Tag Archives: Passionate Nomads

Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Last time I wrote I told you some about Eva Gillies, whose translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997) Lucina Schell recently reviewed in the context of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publishing, 2011). I introduced myself to Eva in the year 2000, by snail mail (via her publisher), and we enjoyed a fruitful relationship between then and her death in January 2011. It was she who introduced me to María Rosa, whom she said had a book that she thought she might want me to translate.

So naturally I was excited to sit down with Eva’s posthumously published memoir, An Interpreter at Large (Great Britain: YouCaxton Publications, 2013: http://www.amazon.com/The-Memoirs-Eva-Gillies-Interpreter/dp/1909644137), which I had seen previously in manuscript form. Glancing back just now at that manuscript copy I see that the finished version contains an additional essay (“On Anthropology and Anthropologists”) to complement two others (“On Interpreting, and Interpreters” and “On Language: Pidgins, Creoles, Dialects”) which serve as “Interludes” between sections of the narrative of her life story. An additional Interlude in the published text contains photographs from the family collection, including the charming cover photo of her in native dress in Nigeria where she was doing field work in her second profession as an anthropologist.

Eva lived a fascinating life. She was born in 1930 in Germany to a Jewish-German-Argentine mother and a “gut anti-Nazi” German father who, when he determined that there was no chance of a popular uprising against Hitler, left the country for Argentina where Eva spent her childhood. Part One of her memoir describes that Argentine Childhood, starting with her memory of arriving in Buenos Aires at the end of 1933. Part Two focuses on her undergraduate years at Oxford and Part Three, after the Interlude on Interpreting, on her years on the international interpreting circuit – most notably her work for the Armistice Commission in Hanoi. Then, after the Interlude on Language, Part Four covers her transition from interpreting to anthropology and her first introduction to Africa, and Part Five, after the Interlude on Anthropology, focuses in-depth on her field work in Nigeria. Finally, Part Six deals with, among other things, her time in The Gambia (Africa) with her entomologist husband Mick Gillies, who was working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria, and on her work from home in Hamsey (East Sussex) on such projects as abridging the seminal anthropological work of one of her Oxford professors and translating Mansilla.

Eva opens the Interlude on Interpreting with a perfect definition and distinction between translating and interpreting: “… while translation deals with written documents, interpreting is purely oral, and tends to happen mainly at conferences…. The two professions do appeal to two very different personalities: a translator” [and this is me, beyond any doubt] “is somebody who has to get things exactly right, sometimes taking a long time to do so. An interpreter has to produce his or her oral version fast; must therefore be rather quick on the uptake, and not too fussy about getting things totally accurate. It also helps to be a bit of a show-off! I am, by temperament, very much an interpreter. I can and do translate when required,” [I, with the greatest difficulty, and generally not all that well, have interpreted very occasionally], “but don’t enjoy it as much” (p. 87).

The following comment on language seems to speak very well for me too: “I don’t believe myself to have ‘a talent for languages,’ only a feeling for language as such” (p. 142): she had extreme difficulty, for instance, with tonal languages such as Vietnamese and some African languages. For my part I remember decades ago, as a freshman at Indiana University, having a terrible struggle with Russian, and I have essentially forgotten the little bit that I did learn of it. Otherwise, without paying much attention to the terminology of grammatical structures, (I have learned them much better, in both English and Spanish, through the practice of teaching), I have approached composition a good deal by an instinct, first of all, for the cadences of the language as well as through the medium of literature rather than grammar and morphology and such. I am a poor linguist, as I learned for certain in the Fall semester of 1985 while at the same time I was excelling in the study of the original Spanish Don Quijote, I was only just scraping by in Spanish Linguistics (I think Professor Quilter, who taught both classes, was being generous when he gave me a B in that one).

As for Anthropology, I enjoyed Eva’s take on Margaret Mead, who in person she found to be rather obnoxious and arrogant; also, as was beginning to be thoroughly documented at the time, not really very competent at her chosen vocation: “… the locals [in the Pacific islands] had told M. M. exactly what they thought she wanted to hear,” according to another anthropologist who was just then getting to know about it, “thereby invalidating not just her ethnography but the world-shaking conclusions that had impressed so many people, including my father [a psychologist].” She added, a bit spitefully: “I was delighted” (p. 189).

399247[1]On the other hand, some positive stories about two big names I’m vaguely familiar with: Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard, under whom she worked at Oxford (and later abridged his seminal book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande), and the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she met once and babysat for his extremely rambunctious son: he gave her, in recompense, a £10 note (“quite a lot of money in 1964”) and a signed copy of his book La pensée sauvage: in the dedication hoping “that a few hours with un exotique petit sauvage would not have put me off ‘field work’ (the one English phrase he used)” (p. 195).

One section I particularly enjoyed were the chapters on Vietnam, in particular the northern city of Hanoi where she interpreted (from French to English) for the Armistice Commission in 1954: pre-U.S. involvement (though she did comment that signs of a U.S. presence were beginning to be seen). Her appreciation of the food, the people, the culture, and the scenery is an excellent antidote to our national prejudices. She neither condemns nor idealizes the socialist / communist North; in fact, she tells about her efforts to help a woman emigrate to the South; but she does a lot to counteract our tendency to demonize and caricaturize. She speaks eloquently, for instance, of the elegance of Vietnamese women in particular, comparing Western tourists unfavorably in that respect: “We were surrounded by people who treat their overfed bodies as display areas for bad t-shirt jokes,” she writes. “I felt ashamed of my own culture” (p. 125).

