We have published translations from Noh Anothai twice now: first in Issue 13, and then again in Issue 17. Both were translations of the renowned Thai poet Sunthorn Phu. With the release of Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint—one of only two full-length translations of Phu’s work in 30 years—we thought it was time to catch up.
How did you first come across the writing of Sunthorn Phu?
Every culture has a writer whose influence is so pervasive that you know who he or she is (or is supposed to be) long before you actually read him or her in an institutionalized setting. In the US and UK, that writer is probably Shakespeare—long before your first English literature class, you hear him quoted, often irreverently, and see his most famous characters represented or parodied in all sorts of popular culture: Hamlet holding his skull aloft, Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.
It’s the same for Sunthorn Phu in a Thai context, where he is just as familiar. Even though I was never educated in Thailand (I grew up and went to school in the US), when I first developed an interest in my native literature in high school, Phu’s name was always coming up in Internet searches for Thai poetry or the “Arts and Culture” chapters of books about Thailand. I knew he was Thailand’s national poet, with his own holiday, June 26th; that he was the “foremost poet of the early Bangkok period”; that he wrote the epic-length Phra Aphaimanee; that he supposedly loved to drink.
I never seriously read his work, however, until I was already in college. There are two reasons for this. The first is practical, a matter of availability for a teenager in the American Midwest. No libraries I knew had copies of the Thai texts, and translations of Phu were (and still are) few and far between, as well as not very good. (My book is the first full-length translation of this particular text into English.) The second is a confession: from what little I did manage to find, I was not incredibly interested in Phu. The Thai poetry anthologies tended to quote his most edifying passages, like the famous one that cautions against placing your faith in other people (“even the creepers that wind around trees are less crooked than men’s hearts”), or about the values of thrift and education.
What was your connection to this particular book?
Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint is a translation of Phu’s second major work, the Nirat Phra Baht, which records a pilgrimage he participated in when he was a servant in a royal household. It was among the first of Phu’s works that I sat down to read as an adult and helped change my perspective on him.
At the time, I had recently graduated from college and was in Thailand as a junior researcher with the Fulbright program translating selections of Thai epic. My introduction to the very idea of translation as an artform was through Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, which I carried with me to Bangkok like a charm, so I was intent on translating analogous tales of gods and heroes. However, I was so wet around the ears as a writer/translator that progress was slow and agonizing; I started reading anything else just to get away from the task at hand.
By chance I found an anthology of Phu’s major works at a bookstore and began reading it perfunctorily, thinking—oh, someday, when this is all over, I’m going to be a translator of Thai literature and will have to know about this guy. Little did I know I would enjoy it so much. My concentration as an undergraduate in Creative Writing had been in nonfiction and I was particularly drawn to travel writing. Phu helped develop and establish the conventions of the Thai nirat genre—which records journeys—and when I read his, I realized they were a type of sophisticated verse travel memoir.
Because I had been taught to approach such texts from a writer’s perspective (as opposed to as historical documents, which seems the more common approach), I began to appreciate the artistry that went into them. Phu, for instance, has an excellent sense of comedic timing and a self-deprecating sense of humour; a fair amount of hijinx goes on in his nirat that those early Bowdlerized anthologies never included. He often juxtaposes quieter scenes with livelier passages and is able to build up and sustain a narrative one decision at a time. There was a critical, creative mind behind these texts, I realized, one that was actively sorting through material and deciding what to arrange and how to arrange it to achieve the strongest affect.
The Nirat Phra Baht sold me on two different points. The first is a scene that took me completely by surprise the first time I read it—when Phu’s friends play a prank on him, spooking the elephant he rides upon and sending it crashing into the woods. There is a certain amount of decorum to Thai classics, and since no one is more “classic” than Phu, I had expected the same. Yet, here was something so oddly relatable, so warm and intimate and unexpectedly fun [You can read this scene in Asymptote here].
