David Gerow’s wonderfully strange ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ opens our latest issue. If you haven’t already, you can read it here. We caught up with Dave for a quick chat about the piece and his writing more generally.
Can you tell us a little about the genesis of ‘Story for Circular Breathers’?
I actually had this idea long before Covid. It was to be set in the US during the Great Depression, when endurance competitions like this weren’t unheard of (as depicted in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). But for whatever reason, the idea fell by the wayside until 2020.
I finally wrote the story during the first lockdown. For any kind of emerging artist – like me, like many of my friends, like Sara in the story – there was a sense that our hard-won momentum had been paralysed. There was this tremendous fear that the inroads we’d made might not be there anymore when venues started opening again – or even that the venues themselves might not be there! I actually had a play in rehearsals when the first lockdown was called, and it was so disheartening to just walk away with the hope that we’d resurrect it as some unspecified time in the future. (Happily, that time came in 2022.) And then you had Rishi Sunak telling artists that we should retrain and find other jobs, and most of the performing arts opportunities in digital theatre and music going to well-established names, with less space than ever for people to emerge. It was a demoralising period. This story was the receptacle for my anxieties and frustration.
But beyond the specific context of the pandemic, this story speaks to the thing I dislike most about the life of the artist: the competition element. There are only so many commissions, only so many stages, only so many magazines, and they can only sustain so many people’s ambitions. Like it or not, the simple act of submitting pits you against the very people you’d naturally flock with – fellow writers. That’s something Sara struggles with during the circular breathing competition: that the only way she can win is if others lose.
We really dislike the competition aspect of it all, too. Selecting one piece over another, rejecting people… easily the worst part of the work. Is a DIY approach the only way to avoid that, do you think?
Do you mean self-publishing? Because I’d imagine that’s quite a competitive scene as well, vying for the attention of readers. Ultimately there’s no way around it: if you want to be a writer who has things published, some element of competition is inevitable, just like rejection. I guess the thing is just to focus on your work and celebrate your wins and your friends’ wins. And also to support magazines and theatres and all the rest of the opportunity-makers.
The style of ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ is unusual – how did you settle on this approach for this story?
I love constrained writing exercises, which is what this is: an attempt to write a story in one unbroken sentence. Actually, it’s part of a series of one-sentence stories; some others have been published in Gutter, en bloc and The Frogmore Papers. But ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ may be my favourite because the form so perfectly fits the subject matter. This is the only one where I allow myself to abandon the constraint in the final section. Constraints are great, but you’ve got to be willing to break them when the story demands it.
Kind of like having to understand the rules to be able to break them effectively? Speaking of, you’re currently studying for a DFA in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Can you say a little about how that’s informed your writing?
Doing the DFA has been brilliant, mostly because of the people it’s brought me together with: students and teachers with this huge array of interests and specialities. There’s so much knowledge on offer that I can draw on. Honestly, it’d be hard not to become a better writer in that environment. I’m doing it part-time over five years to spread the cost out, which has turned out to be a great way to prolong my time in this community of writers and readers.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve recently finished the first draft of my first novel. It’s a serio-comic campus novel looking at Sino-British relations and the exploitation of Chinese students in UK universities. I was an English teacher in China for years and my day job now brings me in close contact with international students at the University of Glasgow. I’ve long wanted to mine all that experience to produce something unique. It’s almost ready…
Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the author and poet Rosebud Ben-Oni. You can read her story ‘Never My Story, My Name is Yours’ online in Structo 7.
Can you tell me a little about your latest collection, If This Is the Age We End Discovery?
