Interview: Jessica Sequeira
"The paradox as the continuity."
Jessica Sequeira is a writer, literary translator, editor of Firmament magazine (published by Sublunary Editions), and PhD candidate at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Sequeira’s responses to the Nameless Questionnaire can be found at the bottom of the interview.
The following interview took place on January 19, 2022, with minor corrections made in February. It has been edited with fidelity for the reader.
You write, you translate, you’re an editor and a scholar. How did you get here?
I think most people involved in literary pursuits, who are in this strange world of studying literature, writing literature, editing, translating, etc, have some kind of innate vocation to do it. It’s not something that earns you a huge amount of money, it’s not something that gives you a great amount of fame, it’s not an ideal career choice if you’re a pragmatist. So initially this kind of life probably comes from some inner place, a kind of romanticism or love for philosophy, history, poetry. Or a sort of beautiful and slightly masochistic need for sensemaking.
But very quickly you realize that it’s not just you alone, that there’s a whole community of people out there seeking forms of creating and belonging. You start to realize there’s a huge world of people in which you form a part. And maybe that’s where you start to get involved with the more interactive sides of literature, like editing or translating or studying other people’s work. I do think it all goes together.
I also think that picking up multiple kinds of work at one time is a way to stay sane. For example, I’ve never really experienced that famous problem of the blank page, and don’t really suffer from this tremendous anxiety about having nothing to say. Every time I feel like I’m tired, or just not going to produce anything interesting, there’s always something else to pick up. Writing out of the void seems almost a myth to me, something impossible. For me, writing is nearly always an extension of other processes, mostly reading, but sometimes editing, or teaching a class, or translating somebody.
So I’d say the desire to write isn’t necessarily located on the page but elsewhere. And if you’ve got your hands in different pots, or whatever the expression is, you don’t get the anxiety that comes from thinking “I need to write this genius novel right now”. Sure, of course, anxiety comes from other sources. Situational irony, existential despair, relationships, job searches, you name it. But while words are hard work, they’re also a pleasure, a consolation, a way of associating ideas and emotions. A private language in a community, however contradictory that sounds. There’s nothing better.
We’ll talk about translation later, I hope. I want to ask about A Luminous History of the Palm. It’s a beautiful book with a fascinating conceit. Each story or poem, if that’s the preferred way of thinking about them, illuminates the life of an individual at some place and time, as if from the perspective of this recurring figure, the palm tree. What do these histories of the palm tree tell us beyond serving as a delightful constraint?
To start with that word constraint you’re using: I think every writer in some way works with constraints, loosely defined. You have to put limits on the infinity of possible things you could talk about. And so, in a sense Palms—if I can use that shorthand—is a constraint. But it’s not as if I set out to do that from the start. It’s not like I thought, “I’m now going to write a cultural history of the palm tree.” It’s more that I was writing for myself as an exercise, just taking pleasure in writing anecdotes over the course of several months, or years, based on things I saw and my inventions. I just love to write tiny scenes, to make things up. And a lot of them, for some reason, had palm trees.
When I noticed that, at that point I did run with it and consciously start to write around the palm. And at some point I thought, “This is getting to be insane, there’s a folder on my desktop full of palm tree anecdotes.” [Laughs.] Only at the very end did I purposely connect them, and intercalate those italicized sections that are more reflective about history.
With every piece of writing, I think there are things you can say about it afterwards—things you couldn’t have said before you started, or during the process but only when the thing is done. After every piece of writing enters the world, there’s something that can be said about it only at that moment, and not prior. So now that the book is done, I can say, “Yes, the palm tree is a unique and interesting symbol through which to look at history, because it’s a form of natural history. It’s not human, it’s found mostly in southern parts of the world, it’s linked to work on the land, and non-anthropocentric forms of seeing. At the time I was working on it, I was reading a lot of Gabriela Mistral who’s very interested in trees.” But would I have said any of that before? Probably not.
Everything came, as it were, from a more innocent place. And that transition from the innocence of the initial impulse to write, to the more conscious mode of thinking about writing, is really fascinating. There’s a process that involves the writer herself or himself not quite knowing what they’re doing, and along the way developing an idea so that finally they can say certain things about it. And then, after some time, maybe another person comes along, a critic or an academic or another reader, who reflects on it in different ways. And all that becomes a part of the book.