The second was a practical consideration. Unlike Phu’s other nirat, which concern more personal journeys, Nirat Phra Baht has a strong public dimension to it: it’s a firsthand account of a pilgrimage undertaken by the Siamese royal court in the early nineteenth century. In this way, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a mysterious world (which turns out to be more relatable than we’d imagined) and has a sweep and range that goes beyond merely Phu’s own affairs. A reader without much knowledge of Phu’s life (which is just about anyone outside of Thailand) can read Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint without much preface. (Though I should point out that my translation comes with explanatory notes after each poem and a complete guide to reading in the back.)
How much translation had you done before Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint? It seems like quite the undertaking.
Poems was actually my first sustained, mentored translation project. I actually completed it for my Master’s thesis in Creative Writing, and I don’t think it would have been finished otherwise. I had always dabbled in translation as an intermittent, solitary affair (which is why my Fulbright project got on so slowly) before this, picking up and dropping projects as something perked my interest or became too frustrating, respectively. When I did finish anything, it was usually a short, independent passage [like this one published in Unsplendid], but nothing of any special length.
My advisor, Dr. Michael Castro (past poet laureate of St. Louis), had had previous experience co-translating Hungarian poets and a certain affinity to certain Eastern spiritual traditions. So, even though he spoke no Thai, he was crucial in giving feedback on how the translation was emerging in English. We would meet once every week or second week to go over my drafts, him asking for revisions or suggesting where a useful note would belong. In all, the translation took about two years.
How have your feelings about Phu’s work changed over those two years?
I think Phu started seeming less like a legend, like some mythic figure, or even a tutelary god of sorts, and more and more like a peer and even a contemporary. Working through his narrative line by line, I got to appreciate the decisions he made, all those decisions every writer has to consider about establishing character and setting, arranging material, beginning and concluding, employing useful silences… I started feeling like what Phu was doing in his own time and his own way wasn’t altogether different from what I did during the MFA, or what I discuss with my own students now that I teach writing, and of course when I write myself. He just did it really well.
It’s not an altogether fanciful notion to think of Phu as another “working writer.” I’m not incredibly familiar with the scholarship, but I have read that Phu’s career coincided with the emergence of a middle class in Siam (old Thailand), making his poems on the lives of ordinary people relevant, as well as creating the market and means for them to be bought and sold. Now over two centuries later, I’m still trying to sell his work–so maybe I should think of myself as in charge of his marketing and distribution. A much more mundane relationship!
A lot of this work took place in the context of your education, and now you are about to start a PhD. What’s the topic?
I just started at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The degree is in Comparative Literature, but in a special track for International Writers. The idea is that writers–artists–and not only academics can benefit as much from exposure to literary theory and scholarship, and learning and collaborating with their counterparts from around the world. This is presenting a lot of new opportunities for me. For instance, although I do a lot of translating, I’ve never actually taken any coursework on, say, translation theory, and I hope I can become a sharper translator, with more sophisticated ways of looking at a text, through such scholarship.
As I said before, there’s really not a lot of precedent for the literary translation of Thai. I’d like to use my time in the Ph.D. making more works of Thai literature available in English translation so that they can enter the global discourse (as well as be enjoyed!). One long-term project I’m envisioning is anthology of Phu’s nirat poems in translation, annotated, since I’ve already finished one of them. I’ve also imagined writing a biography of sorts, but told through a series of essays about him. (There was also a travel memoir I wanted to write following his travels around Thailand–that never got off the ground.) Ultimately, my biggest dream is to see Phu appear in the Penguin Classics series and take his place among the authors there!
Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint is available in paperback and as a Kindle edition through Amazon.com.
Noh Anothai was a researcher with the Thailand-United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Thailand) from 2012-13, when he first began translating Thai literature. Recently, his translation of Thai national poet Sunthorn Phu, Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint (Singing Bone Press, 2016), became the first complete full-length translation of Phu’s work in almost thirty years. He also headlined Asymptote’s Spring 2017 issue ‘People from the In-Between’ with his work on contemporary Thai poet Saksiri Meesomsueb. Find him on Facebook here.