At its core, this collection is about the collapsing of frameworks, how one can move forward, and rethinking how to approach the idea of “discovery.” Rather thinking in terms of conquest or formulating elegant, fundamental equations as a way to “solve” the universe, I’m more concerned with curiosity and unfolding the act of questioning itself. I’m also very much a sceptic, and don’t like being told what to think or what to do, so Everett Quantum Mechanics (also known as the Many Worlds Interpretation) is where this collection lives: in the multiverse, filled with multiple times. The speaker is a rogue against linear kinds of thinking, if you will. And she is not looking for an answer to The Theory of Everything, or discovering a single “guiding star,” whether in physics or poetic traditions, but rather what it means to express a journey itself. I began this collection in the middle of a health crisis back in 2012, after finding no clear answers in either my faith (traditional Judaism) or science. I felt as if I were being nullified. And so into nullification I dove, and found myself thinking about “Efes”— that is, “zero” in Modern Hebrew, but also can mean, “to nullify, to conceal,” in mystical Jewish texts. I took this idea a step further: that nullification and negation can be a means of transformation, one without end. You see, I believe that Efes is an equal but opposite force or presence parallel with what makes our life possible, that is, electrons and quarks, and if you grew up very observant the way I did, HaShem, which is one of the names for God in Hebrew. When I was younger, nothing could be more powerful than HaShem, but now I believe there is this equal but opposite force, Efes, which is responsible for many unexplained things in the multiverse such as Dark Energy. It is the enemy of those elegant equations which is holding theoretical physics back, the slayer of the Standard Model, which needs its own next evolution. That it would reveal Itself at the singularity of a black hole. That it does not abide by any law. And most importantly, as soon as we solve one problem or mystery, resulting in a discovery, Efes inevitably changes the riddle, and I believe it does so, to make life harder, so that life itself continues to evolve. My ideas about Efes actually brought me back to both the possibilities with theoretical physics and my lifelong belief in HaShem, two principles in my own life that were shaken when I became ill. They might be incongruous. They are not. If anything, my Jewish faith is where my act of questioning first began. It is the act of questioning that reminds me I’m still alive and here— and all things considered, thriving. To ask questions is to be alive and wildly unpredictable toward the ideas and people that would like to control one. This collection, as most of my poetry now, is an extension of my greater desire for an eternal defiance of death. For all its experimentation and ideas about transformation through nullification, it’s really a book that has no ending. It’s deeply personal and imagery-heavy, but there are multiple points of view. It defies the idea of centers & endings. The final words ask the reader to join in. It asks the reader not to give up.
Was it written as a collection or brought together as one?
It was brought together as one. It exists in multiple timelines as a collection although it did not start as such. It began in fear as one framework, as I spoke about earlier, fell, one after another. In 2012, coincidentally, they also “discovered” the Higgs, but we already knew about the Higgs field. The problem with real life applications of string theory is that it’s very hard to make testable predictions. But in poetry, you can explore these hypotheticals through the very lens of doubt. So I took my fascination of multiverses, simulations, and theoretical particles that continue to go unproven, and explored them through the themes of family, Judaism, borders, the loss of loved ones. Poetry allows me to explore these ideas through strange syntax and spacing on a page, for as the collection goes on, the seemingly erratic format reflects more of how I see the world, through the lens of my faulty wiring, my brain fog, this enduring music that I translate onto the page.
How have the last two years been for you, in terms of your writing?
I’ve been fortunate to engage in public readings for this book during the pandemic— albeit, most of them virtual. I’ve had quite a few readers say to me that the title alone is a strange fit for these times; the book itself was completed in 2018, and won the 2019 Alice James Award, and then was published by Alice James Books just this March 2021. One reader asked me if I had imagined the pandemic itself, if this was an “ending time.” Quite the opposite. I only believe in the future. As someone who personally experienced a rather violent start to 2020, and had her life turned upside down in the middle of Queens, one of the epicenters of the pandemic that year, there is something deep inside me that refused to give up. In a time of sheltering-in-place, with the help of friends, I got out of a very precarious situation and started a huge aspect of my life over. In 2020, I was still teaching (now online) and working and publishing; my chapbook 20 Atomic Sonnets, which is dedicated to the Periodic Table’s 150th birthday, was published in Black Warrior Review in 2020, online and free to the general public, because of the pandemic. I did not escape my situation unscathed, of course, but like most significant crossroads in my life, something inside of me refuses to let me give up. There is only forward. There is only tomorrow. And the older I get, the more I realize I’m a poet because I don’t like being told what to think or what to do, as I’ve said before, although my nature is easy-going, say like any good photon, I can pass through two doors at once, at the same time. Being resistant to control and also being easy-going, one seems contrary to the other, but it’s the former that has saved me many times, so that the latter carries on. Both attributes tend to attract people who seem thrilled at first, but fear can be a monstrous thing. It can make someone who loves you want to bottle you up, silence and control you. There is a choice to be made here. I’ve made it, for better or worse, several times. But in 2020, it was like the last framework had finally fallen apart: love. I did not predict that at all. I would have staked the rest of my life on that love. I was wrong. I can only move on. There is, as I said before, only forward. And I hold this as absolute because of poetry.
