Friday, April 17, 2015

Hilst Translation Makes Longlist + New Counternarratives Review in Harper's

Hilda Hilst
Last February Nightboat Books published my translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books), and despite its formal daring and thematic outrageousness (it contains an insatiable character named "Little Butthole," which should give you a clue about how wild it is), I have worried from time to time that it might fall into the literary publishing rabbit hole. So many books, and not so many translations, but without a champion a book can and may disappear. Any positive news about it, therefore, is welcome. It was extremely positively and welcome news to learn, then, that the book had made the Longlist for the 2015 Best Translated Book in Fiction Award, which is sponsored by the Center for translation at the University of Rochester. Many thanks to the Center, and especially to editor, curator and critic Daniel Medin, a member of the judges' panel, who has written and spoken favorably about the translation in the past and again for this award.

As part of the process of selection for the next stages, including the finalist list, which will be named on May 5, and the award, to be given out on May 25, judges present arguments, in a variety of formats, for why certain books deserve to advance and win. Daniel interviewed me about Letters, and you can read the entire exchange here. It isn't very long, and gives a brief overview of Hilst's work, including my favorite passage in Portuguese. (NB: A stray apostrophe crept into the word "wont," though I meant the older adjectival form, meaning "likely," not the contracted future verb form.) A snippet:
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others? 
 JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
Getting to the finalist stage and winning are both tremendous long shots, and the other long-list books represent exalted company, many by some of the best translators out there, of major living and deceased writers, but I am very happy that the book is getting some recognition, and if this brings more readers not just to this translation, but to the others, by Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël, and to the one by Adam Morris, that will be a very good thing! Que fique mais da Hilst em inglês!


Miss La La at the Cirque
Edgar Degas, 1879
(National Gallery, London,
Oil on canvas.)
Reviews continue to come in for Counternarratives, and the most recent is the best by far. In the May 2015 Harper's Magazine, Christine Smallwood pens a thoroughgoing, engagingly thoughtful review of the book. (Her review unfortunately is only available for subscribers to Harper's, but it's in the newsstands now.) Framing the review with images of the Mississippi near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Edgar Degas's famous 1879 painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (the subject of my story "Acrobatique"), Smallwood begins with a discussion of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the homoerotics and racial dynamics of that text, noting its contemporary survival in the form of "bromances" (and, I'd add, the curdled buddy films that once starred Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, and now feature Kevin Hart), as a way of shifting into a discussion of how my approach to Twain's text (and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), "Rivers," like the rest of the collection, represents and embodies the concept of a counternarrative.

Smallwood writes, "John Keene takes aim at this sacred cow and shoots it straight in the hip," describing the story's plot and noting that this could have come off as "corny," but its execution transforms it into something else. (And I should note that I was a little nervous about taking on the Jim and Huckleberry story, and was surprised that almost no other black writers had done so--because it is so iconic? Because Twain's fame and reputation looms so large? Because it wasn't worth the time of doing so?--but also felt that imagining some aspects of Jim's life after that novel, a few glimpses, would be worth the risk.) She goes on offer the following beautiful assessment of the entire collection, for which I will forever be grateful: "Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. Keene is a dense, intricate, magnificent writer," before going on to discuss my background a bit (though Christopher Stackhouse accidentally becomes "Charles") and more of the stories, even quoting several of them.

One quote:

In "The Aeronauts," for example, a Philadelphia freedman with an uncanny memory joins the Union Army Balloon Corps. The story ends with him in the balloon, feeling "something not quite fear and not quite elation, I can't put a name to it, I try to utter it but cannot." Naming it, Keene suggests, would only contain the moment, and make it less than what it is. His characters refuse to accept freedom that is given by others--they either take it by force or resist it altogether. In this way they are the avengers of Twain's Jim, who wasn't aware of his freedom until he had gone to great trouble to gain it a second time.

Again, many thanks to Harper's both for reviewing the book and for the superlative review, and I urge J's Theater readers to preorder a copy! The corrected galleys have been submitted, will be out now on May 21, 2015!

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