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New Directions Interview with Dunya Mikhail

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Though Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail writes of a different time and experience, I feel a powerful connection to her poems about war, loss, and exile. Both my parents lived in Vietnam during a time of upheaval.

I find that she is an essential voice in poetry, and indeed, I am quite surprised that her work is not more widely read and discussed, especially given our political climate.

Born in Baghdad, Dunya Mikhail has published two collections of poetry in English. The War Works Hard, published by New Directions in 2005, won a PEN Translation Fund Award, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of 25 Best Books of 2005.
 Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, published in 2009, is a multi-genre bilingual book in two sections, depicting her life before and after she fled from Iraq to live in the United States. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. She lives in Michigan and works as an Arabic resource teacher for Dearborn Public Schools. She is currently working on a new manuscript of poems.

Dunya Mikhail read with Louise Glück on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at the 92nd Street Y. In preparation for this event, I interviewed her about various aspects of her poetry, including translation, censorship, and witness.

Cathy Linh Che: I’ve read that English is your third language, after Aramaic and Arabic. What do you think is the impact of having your work translated into English?

Dunya Mikhail: English made me more sensitive toward Arabic. I started to think about words more carefully and let me admit it: I caught myself sometimes picking Arabic phrases that would resonate in English as well. I always write in Arabic first and then try to translate this, so my writing goes from right to left then from left to right. Aramaic is the language I speak with my mother.

CC: In The War Works Hard, you speak in a number of voices and personas, and you also speak for others. Is it important for you to speak those who are silenced?

DM: Being a poet is so personal and so public at the same time. I am only with myself when I write, but I am with everyone when I finish the poem. People tell me that they could relate to these poems (just like you did), and I think, yes, I feel the same way toward other people’s experiences. I adopt them as if they are mine, and I try to distance myself from my own experience so that it looks like somebody else’s.

CC: In Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, you write:

“So I discover poetry is an amoeba:
It has an eye for witnessing, a foot
for leaving traces, and a flexible form.”

How important is the notion of “witnessing” and “leaving traces” to your poetry?

DM: My eyes were opened to war, and now, when I close my eyes, I still see war. Poetry, you know, is responsive, probably the most deeply responsive of all literary genres.

CC: How has/had censorship impacted your ability to publish your poetry?

DM: In Iraq, there was a department of censorship with actual employees whose job was to watch “public morals” and decide what you should read and write. Every writer needed approval first before publishing. That’s why I used a lot of metaphors and layers of meanings. This was probably good for my poetry but, still, you do not want to use such figures of speech just to hide meanings. Here, in America, a word does not usually cost a poet her life. However, speech is sometimes limited to what is acceptable according to public norms. So, in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text. So censorship is implicit in the U.S. and the West and explicit in Iraq and the Arab world. But the big relief you feel here is that you actually have an editor and not a censor anymore when you publish. You feel great despite the irony that the censor makes you feel so important that if you say the wrong thing you deserve to die. The editor makes you feel that you can say whatever you want, and it’s never the end of the world!

CC: Can you describe how the two sections of Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea differ for you? Did censorship or a lack of censorship affect the writing of the two parts?

DM: The first part was written and published in Iraq. Therefore it is not that direct compared to the second part, which was written after leaving my homeland. Actually, censorship was the main reason for my leaving Iraq.

CC: In addition, the first section comes from a direct witness of war in Iraq and the second section was written in America (from a vantage point of indirect witness) during another war in Iraq. How have these different vantage points affected the writing of the two different sections?

Although war is one and always the same for me, the first section deals particularly with the two wars I lived through in Iraq (the Iraq-Iran war and the U.S.-allied Gulf war), and the second section focuses on the 2003 war which I witnessed from a distance. In the second part, I was not there in the middle of the sounds of airplanes and explosions, but I could easily recall my terrifying memories. One new thing I noticed, however, is that my old friends whom I could contact in Iraq were giving me the impression, “Oh, well, I was injured, that’s ordinary…” It seemed to me war was becoming familiar in the country as ordinary fact, and that peace was the exception. Or was it because my friends didn’t want me to worry? Or was it because they wanted to get more attention with that denial of harm, especially now that I am on the outside?

CC: I am particularly interested in the ways that you speak of the impact of war on personal lives. How important is it for you to speak of the personal when speaking of the political?