Poetry to me holds the future possibilities not only of language itself, but for how we will evolve. Poetry is the future speak, the difficult reading that saves one from their own short attention span and reliance on, say, algorithms. There is a future for discovery, and I say this knowing theoretical physics hasn’t led to the many new discoveries once promised, especially by string theory; that we might never understand all aspects of the multiverse in sum total. But as a poet I can imagine what it means for our lifespans to just seem long enough to skim surfaces, to ask questions, albeit often the wrong questions, in the hope that they might lead to less wrong questions. For me, “discovery” is not about possessing or taking over; it’s about curiosity itself. I’d like to be less wrong, sure. But damn it, I wouldn’t change a thing about the course my life has taken through multiple timelines, and while I imagine all the Rosebud Ben-Onis out there talking to all Euan Monaghan of all the Structos out there must be different, wildly different in the end: all have the same core. We are all very curious. We’re all moving forward, Euan.
Find out more about Rosebud and her writing at rosebudbenoni.com
In the Structo 20 editor’s letter, I wrote:
And so we will not be opening submissions immediately after this issue goes to press. Instead, we will be spending some time to figure out what’s next. This will mostly involve conversations with writers, readers and fellow publishers. We want to know how we can improve. Is a print magazine the best focus for our efforts? If so, what does it look like? How often is it released? How is it funded? How can we pay writers? How can we make a better, more open, more transparent platform?
And, indeed, Structo is changing. If you’ve followed the magazine for any length of time, this will come as no surprise – we average three or four issues in any one particular print format before iterating to something else that better suits our needs. But this time we’re switching things up a little more fundamentally: we’re going digital-first.
The magazine has always had a digital counterpart to each print issue—both in the form of paid PDF editions released alongside the print version and then, a few months later, a freely available version over at Issuu—but these digital offerings have always been a bit of an afterthought. That changes from this point on.
The aim of Structo has always been to give great writing a platform, and this new model will allow the writing we publish to be read by more people than ever before.
Here are the two most important changes:
1. Format and schedule
Beginning in February, we will publish a new piece of writing—or a number of shorter pieces—every week on our website. After 20 or so weeks, at the end of June, the issue will be complete and a beautifully designed, full-colour print edition of the magazine will immediately become available.
This weekly release schedule will allow us to give every piece we publish some individual focus, while simultaneously giving the volunteers who work on the magazine (that is to say all of us) a more predictable and less compressed schedule.
We will now be paying contributors—each writer published in Structo will receive £25 alongside a copy of the print issue. This is obviously a token payment, but is in recognition of the fact that writing has value and should be treated that way. A surprising number of established paying markets are at around this level, so it seems like a starting point, at the very least. We will review the rates, along with everything else, once this new form of the magazine has been up and running for a little while.
We will be accepting work for the next issue throughout January. Submissions will be via Google Form, as ditching Submittable is a big part of the reason we can now pay our contributors. There are still no submission fees. What we continue to require, however, is proof that those sending in work have recently supported a literary magazine. The standard of work increased so dramatically once we began asking for this a few years ago that it makes sense to keep that going. We also heard about some great magazines in the process.
Head over here to check our submission guidelines and send in your work.
That’s it for now. Do reach out if you have any questions.