Similarly, the sections on Africa – particularly of her field work in Ogori, in Nigeria – are wonderful. She demonstrates a deep sympathy for the local customs and remnants of “pagan” religion, and much as Lucio Mansilla does in his Excursión, offers repeated instances of hidden resemblances between their customs and ours. This could be an excellent primer for Westerners – particularly English-speakers – who plan to travel: how sad when the only thing our tourists bring back from those trips is “how lucky and blessed we are” back here in civilization.

Of course, I did enjoy the section on Eva’s work on Mansilla’s book. I am not named but am present nonetheless: his book has, she writes, “brought me a number of friends”; and she refers thereafter to her “new Mansilla-fan friends” (p. 288) – mentioning, more particularly, María Rosa and Martín Villagrán who were significant fellow travelers in the preparation of that translation which would later bring me to her – and thereby to María Rosa. I would later meet Villagrán at a Mansilla conference in Córdoba, Argentina in 2005, where I was invited to read from the Spanish-language translation of my novella A Bride Called Freedom in which Mansilla is a character.

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

In the spirit of Eva’s earlier remarks on appreciation for pagan customs and even religion, I like this that she wrote about why she came to feel so close to the figure of Mansilla himself: “… he remains, as far as I know, the only white man in the Americas, north or south, to have written and published, in 1870, that he felt shame at what his society was doing to the native inhabitants of the lands” (p. 289). Those are my feelings precisely, and are also pertinent to what we did, in the name of anti-Communism, to the North Vietnamese who after all might have had as much right to self-determination as we claim for ourselves.

I could go on, of course, in my appreciation for this book – I also, for instance, enjoy some anecdotes about her anti-Nazi German father; as well as a detailed account of a forebear who was a missionary in Africa during the first half of the 19th century but whose main success came as a remarkably accomplished linguist, author of a Swahili-English dictionary that was in use as late as 1965 – but I suppose this will do. It is nice, in any case, to have had Eva’s presence with me again as I read these pages.

An extraordinary new review and contextualization of Passionate Nomads

Passionate NomadsThis has been an uncommonly good week for my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publications, 2011). First Janek Pytalski’s generous and passionate review for Three Percent, the Open Letters Books blog for translation reviews (1/23/14 posting); and now Lucina Schell’s remarkably thorough, nuanced, and well-researched review at her Reading in Translation blog. Click on the following link to read what she wrote:   http://readingintranslation.com/2014/01/27/passionate-nomads-by-maria-rosa-lojo-translated-by-brett-alan-sanders/

One delight in reading Lucina’s review is her contextualization of the novel in relation to Eva Gillies’s translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997). Her close reading of María Rosa’s text in my translation and of Mansilla’s in Eva’s translation allow her to point out how pertinent both of those Argentine books are to our own sad history of conquest and genocide in these United States of America. That is a point that perhaps I have not made well enough myself, and I am indebted to Lucina for making it so well for me.

ProductImageHandler[1]It was Eva Gillies, incidentally (I wrote to her after encountering her remarkable translation of Mansilla’s work, which I had been working at translating myself), who put me in touch with María Rosa, telling me that she had a book in need of a translator. This was around the year 2000; some other time, perhaps, I will share my essay “In Search of Dorotea Bazán” (published previously online in New Works Review and later in River Walk Journal, at its editor’s invitation) which relates this story in more detail. But the short of it is that I did translate María Rosa’s Mansillan novel, among other of her work, and that both she and Eva helped me critique and refine my own Mansillan novella called, in the version that was eventually published, A Bride Called Freedom (Ediciones Nuevo Espacio, 2003; in a bilingual edition with Sebastián Bekes’s Spanish-language translation).

Eva, who died two years ago this month, became a close friend and mentor and I owe to her much of my early progress as a literary translator. It must have been around August of 2002 or 2003 that she visited me and Anita in Tell City, Indiana. The new school year had just started and she was my guest in my high-school English and Spanish classes, where she spoke about her experience in Asia and Africa as both an anthropologist and an interpreter. And about her Buenos Aires childhood: she was the daughter of a German man and a Jewish-Argentine mother; born in Germany in 1930 and left there with her parents when her father determined that Hitler was not going to go away any time soon; then, during the Perón years in Argentina, went to study in England where she ended up spending much of her adult life.

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

On Saturday after her classroom visit, my wife Anita and I traveled with her to neighboring New Harmony, Indiana where in the 19th century two different utopian communities flourished, one religious and the other not so much. Later, at the end of June and beginning of July 2005, we met up again with María Rosa in the city and province of Córdoba, Argentina. There the two of them were keynote speakers at a historical conference on Lucio Mansilla and his sister Eduarda, and I was invited to read a passage from Sebastián’s translation of my novella. Before that weekend I was fortunate to spend time with Sebastián and his family in Concordia, Entre Ríos and also with María Rosa and her charming family in the suburban Buenos Aires neighborhood of Castelar. (It was also in Córdoba that I met María Gabriela Mizraje, who gave a brilliant presentation on Mansilla and whose fiction I recently published in The Antigonish Review.)