Author photo by Christopher Fleck.
We’re kicking off an irregular blog series of artists’ illustrations of untranslatable words. If you would like to illustrate an untranslatable word or if you have a favourite untranslatable word, send an email to email@example.com.
First up: Waldeinsamkeit, from the German, which translates as ‘the loneliness of a forest’, and the illustration this time is by US-based artist Marissa Tawney Thaler.
It’s been a few months since Issue 17 was published and so here it is online to read for free over at Issuu.
This one features 104 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, an essay on the unknown side of Jerome K. Jerome, and interviews with Vera Chok and Oscar Schwartz. You can find more details, as well as bonus material, at the issue page.
As usual, we have discounted the remaining physical copies from £7 to £5. If you want one before they sell out, now’s the time! Head here to pick up your copy.
That said, the most valuable thing you can do is read the magazine and tell a friend about Structo, as magazines like ours thrive by word of mouth. Share and enjoy.
John Keene’s Counternarratives is a story collection quite unlike anything I have read before. It spans centuries and explores both American continents. At first the prose seems overly dense—initially I had to wade through quite astonishing levels of detail to uncover what I consider the most important part of fiction: human empathy and the characters it is manifested in—but in the end it succeeds because it layers the reader in historical detail and geographical reference, establishing a firm and distinct sense of place through concrete realism and vivid imagery. Writing about the book for The Barnes & Noble Review, Christopher Byrd put it well when he said that “you first need to learn the broad outlines of the project before you can begin to appreciate its particulars”.
The first section of Counternarratives bounces throughout the Americas. It encompasses discovery (Mannahatta, the opening story of the collection, is a short tale of stumbling upon a new shore, and a fitting metaphor for the reader to begin this literary journey across thousands of miles and hundreds of years), the struggle for freedom (An Outtake From The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution introduces us to Zion, a slave born in Massachusetts with no desire to stay there), and a test of faith (encountered by Joaquim D’Azevado during his time at Alagoas in A Letter Of The Trials On The Counterreformation In New Lisbon). The stories are told in the third person, which creates a consistent sense of narrative, but the time-spanning nature of Keene’s writing in this opening third of the book often serves to remove the reader from the individual moments: we become observers from an omniscient distance rather than an intimate perspective.
This changes in the final pages of Gloss, Or The Strange History Of Our Lady Of The Sorrows, where the story of Carmel transitions into a first person narrative. Gloss spans seventy-four pages, telling us of Carmel’s quiet life as a slave, and plays host to some of the strongest passages of writing from the collection, most notably the final two pages of the story. The shift to first person towards the end of Gloss focuses us, finally, on a character, and this gives so much life to the ending of Section I.
Keene continues this first person approach as we begin Section II with The Aeronauts, a story which follows Theodore, a young African American working in a research branch of the military during the Civil War in 1861. The descriptions are noticeably less dense, as we view them through a character’s eyes rather than a narrator’s. Theodore shares his own opinions with the reader, communicating his internal conflicts of sexuality and masculinity, as well as an awareness of daily racial tensions. This shift to the subjective narrative continues throughout the middle third of the book, giving the reader a valuable and rich insight into an often ignored voice.
By the halfway mark, it becomes apparent that Counternarratives is attempting to engage us with a struggle for black identity; almost every single story involves the efforts of black characters to make their way in the world despite all that stands before them. While the feelings of dislocation and alienation ripple throughout the collection, and while these may be interpreted by each and every reader uniquely, Keene’s collection seems determined to show us a certain type of struggle: that of minorities’ marginalised identities. Keene’s detailed understanding of time and place, and the personas he employs, aids in uniting historical fact with human empathy in a way which I feel can only be done through fiction.