DM: One of the diseases of Arabic poetry, in my opinion, is when it speaks about political issues in a non-personal way. They call these as “big issues” but there is no “small” nor “big” issue in poetry. There is only poetry in poetry.

CC: Is there any possibility for your return to Iraq?

DM: Not sure. Being “here” is an occasion to think of “there” but on a practical level, I am afraid I will not find the country that I know, or I will not know the country that I find. And it’s not all about me now. I have a daughter whose future seems to be more promising here. My husband’s niece was kidnapped in Iraq. It has been more than a year, and she has not been found. That alone makes the idea of return so scary.

CC: How do you think war has impacted contemporary Iraqi and Arabic poetry?

DM: Traditional Arabic poetry has a strict form that might not match with the mess of modern war and its urgency. Contemporary forms give it some flexibility. There is a tension in the Arab world between poets of traditional forms and the “prose poets,” as they are called. In Egypt, for example, there was an article about poets boycotting this poetry festival because this is formal and that’s not formal and so on. When it comes to Iraqi war poetry, some of it is trash (talk about the Iraqi soldier as a superhero who fears nothing etc.) and some of it is great (it allows poetry to survive the war).

CC: What do you think is the role of a poet in the U.S.? Is this different from the role of a poet in the world at large?

DM: The first known poet in history, Enheduanna, was an Iraqi woman. She wrote about Inanna on tablets in the cuneiform language. The interesting thing about her is that she had a position or title. It was “The keeper of the flame.” I think that if a poet should have any role at all, it should be (wherever and whenever) the same: “keeper of the flame.”

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Written by New Directions

April 7, 2010 at 8:38 pm

In-house interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya

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Moya author photo

The hair-raising novels of El Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) can leave one clutching for their throat and yet laughing wildly out loud. He has recently moved from his residency at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh to Tokyo, and has just completed a trip to Sweden where he celebrated the publication of the Swedish edition of Senselessness. New Directions intern Kelsey Ford interviewed the notoriously peripatetic author to find out more about how his own writing affects him and what it is like to be on the move so often.

Kelsey Ford: Do you have a guiding idea as you write your novels? If so, is it different with each new book? If someone were to look at your published works, what overall idea would you like them to see?

Horacio Castellanos Moya: I have a guiding idea as I write most of my novels. But in a couple of them there was no guide, just a kind of explosion. The process is different in each book, of course. Firstly, this process depends on the material conditions I’m living in: it is not the same when you are writing in a hurry, not knowing where you are going to sleep next month and from where you are going to get money for surviving, than when you have a place for staying and working with economic certainty for the future to come. The planning and the writing are affected by these material conditions. Secondly, it depends on the nature of the novel: there are plots that allow a lot of improvisation, but there are others that require very precise planning. And regarding the overall idea, I don’t know what to say: I don’t like to pontificate on my own work.

KF: In “Notes about the Political in the Latin American Novel,” you called your subjects of political and social rife a “genetic burden.” To what extent does this haunt your writing?

HCM: It haunts me a lot. Sometimes I try to get rid of it, but the more I try the more it haunts my writing. So I better get quiet and accept the situation, that is to say, the fact that the Political is going to be the landscape of my stories. Even now that I’m in Tokyo, far away from Latin American and Salvadoran politics, this curse follows me and I’m trying to write a novel that still takes place during the Salvadoran civil war.

KF: Do the stories you choose come from recent experiences, or do they build up over time until finally you sit down to write them?

HCM: I think they build up over time until finally I sit down to write them. The experiences must be distilled in order to become fiction. Of course there are some exceptions, when something that recently happened suddenly implodes inside me and I sit down to write it. That was the case with Revulsion.

KF: What compelled you to write The She-Devil in the Mirror?

HCM: The voice of that lady started to sound in my mind and I couldn’t shut her up. I didn’t do any research or planning to build that voice, it just came to my mind and started to bother me a lot, insistently. I think that’s what compelled me to write the story, to get rid of her.

KF: How was your experience writing The She-Devil different from your experience writing Senselessness?

HCM: I started to write The She-Devil in Mexico City in December 1995, but I wrote most of the book in San Salvador in 1996 and the last part in Madrid in 1997. I wrote the first half of Senselessness in Mexico City at the end of 2002 and the first weeks of 2003; I finished it in Guatemala in 2004. When I wrote both books I was living in similar conditions, close to the edge, on the border line, not knowing how I was going to survive next month or where I had to move.