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Just recently I received word that Eva’s book The Memoirs of Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large, is now on sale at amazon.com. I was privileged, before her death, to read and help proofread her draft manuscript. I have ordered my copy of the finished product, which after I read it again will go on my shelf beside her husband Mick Gillies’s memoir (Mayfly on the Stream of Time); he had recently died when I initially wrote to Eva to compliment her Mansilla translation, to share a copy of my little chapbook Quixotics, and to ask her to read 411l+0KHR2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]my own Mansillan manuscript. One of the most important letters I ever wrote. (Mick Gillies, by the way, was an entomologist who spent a fair amount of his time in Africa working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria. His charming memoir includes an account of his trip with Eva to Argentina in the 1990s. The picture at right is a later edition of his book – with a new subtitle – from the edition that presently rests on my shelf.)

To return to the subject of Lucina’s review of Passionate Nomads (and, tangentiallly, of Eva’s translation of Mansilla, who plays the male lead in María Rosa’s novel), I couldn’t have asked for a better or more thorough critique. I hope that you, my readers, will enjoy reading it and that it will move you, if you haven’t already, to purchase a copy of the book and read it too. It is a book that, as Janek and Lucina help make the case in their different ways, richly deserves a much wider readership in the English language. Thank you for any efforts you might make to further spread the word.

New Publication and Review

Passionate NomadsToday a new review of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publishing, 2011) is up at Open Letter Books’s “Three Percent”  blog for reviews of literary translations. It is written by Janek Pytalski, whom I met at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in Bloomington, Indiana in October. After attending my reading from the original Spanish text and English-language translation, he was enthusiastic enough that he purchased a copy so he could get on with the pleasurable business of reading. Click on the following link to read his review: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9332 And if you like it please be so kind as to share with others on your mailing list who might be interested as well.

Also my translation “Pearls Before Swine,” of a short story by Sebastian R. Bekes (who previously translated my novella A Bride Called Freedom into Spanish), was published at the end of December in Rosebud. I was likewise pleased to see some poems by Zimbabwean author Tendai Mwanaka, whose collection of stories Keys in the River I reviewed in my September 26, 2012 blog. The poems are from his collection Voices from Exile (Lapwing Publications, 2010). Rosebud has long been publishing some of the freshest and most reader-friendly prose and poetry in the world of literary magazines; I encourage you to visit their site and, if you enjoy good reading, pick up a copy. Visit my newly updated Links page to link to their website.

Most of the other pages are updated as well, including the Publishing History main page and “Book Excerpts” sub-page where you can read a sample of Passionate Nomads.  Aliform Publishing’s link is on that main page as well as on the Links page and accompanying the review at Three Percent. Under Publishing History on the “Writing and Translation Samples” sub-page (not yet updated) you can still scroll down for another story by Sebastián.

I was sad to see on the Three Percent site that the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, whose book I reviewed in my last posting, died early this year at the age of 83.

On happiness and other matters; or, “Something good in the state of Denmark”

Last week I was on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington – where more than two decades ago I did my undergraduate work in Spanish and English and took my first and only formal course in the art of translation – for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association. This was my first ALTA conference and I hope not the last. It was good to be surrounded for a few days by a group of people who are passionate about the same things – in this case: words, languages, literature, cultures – and to make some new friends and establish new connections.

Willis Barnstone

Willis Barnstone

One of the personal highlights, among many, was running into a former professor, the renowned poet and translator Willis Barnstone. We were at an event at the Lily Library, where in my youth I worked as a page and made boxes for some of its rare books. Professor Barnstone was about to walk past me when he was struck by something in my appearance and took a double take. I took advantage of the moment to stretch out my hand, lean toward him, and re-introduce myself.

“You won’t remember me,” I said, “but I had a class with you many years ago.”

He commented, with his characteristically warm and radiant smile, that there was something about my “persona.” I was wearing my wide-brimmed black hat at the time, my beard just a bit on the bushy side. He thought I resembled Walt Whitman. It occurred to him, he said, that I had the persona of someone whose portrait should be hanging from one of those walls.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Later, in a less crowded space, we talked some more. He asked me if he had been a good teacher. “Fantastic,” I said with complete sincerity. I told him that what I most remembered from that class (on the Spanish poets of the Generation of 1927, as I recall) was hanging on his every syllable as he read to us the verse of Federico García Lorca. I had already loved those poems before properly understanding them, I said. He became all the more radiant, if that is possible, and exclaimed that he still loved Garcia Lorca’s poetry.

The author and Januk Pyalski after Declamación

The author and Janek Pytalski after Declamación

He thanked me for what I had said about his teaching and said I’d made his day. What he might not know is that I went out of there that evening feeling considerably uplifted just for the pleasure of conversing with him again. I am sure that it would have been so even if he hadn’t said what he did about my persona.