The debut collection by Emily Cooper opens on a potential slip, a dangerously formless ice-cream on the tarmac: somebody is going to get hurt. There’s no ownership here, no stasis, not of the physical sort – our narrator is a passer-by, a witness-but-not, and as such various lives and futures slip like sand through her hands.
she would never eat eels again preferring
fish with less mud in their veins fish that have never travelled from the Sargasso sea
to die on the deck of her father’s boat slammed hard against the wooden edge
— ‘Dinner with Raymona’
The collection questions what is lost by travel and what is gained – what is this life experience worth when we go back home again? What remains? The Sargasso sea mentioned above has no land boundaries; this is not a public pool where, when tired, you can cling to the sides. Once you’ve left you’ve left, and no amount of going back can strip that left-ness from you – you will die brittle (‘slammed hard’), like the glass of the title, as you try to unknow or at least conceal some of what you’ve learned. There’s a violence to this return.
In ‘Io at the Table’ restlessness is discussed – here being inflicted as punishment on the Io of the title. The name Io also evokes images of Jupiter’s innermost moon, itself a perpetual wanderer. The cause of the restlessness in the poem is a gadfly, significantly insignificant, accidental, much like the travel ‘bug’, which manifests subtly, growing to destroy.
But this is not a dismal collection, far from it:
I have always loved green/ perhaps for my eyes or perhaps for Ireland/ the Irish for green is glas/ on the cabinets in the British museum are signs/Do Not Lean on the Glass
Glass equals green equals novice equals fragility equals nation equals home equals self equals artefact equals precious memory under glass equals collective memory equals story again …
it seems obvious, all these things are connected
The collection takes us through the topographies in which our decisions land us and tries to construct a narrative from the fragments. Cooper has spoken in interviews about oral storytelling, and about the tradition of anecdote as a kind of self-building. This book seems to search for the house-stuff that can contain all the disparate selves we’ve half-made (there’s a through-thread in the book of not-quite-being, not-quite-seeing, the heightened awareness of lived moments being future memories – a side effect of our image-heavy culture, of our parallel digital and in-real-life existence, of our instant gratifications and rote multi-tasking).
Cooper juxtaposes the never-anywhere-enough of experiences in the world at large with the brief comfort provided by the interior spaces of the homes to which we are introduced. We feel the safety conveyed by these ramshackle nests, and the quick attachment to any home, however temporary, willing to bear the name. The homes in this collection carry with them hierarchy, inheritance, fragility, maintenance, personal relationships – all the many complications of shelter.
I rummage through the photographs among the slides/ I have grown tired of inserting them in the machine
This scene takes place in an attic, where we store the parts of the past we are attached to, the things we have collected or bought that we might yet need. It is tiring to process this past, to do things properly, to insert the slides in the machine. The past, like a house, requires perpetual maintenance, constant jogging, prompting, repairing.
last month they replaced the wooden stairs with sharp edged MDF ones/ it doesn’t matter what I say/ it keeps happening
There is no control, like trying to bat away the gadflies, the restlessness. We shimmy in place. In ‘Bradycardic Response’ lack of control is explored further, as is managing expectations. Life appears where it is not expected. The hunter only hunts for the company of the other hunters. Death isn’t aimed for. And then, in the poem death is narrowly avoided, twice – rendering life inherently comical, despite the darkness.
Perhaps it was a lie
— ‘Incredible Things Do Happen’
But does it matter?
It makes a damn good story.
there are outhouses and courtyards I will never enter
Yet so many we will – and it’s a pleasure to walk through all these rooms and pass by these walls with Cooper. Past the caged owls, the chinchillas, the dogs in the master bedroom. I’d sleep on the hay in the stable, or under the stars by the campfire, listening to these blazing thoughts.
The dust is free! Laughs the woman-in-the-reflective-vest
And so are we, is perhaps the take-home. Losing, gaining, fixing-up, making do, changing course. And although the personal changes that occur with travel may pack with them certain difficulties when we leave our places of birth, “incredible things do happen” as one of the final poems reminds us. We grow, learn, adapt to the adapting situation. Throughout these pages there are small victories, much wisdom, and plenty of humour:
Until I was an adult I always burnt the garlic
Glass / Emily Cooper / Makina Books / 26 August 2021
Reviewed by Lydia Unsworth
Here at the end of a really excellent Women in Translation Month, we are delighted to announce the next title from Structo Press: Wolfskin by Lara Moreno, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore.