I trained as an intellectual historian and still consider myself to be one, and maybe everything I do as a literary writer is a form of intellectual history gone rogue. All of this sounds pretty intuitive, I know. That said, I do think that often the unconscious music of a language, or the potential rhythms of a concept, come before its conscious articulation. I’m reminded of some of my students—I also teach some classes on translation—who tend to justify decisions with phrases like “I felt this or I felt that”. I say to them, intuition is a really great place to start, but then try to go and find other ways to back it up.
The strange thing about my practice, and maybe yours too, is that we kind of operate in this interspace between writing fiction as a purely anecdotal form, and reflecting on it in a theoretical way, within the same work. Someone who’s writing pure anecdotes or dialogues might not be interested in philosophizing about what they’re doing, and an academic interested in writing books about other people or about cultural phenomena might not be interested in imagining things. We’re sort of sprinting from one side of the court to the other with our little rackets, trying to play both sides.
You mentioned this possibly being a non-anthropocentric text, or view of history. I’m wondering what you think that reveals about histories as they’re traditionally conceived, what you might have discovered by working through this exercise.
There’s a way that the inner part of the story is related to the outer part—that the anecdote is related to the exposition in a way that’s holistic. I have an idea of the small anecdote, the almost personal story, being linked to this larger concept of History with a capital-H in a continuous way. But the continuity only works in one direction. You can’t really start from the global and get to the local; you have to start from the detail.
That’s why I have a love-hate relationship with the academy, where you have to put forward an abstract proposal, and from there go about doing the granular work. Actually the way that I’m thinking about literature and history here is more in line with Ginzburg’s “microhistories”, where you start from the individual anecdote, and then expand outward. I think the way that the most interesting texts are produced is often a little anarchic: you start from something that seems completely random, the idea being that there’s some element of chance involved. And only from there, by starting to collect things into a kind of causation, can you reach a larger argument.
The process requires patience, sedimentation. It doesn’t necessarily work with a schedule of deadlines. And a kind of love for the irrelevant, or what’s considered to be irrelevant, is important too. With the imagination you can make new connections, where the irrelevant suddenly becomes the thing that matters most. Emotion is a part of history too; and when you think with emotion, you can open up experience. A French heart of palm or a Nigerian palm fruit can suddenly open up concerns linked to personal or social lifeworlds. Anyway, that’s behind some of the methodology that I was trying out here.
There’s a point in the book where you talk about conventional history as violent in some sense, as “poking [its] fingers” into the “sensitive regions” of the past. Your luminous history, by contrast, is more gentle. It asks us: “What if you were to hold stories with patience, giving them an encouraging pat”? If that’s the method, what has the method revealed?
Writing that kicks off from top-down theories leaves out a lot, I think. My cut, arbitrary as it is, maybe suggests just how many forms of experience don’t enter into the way that history is usually done.
I guess the question is, also: what’s the priority? If you want to trace a history of, say, the rule of law, or something, you’re going to look at things top-down, you’re going to study governmental structures. And that will conform to a certain agenda, and talking heads will debate each other, and people will sign important books. But going about things the other way, without a premade agenda, without a dissertation that needs to be written, I think you can bring other experiences into the picture. Dreams, fantasies, things you find in the street, songs, geometrical shapes, sketches, “what if” situations—really, it’s endless. Fact and fiction can also get mixed up in ways that mirror the human consciousness in a closer way.
Maybe that’s why a luminous history is condemned to be amoral—at least temporarily, at the level of the story—and not progressive, even if it fits into an author's larger ethical project. If a conventional history is violent because it leaves out so many stories, then a luminous history might also be violent in that it doesn’t necessarily take the improvement of society to be its primary concern. To me, literature or microhistory work in a sort of opposite way to an actual microscope. If you’re zoomed out, things can look clear and precise. But as soon as you zoom into more specific situations, then things grow nebulous; there can be some haziness and moral ambiguity.
Going back to your question of why the palm tree—at a very practical level, the palm can be found more or less everywhere in the world, whether because it grows there naturally, or because it’s imported in some form. It can serve as a unifying feature that touches on many kinds of lives and realities. So it does become a useful narrative device.
To the point of the palm existing everywhere, the book does a great job of showing that wherever the tree might grow, its images (in the form of advertisements) and its byproducts (in the form of palm oil) end up circulating globally. And I thought that was a nice way of de-localizing the palms. In your book, they’re found even in areas where they can’t grow.
