In Not a Place on Any Map, an experimental memoir published in 2016 by Vine Leaves Press, Alexis Paige recounts her life up to the present through a series of what might be termed, depending on whom you ask, prose vignettes, flash lyric essays, or short pieces of nonfiction: brief, stand-alone scenes that focus on significant and often traumatic moments set in the many places she has lived. Any element that might be considered artificial or secondary (exposition, plot development, characterization) has been minimized or discarded; to steal a sentence from Reality Hunger that David Shields himself steals from Nietzsche, Paige’s formal goal seems to be “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book.” Unfortunately, the result often feels hollow, less like a fully-realized project than a sheaf of notes.
The cycle of five pieces that depict the years Paige lives in San Francisco exemplifies this. We have known since the introductory essay that her spiral into substance abuse and one-night stands picks up in San Francisco: that city will be “all [hers] to fuck up,” she prophecies. However, when we arrive in San Francisco, the fucking-up seems in short supply. “San Francisco Muse, 2002” strikes a happy note (she’s with a guy who makes her “laugh for what seemed like forever”), while “Soliloquy, Tiburon Ferry, San Francisco Bay, 2001” and “Vermont Letter, 1998–2001” mix yearning and nostalgia. Only “Not-Quite One-Night Stand in San Francisco” somewhat describes what she means by “fuck up.” She has fallen from living with her boyfriend to living with “a friend from the bar,” and from buying drugs from “a petite white woman…with fake tits” to buying the cocaine she needs “to get out of bed” from a “black man, as big as a nightclub bouncer.”
Nonetheless, the conclusion to this cycle, “Skyline, Rapt, 2004,” acts as though it wraps up a longer, more harrowing work. The scene places Paige on the heights, that ancient space of epiphany, and in a modern variation on the millennia-old scene, lays the polluted city at her feet. She “[climbs] to the top of Russian Hill,” and as she “[looks] down upon the dark bay and North Beach,” she hears, not the still, small voice of some divinity, but the voice of her therapist, advising her “to practice breathing.” So she practices breathing, and her epiphany duly arrives: “To be so excruciatingly alive is what hurts, the mystery of inertia, and the waiting around to get better. I think of Seurat and the way you have to pull back to see the shape of the thing. I am a million dots of light and dark shaping, pulling back in surprise on my body, tight as a fist.”
This is the kind of “insight” that (to invoke Shields again) “you [would have had] to read seven hundred pages to get” were Paige working in a more traditional form. Yet because this realization derives from three years of experiences she has muted, it does not resonate. How has Paige been “excruciatingly alive”? How has being alive “hurt”? What does she mean by “the mystery of inertia”? And how has she been “waiting around to get better”? Narrative development, for all its padding, would have at least provided “the shape of the thing.” As it is, the scene feels unearned.
A similar sense pervades the cycle that treats the time she spends in jail after causing a three-car pile-up while driving under the influence, but here what elsewhere might be a minor problem becomes genuinely problematic.
Paige has written about this experience before in a more traditional form. “The Right to Remain,” a full-length essay first published in The Rumpus, focuses on the hours Paige spends in jail immediately afterward, examining the ways, both large and small, that her racial and economic privilege distinguishes her from the other “mostly black and brown” inmates. She is “so white” because she wants the other inmates to quiet down instead of protest when the guards tell them the blankets are “at laundry,” and she is bailed out the next morning instead of being taken to “county” because, as someone she identifies as “Big Bird” points out, she “[has] people.”
When Paige treats similar material in the shorter forms of Not a Place on Any Map, however, she replaces these complicated interactions with meditations on the special emotional bond they forged. At one point, she remembers the women she met in jail as her “mislaid sisters”; at another, when she develops the habit of crying in the middle of the night for reasons not entirely clear to herself, she wonders if she is “thinking of Yolanda….Or the other inmates.” In both cases, we are forced to infer the existence of relationships we have barely seen develop and of people we have scarcely met, and we are left asking questions that range from basic to complicated. Who is Yolanda, besides being Paige’s “Bunkie”? Who are the “other inmates,” these “sisters” of hers? And how has she earned this “sisterhood” despite the “having-people” racial and economic differences that separate her from them? Without any specific support, these proclamations seem at worst a presumptuous recapitulation of uncomplicated notions of race relations, and at best a provoking I-know-something-you-don’t-know response to the fraught question of the constraints on interracial friendship in a systemically-racist society.