Coming in January 2022, this intimate and unflinching novel tells the story of two women, sisters, as they face up to the current reality of their lives as well as their childhood and the black holes of their past. It is a timely and timeless look at questions of family, power, and sexuality.
Wolfskin will be the second book in translation from Structo Press, following the Republic of Consciousness Prize-nominated El Llano in flames by Juan Rulfo, translated from the Spanish by Stephen Beechinor.
Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the author Michael Martin. You can read his story ‘A Question for the Candidate’ online in Structo 9.
We published ‘A Question for the Candidate’ back in 2013. How’s the writing life treated you since then?
Being published in Structo gave me a great sense of achievement, not least because of the quality of the magazine, its appearance and the rest of the writing. Since then I’ve placed several more stories, winning the Irish Post short story competition, with the prize of visiting the wonderful Listowel Writers’ Festival, and being short-listed for the Benedict Kiely prize, which is part of the Omagh Literature Festival. Some writers say they’d rather concentrate on their novel than get distracted by short fiction but I believe you learn a lot from writing as well as reading short fiction, and sometimes there are highlights of publication or even prizes which will sustain longer term projects.
Your debut novel has just come out from Brigand. Can you say something about Little Flowers?
A critical friend had helped me pare down the draft that was accepted by Brigand. I suppose it’s because they are a small publishers, I felt at the heart of the editing process. The novel concerns a betting shop worker called Guy who hasn’t moved out of his parents’ house. The crisis in his life is brought about when his neighbour’s building work disturbs his sleep. It’s supposed to be grounded in naturalism and it does sound like it deals with very suburban concerns, but there is a slightly fantastical slant. The eccentric planner who promises to help the narrator is the catalyst who changes Guy’s life. The fantasy element, that I hope helps to stoke the increasing strangeness of the story, is where Guy reads a book about Saint Francis of Assisi – except rather than the conventional biography, this is a sensational novel where the saint has to uncover the true identity of a werewolf.
Can you point to any specific influences for the novel or for your short stories?
As Little Flowers progressed, I did think about what elements I enjoyed most in novels. They include puzzling (for me) interludes like the Pontius Pilate episodes in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the fictional characters’ revenge on their writer in At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. Also Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood has that brilliant portrayal of someone pursuing a misguided mission that I find fascinating. By citing such great writers, I know I will only suffer in comparison but at least it shows I’m aiming high! For short stories, writers I admire are James Joyce and V S Pritchett, and of recent writers, Yukiko Motoya’s Picnic in the Storm was a brilliant collection. I’ll never view people putting up umbrellas in high winds in a supercilious way again (well, maybe I will).
What’s next for you?
Just before Little Flowers was accepted by Brigand, I’d finished a first draft of my next novel. This was put on hold as I came to understand just how much work was involved in getting a book to publication. So it’s back to that and continuing to write short stories. In 2019 as part of Barnet Borough’s Year of Learning festival I ran a couple of writing workshops, which I really enjoyed, so I am due to run some more and get to find out what happens in several stories people are working on.
Find out more about Michael and his writing at https://michaelmartinwriter.blogspot.com
Back in 2014, Barrelhouse Books published Lee Klein’s Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, a collection of relentlessly honest, often hilarious rejection letters sent during Klein’s time running the literary magazine Eyeshot. A book of rejection letters might sound like an unkind gimmick which, even if done well, would stop being funny after a couple of pages, but there’s something about the blunt force of Klein’s responses which easily sustains its page count. There’s snark, sure, but there is also heart and appreciation and an expectation that people should be writing good things.
Neutral Evil ))) has a similarly unlikely set-up, one which in the hands of most writers would be completely insufferable: autofiction in which a bearded thirty-something takes some edibles, goes to a drone metal show and muses on US domestic politics, social media and guitar pedals.
Nope nope nope. Even as a 120-page novella, just nope. And I enjoy drone metal.
Happily, and unsurprisingly given Klein’s previous work, the framing device—March 18, 2017, at a Sunn O))) show in Philadelphia, just two months into the current US presidency—is simply used as a way to reflect on a moment in time and the frame of mind of the narrator. The story is about a man adjusting to the demands of a young family, sure, but he’s setting into it, not rebelling against the constraints. The time spent at the show is a gift of sorts from his wife, some time off before she leaves for a business trip and he is on toddler duty for a week.
