps even more true today than when the novel was first published in 1980. Unlike the natural history or tourist literature about the islands, Yánez Cossío's novel focuses on the human population. Pablo Ospina writes that an analysis of photographs in illustrated books or tourist guides reveals that 98% are nature photographs while only 2% include people--generally tourists. This, he argues, creates the impression that the islands are uninhabited and that visitors will find a reserve entirely dedicated to preservation ("islas enteramente consagradas a la protección de la naturaleza" 165). By contrast, the novel links the islands as place of isolation or refuge and eventual renewal with a consideration of the creative process and its importance in individual identity. In Yánez Cossío's rewriting of the archipelago, the greatest destructive force is not environmental degradation but human intolerance.
Whether reading fiction that ranges far from an individual's experience builds global tolerance is an open question. Nor would I ever propose a strictly self-improvement model of reading. I don't read novels just because they're good for me (though my well-being is regularly restored by fiction).
But it's worth underlining: imaginatively, writers--and readers--travel freely, widely, even impossibly, but not necessarily without consequences.

Bassett, Carol Ann. Galápagos at the Crossroads. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
Constant, Pierre. Galápagos: A Natural History Guide. 7th. ed. Hong Kong: Odyssey, 2006.
Ospina, Pablo. "Región y nación en la formación de las identidades galapagueñas." Procesos: Revista Ecuatoriana de Historia 19 (2002-2003): 151-69.
Pearson, David, and David Middleton. The New Key to Ecuador and the Galápagos. 2nd. ed. Berkeley: Ulysses, 1997.
Smith, Julian. Moon Handbooks Ecuador, Including the Galápagos Islands. 3rd. ed. Emeryville, California: Avalon, 2005.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. 1985. New York: Dell, 1999.
Yánez Cossío, Alicia. Beyond the Islands. Trans. Amalia Gladhart. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2011 (forthcoming).
---. Más allá de las islas. 1st. ed. Quito: Colegio Técnico "Don Bosco," 1980.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Evolving Fictions (Galápagos novels)