Author: John Keene
Publication Date: 6 April 2016
Published by: Fitzcarraldo Editions
John Oxnard is based in Cheltenham, and studied Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. He usually dabbles with magic realism when he has the itch to write and has had short stories published in the Compass: New Writing IV and Reflections: New Writing 5 anthologies.
On Sunday, April 9, Signal-Return hosted Power of the Press Fest at Detroit’s Eastern Market. The festival tied together print-makers, text and visual artists, bookbinders (including Structo alum Christine Darragh), literary journals, and small presses. It was a fun day with a serious theme underlying it: the vital connection between small independent operations, whether art or literary, to freedom of speech, expression, and press.
Structo shared a table with our friends at Versal journal and asked attendees to share a word in any language. We got a smattering from all around the world — the odd, the overly specific, the vulgar, the technical, and everything in between. Here are a few:
- Pronoi – a Greco-English neologism for the sneaking suspicion that everyone around you is wishing you well, the opposite of paranoia.
- Bly – Afrikaans for rooted.
- Sehnsucht – A German word meaning the longing for the unattainable in the face of reality.
- Phenolphthalein – A chemist stopped by and shared this favorite word. It’s Greco-Roman science-speak for C20H14O4.
- Andøva – This is my contribution, a Faroese word meaning to row against the current so that the boat stays still in position to land.
Fight the good fight for freedom of speech, expression, and the press in these difficult times. A great way to do so is to support your local presses, magazines, artists, makers, and writers.
Water for Days of Thirst
Threnody for Joaquín Pasos
Carlos Martínez Rivas
In translation, I seek another country, another world. I long to not only read translation to be translated, which in Latin means carried across. A great translation does this, simultaneously carrying the poet to the reader’s world and carrying the reader into the poet’s world. It’s rare but there’s nothing I love more. Roger Hickin accomplishes this, not once but twice, in his masterful versions of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ Threnody for Joaquín Pasos and Blanca Castellón’s Water for Days of Thirst from Cold Hub Press. These books bring two stunning poets into English for the first time and give voice to the vital and under-represented Nicaraguan literary tradition.
Threnody for Joaquín Pasos is an overview of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ career in twenty-five pieces. Rivas’ style brings to mind Lorca, Rimbaud, and Verlaine in its worldly innocence and brave experimentation. I found my head nodding as I read as if he were a jazz trumpeter and I was following the rise and fall of his improvisations which swirled and eddied around a central theme without losing it. He moves deftly between themes personal, sexual, national, and religious without losing the progression and bringing his reader along for the ride.
I was particularly transported read “Paradise Regained,” “a poem in three steps with a prolog.” He begins with a wide view of the continent and zooms into the particular, meeting a girl and falling in love at the airport.
And I, at a loss what to do
with my love, turned it
into a song.
A good one I thought. And to amuse myself
and perform it for a bunch of friends,
who on occasion asked me to recite,
I committed it to memory.
It goes like this…
And so, it begins. A quote from Paradise Lost sets up the first awareness of fallenness to wide-eyed innocents as they leave the shelter of Eden. In lieu of Eden, love becomes the promised land, a transport to unreal realms of air and eventual paradise. Rivas mixes the mundane and ineffable, the sacred and secular in lines like, “the fountain where lichen dreams its cathedrals” and “this girl who plays ping pong, who smiles, / and at age fifteen becomes an apple.” The narrator leads the girl on his journey of love, “from comet to comet, and beyond.” And I followed breathlessly in the lovers’ wake to that paradise of poetry, “where our hearts ripen / when, on this brand new air, / we hang once more the branch, / the bird, the apple, the star.”
