Two Voices Salon: Donald Nicholson-Smith on Moroccan Poet Abdellatif Laâbi

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Abdellatif Laâbi is without a doubt the major francophone voice of Moroccan poetry today, and Donald Nicholson-Smith has translated a massive, career-spanning collection of his work, In Praise of Defeat. Join us for the next Two Voices Salon on November 10, as we present a spirited discussion of this classic and contemporary Moroccan poet.

Per Wikipedia, “Laâbi was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘crimes of opinion’ (for his political beliefs and his writings) and served a sentence from 1972-1980. He was, in 1985, forced into exile in France.” His poetry is a gripping, visceral trip through that experience, as well as the politics and events in the years to follow, including such incidents as the Atocha Station bombings in 2004.

Donald Nicholson-Smith is a leading translator of French literature, with over a dozen titles to his credit, including titles with City Lights, New York Review Books, University of California Press, and Seagull Books. Join us as he talks about his impressive career and this remarkable poet.

As always, the Two Voices Salon provides free beverages and snacks, plus great conversations and new translation-loving friends!

  • Thursday, November 10
  • doors 5:30, event 6:00
  • Two Lines Press offices, 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • free drinks and snacks

One French Philosopher’s Obsession with Stones

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This post comes from Emily Wolahan, Associate Editor of Two Lines.

Excellent writers fill the pages of Issue 25 of Two Lines. From Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi, to Kobi Ovadia, translated by Yardenne Greenspan. You should pick up an issue or subscribe now to get in on all of this fantastic writing.

One of the writers and pieces that I tell people about when I get excited about this issue is Roger Caillois, the late French philosopher, poet, and lover of stones, and his lyric essays on stones from La lecture des pierres. Translated beautifully by Elizabeth Deshays, these three short, poetic pieces praising stones blew my mind. On the level of obsession of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the essays include lines like:

The scoriaceous volumes of native metals were molded in fearsome underground melting pots and seem still to be bristling almost to the point of explosion.

and

I speak of stones: algebra, vertigo, and order; of stones, hymns, and quincunxes; of stones, stings, and corollas, the threshold of dreams, the leaven and the image.

And aside from the beauty of the three pieces in Issue 25, there’s so much more to know about Caillois. The stones that he describes he has also collected, and many were displayed in “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Bienalle in 2013. You can view his incredible stones here and here.

Roger Caillois spent a lifetime exploring the imagination. He began his intellectual life as a Surrealist until he famously split with André Breton (but, then, who didn’t at some point split with Breton?). Their feud hinged on a disagreement over how to conceive of the unknown. Breton wanted to hold on to the magical and disregard a material explanation. Caillois, however, could see the magic in the material explanation.

Caillois went on to found College of Sociology with Georges Bataille, where he was interested in exploring the sacred within society. But for Caillois, the sacred was not an anthropological interest; it was material, philosophical and poetic.

Marina Warner writes in her excellent essay on Caillois from 2008 in Cabinet, “Materialist mystics, among whom I count Caillois, do not search for self-knowledge, nor for foreknowledge of their destiny, the sirens’ secret; but they emphatically investigate hidden meanings and scan the deepest horizons of time into infinity: the world turns into an inexhaustible book written in hieroglyphs.” Caillois regards the world with a relentless eye, applying meaning to whatever seems to not yet be graced with it. He explores the subjectivity of our gaze, and increases that subjectivity by framing the objects he regards.

The cross-sections of these stones are displayed as if floating in white space, alit, glowing. We can’t help apply some meaning to their swirls and blended color, or to the sharp circles and angles some hold. Warner quotes Caillois from his first book on the stones, Pierres, “‘Philosophers have not hesitated to identify the real and the rational. I am persuaded that a different bold step . . . would lead to discover the grid of basic analogies and hidden connections which constitute the logic of the imaginary.’” Caillois’s exploration of that logic infuses his prose poetry.

In “Stones: Dedication,” included in Issue 25, Caillois writes, “Like someone who, when speaking of flowers, makes no mention of botany, nor the art of gardens or that of floral arrangement—yet still will have much to say—so shall I disregard mineralogy, [. . .] and speak only of bare stones, fascination, and glory.”