Yes, and in more or less artificial ways. I don’t want to romanticize nature. This isn’t: “Ah, what lovely tropical climes where palm trees grow!” That kind of exoticism isn’t what I want to do at all. With the unexpected cuts, I also tried to bring in an element of humor, which is another form of experience that usual ways of doing history or literature can leave out. Most history books will give you an account of things that’s very solemn in tone. And that’s what’s encouraged to be considered a serious literary or intellectual historian. It’s the way that we’re taught to write, almost despite our own ways of naturally interacting with people or texts. Which isn’t to say that history is funny. But even if you’re talking about tragedies or inequalities or the abysses over which society is built, if you start to look at the correspondences between, say, tiny personal experiences and giant global phenomena, then you find a slippage: something that seems completely insignificant today can suddenly cash out as something that’s pivotal. These leaps, or gaps in importance, often get “translated” so that people talk about the big thing and completely forget about the little thing. Whereas to move between the micro and macro levels can create moments of humor, or discomfort, or a number of other emotions that don’t enter into a more staid analysis of how things are.
One of my inclinations as a writer is precisely that, to move between these levels of anecdote and analysis, and to get close to those moments of emotional experience that exist within, but also work somewhat chaotically against, the grain of a top-down account. I like to set different anecdotes and styles into collision with one other as part of a larger conceptual project, and see what kind of world that makes.
Many of the anecdotes, especially the first several, are centered on notions of honor and warrior culture. Why is that?
[Laughs.] One way in which the structure of my book is quite traditional—so that I didn’t go too crazy in multiple realms—is that it’s chronological. And to some extent, I also play with existing historical stereotypes. It’s true that in many older cultures, ideas of honor are very important. I wanted to take up those ideas, and find some way to unite them with the palm tree.
Recently, I’ve also been thinking about how in many parts of the world, duty is the basis of belonging to community, whereas in Europe, it’s often more about human rights or other “universal” conceptions that aren’t actually universal. This idea of duty, or worth, or honor, as the basis of a culture or civilization or community is something that interests me. And I didn’t realize I’d included that interest in the book. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s where some of the humorous clashes of preconceived notions also come in. Take the typical Western stereotype of the palm, the one associated with beaches, Hollywood, etc. I wanted to place those ideas in juxtaposition with the ones from honor-based cultures, or palm-oil harvesting, or other images that don’t necessarily come to mind when you think of palm trees. It’s a way to surprise the reader.
You write, in one of the intercalated sections [of Palms], “The greatest translator, of course, is History,” capital-H. Is history something that exists independently of us? One conception has it, of course, that history is the product of human attempts to organize time. But here, it almost seems like the luminous history transcends that kind of instrumentalization.
I don’t think that history exists only as a human product. Whether it exists as something with a capital-H is another question. I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek in that part, I think. “History” as a Hegelian idea, a force with its own agenda that’s probably divine—I don’t necessarily believe in that. But what I do think is there is some combination of nature and the cosmos that’s constantly in evolution, not necessarily towards a certain goal in particular, but evolving. And there’s a link in that sense with translation, which is also constantly shifting between references without a fixed essence behind things, or a god standing over the process dictating what is or isn’t correct.
One thing Palms is trying to do is show this evolution of history, this constant movement, just as the process of translation moves between ideas and languages in a way that creates new versions, and is theoretically endless. Maybe History is a series of versions that operates on its own in a Spinozist sense. Humans form one part of that story as intermediary factors, as translators. But there are also palm trees, and insects, and that machine making an awful noise outside my window. All of these are in the world together, interacting with glorious complexity.
Do you have a preoccupation with the pre-modern, or the peripherally modern? Despite its broad chronology, Palms is distant from the kind of technology you write about in Other Paradises. The internet, the smartphone, etc.
First of all, what do you mean by modern? I know that’s a huge question.
[Laughs.] It’s whatever you want it to be. But to put a point on it: The number of anecdotes that both take place after, say, industrial modernity, and that include discussion of technology, are relatively few. We’re more likely to find a farmer who’s involved in the large chain of palm oil production, and who possibly could be existing in our contemporary moment, but is not temporally located as such.