I’m aware of my thoughts in a way that makes me aware that I haven’t been aware of my thoughts recently. They’ve been benevolently suppressed by routine, by action, or whenever they asserted themselves I elevated their status to that of a tweet, but in general I’m now beginning to realize that I haven’t been thinking, I haven’t had sufficient unoccupied free-range time alone to hear myself think, and now it seems I have an hour or more to myself in a crowd of mostly young men willing to pay $22 to stand and listen to super-loud low-frequency drone-doom minimalist-metal in a converted Spaghetti Warehouse.
It’s the thoughts of the narrator, and the feeling of thought in general, which Klein depicts so well in Neutral Evil ))). There’s a looseness and lightness to the writing which reads like thinking, with tangents, unlikely plans, and memories interrupted and shunted around by the real world.
You might not care as much as the narrator does about guitar amps, but that’s fine. He’s not aiming to impress. This is simply a snapshot of a moment in a life, deftly captured.
Neutral Evil ))) / Lee Klein / Sagging Meniscus Press / 1 May 2020
Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the poet Nicola Stringer. You can read her poem ‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ online in Structo 18.
Can you say a little about the genesis of ‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’?
‘Icebergs’ is a poem from the final section of my first collection A day that you happen to know, which uses travel, or more specifically destinations, to think about emotional location, which often has all and nothing to do with where we might find ourselves physically. The poems start in Ilulissat which is in western Greenland and end in Alice Springs, Australia:
Travelling in straight lines as temperature rises, reactions where we fall apart are simple, as long as there is no bounce.
How long has A day that you happen to know been in the works?
I gave myself leave to take time away from my (paid) work to focus on writing and effectively took much of 2016 and part of 2017 to develop the collection. Luke Thompson at Guillemot Press had expressed an interest in the work and was open to the idea of a collaboration. Guillemot are very focused on the end product and materials and they work with some fantastic artists and illustrators from their base in Cornwall. Lucy Kerr was almost instantly able to find a way into my poems graphically. This very beautiful book was published in November 2017.
You are also part of a sound collective called Fractured Strings. First question: what’s a sound collective?
I’m not sure if there is a universal definition, but my sound collective is a cooperative enterprise of a very small number of musicians and an engineer who I work with to create the sound of my writing, which is more than simply recording words. I work often with visual and sound content so when I’m thinking about a written piece it also has look and feel – at least in my head. With my collaborators that sound is as likely to come into the world as a beautiful movement of music as it is something like the noise of a thought hitting the bottom of a well! A number of my poems have a recorded sound ‘theory’ and there is a full soundtrack to the collection, In the half-light, available on my website.
I’m sure many writers dream of taking some serious time away from the day job to focus on writing. How did you find that process? Were there any unexpected challenges?
I’m always reminded of Brian Eno’s position on this: if you want to do your best creative work, don’t get a job! Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of not having to pay the bills, but for me it did mean giving up a challenging career in charity marketing, using savings to go back to university for a year to complete my MA, to then focus on the writing by living on the minimum I could afford to earn through part-time work. The unexpected challenge is in having to put aside skills and expertise that are often not required in the sort of work I do now – but the benefit is in not having to have a long-term commitment or view on the future of an organisation and using that energy on the creative work instead. I’m in awe of anyone who can work in a professional capacity outside of the arts full-time and still manage a creative career successfully.
What’s the latest from you?
My first collection was highly commended in the Forward Prizes 2018 and my second collection will be coming out in 2021. I’m really happy with the change I made. The events I create as part of Corrupted Poetry have also been amazingly well received. Our angle is to combine poetry with sound and visual content, working with some brilliant poets and artists as well as in collaboration with musicians and organisations such as the National Poetry Library. We’re currently putting an exhibition together for the Poetry Café, working with Poem Atlas, which will be ready mid-January and the first event of 2020, Fake, will be at the October Gallery in London in March. You can see and hear more at corruptedpoetry.com.