All told, Not a Place on Any Map demonstrates certain risks inherent in the form it essays. Many serious readers find recapitulations of nineteenth-century techniques played out and untrue; most readers no longer want to read “seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights [a] book was written.” But reading Not a Place on Any Map, I wonder if cutting everything but those “handful of insights,” as Paige seems to do, actually solves the problem. Perhaps literature, like life, needs some boredom to develop. In any case, this particular form does not seem entirely suited to capture a life as complex as Paige’s, and I, for one, leave the book wishing she had treated her material as she had in “The Right to Remain,” and hoping that the memoir-in-progress mentioned on her website either takes a similar approach, or develops the genre in a different direction.
Not a Place on Any Map / Alexis Paige / Vine Leaves Press / 5 December 2016
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.
Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.
The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.
Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.
The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.
Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.
The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.
The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.
Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017
This is Structo 18. It features 96 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, including by the winner of the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize and Translation Prize, photography by Meredith Heuer and an interview with
Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler.
For the third year in a row, we have a story shortlisted for the Stack Award for Best Original Fiction. ‘I Dreamt That You Died’ by Madeline Cross is a quiet story of a shared internal world, and of growing up and old alongside another. We’re delighted it resonated with the judges. You can read the Issue 17 story, in full, here.
The Stack Awards was founded three years ago to celebrate independent magazines and the 2017 ceremony takes place in London on Monday 20 November, where we’re up against stiff competition from the likes of Zoetrope, Somesuch Stories and 212. Fingers crossed.
In other awards news, we have three Issue 15 stories in this year’s Write Well Awards anthology from Silver Pen: ‘3 For 2’ by Paula Hunter, ‘All the Rest is Silence’ by Colette Coen and ‘Limehouse Blues’ by Jude Cook. The anthology is available on Amazon.
My problem is the question of why we experience anything. My problem is the question of why our bodies, with their intricate perspective and processing apparatus, in addition to all that perception and processing, also produce something like an oh, so this is what it’s like to be here and now and doing this specific thing, or not.
Existential angst in its various manifestations is both the underlying and overlying preoccupation of German writer Heinz Helle’s perfunctory and rather daringly experimental novella Superabundance – a work that is as much marked out by its acute brevity and biting directness as by its ongoing polar juxtaposition of the internal world of the psyche and the metaphysical and the external world, a world characterised by action and physicality which the anonymous first person narrator subconsciously loathes and which may also loathe him back. Helle’s work – originally published in German by Suhrkamp in 2014 under the rather more cumbersome title of Der beruhigende Klang von explodierem Kerosin (The Unsettling Noise of Exploding Kerosine) and here nimbly translated by Kári Driscoll – depicts a unnamed narrator who has moved to New York from Germany to teach philosophy and who finds himself questioning the nature of his life, his relationship with his girlfriend and indeed the very purpose of his existence.
The novella is comparatively rare in English-language fiction. In the case of Superabundance, and given its New York setting, one might think of the novella as a sort of brunch – an unmarked territory between the breakfast of the short story and the full lunch of the novel.
The first-person narration strives hard, but inevitably becomes tedious and annoying. Judging by the opening scene, that features the narrator as a schoolboy footballer, there is disappointment from the outset at the path that his life as an erstwhile intellectual has taken. What follows is an overly verbose, overly melodramatic and often tedious recounting of the narrator’s stay in New York where every incident, every fragment of conversation and every glance is over-analysed and pondered upon. It is not really until page 30 that the reader is invited to share in the narrator’s real dilemma:
My problem is the question of what a scientific theory to explain our consciousness what have to look like. My problem is the fact that it sounds cool to say I’m a philosopher so I study philosophy. My problem is that I’m drunk and I want to fuck, but I’m a philosopher and so really problems like consciousness and experience should be more important to me than women. My problem is that I love a woman but I think that I will at some point stop loving her and I renounce a world in which that is possible.
A writer perpetually on the precipice of crisis/breakdown/self-destruction and feeling themselves to be a prisoner of the overpowering and dispiriting urban environment that entraps them is hardly new. Nor is the all-pervasive sense of self-absorption and navel-gazing. Knut Hamsun’s classic work Hunger similarly charts the disenchantment and excruciating self-pity of a young intellectual manqué adrift in an urban landscape – in this case nineteenth century Oslo rather than twenty-first century New York. Although it has to be conceded that Helle’s narrator does seek romantic and sexual union with his erstwhile girlfriend and connection with others through football and philosophy,
Superabundance does demonstrate considerable intellectual bravura with its episodic nature and the density and surprisingly dexterity of its narrative prose, but these do not really make up for the all-pervasive vacuity that runs throughout. There are incidents and moments of insight in the course of the narrative – especially when the narrator embarks upon a relationship with a 21-year-old woman and the ‘I’ voice becomes for some time a hopeful ‘we’ voice – but there is little of interest in the descriptions of visits to a karaoke bar and the mountains to make the reader care about where the relationship is heading. Inevitably, it will end in failure like so much else that the narrator tries to believe in.