The Galápagos Islands are both familiar and exotic, a commonplace of short-hand evolutionary theory ("everyone knows" Charles Darwin used his observations there to develop his theory of natural selection) that despite the boom in tourism over the last three decades, relatively few people will ever visit. Sixteenth-century sailors called the islands "enchanted" because they seemed to appear and disappear. For Ecuador, the islands, annexed in 1832 and first settled as a penal colony, have been a destination for impoverished colonists from the mainland, a military base, a source of revenue and of national pride, and a hotly disputed area in which the interests of local fishermen, settlers, tour operators, and conservationists come into conflict. Described and re-imagined by novelists, poets, nature writers, and essayists, as well as by filmmakers, the islands have become a "written archipelago." The theme of a paradise in danger of being corrupted--or already corrupted--appears repeatedly, in both fiction and nonfiction. Darwin, in his diary, wrote of Chatham Island, "The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be" (304). The narrator of Herman Melville's "The Encantadas" observes, "In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist" (127).
To set a novel, or part of a novel, in the Galápagos is to open questions of evolution, origin, and change; the setting carries with it rich conceptual and metaphorical baggage. Whether or not the location is ultimately central to the story, the reader will expect the islands to mean something. While readers' contact with the islands may come more from travel guides and ecological accounts (there are many excellent guides as well as recent histories that discuss both political and environmental events in the archipelago), poetry and fiction set in the Galápagos also reveal an emphasis on the movement (of humans and other species) to and from the islands, and a consciousness that what we read often determines where we go.
Much Galápagos writing has happened outside Ecuador, but the islands have been a focus within Ecuador as well, particularly in the work of writers Alicia Yánez Cossío, Efraín Jara Idrovo, and Gustavo Vásconez Hurtado. Jara Idrovo, for instance, spent several years in the Galápagos during the 1950s. In his long poem "sollozo por pedro jara," the search for the son's name unites the poet's search for the right word, the stone contained in the name Pedro (Peter), and the stones of the rocky islands. (Cecilia Mafla Bustamante's translation of the poem appears in the journal ISLE (5.1, 1998). [] Yánez Cossío's third novel, Mas allá de las islas [Beyond the Islands], first published in 1980, rewrites the archipelago in a parable of destruction and renewal, while a second novel related to the Galápagos, Esclavos de Chatham, treats the sufferings, rebellion, and trial of a group of presumed criminals who arrived in Guayaquil in 1904, having escaped from Chatham Island (today known as San Cristóbal) where they had been the prisoners of Manuel J. Cobos. The exploits and disappearance of the vanished Baroness Bousequet von Wagner in the 1930s remain staples of fictional and nonfiction accounts of the islands. Gustavo Vásconez Hurtado's novelLa isla de los gatos negros offers an interpretation of events surrounding the baroness closely linked to presumed espionage work for the Germans and the Japanese on the part of the protagonists.
Novels written outside of Ecuador often take the Galápagos as an exotic backdrop against which to place characters working out personal dilemmas unrelated to their locale (as in Cathleen Schein's The Evolution of Jane) or as one stop among many on a longer sea voyage (Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of the World). In Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species, the protagonist is an "accidental tourist" (with apologies to Anne Tyler), a man who, on that other mainstay of South American adventure tourism, the Inca Trail, was urged by another traveler to visit the islands that he subsequently finds unwelcoming and unreal: "The landscape was freakish, barren near the shore but slowly giving way to grey half-soil studded with grey shrub, the vegetation spaced out so evenly it looked sinister" (236). While the protagonist's trip pushes him to the edge of survival and humanity, the central themes of the novel, relating to memory and origins (of personality or motivation more than of species) might have been evoked by any harsh environment. In Melville's enchanted isles, life comes from elsewhere, and mainly in the form of the trash that litters "wide level beaches of multitudinous dead shells, with here and there decayed bits of sugar-cane, bamboos, and cocoanuts, washed upon this other and darker world from the charming palm isles to the westward and southward; all the way from Paradise to Tartarus" (127). Melville combines excess and emptiness, the furthest heaven and the deepest, lightless pits of hell, so that the islands appear unchanging, uninhabitable, and yet constantly washed by the perpetually variable sea, populated only by reptiles and by plants that are somehow incomplete, "tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and without a name" (127).
Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos are a haven of possible renewal, one in which the sole survivors of a series of catastrophes--among them a global financial collapse--are a group of improbable castaways shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalía. Vonnegut's novel resonates most strongly with Yánez Cossío's satirical, sometimes whimsical, vision. Leon Trout, narrator of Vonnegut's novel, highlights the element of chance in the evolution of human opinion as he observes, "If Charles Darwin had not declared the Galápagos Islands marvelously instructive, Guayaquil would have been just one more hot and filthy seaport" (16). In his recap of the islands' history, Trout notes that the Spanish "did not claim the islands for Spain, any more than they would have claimed hell for Spain" (18). When Ecuador later stakes its claim, "It was as though Ecuador, in a spasm of imperialistic dementia, had annexed to its territory a passing cloud of asteroids" (18). Curiously, like Yánez Cossío's Beyond the Islands, Vonnegut's novel also includes a plague of infertility, this one caused by mysterious bacteria. In Vonnegut's text, the archipelago makes possible the survival of the human species, which has died out elsewhere on earth. Granted, a million years have passed, and the humans of the novel's present have changed--evolved--so that they are now a species very similar to seals, a species that lacks the enormous brain that Leon Trout (a ghost), blames for all of the disasters suffered by humans in the distant past. Vonnegut's novel both comments upon and contributes to the recycling of prior descriptions of the islands as either inferno or paradise. Through the device of a tour brochure that includes Darwin's description of the islands in The Voyage of the Beagle, Trout is able simultaneously to cite a fictional advertisement "intended to delight nature-lovers rather than pleasure-seekers" and to reproduce, again, Darwin's stark assessment of that uninviting place (13). That Darwin's statement--"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance" of the islands--is being used to sell tickets is a further irony.


Darwin, Charles. Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Ed. Nora Barlow. The Works of Charles Darwin. Vol. 1. Ed. Paul H. Barrett and R.B. Freeman. New York: New York UP, 1987.
Jara Idrovo, Efraín. El mundo de las evidencias. Obra poética, 1945-1998. Ed. María Augusta Vintimilla. Quito: Libresa/Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 1999.
Melville, Herman. "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles." The Piazza Tales. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996. 125-73.
O'Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. 1984. New York: Norton, 1992.
Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2009.
Schine, Cathleen. The Evolution of Jane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Vásconez Hurtado, Gustavo. La isla de los gatos negros: (Galápagos). 1973. Quito: Ediciones Libri Mundi, 1993.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. 1985. New York: Dell, 1999.
Yánez Cossío, Alicia. Beyond the Islands. Trans. Amalia Gladhart. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2011 (forthcoming).
---. Esclavos de Chatham. Cuenca: Editorial Sano Placer, 2006.
---. Más allá de las islas. 1st. ed. Quito: Colegio Técnico "Don Bosco," 1980

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To the island beyond and back--restoration and introduction

 In college, needing to fulfill the natural science requirements that came with my social science major (and taking full advantage of Michigan State's generous honors options to sign up for classes well out of my league) I took a class on plant biogeography in which we spent quite a lot of time on islands. Besides the graduation requirement, I think I was mainly looking for possible subjects for poems. I don't think I finished any poems out of that class, but I did keep thinking about islands.