After developing Alzheimer’s, Annie Ernaux’s mother spent a period living with her daughter, before ultimately being moved to a geriatric hospital where she lived out her last two years. On the surface, then, I Remain in Darkness (translated from the French by Tanya Leslie) is about a daughter living through the death of a parent, the process of living-through recorded in fragmented journal entries, and between every entry a week of a mother not being visited. It’s painful enough just to skim through the pages and attend to the time frame; if ever there were a book of reading between the lines, it ought to be this one.
Ernaux’s descriptions of her mother’s decline are clear and visceral. At times she comes off as cold and cruel and, at others, pained and gentle. The detachment, the horror of the banal, and the inability to shake off a lifetime of one’s own slapdash parent-child relationships—all of this Ernaux captures and offers as relief. In this way, the book is reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain, an experiment in exorcism by repetition after a failed love affair. In I Remain in Darkness, however, it is fear that is borne by ritual, and loss is tethered to the muck of the mundane. It’s hard to be so close, to smell the details, and equally hard not to feel a twofold grief upon reading: once for your own slow deterioration and once for your slowly deteriorating loved ones. To know that we pass through each of death’s sides.
I felt in equal measure Ernaux’s grief, her guilt, and her suspected failure to be a ‘proper’ daughter. (Is that how I would…? Would it be like…? Is this going to…? Will I end up…?).
The book is claustrophobic and at the same time distant. Paragraphs such as this perfectly capture the double-bind Annie Ernaux is suffering.
She looks even more withered and confused. All she is wearing is her hospital gown, open at the back, exposing her spine, her buttocks and the mesh of her underwear. A glorious sun is beating down through the double-glazed windows. I think about my room at the students’ hostel twenty years ago. Today I am here with her. We have no little imagination.
Where to place one’s focus? The section begins with the physical decline of her mother, escapes out the window into the eternity of the weather, and runs back to the safety of youth before landing again on the death that confronts her. And it is Ernaux’s mother, in her gown and slippers, who throughout remains unreachable, as flickers of her life bubble to the surface one sentence at a time, highlighting the disjunct between the mother’s lived experience and what we, the healthy spectator, is able to understand.
At just 78 pages, I Remain in Darkness is a remarkably light thing to be carrying such human weight. There’s a safety in tiny volumes, in the small doses of pain which drip from Ernaux’s note-style pages; the drip of a faucet that won’t quite turn off, however hard you force its handle.
I Remain in Darkness / Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie / Fitzcarraldo Editions / 18 Sept 2019 (UK & Eire)
Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres and Nostalgia for Bodies, and two chapbooks: My Body in a Country and I Have Not Led a Serious Life. Recent work can be found in Ambit, para.text, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Litro and others. Find her on Twitter @lydiowanie.
It started, as many things do, with a chat in a pub.
This particular chat was with Stephen Beechinor, a writer and translator from the Spanish and Catalan. We had published one of Stephen’s remarkable short stories in Structo 9. A little later he had a stint as a member of our editorial team. That day he was telling me about a Mexican author called Juan Rulfo. I’d never heard of him.
When Stephen left the magazine to concentrate on his own writing, I asked him to keep an eye out for any interesting work which could do with an English translation. Juan Rulfo, it turned out, was an incredibly well-regarded author in Latin America who had published two books in his lifetime: a novel called Pedro Páramo in 1955 and, two years before that, a story collection called El Llano en llamas. The novel was published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail but, for whatever reason, El Llano en llames was not available in English anywhere outside of North America. This became more mysterious when I came across this quote from Gabriel García Márquez:
Juan Rulfo didn’t write more than three hundred pages, but they are almost as many and, I believe, as durable as those we’re acquainted with from Sophocles.
Which isn’t a bad recommendation, as it goes.
A few months later we had begun on the path to commissioning a new translation. It was to be the first book from Structo Press.
I caught up with Stephen in the week of the book’s release to talk about the process of translating El Llano in flames.
How did you first encounter Rulfo?
Through Meritxell Pucurull, a translator in Barcelona. I put her on to Raymond Carver’s stories and she gave me El Llano en llamas. And it was like Juan Rulfo had carried you a great distance, the writing was so laconic and quietly tense, yet immediate and kind of undeniable. Unfamiliar country.