Both Castellón and Rivas share a rich literary tradition, life experiences which included oppressive dictatorships and violent national strife. Born thirty-four years after Rivas, Castellón carries the torch of the previous generation of Nicaraguan poets (including Rivas) with a spartan and spare modern style. Sometimes this take the form of short poems, like “Bad Management:”
“I’m squandering the silence / left to me by the dead.” In longer poems, there is still a sense that only the absolutely necessary words have been cut, as in the sixth part of “Outside Times Ten and One Within.”
there’s no cozy bed
no sheets without stains
no eye pure in its seeing
no easy distances
outside is a landscape
of forgotten letters
Castellón’s lines have a level of independence within the poem that I’ve rarely witnessed. Her long poems “Flotations” and “Genuflection” are collations of relatedly independent lines. Even in more traditionally arranged poems, lines are unusually excerptable, poems within poems. I kept writing lines down in my notebook; each seemed its own poem. Here are some.
As you devour me spare a thought for your teeth
We go through summer with autumn on our shoulders.
Angelina Jolie recently had her breasts removed
a preventative measure.
Tonight I want to try out the laugh
I gave you on your birthday
wake up in time for
These lines then, which read like koans, like haiku, are in imagistic synecdoche maps to a world of an archipelago. This theme is set up in “Map,” the book’s first poem,” Castellón writes,
A turbulent sea
circling the desert
that is me.
Lonely as the world may be, it is a beautiful one.
Both books are well worth a read, not only for the exquisite poetry but also the skilled translation. Even a reader with my limited Spanish can see (aided by the parallel text of the poems) the faithfulness of Hickin’s translations. He has balanced rendering the voices two very different authors with conveying a sense of Nicaraguan literary tradition. He writes with a strong poetic that feels native while still carrying the cultural weight of the original context.
Hickin has done a service to the English-speaking world by making these two poets available in translation. From the knife blade edge of Blanca Castellón’s verse to the lush garden of opulence in Carlos Martínez Rivas, these are books to read and reread. You can find them here and here and explore the rest of Cold Hub’s excellent catalog here.
Our friends at Unsung Stories have just entered the final week of the Kickstarter campaign for 2084. The project is currently sitting at 502% funded, which is not particularly surprising when you consider that a) 2084 is a rather timely science-fiction anthology inspired by Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and b) the collection features a remarkable group of writers, including the likes of Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, James Smythe, Lavie Tidhar and Aliya Whiteley.
We took the opportunity to chat to the aforementioned Mr Noon—author of the Clarke Award-winning Vurt series amongst other books and fictions—about 2084, his Twitter micronovels and ‘avant-pulp’.
How did you approach the 2084 brief?
I have very little interest in political art, or propaganda, or any kind of story with a message, or with a fixed belief system in place, left or right. As a writer I’m interested more in human drama: why do human beings do what they do, whether for good or for ill: rather than outside forces, I’m obsessed with what drives them from the inside. So I started to think of a way of writing a story influenced by Orwell’s 1984 that didn’t have an overt political content. Quite a task! But the thing I loved most about the book was the love story, so a little bit of that creeps into my story on the final page: a reuniting. I thought about events that might happen after a regime has fallen, and a new one has taken over. How would this new regime deal with the after-effects of the old? That seemed to me an interesting question. And then I thought of Winston Smith’s job in 1984: he changes documents and photographs in order to take account of the constant changes in the official history, as people are killed off, or made to disappear. He slips documents into a “memory hole”, his version of our paper shredder. And then I imagined a civil liberties campaign that forced the authorities to store these facts and images, rather than simply destroying them, to actually keep them in memory, somewhere. From there the idea of an orbiting space station took hold, a giant archive in the sky, where all the forgotten “ghosts” could reside. The story more or less wrote itself from that point. Over the last few years, I’ve become fascinated with the concept of the subtle body, the ghostly figure, the tulpa, as they call it in Buddhism, but strictly in science fictional, or post-technical terms. I think this is my reaction against the extreme digitalisation of human thought and behaviour: a return to the spectral. So that idea fused with the 2084 theme, to produce a series of ghosts in storage; and the human operatives who look after them on the station, and who attempt to restore the ghosts to their Earthly life. read more…
The prospective reader may be forgiven for expecting Seven Sins, Karen Runge’s debut short fiction collection, to touch upon the religious. However, the tales she weaves are not connected with the famous set of misdemeanours. They are instead a septet of stories dealing with sin generally and, more specifically, how ordinary people can end up doing extraordinarily awful things.