Right. There are a couple of answers I can give to that. One is that, if I ask myself what gives me pleasure when writing, part of it has to do with feeling a little ignorant, outside my comfort zone. What it most interests me to write about is something I have only a vague sense about, that’s still a kind of aura calling me toward it that I want to learn more about. That’s even how I operate when pitching something to write for publication, don’t tell my editors. [Laughs.] It’s a bit of a perverse mentality, again the opposite of the academic one, where you’re supposed to build up your body of expertise, and keep talking about the one thing that you know about, and learn more about that one thing and talk about that one thing. Whereas there’s this other great pleasure, which for me is linked to fiction writing, which is to write about what you don’t yet know but desire to know. It’s precisely that lack of excess information that enables you to create imaginary worlds. And so, yes, I wrote anecdotes about the Abbasid Caliphate, which I know much less about than I do about the guy on the street corner.
The other answer to this question of technology is that the palm tree creates a contrast and a complement to technology. By focusing on a natural history, I’ve already made a decision with regard to attention, a choice not to focus explicitly on technological history. And so, while technology does appear at many points, it’s by no means the focus of this little book. That said, it would be really interesting to write, say, a luminous history of the machete. A violent technology that’s ready-to-hand in a Heideggerian sense. Of course that would be a totally different book.
In Other Paradises, you offer “imaginative responses to science and technology.” And that was published in 2018. Do you perceive a continuity in your thought running from that book to your present work?
The question of continuity is interesting. On the one hand, I’m the same person, with the same manias and obsessions; on the other hand, the new book would seem to have a very different theme. Sure, I could make the argument that I have multiple people inside me in the Pessoan sense, that every book is a departure from the one preceding it. That said, I actually do think these two are connected. For example, I built Other Paradises in almost the inverse way to Palms. Each of the essays has at least tangentially to do with technology as its subject, and at the end of each, I added a fictional anecdote. In Palms, I started with the anecdotes, and then added the critical glosses. So they’re like opposites in that way, mirror images.
Them being built in opposite ways is itself a kind of continuity.
Yes. The paradox as the continuity.
With the caveat that translating is itself a form of writing, I want to ask about the relationship between the mode you inhabit when you translate and the mode you inhabit when you sit down to write. Has your work as a translator informed your writing?
There are certain things that have to do with literature—like copyediting, like editing other people’s texts, like translating, like proofreading—that involve a very, very close attention to the phrase and a rigorous care for the detail. It’s a kind of poetic training to pay attention to where a comma goes, or how something is worded, or what rearrangements can help you to avoid the repetition of words in a paragraph. Any good writer would pay attention to those things. But other activities—translating in particular—have made me especially conscious of those elements.
So that would be one answer. Then there’s this strange thing that happens when you work in other languages. You produce a text that wouldn’t necessarily have been written in English in that particular way. Translating often produces new forms, or structures, or ways of putting paragraphs together. And I do think that’s affected my English to some extent. Working with literary texts in a different language, speaking a different language with the people around me: it affects the way your brain thinks in English. So when the moment comes to write your “own” texts, all of a sudden you might reach for certain structures or expressions. That could, in a way, destroy your English. But it could also be helpful. It could create a productive tension. Anyway, it’s not something you can compartmentalize and say, “Okay, from 9 to 11, I’m going to translate and turn off the writing part of my brain, then from 2 to 4 I’m going to do my own work.” It’s all very linked in an interesting way.
That’s also why maybe it’s hard to translate a book and write one at the same time, because it occupies the same part of the brain. I think it was Javier Marías who said that he alternates between translating and writing. He translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish, which is a huge task, then worked on his own book, then translated something else, then worked on another of his own books. And so on. This cycle of production was, for him, very useful. I can understand that.
In addition to all this, you’re the editor of Firmament Magazine (published by Sublunary Editions), which is now in its second year. What is your editorial vision for the publication? [Disclaimer: My own work has been published in Firmament and edited by Sequeira.]
Let me start with a caveat: although I’m named on the masthead as Editor, this is not me creating a magazine from scratch or anything. Firmament is an offshoot of Sublunary Editions, and this is a project that involves a lot of people beyond myself—mostly Joshua Rothes, who founded the publishing house, but also a whole team including Jacob Siefring, Vik Shirley, and numerous others who collaborate with us. It’s an exciting project precisely because it’s not just one person or a tiny group of people, but this rhizomatic thing. We’re all over the world, adding our grains of sand to it.
Okay, caveat aside. Now a history: Firmament started as a mailer, just a couple pieces of paper that went out to everyone in the post. It developed into a magazine out of that. There was this idea of miscellaneous things related to the publisher that might not have made it into a book, compiled in one place. That was the original concept. And I think that’s still there. But it’s also starting to morph into something else. Now that we’re on Issue 5, the question of what, actually, this magazine is doing is becoming more present. The idea of it being a miscellany—is that enough? We’ve been having that conversation.