That was on Friday evening. A couple of hours later a good number of us were gathered for an event called Declamación. This is a relatively new tradition that has become immensely popular since its inception a few years ago. It is not a reading but a declaiming, a series of performances strictly by memory, of bits of poetry or prose or song in the original language and / or in English translation – ranging from the comic to the profoundly serious and moving. While I did read earlier that day (from La pasión de los nómades / Passionate Nomads), I was content that evening to be a spectator while others achieved marvelous heights of memory and entertainment.

The acts included an amazing rap performance, entirely in the ancient Greek, of the opening sequence of Homer’s Iliad; the plaintive minor chords of a traditional Vietnamese song; a recitation, in Middle English, of part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and a great deal of poetry in various languages.

One performance that I particularly enjoyed was Michael Goldman’s singing of a lyric by the Danish sensation Benny Andersen, whose CDs and poetry have both sold phenomenally in Denmark. Michael, a carpenter and musician from Florence, Massachussetts, who just happens to have married a Danish woman, has made it his life’s loving labor to bring Andersen’s work to an English-language audience. And as far as he knows this is the first time that one of Andersen’s songs has been performed in English.

Michael Goldman

Michael Goldman

The thing that most struck me about the funny, sweet, and strangely moving song that Michael sang is how deceptively simple and under-stated it was. That, Michael assured me, is the Danish way. I am glad I took him up on his invitation to attend his reading, the next day, of several of Andersen’s poems which again he presented in both the Danish and the English.

The translation I’m sharing with you now, which at my request Michael was kind enough to send me, is not one of those that he read but bears the same subtle wit and folksy wisdom. It was published recently in The Cincinnati Review.


There’s something special about happiness

you can be really glad

when you feel it

but also anxious

you freeze for a second

then slowly step forward cautiously

like in a minefield

and every time you put a foot down

without being blown up

you either forget to enjoy your happiness

or you’re upset over not knowing

how long it will last

so when adversity finally appears

it’s a relief

like you’ve made it to safety again

it’s a shame

because there’s something special about happiness

that you don’t otherwise come across

maybe that’s the problem

we don’t know it well enough

should learn more about it

I think it’s a matter of training.

By Benny Andersen ©1964 “Lykken”

Translated by Michael Goldman

In retrospect, I am reminded of the subtle wit and wisdom of certain lyrics by Paul Simon, in this particular case the song called “Something So Right” (he can’t get used to it; it’s likely to lose him, to confuse him; whereas, if something goes wrong, well he’s the first to own it …)


Four literary friends

María Gabriela Mizraje, 2nd from left, with author and friends in Córdoba, Argentina in July 2005

A couple of good things of a literary nature have happened to me this summer:

First, my translation of María Gabriela Mizraje’s short story “Vía libre” (“Open Road”) was published in the summer edition of The Antigonish Review, a Canadian journal (from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia) which has been very kind to me in the past. Previously it has published my translations of work by María Rosa Lojo, first some prose poetry (from Awaiting the Green Morning) and, then, an excerpt (with my accompanying essay) from what would become Passionate Nomads, a novel of historical fantasy. This is the first of María Gabriela’s work to appear in English.

Second, I completed the full draft of a Young Adult novel called Original Sins. I am particularly grateful to my daughter Stephanie for her early reading of the first chapters and her advice that helped me get off on a more solid footing than I might have otherwise. So far the reviews on the finished draft have been good, but I am awaiting further feedback before doing a final revision (I hope) at the beginning of the next calendar year. Then I will most likely be looking for an agent who might like to represent it.

Report from Schweitzer Fest

DoroteaAt the end of my last posting I announced that I would be at the market place at the Schweitzer Fest in Tell City selling and signing books. I am pleased to report that I did sell several copies of my Young Adult novella A Bride Called Freedom and of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s amazing historical-fantasy novel Passionate Nomads. I also sold or gave away (with other purchases) a few copies of my Passionate Nomadschapbook Quixotics (pronounce: Quick-SOT-ics) with my poetic paragraphs on the subject of Cervantes’s masterpiece and my favorite book Don Quixote. Thanks to all who visited, even if only to converse or carry off a business card. I hope you enjoy the site. By the way, there are samples of each of the above-mentioned works under “Publishing History” and of Nomads in an earlier blog posting.

Following are some of my personal highlights of the festival:

 On the first evening I learned that a fellow teacher and writer – Eddie Price, from just across the Ohio River in Hawesville, Kentucky – was also present selling his historical novel Widder’s Landing. A novel of life in Kentucky around the time of the War of 1812, it comes in an attractive hardcover edition from the Acclaim Press in Missouri (www.acclaimpress.com). Anyway, I left my daughter Stephanie in charge of my booth for a few moments and walked down the row of vendors to introduce myself and propose a trade. The author is an amiable fellow and award-winning teacher who formerly taught history to Stephanie’s wife Rachel at Hancock County High School just outside of Hawesville. We did make a trade and I look forward to reading his novel, though I may be kept from it for awhile by other projects. It looks interesting, anyway, and I have a feeling that it may do as much for Kentucky as Carol Buchanan’s extremely adept historical novel God’s Thunderbolt did for Montana – I had the privilege of working with Carol on a related project during my brief stint as managing editor at New Works Review.

