Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Time and Place: Past/Present/Spring/Fall

I'll be teaching in Rosario in the fall. I always say "fall" when I announce this plan, though it will be spring in Argentina. It is almost impossible for me to think of October as anything other than autumn--I can imagine the month with different weather than that of Oregon or Michigan, but it's hard to affix a different label. This may be one more tell-tale sign of a person who, as my children like to remind me, never managed to leave school. Deformación profesional. For a translator-traveler, it doesn't bode well.

One of the stray details I recall from high school geometry is the idea of translation across a line. In September, I will "translate" myself across the Equator. Translate myself from the fall to the spring quadrant, plotting coordinates that in all likelihood are not functionally equivalent.

I've done this before. But in highland Ecuador, more on the Equator than across it, the seasons weren't marked, or the weather seemed spring-like when I expected spring, or persistent drought threw everything out of whack, so none of us--locals or visitors--knew what to expect.

In preparation for a spatial translation, I'm reading as much as I can. On the page--across the page--I translate just fine, to alternate realities, different worlds, parallel universes, an unbecoming future or a still imperfect past. Right now, I'm mid-way through Angélica Gorodischer's Trafalgar. (To my knowledge, the full collection hasn't been translated, though the first story, "A la luz de la casta luna electrónica"--"By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon"--appears in Fares and Hermann's anthology, Contemporary Argentinean Women Writers (1998), translated by Linda Britt.)

The book takes place, sort of, in Rosario. It is told in Rosario, as the inter-galactic salesman Trafalgar Medrano relates his travels and adventures to an unnamed listener/narrator (a woman who keeps cats and brews bad coffee). Questions of translation permeate the narrative, not only as demanded by encounters with the inhabitants of other worlds, but as a preoccupation or labor of the people (beings?) Trafalgar encounters, such as the linguist Veri Halabi in "La sensatez del círculo."

My current favorite, though, is "De navegantes." In this tale, Trafalgar visits the court of Isabel of Castilla in 1492--traveling not in time, but to a world that is nearly identical to the one he and his interlocutor inhabit some 500 years later. In either world, it's a pivotal moment in Spanish and world history. It's the seed of origin myths (the canon of Latin American literature often starts with Colón) and counter-discourses, dominion and resistance. Everything Trafalgar describes is familiar, except that it's not.

Trafalgar changes history, shifting the parameters of the conquest, though he isn't able to stick around and see how things turn out. The ethical clichés of time-travel fiction--the caution against meddling with events that seem all but foreordained, because of what we "know" comes later--are turned upside down.

No, turned sideways. Translated across a different axis. This is a parallel world, remember, just a degree or two off plumb. The seasons may be different, or they may be other seasons, seasons that only look the same from a distance.

It's a story I will keep thinking about. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tasting Notes

Over Valentine's Day weekend, to vary the admittedly delicious but oft-repeated wine and chocolate theme, I was invited to put together a writers' event for Winter's Hill Vineyard. We settled on the theme, "Word and Wine Tasting," and set out--tongue firmly in cheek--to prepare tasting notes that might pair our readings with suitable wines. We were three poets, two fiction writers, reading from published work and work-in-progress. I thought it would be easy--piece of cake, glass of wine. Then I found that, like most writing exercises, it was harder than it looked. Or sounded. 

I read from my novel manuscript, WISDOME. The novel includes several short segments of mysteries that feature the intrepid Vancouver detective, Sgt. String. What might one sip with such a story? This, in part, is what I came up with:

A complex dessert wine of character and verve makes the ideal foil to the Sgt. String mysteries excerpted within the novel. Pair a  2006 Winter's Hill Vineyard Golden Nectar with a culinary mystery with a hint of spice. Mineral and almond shell notes greet the nose before the wine opens to bitter citrus, sage, and white pepper, with candied nuts and sharp apple in the long finale--just right for savoring the solution to a crisp whodunit.

Now, there's no need to limit word pairings to wine. I associate Anna Karenina with Cadbury Creme Eggs, of which I ate far too many while I was reading the novel in high school (not for school, if that matters). Might the disappointment of the occasional dud egg, its filling crystallized, not gooey, echo Anna's sadness and frustration? The smothering smoothness of chocolate, the beginning of a love affair? And then there's the question of forbidden treats, because there's no way I was allowed to eat as many of those chocolate eggs as I remember consuming. But these are pairings after the fact, rather than recommendations: a recollection of what I ate while reading, and so an association between food and book that is largely incidental, if enduring.

Besides, one isn't supposed to read while eating, or eat while reading. The diet gurus' first commandment is to stop and pay attention to your food. Still, what might one read with a plate of purple broccoli? What might one read to the cook? 

I remember hearing Diane Wakoski read a poem about a student returning a book with Cheetos stains on the pages. Another time, Marge Piercy read a poem about the pear you take along on a plane trip, that piece of fruit there's never an occasion to eat--too messy for the flight, and then your host offers you a snack--and the poor pear travels on, bruised, disintegrating, somehow too good to throw away. I am probably getting the poem all wrong--I just remember that pear, and the unwillingness to discard what one is equally unwilling to eat--so apologies to Piercy for mangling her poem, though perhaps there's some merit in remembering it all these years.