There are definitely certain elements that one might call an editorial line. First of all, this magazine in many ways tips its hat to the modernist tradition of 20th-century literature, which you can see visually in the first year’s cover, which playfully engages with Revista Sur from Argentina, a magazine we admire as a collective project even if our ethical position differs from theirs, and isn't associated with those ideas of spiritual aristocracy from the period. That downward arrow is borrowed from the Sur cover. We’ve been in dialogue with some South American literary magazines, and ones from other places too. The idea of a “firmament” is that there are people all over the world doing interesting things who we can bring into correspondence, in this almost utopian vision of a Republic of Letters.
We’re also making a paper magazine in the age of the internet, right? This idea of creating a physical object that has the aspiration of bringing people from many languages and cultures into one place, with this somewhat “experimental” angle: all that is part of the magazine too. And yes, there’s some element of making it up as we go along, which I also find thrilling, because sometimes the most interesting things come about when you don’t enter into them with any preconceived notion of how they should be.
I should clarify that I’m not saying that we want a perfect representation of planetary regions, or anything like that. But I do think there’s this organic way in which each issue does have a lot of diversity, just baked into the process of open submissions. For example, a translation by Matt Travers of Inger Christensen, the amazing Danish poet, came to us that way. To receive work through open submissions is a real luxury, something really wonderful.
And that’s why I think this idea of doing a modernist magazine in the 21st century, in some strange way, actually works really well, precisely because we have the internet to bring people together from anywhere. Someone living in France, India, Brazil—all places from which we’ve received submissions—is able to send us work through the portal. I’m in Santiago de Chile as we speak, but I could be in Cambridge, I could be on the moon. [Laughs.] It doesn’t really matter where I am, does it? It’s a decentralized operation. That’s what makes the Republic of Letters function in the 21st century.
You mentioned being sometimes at Cambridge [UK]—you’re currently a PhD candidate at the Centre of Latin American Studies. What are you working on there?
In my head, everything is connected to everything else. I study Latin American literature, and focus on writers from the first half of the 20th century; I’m writing a kind of intellectual history of how those writers are influenced by thought from South Asia in their literary and philosophical work. So this idea of a global Republic of Letters is behind my own field of study, as is the modernist period, and the relationship between Latin America and South Asia, which isn’t necessarily a connection that would be at the center of attention in the Anglosphere. I’m looking at how certain poets—all of the writers are poets, broadly considered— are drawing on ideas from other parts of the world in their thinking.
Since I’ve attacked the academy so much in this conversation [laughs], I now want to defend it here. There’s something extraordinary about being able to spend a few years studying something like this. And it does immensely enrich my own work in the present to have contact with these ideas of how people in Argentina and Chile and Mexico and Brazil were trying to do new things based on thought from other parts of the world, to create these global networks that go beyond the nation-state. They were making little magazines, and writing poetry books and novels and philosophical essays, that have to do with those ideas and with their historical moment. People say that the academy isn’t useful, or doesn’t lead to a practice; in my case, at least, I think it really does. I think abstract or historical thinking can exist alongside a creative practice in the present, that we can rescue ideas and make them come alive in some way so they don’t just stay dead knowledge but become useful and vital.
I have a couple more questions. Firstly, what are you reading right now?
I have in my head the book that I just finished yesterday: a book of aphorisms by George Christoph Lichtenberg, called Sobre el poder del amor, which was edited by Editorial Pre-Textos in Spain. Lichtenberg has thousands and thousands of aphorisms, but this is a selection based on the idea of love. I know that’s a very sentimental idea, probably in some way uncool in the eyes of, you know, the Bernhard readers—or whoever’s all about hating things. [Laughs.] I adore Bernhard, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I’ll always defend the idea of sentimentality in literature. And Lichtenberg is interesting because he is so sharp and witty and ironic, but at the same time unafraid to openly express his emotions. That’s something I appreciate a lot. Bolaño was a huge reader of his work and said we should always go back to him. André Breton loved him, too.
What else? I finished Ricardo Piglia’s Las tres vanguardias: Saer, Puig, Walsh, which is where he makes the argument about there being three major strands of the avant-garde, basically represented by Saer as art for art, Puig as pop art, and Walsh as political document. And I’m reading just so much poetry. If there’s any secret to good writing, or at least writing that’s strange in an interesting way, maybe that’s it. Read insane amounts of poetry. It’ll probably work as a kind of corrective, and make you either more reverent toward the world, or more irreverent, as needed.