The collection begins with ‘Sweet Old Men’, one of the shorter pieces and the most formulaic, loyal to the short story standard of introducing three elements and gathering them together for a shock ending. However, it does set the tone for the rest of the book in terms of vivid bodily imagery: “He’d grab your hand […] pulling your plump, pink fist toward that gaping black hole of pale white gums and cracked red tongue; that open maw lined with long, yellow teeth.” It also introduces the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario.
This quiet but ever-present feeling of doom is really allowed room to blossom in the second tale, ‘The Philosopher’, which is considerably longer and freer from convention than its predecessor. It is perhaps the best of the seven when it comes to subtle horror, as from the third story onwards the proceedings become considerably more graphic and violent. ‘The Philosopher’ also contains the collection’s most thorough examination of human relationships. The other stories feel a tad shallow in comparison to this one, and its couple with many layers and problems so simple yet so unsolvable.
The setting of a cramped caravan in the middle of nowhere is used to its full potential: “I sometimes think life in a caravan is like living in a centipede. Everything segmented, everything squeezed into the same narrow space, compartment linked to compartment leading on; moving through it is like being digested, or maybe like being spat out.” The use of light is also impressive: the caravan’s red tarpaulin awning creates an ambience that becomes progressively more suffocating, for the reader as much as for the protagonist. The ending, however, is rather unsatisfactory: Runge leaves us with a striking image, but without any real explanation or resolution.
The third and fourth stories are slightly weaker. ‘My Son, My Son’ has an interesting premise – how do incestuous feelings develop? – but dips into kitchen-sink territory and drags on longer than necessary. The final few sentences are clearly designed to make the reader recoil, and they do. However, they also nullify much of the previous action, and turn what could have been something insightful, though disturbing, into something that feels slightly lazy and sensationalist. The reader is left unsure as to how seriously the writer takes the topic of incest, which is one well worth exploring in fiction.
“the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario”
‘The Orphanage’ is another tale of unhappy motherhood, and incorporates the somewhat tired trope of a woman who has lost her own children going insane and doing unspeakable things to other people’s. Not only is this trope old and potentially harmful, but the story also feels less believable than its neighbours. Most of the others could conceivably take place in the real world, which is part of their power. ‘The Orphanage’, on the other hand, delves into gothic melodrama, which distances the reader. Nevertheless, it does contain perhaps the most horrible and memorable images of the lot, and these flashes of horror refuse to leave the mind for some time – it is up to the reader to judge whether that is an achievement or exploitative.
The fifth and six tales blur together: both involve rather tedious doomed relationships between teenagers. Both also suffer from their late position in the collection – read in isolation, either would no doubt provide a shock, but after four accounts of equally intense pain and suffering the reader starts to become desensitised. ‘Lake Seasons’ is the stronger of the two; here foreshadowing is handled particularly well: a mouth smeared with berries gives a soft but sinister hint as to what may come. ‘Faces’, to its credit, deals with a very different narrator to the previous tales; instead of another unhappy mother we meet Joe, a troubled young man. His relationship with pornography and its effect on his actions are interesting. Unfortunately, instead of pursuing this angle, ‘Faces’ ultimately morphs into a darker and less developed version of ‘Lake Seasons’. Perhaps by combining the two stories Runge could create something more thorough and potent.
Then there is the seventh and final Sin of the collection, ‘The Killing Machine.’ This is a very different kind of story, and is possibly the book’s finest. Short and sour, it gives a brief insight into a dystopian prison: dystopian, but scarily believable. It is told principally through announcements, with the emotionless instructions hitting hard against the sadness of the situation. ‘The Killing Machine’ is clean, cold and clinical. There is no blood or guts until the very end, and its inclusion is somewhat of a shame; without the mention of a “fine mist of blood” the story would have been almost unbearably powerful.