Cover by UNO Press
Translating Alicia Yánez Cossío's Más allá de las islas--forthcoming this summer from UNO Press with the English title, Beyond the Islands--I found myself thinking about (reading about, researching about) islands in general. The novel is set in the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago much written about by scientists, travelers, and poets, and re-imagined by Yánez Cossío as a space that might hold not only endemic wildlife and unusual plants, but ageless pirates, ingenuous lovers, and determined teachers.  

The biological importance of the Galápagos is due in large part to the high incidence of endemism in the islands. That endemism, in turn, is threatened by (among other things) introduced species. In New Zealand last month, I had the good fortune to visit Kapiti Island, a nature preserve a short distance by boat from Paraparaumu, about an hour north of Wellington. Kapiti, too, has suffered from introduced predators (possums, rats, mice) and, like the Galápagos, has undergone extensive eradication efforts. Every few feet along the Kapiti trails, there are traps and signs warning of poison. But there aren't, so far as we know, any possums or rats.

Kapiti Island (Rangatira)
Unlike the Galápagos, Kapiti Island has also been used as a refuge, a place where species at risk of extinction elsewhere in New Zealand have been introduced and have managed to thrive. So that while restoration of habitat and of native species has been a chief concern, a new ecosystem has also been created--or if new is too strong a word, a variant balance--as each introduced species must occupy or carve out suitable niche for itself. Paradise restored, or paradise reinvented?

The little spotted kiwi is perhaps the best example. I spent over two hours creeping around on grassy or forest paths with a patient, good-humored guide, listening to the kiwis call to one another and, at last, seeing the soft, rustling rush in the underbrush that was a kiwi rummaging around in the leaf litter for food. The takahe, by contrast, wandered around in the sunshine, easy to spot.

More on Galápagos novels soon. Right now I'm thinking about the tensions between restoration and reinvention, contact and contamination, travel and hospitality. Some guests are welcome to stay a while, even set up a lean-to out back; others we can't be rid of soon enough.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Words and Music

On my last long flight, I sat next to a Russian couple. I know exactly enough Russian to be pretty certain that's what they were speaking; not enough to pick out any words. Because of that, their conversation was only sound to me--even musical--and pleasant to listen to as I drifted off to sleep. I wasn't tempted (or obliged) to eavesdrop as I often do on planes.

Not that eavesdropping is all bad. Jane Smiley, in a much-shared interview, recently advocated eavesdropping and gossip as writing techniques [Jane Smiley's writing advice]. Elena Poniatowska, speaking at the University of Oregon last spring, said--I think I'm quoting correctly--"la literatura es un plagio universal," adding that we all hear things, we all overhear things and incorporate them. (See my colleague Pedro García Caro's interview with Poniatowska for more on her views at that time--though the writer inadvertently scavenging the airwaves doesn't come up in their conversation [A Contracorriente]). I've sat in coffee shops with notebook or laptop, busily transcribing the bizarre conversation happening at the next table.

And I've nodded off, cradled in a net of unfamiliar sounds. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel presents the multitude of languages as a punishment, humans condemned to mutual incomprehension. But from another angle, the multitude of languages is a gift, and part of that gift is the variety of sound, the real pleasure of listening to the ways different languages organize the range of sounds a human voice can make according to wildly differing patterns.

I wrote back in October about the pleasures of listening to others read. Tomorrow I'll have the chance to read at another translation event, this one including music and multiple languages (Spanish, French, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian). In our rehearsals, we have all enjoyed listening to the sounds and rhythms of languages we may not hear often. We toyed with the idea of simply reading passages from various writers, without translation. We opted, finally, for sense as well as sound, so that each selection will be read in the original as well as in an English translation. But I think it will be the aural texture of the event--different voices, different languages, different instruments--that may be most memorable.

If you're in Eugene, come on down to Opus VII Gallery, Thurs. Jan 6 at 5:30.