Pick up an issue or subscribe now to read Deshays’s great translation of Roger Caillois. There’s no one else quite like him.

AUDIO: Lidija Dimkovska in Conversation with Michael Holtmann on A Spare Life

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Last Thursday we were very happy to welcome a large and enthusiastic crowd to Diesel, a Bookstore to celebrate the release of Lidija Dimkovska’s EU Prize–winning novel A Spare Life (tr. Christine Kramer). This event was the 9th of 10 events Lidija had been in since October 5, when she launched her U.S. tour at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore.

Below you will find audio of the bilingual reading and conversation between Dimkovksa and Center Executive Director Michael Holtmann. Among other things, they touched on how A Spare Life’s central conceit—the story of conjoined twins growing up in Yugoslavia—metaphorically looks at the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the post-Communist era.


CONTENTS

0:00 Introductions

2:54 Bilingual readings in Macedonian and English

13:20 Where the voice of the narrator, one of the conjoined twins, came from?

22:55 The optimism in the twins’ lives

27:05 The relationship of the book to the wars surrounding the disintegration of Yugoslavia

39:55 The “lost generation” of Yugoslavian writers and the writing of the wars

47:10 What does the Macedonian language mean to you?

53:40 Audience Q & A

5 Ways of Looking at Lidija Dimkovska

A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina Kramer) has been racking up attention since its release last week. Here are five different takes on the book, giving you 5 different methods to find you way in to this great saga of sisterhood, war, communism, and living as a conjoined twin.

1. Publishers Weekly: A “kaleidoscopic, bighearted novel”

Publishers Weekly gets the best 3-word summary of A Spare Life. The book is indeed kaleidoscopic—subjects it takes in would include: the fall of communism, sisters coming of age, the strangeness of being conjoined twins, growing up in a communist country, love, heartbreak, the occult, the Balkan Wars. And indeed, the book is very bighearted, never shrinking from all the terrible things that get thrown at Zlata and Srebra, but doing it all with an honestly and poignancy.

2. Words Without Borders: “Dimkovska’s résumé reads like a beehive of transnational literary success in the making”

Who are we to disagree? Dimkovska won the EU Prize for this book, she’s gotten a rave from Dubravka Ugrešić, the reigning queen of Balkan literature, she’s studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she has released acclaimed poetry collections with Ugly Duckling Presse and Copper Canyon Press. If that isn’t a beehive of transnational literary success in the making, we don’t know what is. A Spare Life is her biggest, most complex book to date, and we think it’d be great if it gets ther the English-language acclaim she deserves.

3. Lidija Dimkovska: “I felt guilty to be from Macedonia, which was then the so-called oasis of peace”

In a must-read essay over at Literary Hub, Dimkovska talks about the generation of literature that was lost thanks to the Balkan Wars and how the writers who lived through that (as did Dimkovksa) have internalized it in their work and made it into literature. A Spare Life is very much in this tradition, as Dimkovska explains in the essay. And she also discusses the awkwardness of being from Macedonia, which was a relatively safe, stable place during the wars.

4. Unabridged Bookstore: “Keenly observed, poignant, and penetrating, A SPARE LIFE is quickly becoming one of our favorite books of the year”

To make a huge understatement, when you’re writing a book about life from the perspective of a twin conjoined at the head, it really puts your observational skills to the test. One of the most rewarding things about A Spare Life is seeing just how authentically Dimkovska brings this world to life. But not only does she nail that world, she also nails the bureaucratic, provincial, weird world of living in a communist country, and then seeing that all fall apart. Just on the level of observation alone, we can see why A Spare Life wins such big praise.

5. Elliott Bay Bookstore: “Glad to have Lidija Dimkovska here tonight with @CopperCanyonPrs’s Tonaya to discuss A SPARE LIFE from @TwoLinesPress”

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In addition to being an award-winning novelist, Dimkovska is also a very talented poet, having released acclaimed collections with Ugly Duckling Presse and Copper Canyon Press. Here she is with Copper Canyon’s Managing Editor Tonaya Craft during an event earlier this month at Seattle independent bookstore Elliott Bay Bookstore. Although A Spare Life is first and foremost a novel, you can definitely see Dimkovska’s poet’s eye in the acute observations and the interesting way she puts words together.