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

Another acquaintance happily made was with a bright young eighth-grader named Inca and both of her parents, who hail from The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee and were neighbor vendors of mine. It was from them that I bought the new floppy hat (similar to the kind of hat I used to wear in my distant youth) in which I am pictured here in the photo my son Jonathan shot. Among the subjects of my conversation with Inca, as she examined a copy of Nomads with a particularly wistful expression, was the dullness of standard textbooks and how a book such as she was holding would enliven the study of history. And with her mother, Amy, the desperate need in our American culture for a broadening of perspective such as might be acquired from the reading of more literature in translation from other languages and countries.

 Amy took away an extra of my cards to pass on to her friends at The Book Publishing Company at The Farm (https://bookpubco.com/), some of whose publishing interests might overlap with some of my own. My perusal of their site today reveals, also, a strong emphasis on healthy-living topics which might be of particular interest to some of my readers. But I was especially drawn to their Native Voices series for young readers and in particular a title (which I ordered) called Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends of Life, by Stan Padilla. My interest in that title, and in the beautiful cover illustration of a Yaqui deer dancer, stems from the fact that the Young Adult novel I am presently writing contains a first chapter that is called “Deer Dancer” and is inspired by a Mexican Folkloric Ballet presentation of that beautiful dance-as-ritual (or ritual-as-dance?).

HT-cover-Psalm-147-3[1] The other highlight I will mention is my conversation with Rhonda Patterson of the organization Hearts for Africa (www.hearts4africa.us), whose aim is to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking – about 80% of which involves sexual exploitation, in particular, of young women. It should be noted that this is hardly just a Third World problem but one that affects a startling number of girls in the United States – and not just runaways, as is sometimes reported, but often perfectly well-adjusted and academically successful young women whose greatest error is naively trusting the smooth-talking individuals (including women) who befriend and gradually lure them into the situations that end in their being enslaved for purposes of the creation of pornography or prostitution.

 In the group’s efforts to raise awareness among those who might become targets of such abuse, as well as to aid those who have been victimized and rescued, Hearts for Africa is selling some very nice jewelry, bags, and clothing that is obtained from the organization Fair Trade or made by former victims of this devastating modern form of slavery. Anyone interested in learning more about the organization’s educational services or in helping out in any way should certainly visit their very attractive website.


I should also mention the hard work of Anita, my lovely wife, in raising funds again for the Alzheimer’s Association. The group she has led for the past few years is named Kroessman’s Krusaders for my grandmother Mary Kroessman who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Thanks also to the local artists who contributed original work to help in that effort.

On the Poetic Prose of María Rosa Lojo and Lynn Strongin

A luminous winter sceneIf I had to describe it in one word I would say: luminous, in all the word’s senses.

1. Emitting light, especially self-generated. 2. Full of light; illuminated. 3a. Easily comprehended; clear. b. Enlightened and intelligent; inspiring. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Both María Rosa Lojo and Lynn Strongin are, first and foremost, poets, and their prose is distinctly marked with their poet’s sensibility.

The poet / novelist in Buenos Aires

María Rosa in Buenos Aires, 2005

Let me give a couple of examples, first, from María Rosa’s work. It so happens that the style of poetry she discovered in her young adulthood is what is known as “prose poetry,” a form that sometimes merges with a mini-narrative function and might be called “micro-fiction.” I will cite an example of the non-narrative variety, from my translation in the bilingual collection Awaiting the Green Morning (Host Publications, 2008:http://www.hostpublications.com/books/greenmorning.html):


Qualities of Winter

awaitingthegreenmorning[1]Winter is round like a walnut and hollow like a crystal planet where furious winds blow. But in its torrid center boil the fruits of sea and earth and the fugitives of tempests come together.

Winter is a house that in its trunks keeps memories of the most ancient love, the warmth of a lap, a voice predating the word – all enclosing the sleeper in their balls of silk.

The bodies of winter become linked in profound kinships, weave into each other like blankets to provide shelter, light up like candles in order to guide whoever stumbles in his silence, seeking an embrace.

Now, from my translation of her novel Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publishing, 2011:http://www.aliformgroup.com/display.php?code=nomads), a brief transitional chapter in the short transitional section before the culminating chapters of its most eventful final part:


Promises of winter.

            Winter, always a little colder in our Western suburb than in the exacerbated capital (where bodies seemed to operate at greater speed and higher temperatures), was drawing near to Buenos Aires.

Very early in the mornings a soft mist covered the lowest reach of things. A couple feet off the ground life wriggled along in a delicate confusion of directions and shapes. Merlin and I were reminded of the Galician forest. The little creatures of the shady wonderland, the hidden stream, and the aromatic bark leapt up in our memory with the sweet melancholic joy of past times when one was happy.

passionate_nomads[1] (2)Winter brought nostalgia for lost homes: the hearth of Miranda with its chestnuts roasted beneath hot coals, the rich fragrance of baskets filled with walnuts, the cellars in stone houses from which good wine emerges, the dense dark wine sweetened with sugar, honey and spices, with its scent of resin and imprisoned light encircled by fire to warm the heart, and which we drank slowly.

Winter makes all the earth’s gifts more precious (Lucio sighed, he too remembering): gentle breaths of lavendar-scented sheets heated with warming-pans, the sewing room of Augustina Rosas, with its chimney lit for the magical time of visitors with the onset of night.