KF: There are strong similarities between the narrators of The She-Devil in the Mirror and Senselessness; neither seems “complete in the mind.” As a writer, how do you embody the voices of your narrators?

HCM: Octavio Paz wrote that the writer emerges from an interior fracture. I like that. It seems that I deepen that fracture in my characters. But you want to dig in the mystery of creation. That’s not good for a writer. I don’t know why some voices come to me and others don’t. I don’t think on that: it happens. I just write what I need to write. In this kind of book, if I do a lot of thinking I get blocked. There is a hidden friction, then a spark in a very dry prairie, and I just have to dance with the fire.

KF: You’ve lived abroad so much: recently in Germany, and Pittsburgh, and, right now, in Japan: how do you experience these sojourns? Are they dislocating in both negative (disruptive or lonely or making you feel deracinated) and positive (fresh insights and perspectives and beneficial, creativity-inducing change) ways?

HCM: That is a nice word, “deracinated.” I like it. I’m uprooted. I’m not a plant, I’m not a tree. I have a mind and feet. I belong to the planet, to this tiny little piece of nothing in the universe. And of course the fact of dislocating affects me. Everytime it is more difficult for me to write the stories that are kept in my wounded memory. But that is good too, because it means that I’m also getting rid of my wounded memory. Roque Dalton, a great poet, wrote: “Oblivion is the only source of perfection.”

Written by New Directions

October 6, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Interview with New Directions translator Susan Bernofsky

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Susan B

From Robert Walser (The Assistant, The Tanners) , to Yoko Tawada (Where Europe Begins, The Naked Eye) to Jenny Erpenbeck (The Old Child, The Book of Words), Susan Bernofsky’s translations from the German have been met with great acclaim and praise. New Directions intern Georgie Devereux interviewed Ms. Bernofsky on her various projects and her approach to translation.

Georgie Devereux: As a reader, I have found the experience of first opening one of your many translations not unlike landing in a foreign city. This is in part because of the language of your authors—beautiful and unsettling at once––and in part because the characters themselves are often experiencing a sense of displacement (the heroine of The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, or Joseph in Robert Walser’s The Assistant, for example). In reading translation, notions of displacement become somehow more poignant.

Susan Bernofsky: I’m so glad you have that impression! I think all books are like that to a certain extent—creating new landscapes we can wander around in—and it’s especially true of books that were written in other languages, since the structures and sounds of each language influence what gets written in them, so that adding foreign literature to our reading diet just increases the range of different sorts of literary environments available to us.

GD: How might a work initially written for a German audience impact an American one? How does our own cultural background inevitably enrich and/or hinder our reading of a text?

SB: Sometimes it’s quite unpredictable what books from one country will capture the imagination of readers in another one. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha has had such a major impact on generations of young people in the United States, and in Germany the book was never nearly as popular. The theme of searching for one’s own life path really struck a chord with young Americans in the 1960s, 40 years after the book was written. On the other hand, there are so many great works of literature written in German that are largely inaccessible to Americans because appreciating or even just enjoying them depends on local references. I recently loved a short novel called Folgendes (The Following) by a youngish German author named Thomas Weiss, a darkly comic account of the problems devastating an extended family in southern Germany, all of which, as gradually becomes clear, can be traced back to the family’s WWII heritage. The book features such jolly topics as displaced persons and incest, and its gallows humor—which is often roll-on-the-floor-funny in German—is completely dependent on the use of passing references to slogans, situations and figures only the German reader would recognize. One character pronounces the word “Krieg” (war) as “Kriech” every time she says it, which is often, and this dialect pronunciation has connotations of crawling on the ground and sycophantism. We have plenty of books like this in English too. Sometimes you can figure out how to translate them in a way that works. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words is full of lines taken from German nursery rhymes that are crucial for the book, and I think it works in English nonetheless.

GD: I am intrigued by a quote highlighted on your website from your article “Disorienting Language”: “It is not simply that our perceptions change when we travel abroad; those who never leave their familiar surroundings condemn themselves to blindness.” I was wondering if you could describe your own experience of living abroad. How has it influenced your vision as a translator?