What are you working on now?
I feel like I’m always working on multiple things at one time, and that everything always seems bound up. I’ve just finished something I’d call a novel, that’s a narrative but also a semi-theoretical text, called Jazz of the Affections. And I have another sort of historical-biographical text on the burner, between fiction and essay, which involves medicine and events from a few centuries ago. In recent days I’ve also become rather captivated by the philosophy of law, which might form part of something in the future, we’ll see. If I can make all of that work out, and also finish the thesis and other work and not go insane, then I’ll be happy.
It seems like doing all of those things is actually maintaining your sanity rather than causing insanity.
I feel like that crazy cook who frets that a dish isn’t quite working, that the soup has a little too much this or that. But it’s impossible to go back. You can only add more. You can’t take things out of the soup, so you just have to just adding more salt, more oregano.
The Nameless Questionnaire
Each of The Unnamable’s guests is asked to respond to the following questionnaire. Here are Sequeira’s answers.
1. A novel, a poem, and a short story you’d teach in a college seminar
For me all literature is really poetry that takes more or less narrative forms, in an oblique, imaginative, transformative relationship to what is often called “reality”. I’d focus on the lyrical tradition amply considered, perhaps taking Juan José Saer’s El entenado (The Witness), Pablo Neruda’s Canto general and a “story” from the trova and nueva canción traditions of songwriting I love so much, say “La maza” by Silvio Rodríguez or “Rodríguez y Recabarren” by Violeta Parra.
2. The title of that seminar
“Lyrics and Histories”. Of course I’d have to narrow the focus, and I’m not sure it’s the catchiest title, but it does speak to the connection between narrative and musical forms, between literature and experience. Saer said explicitly that in his novels he sought to blur the distinction with poetry, and that he attempted to create a music of both sound and concept. I’m interested in that point where narrative becomes poetry and music. And I don’t know why, but after literature, I’ve always been most attracted to music. I’m also fascinated by the way that histories can be structured as musical compositions, and vice versa. The text I just translated, Daniel Guebel’s The Absolute, which I’m a bit obsessed with at the moment, asks this question among others. Ricardo Piglia said somewhere that literature is a decontextualizing machine that takes the force of context and lived experience, and encodes it, so it loses the visible mark of its origin. I think this is precisely what happens in music. If you listen to Charly García, Piero, Seru Girán, Alejandro Filio, Joaquín Sabina, Joan Manuel Serrat, Fito Páez, Manuel García, Pablo Milanés, Mercedes Sosa and so on, life, love, politics, history, everything comes together as an aesthetic product. The songs aren’t autobiographical but become something utterly different and strange. Literature and music have much in common in their rhythms, inflections, tones of warmth and coolness, and patterns, as well as in their moments of patience, their silences, and their ways of wrapping in other rhythms, traditions and ideas, a whole topic of its own. The distinction between narrative and music is totally artificial. Think of Hindi movies where songs form a part of the plot, a recourse that can be silly or profound, depending on the lyrics and the movie. For most of the 20th century the greatest poets in Hindi and Urdu were writing for the film industry, and producing extremely beautiful poems and stories. Of course, all this is aspirational. I play a bit of piano and strum the guitar only well enough to be a possible terror in the waning hours of a party.
3. The great work no one has read
Poema de Chile is Gabriela Mistral’s most ambitious and interesting work, but it’s not often read or studied. I don’t even think it’s been fully translated — the writer Ursula LeGuin, who had a close relationship to Mistral’s writing, made a version of most but not all of it, and she didn’t quite understand many references, as she herself says in her translator’s introduction. I think LeGuin’s translation is quite good but the work would benefit from more contemporary attention and readings outside the academy.
In general, I’d say there are a many great sacred world texts — the Rig Veda, the Qur’an, the Popol Vuh, etc — that people have heard of but few have actually read closely and studied, especially if they’re outside the tradition of one’s birth. There is so much to learn. There are entire worlds like the Arabic Andalusian tradition of poetry that are incredibly rich but not frequently discussed in mainstream or “literary” culture, as elusive a concept as that is. Perhaps it’s necessary to stop thinking in terms of individual authors and more in terms of flows of thought.