The aroma of locro, with its corn and pepper, intermingled with that of the thick puchero with its salt pork and bay leaf; lentils and carbonadas, fried pastelillos and thin pancakes with warm dulce de leche spilling over their sputtering surfaces, suddenly filled the house with a tumult of old flavors delectably reborn. …

The passage goes on for two more paragraphs, each of increasing length, but the above-cited gives a sufficient likeness and a sufficient distinction between the prose poem and the novelistic narrative (I am reminded of the elegant and meditative prose of Proust’s Swann’s Way, which I am presently reading in the new translation by Lydia Davis; it and the six volumes that still remain, all begun in a cup of tea and in the taste of a tea-soaked piece of a petite madeleine, a small scallop-shaped pastry).

For two more typically narrative (though no less poetic) passages from Passionate Nomads see my postings of October 8, 2011 and November 4, 2012.


poet Lynn Strongin
Lynn Strongin

Let me turn, now, to Lynn’s work; I am fresh from a reading of her novel Nikko’s Child (Conflux Press, 2008:http://www.confluxpress.com/trade-books-3.html). At center of this exquisitely woven prose novel – I say “prose novel” to contrast it from Orphan Thorns, her novel in verse that I reviewed on August 4, 2012 — is a fourteen-year-old girl who has started cutting herself after giving up, due to puberty and a growth spurt that has thrown her off balance, her nascent and promising career as a gymnast. More than the story of a girl amidst the anguish of adolescence, Nikko’s Child is the deeply poignant story of Penelope’s (Nell’s) family’s parallel struggle for understanding and healing as their individual and collective lives are turned upside down by the fear of losing adopted daughter and sister.

The tale is given nuance and depth by the family’s marginal status in a Tennessee town “with the poor white dirt and the shack houses and the whiff of half-hearted integration” and “vestiges of racial tension” where they have recently come and do not seem to belong: Nell, the first of two adopted children after the first child who is not adopted: tall, athletic, literary-minded, and apparently “normal” older brother Josh, is a black or “mulatto” girl; the youngest child, Emmanuel (Manny, or Manuelito) or “God With Us,” is a psychically gifted but physically deformed boy whose days are numbered, as the story’s principal narrator (an aunt who still lives up north) keeps reminding us.

Indeed, yet further nuance is added by the fact that the family is at least nominally Jewish (the mother, Leta, by birth Catholic) and by Aunt Myra’s association with a Hungarian woman and Jewish exile named Sabine, to whom she lyrically narrates what is happening with her brother Nikko’s (by birth Peter’s) troubled child. Not to mention the late appearance of a girl in a wheel chair, three years younger than Nell, whom Nell begins to coach to be a champion in the national Special Olympics. It is through this fortuitous association that Nell begins to redeem herself and work out the psychic anguish that has led to her self-hurting behavior.

young Lynn Strongin

The poet as a young woman

With this background I can turn to Lynn’s poetic and prose texts themselves. Early in Nikko’s Child Myra, with her own Jewish name and connections through her childhood to Irish nuns, meditating on questions of loss and death, pictures one of those Sisters “and also a very different people in the forefront of my mind this evening. Steeped in a cloud of different emotion, a different shadow,” she continues, “the people in northern Japan, where two days ago the worst nuclear accident in their history occurred: Two workers mixed too much uranium with another element, starting a nuclear fission. The workers saw a blue flash. Immediately after, the three injured workers appeared in headlines being carried out on stretchers, wrapped in blankets, their bodies covered with plastic: They appeared like spacemen, or those babies born without immune systems who have to live in plastic domes. Bubble babies. A light rain falling in Japan complicated the problem this morning, conducting radioactivity farther than dry air would have done.”

Four years later, in Orphan Thorns, that passage is echoed in a snatch of verse that I cited in that earlier review:

Stirring memories of Japan’s nuclear history

The shattered glass

The shattered bones

The rape of radiation

No morning can be radiant when this is going on.

The image of a girl cutting herself is likewise echoed in Bread of the Angels, in a passage cited in the same review:

Last night I dreamed

I saw the child who slices herself with a razor

lift her tee-shirt stretching, I saw her scars:



slits under sixteen-year-old breasts uplifted like pears.

In Nikko’s Child, in a particularly moving chapter in which Myra’s voice merges with Leta’s, we taste the luminous suffering of a mother:

… To see my child’s blood where it does not belong, on scraps of Kleenex balled up in the kitchen hamper, on washcloths, all that I’m made of, all that I am rebels against this act. Yet I must keep calm. Not hide all Nikko’s razors, not scan all bath and kitchen closets for sharp pointed objects, for people have been known to use even plastic spoons, so intent on getting their wounds out there in the open. I have read that people count each mark as a victory. Over what?