When his former lover tells the narrator, “I don’t think you even know what love is”, his reaction is as much a form of self-deceit as it is of trying to hoodwink the reader into believing that he is really capable of loving another.
By sheer coincidence, and on a personal note, this reviewer read Superabundance within the space of a few hours after returning from his first ever visit to New York. A trip of four or five days can be long enough to learn at least something of the character of the city expressed simply through its sheer physical presence. The mystique and power of New York, and Manhattan in particular, compels one to walk everywhere and everywhere one goes there are always vast crowds of people. As imagined by Elias Canetti in his classic work Crowds and Power, the urban masses become a means by which the urban space terrifies and intimidates the individual, and one can certainly feel a sense of one’s own vulnerability as an individual in a crowd of unimaginable size when one is walking through Times Square or down Broadway. In Superabundance it is more like the physical structure of the city which defines the individual narrator in all his powerless futility and his isolation. If the book has one valuable quality, then it lies in its exploration of the uncomfortable spatial relationship between individuals and the urban landscapes they inhabit.
Superabundance seeks to be a novella about how the multiplicity of choice and the complexity of existence can defeat individuals, but ends up becoming a prolonged and overly long examination of terminal boredom and meaninglessness, and one man’s seemingly endless capacity for self-pity. The first-person narration serves to alienate rather than endear, and the reader feels largely dissatisfied in spite of the relentless confessions of the central character, since little of value is said in spite of the narrator’s verbosity. The overall impression is of tedium and frustration. It’s not the tedium or frustration of the narrator which lingers, rather that of the reader finding themselves yearning for less self-absorption and urban concrete and rather more of a connection.
Superabundance / Heinz Helle / Kári Driscoll (translator) / Serpent’s Tail / 25 February 2016
Brian Gourley‘s poetry has appeared in a wide variety of magazines including Anon, Acumen, The Interpreter’s House and The Irish Literary Review. He is currently working on his debut poetry collection and the publication of his PhD thesis in Reformation writing.
Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is an intoxicating mix of language, nature, and sound, made all the more complex by its translation into English from Korean. Translated by Deborah Smith, the novel reads somewhat like a dream. It follows an unnamed narrator’s journey through the trials and tribulations of love, life, and the inevitability of death. It is a deceptively simple story, involving the narrator, her (ex)-boyfriend, and another character, M, whose full name is never revealed.
Echoes of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body come to mind when reading Suah’s novel, with its exploration of what it means to love, to be in love, and all the nuances in between. There is the naiveté of love, and the difference between love and infatuation. There are understandings, or misunderstandings, facilitated and influenced by family and friends. Suah does not provide an immediate context for her characters, choosing instead to let them develop organically in our heads.
The novel’s fractured timeline is part of this. Disorienting at first, in hindsight it adds volumes. Memories, by their very nature, are fleeting, can be unreliable, and are often recalled in illogical order, yet still seem to make sense when pieced together. Our lives are shaped by the ways in which we make and recollect these memories, whether in a positive or negative light. The novel’s non-linear trajectory also allows it to tackle issues like death in a sensitive, insightful manner, bringing to light this important aspect of life that is too often ignored, or considered taboo.
There are many threads woven throughout the novel, with water being one of the strongest. From the narrator’s near-drowning, to the seemingly constant rain, water is almost ever-present. It serves as an apt metaphor for the ebb and flow of life, its stagnation, and its terrible unpredictability. Water is essential for life, but it can just as easily take it away; it can be temperamental, and even uncontrollable, but also a thing of exquisite beauty.
English is a foreign language in Suah’s narrative – a strange concept for those of us to whom English comes naturally. It is slightly uncanny to see phrases like “the English-language versions of the Harry Potter Series and American Psycho” – works which we know in the original. We are also guided through the narrator’s mind as she attempts to learn German, her ‘relatively’ poor grasp of the language simply emphasising the importance of translation in a world that is becoming increasingly Anglophonic.
Aside from English, Korean, and German, music is another language that looms large in the novel. Music is a way in which the narrator understands and seeks solace from those around her. Even though the amalgamation of literature and classical music may seem natural, it can be difficult to combine the two in a way that does not alienate those who are unfamiliar with the names and specific terminology. But Suah and Smith do just fine. Of course, those with some knowledge of classical music may glean extra meaning from these references, but their inclusion does not detract from enjoyment of the novel, or indeed, an understanding of its messages.