SB: Particularly when I was a young student living abroad for the first time—in Münster, Germany at age 19, and then Zurich at age 21—I felt as though the experience was noticeably changing who I was as a person. Even just experiencing different social conventions, such as learning to navigate the distinction between the informal and formal forms of address, “du” and “Sie,” not just on paper but in real life, forced me to think in a completely different way about the sorts of social hierarchies we establish and respond to here in at home often without even thinking about it. At first I had so little grasp of the German system that I asked my host professor, a kind and welcoming person, to call me “du” and was surprised to see how shocked he was.
It also made quite an impression on me to see how physically present the legacy of WWII was in Germany and how much more strongly this legacy made itself felt in everyday life than I was expecting. The last war fought on American soil was a century and a half ago, and so the way we think about war is very different.
In general, experiencing how people in other countries live their lives—what they eat, how they socialize, the role politics plays in everyday interactions, how minority groups are incorporated into or excluded from society as a whole, the different sorts of rituals surrounding shopping, eating and drinking and the pace of it all—is a good way to stop taking our own lifestyles and attitudes for granted and thinking about them as choices. As a translator you mediate more than just linguistic expression.

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

GD: In your translator’s note to The Naked Eye, you write how Yoko Tawada ended up composing two separate manuscripts––one in German and one in Japanese––simultaneously as parts of the novel came to her in either one or the other language. How do you think the two texts work together? What were some of the translation issues that arose from such a unique project?

SB: I would love to know which passages were originally written in which language, but the version I read was all in German, and the transitions are pretty seamless. This is interesting because in Tawada’s earlier work it sometimes has seemed to me that her Japanese-language prose is more dense and more densely punning than in German (though she loves German-language puns as well). I suspect that she developed her own transitional style to negotiate between the two languages in the course of preparing the twin manuscripts (fraternal twins!). I hear that a Japanese doctoral student is working on a dissertation on the difference between the Japanese and German-language manuscripts of the novel—that should be interesting!

GD: What is the difference between working with texts by living authors, as with Tawada and Erpenbeck, and working with Walser, for example?

SB: It’s so helpful to work with living authors who take an interest in the work of their translators, particularly in the case of Tawada and Erpenbeck, both of whom play a lot of with language in ways that don’t always translate well. The Tawada story “Where Europe Begins,” for example, ends with a catalogue of elements from the story whose names spell out the word “Moscow.” I had to find images that began with the right letters. And in Erpenbeck’s novel The Book of Words there’s an entire passage based on the fact that a German dialect word for carnations means “little nails.” In this case too I had to find a suitable image. In both cases (as in many others), the authors were enthusiastic about my desire to write equivalent passages that could be knitted into their stories without disrupting the reading experience in the way that would had happened if I had stuck to a literal translation and added footnotes, for example. This has made me bolder about taking similar liberties when I translate Walser. It’s always a very serious judgment call as to which sorts of changes are permissible or even desirable. Walser’s story “New Year’s Page,” for example, begins with a rhyme in German, “Wende reimt sich auf Hände, Wände.” Literally that would read “Turn [as in “turn of the century,” but here referring to the “turn” of the new year] rhymes with hands, walls.” All three nouns rhyme in German, and the next sentence goes on to relate how a visitor arrives and knocks on the door. I decided that my highest priority would be translating the “rhymedness” of the sentence and the sense that the rhyme was serving as a launching pad for the next sentence, so my translation reads: “Year rhymes with near, appear.” I would have liked to ask Walser’s permission to transform his sentence in this way, but he doesn’t respond to e-mails.

GD: Would you be able to narrate how you came to be a translator?

SB: I started translating at a very young age—I was still a high-school student—because I was already planning to be a novelist when I grew up, and a teacher recommended translation as a writing exercise, even though my grasp of the German language at that point was pretty sketchy. Translation turned out to be so much fun that I kept doing it on the side over years in which I was doing lots of other things (writing fiction, pursuing a doctorate, teaching). I still think it’s fun, even though it’s much harder than I thought it was when I was just starting out.

GD: Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

I’ve also been working on writing two quite different books, one a biography of Walser (we really need one in English!) and a novel that is in large part a response to the destruction of New Orleans, the city where I first tried my hand at translating.

Written by New Directions

October 1, 2009 at 8:23 pm