Mistrusting my memory, I just went looking for Diane's poem. I found it in The Butcher's Apron. It's "The Fear of Fat Children," first published in The Rings of Saturn. (Bizarrely, on the shelf beside it, one of my own children had left a small pink eraser in a tiny cardboard carton decorated with strawberries and the warning:  ERASER DO NOT EAT.) There are no Cheetos in the poem; maybe she just mentioned orange grease when introducing it, or maybe I imagined the whole thing. But there is wonderful food, and ambivalence, and fear.

Still, these are poems about eating. Our tasting notes, by contrast, suggested what to drink while listening.

Once started, it's easy to keep going. Pair a bitter café con leche in a Spanish bar with the newspaper left at the end of the counter, already read by an earlier-rising patron, its pages shuffled loose, fanning and fluttered. Match the frizzy astringency of ginger ale with embarrassingly bad love poems. A hoppy pale ale with a travel memoir that dances on the edge of credibility.

Just about anything reads well with hot tea. It's best if the tea is still scalding, meaning I've just sat down. It's morning; I have time. The pages are crisp and I am ready to be pleased.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Argentina Reading Challenge--Book List

As promised last week, my list of picks for Ficciones, the 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge. The challenge starts next week, but you can join at any time. I'm teaching all Argentine plays this quarter, and re-reads count, but it seems like cheating to just upload my syllabus. So these are my choices so far, in no particular order. I may amend the list as the year rolls along. I look forward to hearing about what others are reading, too!
  1. Trafalgar, by Angélica Gorodischer. I've just begun work on a translation of another of Gorodischer's books--Cómo triunfar en la vida--and this is one I haven't read.
  2. Buenos Aires in Translation: a collection of four recent plays translated by Jean Graham-Jones. More on the plays one-by-one as I read them.
  3. I was going to read Steps Under Water, by Alicia Kozameh (English translation by David E. Davis), because I heard her give an amazing reading a number of years ago, when a colleague invited her to campus. She was a little thrown by the silence in the Q & A; we were speechless, still absorbing. But in assembling this list, I find a more recent book, also in translation and one I was unaware of: 259 Leaps, the Last Immortal, translated by Clare Sullivan. I'll read that one.
  4. Moira Sullivan, by Juan José Delaney. One of his stories is included in the October 2010 Words without Borders issue, Beyond Borges--if you haven't yet, check it out [here]--and this sounded intriguing. I've been reading plays about Italian immigration to Argentina. Delaney's work takes up the Irish experience.
  5. Los crímenes de Oxford, by Guillermo Martínez. Another Words without Borders tip.
  6. And back from "beyond" to Borges, with On Writing in the new Penguin Classics edition edited by Suzanne Jill Levine.
And to all, a good read!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ficciones-- 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge

This isn't really a post, more an announcement. Join me in accepting the 2011 Argentina reading challenge, Ficciones. I haven't chosen my books yet, but there's plenty to choose from! I'll add the list here once I make up my mind, and invite others to join in.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On the pleasures of teaching an old favorite

Next fall, I'll be teaching a course on Argentine theater in Rosario, Argentina. This winter, I'm teaching Argentine theater at the U. of Oregon. Some of the plays we're studying are plays I've worked on for a long time. Others I've begun studying more recently, as part of my ongoing work on theater and immigration. Still others are plays I've been lucky enough to see performed during one of the international theater festivals I've been able to attend, or on one of those too-infrequent research trips.

Today we discussed Osvaldo Dragún's Historias para ser contadas (we'll continue on Thursday). Historias was one of the first Latin American plays I read, if not in the first theater class I took, at Michigan State with Priscilla Meléndez, definitely in John Kronik's class during my first semester at Cornell. Historias was one of the plays I wrote about in my first published article. I've been thinking about it for a long time. But I still love to go back to the play. (It's been translated by Joe and Graciela P. Rosenberg, under the title Stories for the Theatre, a translation I have not yet read--that's the sound of me clicking the inter-library loan request send button.)

My view of the play hasn't shifted radically over the years. I relish its deceptively simple structure, it's looping self-reference, it's flexibility and openness to reinterpretation and reinvention, as in Rosa Luisa Márquez's staging in Puerto Rico [watch it here, thanks to the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video library:]. But what has me writing about the play tonight is the pleasurable repetition of talking about a text--novel, play, poem, doesn't matter--that has been important to one with a new group of people. It's a privilege to do so again and again over many years. Some of my students seemed more taken with the play than others; some waved their hands in the air, ready to be called on, while others clearly hoped I'd look the other way. That's fine. It's a cliché of teaching that each group of students is different, that the comments people offer in class discussion are unpredictable, that each new class may bring to our attention things we have previously failed to see.

But cliché or not, it's still fun. Fun in the reading, and fun in the rereading. It was a beautiful, sunny, cold day today, perfect weather for revisiting an old favorite: optimistic weather, clear weather, good weather for thinking and conversation.