Nikko's Child (2)Saturday night, Tennessee. Alone in the house, choosing as always the kitchen, I close my eyes and see each pointed object I kept from her when she was two, crawling. Nikko and I used to visit friends, first getting on all fours like dogs to examine the carpet, the corners of rooms, for thumb tacks gone missing, for straight pins, for a staple pulled loose. We were fanatic about the thing. Then teaching her to feed herself with a spoon, how careful we were of her eyes, of her finding her mouth, like all young children, babies still guiding the plastic fork mistakenly taken toward an eye, we caught our breath. We did too with Josh, our first. Then there were her first cuts. Her scuffed knees that bled and pained me, like Joshua’s, her splinters drawn with much crying, her black-and-blue marks, and her bangs. The time a boy threw a pointed block at her head when she was four and the school nurse phoned me: In frenzy, I drove down. We were in Long Branch, New Jersey then. It was before Pennsylvania when life took the odd turn of our adopting Manuelito. Why is he so cheerful? Our jiminy cricket, always perking things up on a dark day? Sometimes I think his birth defect makes him cheerful: He knows the shadows from reality.

When I saw blood congealed on Nell’s scalp I wanted to cry. She herself seemed in no pain. I wanted to take her home, but she said, “Mom, let me stay.” I wondered at her ability to bear such pain. Now, when she cuts herself, delicately, fragilely, almost artistically, these oddly unreal dislocated days, is her dilemma that she has ceased to feel pain? Or merely that the physical pain is so much less than the emotional pain?

If the past is dust, as our psychologist claimed, it is clearly dust that shines.

That shines as does her luminous poetic prose; not unlike María Rosa’s which makes of winter a shining place of warmth and memories, the memory of taste and smell made incarnate like the inevitable suffering and joy of mother and child.

Nikko’s Child is readable and engaging, poignant and inspiring, highly recommended. As, of course, full of enlightenment and adventure, is Passionate Nomads, which if you haven’t already I hope you will buy – and shout the word of it from your proverbial housetops.

Passionate Nomads and its Environmental Theme

Passionate Nomads

“The ancient powers have already fallen: the power of gods and elves, of secret forest dwellers and goblins. The glory of haughty animals has fallen: the magnificent masters of woods and mountains, the slippery lunar fishes of river and sea, all constituting just one bit of evidence that likewise the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, is about to pass away.”

So narrates the fictional but visionary Rosaura dos Carballos in the opening lines of Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011: www.aliformgroup.com), my translation of Buenos Aires master wordsmith María Rosa Lojo’s award-winning historical fantasy La pasión de los nómades (Atlántida, 1994). Rosaura, though present in the novel principally in her human form, is a water fairy, daughter of the famous Morgan Le Fay and “a plebeian Galician goblin of no standing whatsoever, one of those vagabonds (trasnos to my Galician compatriots) who like to roam about playing practical jokes on people.” The Galicia she speaks of is Spanish Galicia, which lies in Spain’s green northwestern Celtic country where Rosaura was to be raised by her political uncle Merlin the Magician. Merlin, you see, after the ultimate fiasco of the Knights of the Round Table, has retired in privacy to a rural estate in this land so reminiscent of the Irish countryside. Until, found out by tourists who afflict his solitude and litter up the surroundings, he and Rosaura end up emigrating (via Switzerland) to Buenos Aires.

It is there, on the Argentine pampas, that the færie world of Western Europe meets that of indigenous Argentina, where Rosaura confronts her own destiny on those rolling pampas. She travels in the company of an old military man, writer, globetrotter and dandy named Lucio V. Mansilla who has escaped from Paradise and now, restored with Rosaura’s and Merlin’s help to the physical form of his youthful glory, returns to the land of his most famous adventure among the Ranquel Indians – whom he immortalized in a book that has never fallen out of print in the Spanish language – to face the judgment of History.

The poet / novelist in Buenos Aires

María Rosa in Buenos Aires, 2005

The novel is narrated, alternately, by Rosaura and Mansilla. Lojo re-creates Mansilla’s voice with remarkable fidelity to the historical voice set down in his writings, but Rosaura’s voice with which the novel begins is pure invention and among the greatest imaginative achievements of a prolific and well-regarded literary career. Rosaura’s charming account of the circumstances of her birth and approximately 200 years of youth is by itself almost worth the price of the book. But that is not what I would focus on at the moment. I am more interested, immediately, in the environmental theme suggested in the above-cited warning about the demise of the ancient powers and “the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, [which] is about to pass away.”

I have had this topic in mind for some time, but it is made even more pertinent by New York Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama last week for environmental reasons. I understand that this comes too late to much influence this coming Tuesday’s election, but it has long seemed particularly terrifying to contemplate the possibility of a President Romney who has aligned himself with the global-warming deniers and made fun of President Obama’s efforts to promote alternative forms of energy. Granted, the President has not gone far enough in this direction, and has indulged with nearly everyone else in touting the benefits of a “clean” coal that does not really exist, but he has been moving in the right direction. There is at least reason to hope that he might accomplish bolder strides in a second administration.

But my interest, as is often the case in these essays, is in the rhetorical power of literature to direct the reader’s attention, to persuade toward attitude which is the necessary prelude to action.  I would not say that Passionate Nomads is an environmental treatise – for one thing, it is not a didactic work; what “message” there may be is sublimated to the detail of image and story – but the convergence of Old World and indigenous American mythologies paints a picture that the thoughtful reader will pick up on.