In A Greater Music, Suah and Smith have crafted a timeless piece of writing and, as is appropriate, there is no definite conclusion. Life goes on, after all. We meet people, and we lose them. It is what we do with them that is important, and how we remember those events in years to come.
A Greater Music / Bae Suah / translated by Deborah Smith / Open Letter Books / 11 October 2016
About the reviewer
Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of mostly non-fiction, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by Asian Australian artists. She can be found on Twitter or at her website.
When I happened to mention to a friend that I was reading this book, he told me that he had experimented with nitrous oxide himself. He then proceeded to try to explain to me what this experience was like. The ensuing ten minutes were pretty much a condensed version of my experience of reading Oh Excellent Air Bag: my friend ‘hummed and hawed a lot whilst gesturing frantically with his hands; gave fairly lengthy yet disappointingly mundane descriptions; occasionally came up with some truly startlingly and beautiful similes for how his body felt whilst under the gas’s influence; before eventually conceding that the subjective effect of nitrous oxide is, essentially, unrelatable in the language that we currently possess. In short, I was frequently frustrated and bored, occasionally amazed, and, at the end, not sure I was any clearer than when I was in the beginning.
That slightly harsh summary is in direct contrast to the heartfelt endorsement and admiration I have for what The Public Domain Review Press (the book’s publishers, a branch of Public Domain Review) does both online and in print. PDR is an online journal which goes out into the field of the public domain, gathers oddities and wonders from across the arts and humanities, and then arranges them into cabinets of curiosities which it displays to the world. Thus Oh Excellent Air Bag is a collection of various primary sources which in some way relate to nitrous oxide gas. These range from the testimony of Humphry Davy, future president of the Royal Society of Physicians, who first discovered the strange effects of the gas and verified them by repeatedly experimenting on himself and his colleagues, to a one-act play by Theodore Dreiser in which nitrous oxide appears as a character.
It’s the testimony of Davy and his circle that takes up a significant part of the book. His intrepidness is either brave or foolish, depending on your perspective; one of the unnerving aspects of his reports is the way the reader sees something approaching a drug addiction developing, with Davy appearing uncharacteristically oblivious to the danger. On the lighter side, it is amusing to see a psychedelic experience rendered in fairly stiff and old-fashioned language. Consider the testimony of Mr J. W. Tobin, one of Davy’s circle:
‘(I) suddenly started from the chair, and vociferating with pleasure, I made towards those present, as I wished that they should participate in my feelings. I struck gently at Mr. Davy and a stranger entering the room at the moment, I made towards him, and I gave him several blows, but more in the spirit of good humour than of anger.’
The book lends itself well to picking amusing and astonishing quotes (indeed there’s an Index of Exclamations and Similes at the end of the primary sources) but for every epigram there are several pages of tedium. I lost count of the number of times that 19th-century gas-huffers reported ‘increased muscular power’, and whilst such reportage may have helped to build up a more objective picture of nitrous oxide’s effects, it didn’t make for particularly interesting reading. And for every psychonaut who claimed they became ‘an inhabitant of the Elysium of Rousseau, or the islands of Calypso,’ there were those (such as Davy) left with a slightly more prosaic sensation ‘as while hearing cheerful music, or after good news, or a moderate quantity of wine.’
There is an excellent introductory essay by the science writer Mike Jay, which provides a history of laughing gas from Davy’s first investigation into its effects (1799) to its place inside the Grateful Dead’s tour-bus (the 1960s). The essay proceeds through the chronology of the primary texts, contextualising them, summarising them, and pulling out some choice quotes. In fact, Jay’s essay does each of these things so well that I after reading it I wasn’t really sure that I needed the primary texts at all. And certainly, once I’d finished the various reports/satirical magazine articles/one-act plays, I was left with that feeling you sometimes get upon leaving the cinema: that the trailer for the film you’d gone to see had basically cherry-picked the exciting bits of a film in which not very much happens.
I know it isn’t what PDR are going for, but I would have enjoyed Air Bag more had it been a traditional non-fiction book in which I’m taken through the subject by an author who has read the primary sources and then selected and presented the passages which are relevant to his or her theme. For me (and I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a preference/failing on my part) the collated texts were simply not interesting enough to stand alone.