What was it about El Llano en llamas that made you want to take on the translation?
It was nothing short of a gift to be offered the chance. The sheer craft was there and not in an ostensible way. Rulfo is not a showy, watch-this kind of writer: it’s hard to figure out quite how he casts the spell he does. Which for the translator also heightens the prospect of outright failure, and that’s always a powerful incentive too.
What was the most challenging part of the translation process?
Being a process you only learn it by doing, which means getting it wrong in all sorts of ways, and allowing for that, before you will even begin to identify how you might get it right. Perhaps it’s like building a bicycle wheel from scratch. First of all, you accept that whatever wheel you build will never turn out perfectly true. However, at least the formal principles and outcome of the process appear straightforward: you know what it’s meant to look like, the design and architecture have already been decided for you. But there’s no set number of passes either before you’re done: it’s finished when all the spokes have the proper combined tension, their own internal coherence, so that the wheel may spin freely. And the editor is the person who comes over to let you know, just when you think you’re done, that all these spokes need changing. Vital.
Any idea why Rulfo isn’t as well known in the UK and Ireland as he is in North America?
At a guess, the mystifying quirks of cultural commerce have something to do with geography, trade, theatres of influence and conflict, traffic of people, and timing. Pedro Páramo has been translated here, but he’s still under the radar, still a writer’s writer. Fortunately though, this is a time when you have small presses like Peirene and Comma picking up on books of serious quality in other languages, just as Comma Press did with Hassan Blassim and his remarkable stories from Iraq.
How did you settle on ‘El Llano in flames’ as a title for this new translation?
El Llano or El Llano Grande is the name of the arid, treeless, shrubless, birdless flatland in Jalisco, Mexico, where the stories are set. It’s shown in the relief map on the cover of this translation.
In El Llano we have a proper noun, a toponym, a place name that describes the land. And as a general noun, a llano is a dry plain of sometimes great extension, a feature of the northern parts of south America and the south-western US. Like veldt or steppe or glen or bayou, a llano is a geographical particularity and to transpose the particular into the generic would be to traduce it. And finally, typographically, that initial ‘Ll’ digraph holds your eye nicely; it snags in the mind in just the right way.
The em-dash dialogue markers are carried over from the original. This typically doesn’t appear in English. What was the thought process there?
Declutter. Clear the page of surplus furniture and allow the syntax to perform freely as much work in translation as it does in the source. Here it should be said that Rulfo’s punctuation is not especially light: depending on the individual story, he’s apt to use every kind of mark, plus italics. Much in line with the standard in Spanish, which happens to be far more prescriptive and set in terms of how you can mark up a sentence. So, for dialogue Rulfo is using this em-dash or raya for direct speech and comillas or quotation marks (“ ”, « ») for quoted, remembered or imagined speech. Nothing out of the ordinary. These marks you also find in French and Catalan: it’s more of a European convention than anything else.
In English there’s bags of scope and licence in the language to use the em-dash to mark direct speech, with occasional italics for remembered or quoted speech. Which probably throws up as many issues as it pretends to resolve, but you select your restrictions to serve your ends. An economy that comes back to Rulfo’s clean, unfettered syntax. Lines are weighted and stressed not only so that they roll into one another but do so in such a way that the emphasis will invariably fall to good effect. This is what lends the stories their as-told quality: you hear the teller’s voice without intermediary, there’s nothing in the way.
Incidentally, right now in English, Jen Calleja uses em-dash marks for dialogue in her very fine, fluid translation from the German of Kerstin Hensel’s book titled Dance by the Canal. As does Preti Taneja in her novel We That Are Young.
This is your first book-length translation. How does it feel to have it out and about?
As though I may have inflicted a well-intentioned travesty on the original, but it’s either too early or too late for regrets – let’s see. Ultimately the book belongs first and last to the author and the person who will read it next. All you’re doing really is trying not to tarnish it too noticeably before passing it along.
El Llano in flames is available now in paperback. More details here.
Posts pre-April 2014 are here.