Spanish editions of La pasión de los nómades

Spanish editions

Below I will excerpt, from later in this first chapter, a serious-humorous interview between Rosaura and Merlin on the subject of that environmental theme. For another excerpt, see my earlier blog of October 8, 2011. And if this one and that other seem compelling – if you haven’t already done so – I hope you’ll consider supporting the literary arts (not to mention the career of this struggling literary artist! :) by purchasing a copy of the translation from the publisher’s website (www.aliformgroup.com). If not for yourself, perhaps as a gift (during the upcoming holiday season) for someone you love.

Pardon the crass appeal to self-interest, but this website does exist in the first place to promote my literary work. Though in my defense, I have spent more time promoting others’ work. The interest in the literary arts, in any case, is (I hope) mutual. If I were just in it for the money I would have long ago given up in despair.

But enough of that. I hope you will enjoy the following excerpt. Pleasant and profitable reading!


One fine day Merlin called me to his office-laboratory. He had lit his pipe of aromatic herbs and the air was a deep blue.

“My dear niece,” he began, “things are getting worse. I didn’t feel so worried even at the time of Spain’s civil war or this century’s second European war, which after all were human matters: crazy, foolish, unjust, and cruel, like all of men’s struggles for power. But now they’re destroying the world for us, our world, in an even more serious way.”

He took hold of a thick book of archives crammed with jumbled newspaper clippings.

“Look: the North Sea polluted, the Mediterranean going the same way, crystalline German rivers turned into drainage ditches, the beaches of Galicia adorned with corks, broken bottles, and beer cans. Thousands of factories dirtying mother waters and eternal forests everywhere. Surely you’re not going to tell me you don’t know.” And he planted an accusing finger almost on my nose. “To top it all off,” he continued, giving me no time to respond, “just take a look at these idiots who come here day after day, invading the grounds with cookie wrappers and plastic baggies, trampling like hogs on the new pansy blossoms. All because a reckless fellow had the blasted idea of divulging that this is Merlin’s residence. The truth is they couldn’t care less about me. They would come just the same if someone told them Jack the Ripper or Spiderman lived here. Probably even more. They’re only interested in taking a few bad photos, filling a little bottle with dirt, and when they get home saying that the mansion was very curious (a mixture of Galician manor and Scottish castle, with Gothic touches) but that the owner was an old lunatic and eccentric who refused to perform a single magic show of any sort despite the fact they had unfailingly paid their tour fares to the last cent.”

My uncle sat down and flung all of the embers from his pipe at a tender little plant that adorned the corner of his great sculpted desk, which was a sign of the most severe, uncontrollable indignation.

“Well, aren’t you going to answer me?”

“But uncle, you won’t let me get a word in edgewise.”

Merlin’s gray eyes grew calm. He smiled with an expression of slight annoyance.

“That’s true, lass. But it’s been almost fifty years since I’ve been so upset. Can’t I allow myself the luxury twice a century of getting worked up?”

I stood, attempting a courtly reverence.

“Milord, you are the master, you are in your own house. I kiss your archiepiscopal hand and your foot shod with silver buckle.”

“Clearly, niece, you’ll always be the same impudent mocker! And unobservant besides. I replaced the silver buckles and cork soles years ago with these very stylish suede boots.”

By now my godfather’s brow had relaxed, and the fleeting interest in fashion had erased from his mind, for a moment, his obsession with the Destiny of the World. He had returned to being the usual Merlin: that jovial and good-humored gentleman who governed his house with silken hands and steely lucidity.

“Come on, uncle, tell the truth. Don’t you already have a solution for this mess?”

“Not the broad solution, far from it. We ceased having dominion over men many years ago, too many. In Europe especially, whom would we convince? At most we’re objects of curiosity or derision, but not respect. Besides, since the law of the human world is – as I have repeatedly told you – governed by gold, you know very well I don’t have enough to be really powerful. And you also know we’re forbidden from making it.”

That left me pondering. I was sure my uncle was lying about the size of his fortune. It is extremely unlikely that a Scot (or a Galician) will proclaim that he’s rich. Rather, he will shed tears over the very place where his possessions (generally coins or ingots of the purest gold) lie buried, and foreswear himself to say that in so many years of work and/or enterprising speculation he has only been able to accumulate a modest little income, barely enough to live on. But I thought that if Merlin was lying, he was only lying a little. Unfortunately for us he was neither Onassis nor Getty nor Rockefeller. Just a well-to-do gentleman (an ordinary millionaire with only a few zeros) who had made some appreciable investments in Switzerland. This last thought was confirmed by his next words:

“I’ve been thinking, and I take your approval for granted, that it’s in our interest to sell this property, now visited by so many unpleasant people (which will no doubt increase its value in the ridiculous hotel market), and move for the time being to a peaceful country like Switzerland, where we’ll certainly have enough to eat.”

The reference to eating is not a metaphor. We do eat. We don’t need to but have become accustomed to it. It’s one of the pleasures of life. And as I have said already, we finally did leave. We installed ourselves comfortably in a little town in the Alps, located at such an altitude that it was not reached by atmospheric or any other sort of pollution. We might have remained there for several years, for Merlin was tired and had become very sedentary.

1st Spanish edition

Rosaura on cover of 1st Spanish edition