Seven Sins is a very promising collection. The author certainly has something unique and, if she can go on to rely less on shock value and gore, she will really be a force to be reckoned with, not only in the arena of dark literature but in the wider world of short fiction. Seven Sins will affect you – maybe for good, maybe for bad (and there can never be enough trigger warnings for this in terms of violence and harm to children). But it certainly cuts deep.
Elizabeth Gibson is a Masters student in languages at the University of Manchester. She is also a Digital Reporter for Manchester Literature Festival and a member of The Writing Squad. Her writing/translation has appeared in Far Off Places, London Journal of Fiction, Severine, Octavius, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and Gigantic Sequins, among other journals. She edits Foxglove Journal and the Word Life section of Now Then Manchester, and is a writer for The Mancunion. She tweets @Grizonne and blogs at http://elizabethgibsonwriter.
Our latest chapbook, David Russomano’s (Reasons for) Moving, is now available.
This is a remarkable debut. Of course we would say that, and while you might not trust us to be objective, you might believe the poet Wendy Cope when she calls it an “impressive and enjoyable collection”, or Eyewear Books’ Todd Swift when he describes David’s poetry as “at once exotic, historical, melancholy, and well-made”.
Convinced? You can order the chapbook here. It is available in print as well as in digital formats. All profits from chapbooks sales go to the author.
Want to hear more? See a short interview David about (Reasons for) Moving below.
How long did it take for you to bring this collection together?
I’ve been working on this collection off and on since about 2013. That was the first time that I submitted a manuscript focusing on ideas of place and travel. Eight of the poems in that early version of the chapbook survived in one form or another and made it into (Reasons for) Moving, but countless others were cut and the whole thing changed shape several times along the way.
How was the selection process?
As I mentioned above, the selection process was difficult and took years. The organising principles—place, travel, motion, stagnation—were pretty much there all along, but pieces that seemed central to the whole thing at first eventually fell by the wayside and/or were replaced by what I think are stronger or more relevant poems. Also, a lot of my poems take place abroad and I wanted to balance that out with some more domestic poems, but that slowed the process down.
Do you have a ‘typical’ writing process?
My writing is often very ‘reactionary’, by which I mean that it’s a direct reaction to some external stimuli. I always carry a pocket journal so that I can capture my reactions to things that I experience. Sometimes, one experience turns into a single poem. At other times, I pull various bits together after the fact and assemble them into something that’s considerably different from its constituent parts. Eventually, I type up bits from these pocket notebooks and then refine them through a series of drafts in a single word document. Whenever I’m about to make a significant edit, I copy what I’ve got, paste it below, and carry on. That way, I’m able to trace my work to some extent.
Can you say a little about the cover?
The cover artwork for (Reasons for) Moving is part of my ongoing exploration of the mathematical constant, pi (3.1415, etc.). In these pieces, I use the decimal places of pi as a generative constraint and let them determine the shape, colour, or pattern of the artwork. I’ve been trying to approach this process from different angles for nearly five years now. This particular piece recently appeared in Surbiton’s Museum of Futures as part of an exhibition put on by The Enemies Project.
The debut collection of short stories by New York-based Filipina writer Mia Alvar is a thing of quiet wonder. While other first collections might attempt to grandstand, or buttonhole the reader with noisy, sensationalist tales full of purple prose and ultra-violence (often in the fashionable second person, told from the POV of inanimate objects), Alvar throws unobtrusive light on a series of marginalised lives in nine superbly polished stories. Her characters, almost without exception, are members of the Philippine diaspora – economic migrants who have travelled to the Middle East or the United States to work as maids, chauffeurs or nurses. One of the world’s largest ex-pat communities (12 million Filipinos live and work abroad) it’s a sub-culture that provides rich fictional rewards. Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller, and In the Country shows her to be the diaspora’s perfect chronicler.