All that said, I’d like to end this review by saying that I’m fairly sure I missed out on some of the pleasures of Air Bag as a result of the format in which I read it. A quick trip to The PDR Press’ online store informs any potential buyer that the volume contains ‘an extensive selection of images, including instructional material from early anaesthetic handbooks, and satirical prints from the likes of James Gilray and George Cruikshank. All printed on a lovely-to-handle 70lb/105gsm paper.’ My review copy was only available as an e-book, which I’m only able to access through a very ancient Kindle, but I assume that a printed version of this book would be a very beautiful thing indeed.
 A notable exception to this would be the extract from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences in which James reports that a bagful of the magic gas confirmed for him a Hegelian worldview where truth is arrived at by accepting both a proposition and its antithesis. This, as you can imagine, made for some seriously interesting reading. Again, however, the primary source is well summarised and judiciously quoted in the introduction, and it’s only James’s engaging and consistently beautiful prose that makes reading the entire thing more rewarding than making do with Mike Jay’s précis.
 This Kindle has a real touch button keypad similar to a Blackberry mobile phone. If you use this keypad to access the menu screen, you can select the intriguing option: ‘Experimental Features.’ Selecting this will take you to a sub-menu where you’ll be presented with three further options: “Web Browser”, “Play MP3”, and “Text-to-Speech.” This should give you an idea of how unsuitable such a device is for a reader hoping to appreciate the detail of James Gilray and George Cruickshank’s satirical prints.
Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide, 1799-1920 / Adam Green (ed.) / The PDR Press / 11 July 2016
About the reviewer
Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently working on his first collection.
“When God came to Noah and told him a great flood would come and cover the earth, Noah had forewarning according to tort law, […] Did Noah take any actions to prevent the flood? […] He never prayed for the wicked as Abraham did. He never warned his neighbors or business partners that if they didn’t amend their immoral, depraved conduct a deluge was imminent. He took no precautions to ensure the welfare of anyone else but himself and his own and his animals. Tort law is the calculus of negligence.”
How secure are we in our carefully structured lives? What would it take to break down the barriers that separate us from the ranks of the dispossessed, the homeless or the refugee? Who is responsible should the worst happen, and how would we cope if – in spite of our social security, our good credit scores and low insurance premiums – we suddenly joined them?
Such are the questions facing the women of Jill Ciment’s suspenseful tragi-comedy. The women have been evacuated from their homes as a phosphorescent fungus spreads through Brooklyn. The four are drawn closer together as the mold, spreading further and further afield, begins to engulf their lives.
“Here’s the rub: some molds are covered by your policy while others are considered acts of God,’ which essentially means your insurance company will refuse to pay.”
Despite its tight and occasionally witty prose, my enjoyment was stunted by the novel’s relatively slow progression and its rather lifeless characters. While Ciment is careful to treat each with the sympathy they deserve, other than a few stand-out set pieces, I found little in the characters to capture and hold my imagination. It would be easy – as claustrophobic hyper-real dystopian titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, It Can’t Happen Here and The Road find acclaim in a seemingly near-apocalyptic framework – to praise to Act of God, but the four ladies here feel more like stock characters selected only to provide a better panorama of life in a big city: one artsy lady of society, one failed Woodstock hippie, one spinster and one exotic ‘European’. It all feels a little contrived: Sex in the City but with a deadly mushroom contamination instead of margaritas.
That might well be your thing [I’d watch it – Ed.], but the novel is also not helped by its dialogue. Contrary to the tightness of the prose, the conversation at times feels stunted and caricatured. This is especially true in the case of the Russian au pair Ashley. An example:
She pressed all thirty buttons. “In Russia, you press all or you go nowhere.”
Or such stereotypically pronoun-free exchanges as:
“You look skinny, Ashley. Where have you been?”
“God punish me big-time. I eat only ketchup and garbage. I live under boardwalk, like rat.”
“You lived on the beach?”
“First time see ocean.”
Perhaps I came to the book with the wrong expectations. It failed to live up to the promise of a work of literary science fiction exploring two of the great fears of modern urban life: contagion and the loss of a home. It’s less Station Eleven, more The Love Song of Miss Queenie Henessy. Despite a lofty premise, there is little here to remind us that even the luckiest amongst us is only an act of God away from claiming refuge.
She returned to the factory-sized living room, determined to learn how Americans experience stormy black nights. They sit comfortably on their deep, soft sofas, dry and safe, enjoying the rain’s music. They don’t cower like mice fearing unseen hawks overhead. Darkness isn’t a hole you hide in; it’s the cosmos.
Act of God / Jill Ciment / Vintage / 22 March 2016
Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He has contributed to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found here.
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.