Nine Writers from Lesser-Known Languages That You Should Check Out

In the wake of Indigenous People’s Day (also known as Columbus Day) this past week, we thought we’d put together a list of some of our favorite poets who write in languages we rarely encounter. The fact that we so uncommonly see translations from these languages suggests to us that colonization continues to unfurl its consequences. As a few select languages continue to dominate and spread across the globe, it becomes easier and easier to ignore those who write in less “accessible” languages.

That’s why we are offering this list to help celebrate these writers and their translators. Fortunately, as translated literature becomes more popular, we’re beginning to see books translated from a wider range of languages and previously ignored regions, but they are still few and far between. This roundup is a good place to start, and we hope you’ll seek out more writers from cultures that are currently at the margins of the translated world.

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Poet Margaret Noodin writes and translates her own poetry from Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe), the language of the Anishinaabe people. Today, just over 90,000 people in southern Canada and the northern United States speak Anishinaabemowin as a native language, despite the fact that the great state of Michigan gets its name from the Anishinaabemowin word “mshigem” meaning “great lake.” Listen to Noodin’s rhythmic song-poem “Umpaowastewin” then check out her book Weweni.

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John Smelcer is the only remaining member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska to read and write in Ahtna. Sharing roots with Navajo, Ahtna is an extremely endangered language, with only 30 remaining native speakers worldwide. These three poems written and translated by Smelcer from the Ahtna are clever and will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.

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Phoneme Media published an incredible anthology, Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Isthumus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán and translator David Shook. The book collects the poetry of six contemporary Mexican poets, translated from (among other languages) Nahuatl, Tsotsil, and Isthmus Zapotec, three of the over 50 indigenous languages spoken by more than 6 million Mexicans today.

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Two poems and a few more poems by Mikeas Sánchez, translated from the Zoque by David Shook. Zoque is an indigenous language of Mexico’s state of Chiapas and the native language of roughly 70,000 people.

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Reading these three poems by Haitian poet Paul Laraque, you can feel the poet’s fierce use of language as he confronts—both directly and indirectly—decades of political oppression. (Laraque spent 25 years living in exile in New York City during the course of the Duvalier dictatorship.) Translated from the Haitian Creole by Rosemary Manno and Jack Hirschman, these poems are charged with a captivating energy.

On the other side of the globe are the Uyghurs, a Muslim community living primarily in the Xinjiang province of China. The Chinese government has continually attempted to suppress the Uyghur cultural presence in the region. We published a folio of Uyghur poets in Two Lines 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. And, more recently, Jeffrey Yang wrote an essay about Uyghur poetry in Two Lines 24, titled “On Thirst.” Here are some more Uyghur poets to check out:

For a bold defense of nonconformity, read “Against Tradition” by Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an, translated by Joshua L. Freeman.

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Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile is a vibrant poetry collection by Ahmatjan Osman, translated by Jeffrey Yang with the author. This is the first book of Uyghur poetry to be published in English translation.

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Groundbreaking Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi introduced the concept of free verse to Swahili poetry. Read “Welcome Inside,” translated by Annmarie Drury, which begins courageously: “The traditional poets are playing now at sleeping . . .” Kezilahabe continues to grapple with the difficult and disappointing reality of postcolonial Tanzania in Stray Truths, a book of poetry translated by Drury.

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South African poet Moses Mtileni describes the inescapable distress of leaving and returning home in “I Have Gone Away Many Times.” Mtileni writes in and self-translates from Xitsonga (or Tsonga), a Bantu language with roughly 3.6 million speakers. An official language of South Africa, Xitsonga is also spoken in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.

Audio: Yoshimasu Gozo Performance, and In Conversation with Forrest Gander and Emily Wolahan

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We were very pleased to welcome major Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo and translator and poet Forrest Gander to the Bay Area to perform and discuss Yoshimasu’s new book of selected poetry, Alice Iris Red Horse, translated by a number of leading Japanese translators. Yoshimasu (assisted by Gander) first gave a performance of his work and then was interviewed by Two Lines Press’s Emily Wolahan.

Below you will find full audio of the performance and conversation.