In the first story, ‘The Kontrabida’, a son returns home from the US after ten years away to visit his ailing parents in a Manila suburb. There’s a Chekhovian simplicity and humanity in the description of his mother: “Every feature I remembered had settled in her and been more deeply confirmed”. Meditating on his alcoholic brute of a father who is dying of liver cancer, he realises he has trained himself to be “his opposite: competent, restrained”; though he fears he will die like him, with his “worst impulses petrified on my face”. By the end of the story the son realises that it is fact his mother who held the balance of power between his parents. It’s a sensitive, mature piece of writing worthy of William Trevor or Alice Munro.
From this point onwards in the collection, the female perspective takes over. In ‘The Miracle Worker’, a Filipina special-needs teacher in Bahrain looks after a severely disabled little girl, although it’s the child’s feckless mother who fascinates the protagonist. “What kind of mother thinks her daughter is punishment?” A poignant and politically engaged tale, the narrator is forced to revaluate her own liberalism, while throwing light on the diaspora’s lack of social mobility. The teacher’s friend comments mournfully: “I’m forty now. I’ve never done much besides clean rich Arabs’ houses […] I’ll probably die in uniform”.
Indeed, servitude is a theme of many of Alvar’s stories. ‘Shadow Families’ focuses on the social division between the rich Filipina wives and the katulong, or ‘helpers’, who come “to clean floors or mind rich people’s children […] often younger than we were but always ageing faster […] their spines hunching over brooms and basins, their lungs fried by bleach and petroleum vapours”.
Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller
Throughout the collection, the cruel contrast between rich and poor, and between the fortunate and the forsaken, is explored in depth. ‘Old Girl’ is set among the ex-pat political community in Boston – the ‘Manilachussets’ wives. In ‘Legends of the White Lady’, an affluent American model is shocked by a “sad-looking tub of pale shredded lettuce” in a Manila restaurant. In another story, narrated by a severely disabled boy, the class distinctions in the squatters’ shacks of Manila are shown to be based on gradations of colour and perceived respectability. Here, the retreat of myth and suspicion is examined in the Philippines’ predominantly Catholic society. The boy comes to see “defects of our bodies were caused and cured by science, nothing more […] everyone was struggling in the body he or she’d been given”.
Throughout the collection, Alvar’s finely wrought, considered images echo and repeat or contradict each other. A praying figure is mirrored by the whore who “earns her living on her knees”, suggesting a touching parity. Equally impressive elsewhere are the experiments in form. ‘Esmeralda’ is written in the first-person plural, with ‘we’ reinforcing the diaspora’s sense of solidarity.
But it is the title story, the longest in the collection – almost a novella at 80 pages – which impresses the most. It is a tour de force of sophisticated storytelling. ‘In the Country’ is an exploration of class, family, and the colonial legacy. The narrative spans fifteen years, the action switching between the Marcos government’s slide into corruption and martial law in 1971, and the fixed election of 1986 in which the Philippines’ dictator lost power in a velvet revolution. It tells the story of Milagros and her husband Jim, a former anarchist and journalist, a wrenching tale of love against a backdrop of political corruption and civil unrest. Along the way, the reader learns much about the country’s history. But it’s the visceral details that linger. After marital law is imposed, the radio news ominously “turns to static”, while “Congress closed […] phones were dead”. When Jim is imprisoned, Milagros secretly transcribes her husband’s articles by sign language, meanwhile bringing up their children single-handed. Eventually, the state exacts its terrible revenge. It is a fine, if sombre, finish to a dazzling collection, and one that confirms “you can leave a place, but places have a way of not leaving you”.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, Review 31 and 3AM Magazine.His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Storgy, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. Jude can be found at www.judecook.com and on Twitter @judecook_