Arabesques in Hebrew

In the Fall of 2003, I took “Introduction to Literary Theory” with the Palestinian novelist Anton Shammas. In the first class, he said, “Learn all this stuff. Then forget it.” He laughed. We laughed. Then he said that was the best way to learn. I met one of my best friends in that class. I learned a lot. I still make jokes about Foucault’s “Death of the Author.” And I still reflect on what I learned about Orientalism. I still read Edward Said.

Anton Shammas, a Palestinian writer from Jerusalem, wrote Arabesques in Hebrew. It was a huge event, and Shammas’ family was threatened. He came to the University of Michigan, where I met him many years later in 2003.

Arabesques, true to its title, traces patterns in the lives of Palestinians living under the Occupation. With something similar to magical realism, Palestinians are born and die and pass on artifacts and objects that carry significance throughout the narrative. Often there are discussions of everyday objects that nonetheless link the lives of the Palestinian characters. Another thing that links their lives are the sufferings they have undergone.

I’m thinking of Anton Shammas and Arabesques after another war in Gaza. Again there are disproportionate casualties (including too many children) on the Palestinian and Israeli sides. Again there are those who reduce it all simply to “defense.” Again there are those who take on an apologetically guilty tone to explain how unfortunate it is that all are in this situation.

But something has changed. People are discussing what’s happening, no longer trying to “stay out of it.” I’m talking about everyday people. And there is an uneasy comparison with the protests following the murder of George Floyd last year, an uneasy connection with the Movement for Black Lives. I think of how Isabel Wilkerson describes the Great Migration as African Americans becoming refugees in their own country. People are asking good, difficult questions now about this conflict. My union, the Professional Staff Congress, in our delegate assembly, passed a resolution in support of the Palestinian people.

Of course, there are also discussions of rising anti-Semitism. When I think of that kind of hate, I think one antidote might be writing in the language of the oppressive other. I think of Primo Levi talking about the harsh KZ Lager German he knew. Primo Levi wrote in Italian and describes in The Periodic Table the Italian children’s rhymes about Jews that taunted him in his youth. Primo Levi said, “Today, the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.”

Maybe history happens in waves. This year, of course, we know that change happens whether or not we acknowledge it. The world will never go back to “normal.”

“Our Favorite Things”: Natalya Sukhonos and Katherine E. Young Discuss Their New Poetry Collections

What I really enjoyed about this discussion was the description of relating language, lines their very selves, to meaning, to our bodies, etc. Thank you for this captivating discussion of your work!

Punctured Lines

To mark National Poetry Month in the United States, Punctured Lines asked two poets with recently published collections to interview one another. Both poets have strong personal and professional connections to the larger Russophone world. Natalya Sukhonos’sA Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press) explores themes of the mother-daughter connection, grief and loss, and finding someone and something to love in locales ranging from Odessa to San Francisco. Katherine E. Young’sWoman Drinking Absinthe (Alan Squire Publishing) concerns itself with transgressions, examined through a series of masks, including Greek drama, folk tales, Japonisme, post-Impressionism, opera, geometry, and planetary geology. In addition to their written comments, Sukhonos and Young have also produced a short video conversation highlighting several poems from each collection.

Please support the poets by buying their books.

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[Katherine E. Young interviews Natalya Sukhonos about A Stranger Home.]

Katherine E. Young: Your book is set in so…

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Thank You For Listening (Reading)

To those who follow this blog, thank you! I apologize that I have, until very recently, been sending you ads for things like air conditioners, etc. I want you to know that I will no longer be sending you ads. I will instead continue to send you my critical writings and anything else I pull it together enough to publish in the future. Hopefully, this whatever else will include some fiction, maybe even my novel, Two Big Differences. For now, if you haven’t read them, please look at my interview with Mikhail Iossel and the subsequent reading and conversation we had. In addition, I hope you will enjoy the interview I did with translator of the gospel, H. L. Hix, titled “God is Genderqueer,” which appeared on Holy Saturday. Finally, please also check out my translations of the poet Marina Eskina at Saint Ann’s Review and Cafe Review.

I’ll also be posting here my thoughts about what I’m reading, much of which will, I hope, be something of value to you. И, если Вы русскоязычный читатель, я буду писать о русской литературе тоже. Я приглашаю Вас прочитать и слушать.

Please stay in touch for further multimodal content including story maps and podcasts. And please feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss anything further. And please encourage others to follow.

Wandering Alone Through Language

After having read Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation of her own Italian language novel, Dove Mi Trovo, I remember wandering through cities in parts of the world where my first language was not the common language. Lahiri’s unnamed first-person narrator wanders through an Italian-speaking city. This character is unlike Samuel Beckett’s unnamed (and Unnameable) first-person character in his originally French, autotranslated writings, usually describing scenes in an isolated countryside. The comparisons are limited. However, in both cases, the authors appear to use their access to a less primary language to explore how language shapes our world, how mental maps–like narratives–are very much specific to the languages in which they are conceived.

Jhumpa Lahiri on Translating Herself

“But working with Italian, even a book that I have myself composed slips surprisingly easily in and out of my hands. This is because the language resides both within me and beyond my grasp. The author who wrote Dove mi trovo both is and is not the author who translated them. This split consciousness is, if nothing else, a bracing experience.”

This excerpt is from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Where I Find Myself” about translating her own Dove mi trovo into English.