I do believe a great deal of solitude is necessary to make art and develop independent forms of creation. Yet this always feeds back into a community, and the idea of a “great work” can occlude many more collaborative projects or formats like magazines, written correspondences, interviews and literary criticism. The letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the interviews by Tomás Labarthe and Cristián Rau of Chilean writers compiled as La viga maestra, or the criticism of Juan José Saer and Juan Goytisolo are all for me “great”, but wouldn’t fall under the rubric of the great work defined purely as a novelistic masterpiece.
4. The terrible work everyone has read
I’m not fond of negative categorizations, and am not sure who the “everyone” here is. That little grumble aside, I could say Evil or the Drama of Freedom by Rüdiger Safranski. It must have got good distribution because at one point it was omnipresent on bookstore shelves, writers were referencing it, et cetera. And of course evil and freedom are both fascinating concepts. But I just couldn’t get into it. In any case, I don’t believe in terrible works, only right times and places for books. In the case of poor Safranski, who I’m throwing under the bus here, I tried to read him on a sunny beach with bachata music in the background, and naturally found myself distracted.
5. Three books you’d send your enemy on a desert island
The spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the maxims of Baltasar Gracián, the polemical screeds of the historian Pedro de Angelis. She or he would either go crazy or become a more dextrous enemy.
6. The doorstopper that should really be used as a doorstopper
Fernando Pessoa’s trunk, to keep the door open in a literal and metaphorical sense. His work is a wonderful evocation of infinite possibility. You could study him forever and never get to the bottom of him or fully understand him. I don’t know why I find it so much of a relief to feel not everything can be catalogued or explained, and the unexpected might always occur. A draft could blow through, and papers could fly out of Pessoa’s trunk and escape into the world. His ghost could float in through the door, or maybe just his hat.
7. Who do you read in order to write
To answer “what” instead of “who”, I’d say poetry or poetic prose. Right now I’m reading Leopoldo Castilla, Antonio Cisneros, Jaime Luis Huenún, Rosario Castellanos and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The world isn’t short on ways to bombard you with information or produce anxiety, and more introspective kinds of texts keep me sane or at least functional. I adore the poetic novel, but there are so many excellent authors off the circuit of the novel’s market, doing astonishingly sensitive things with the grain of language, exploring subtle moments of experience and perception between the infinite thickness of the event and its consolidation as history. Sensibility doesn’t have to do with nationality or language or historical moment. You can find it in all times and places. Yet it never ceases to be surprising to come across that beauty, like a fig tree on a golf course as Cisneros puts it. A kind of patience and ellipticity are involved, a willingness to let the thought sit for a bit and write around things, rather than force the prose to make an argument or rush it to the bookseller. I’m rambling away from your question now, though. What I really need in order to write is a double espresso or single malt whisky, depending on the time of day.
8. “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Agree?
Writing, I think, is a way of both orienting oneself in the world and making a new object. It is a form of ordering the inexplicable into a construction accessible to the senses, an attempt to find sense within infinity and also an intense form of living. Certainly something is happening in all this.
Recently I read Ricardo Piglia’s El camino de Ida, an excellent novel that made me remember what I love about narrative itself. It’s a wry novel of ideas, with the element of surprise found in both humor and the chemistry of a good conversation, and it asks big questions about how literature can affect reality, whether we’re talking about a university professor with her study of Joseph Conrad or a Unabomber-style terrorist scrawling eco-manifestos. I think this applies in many spheres. Sometimes writing a love letter forces action for good or ill. Sometimes praying creates a new relationship to the sacred. I might be a romantic and mystic, sure, but I also think the very act of ordering thoughts often makes action possible.
9. What can be found on your cutting room floor?
If I understand this right, you’re asking what I prefer to chop out of my own writing. I’d have to say big blocks of pure information. For concrete particulars about the world in its sociological detail, a wealth of resources exists that is more or less profound and more or less reliable, including Wikipedia. Sometimes the cold delivery of information has an effect, as with the descriptions of murdered women in Bolaño’s 2666. But usually the transition from raw information of the world to imagination, by way of emotion and perception, is where the magic happens. “Invention” is such a gorgeous word. And now that I come to think of it, maybe that’s why I love music so much. It can’t be pinned directly to visual stimuli, and so it is forced to create new mental structures, to slow dance with a lyric or speed down the highway on its own as an instrumental, free and wild, tossing the used chewing gum of excess information out a rolled-down window or depositing it carefully into the first available bin.
Ben Libman is a writer in Montréal and the Bay Area. You can find him at his site.