An Interview with
editor of Habitus:
A Diaspora Journal
A release party for Habitus 04: New Orleans
will take place at
Gowanus Studio Space
119 8th Street in Brooklyn
on Saturday, Oct. 25
8pm - 12am
After reading two or three lines from the middle of one of the poems she slapped the book shut with a snort. "No no no no no!" she said. "A terrible translation! The original Swedish is just so much more....po-e-tic." My lips curled back into a painful sneer. Sensing the imminent danger to the bodily safety of this woman, Will interjected in a friendly tone, asking her if she was a Swede. "Yes I am," she said, turning over the copy she held, and continued with "Ah! Here's the problem! Hayashida! You've got to be a native speaker to translate PO-E-TREEE!!!" I attempted to explain that Jennifer Hayashida is, in fact, a native speaker of Swedish, and that she had worked closely with Nyberg over many months to produce English versions of the poetry. Deaf ears received this, and I stewed. So this is Brooklyn literary culture, I thought, poorly-concealed xenophobia and willful ignorance bordering on militant illiteracy.
Thankfully I was dead wrong. As the day picked up, dozens of people stopped by to talk translation and swap books. The best trade of the day was for issues 2 and 3 of Habits: A Diaspora Journal, a Brooklyn-based international literary magazine edited with envious skill by Joshua Ellison, and beautifully designed by Daniel Sieradski. Their 4th issue, New Orleans, is now on sale, and Joshua was kind enough to answer some questions.
CALQUE: Describe the origins of Habitus. How and when did it come to be?
HABITUS: Starting in 2004, I spent a few years in Israel, and it was a transformative time for me. I had a fellowship from The Dorot Foundation, and that time was a gift of almost unimaginable freedom and constant discovery. In some ways, I've been trying to recreate and expand that experience through the journal--a lifetime of travel, reading, conversation, grappling with complicated histories and impossible contradictions. More importantly, I'm trying to make that experience open to others, in a small way, and share some of the benefits.
There's an obvious irony in founding a "Diaspora Journal" in response to living in Israel, because the idea of homeland is so central to that country's self-understanding. It's only part of the story, though. Israel also is an incredibly diverse country, and its citizens have roots in almost every corner of the world. I felt the way that all those places had shaped the landscape of the culture, how those distant places stayed alive in the people who came there. Over time, I learned to feel at home. But it wasn't so much an experience of completeness or closure; it helped awaken me to some really big questions about my place in the world.
The journal has become a way to process those questions--in public and in dialogue with others--because I know that these concerns aren't mine alone. It was also through the fellowship that I first visited Budapest and Sarajevo, which became the first two issues of the journal. I encountered things in those cities that I desperately wanted to understand better. It was in all these places---Budapest, Sarajevo, and Jerusalem--that the form in the journal began to coalesce and take shape.
CALQUE: Tell us about what has motivated your specific choices for geographic themes thus far?
HABITUS: There are so many places that are worthy and exciting. The cities we've picked are all radically different, but they have some things in common: they are messy, polyglot, diverse places; they are places that have wrestled with history and memory; they are also places with the possibility to confound a reader's expectation. A city like Sarajevo, for example, has a dramatic and tragic narrative that people are familiar with, because of the war. But we were able to show some very different sides, like its unique cosmopolitan history, or the really unusual Muslim-Jewish relations that have existed there (much of that issue featured Muslim writers addressing Jewish themes; there are few other cities that can offer that, and even fewer magazines that could really explore it).
One of the really exciting things about our city-by-city format is it demands that the journal reinvents itself with each issue. We are learning to approach each new place with an open mind and heart, to listen carefully, question critically and respectfully, and to read diligently. To let the story unfold and resist the temptation to fit the place into a preconceived idea. If we get it right, the contributors and advisors tell us where we need to go.
CALQUE: How does the idea of a global Jewish diaspora influence your choices as editors? Which comes first when you select work, the Jewish or the Literature?
HABITUS: Jewishness and literature, as I understand them, are inseparable, because they make the same moral demands: curiosity and empathy. Jewishness is built on questions, dialogue, storytelling and language: in that way it is profoundly literary. So I look for writers and pieces that hold up to the seriousness of those values: that meet the world with curiosity and attention, with empathy and imagination. Many of our writers are Jewish and address Jewish subjects, and many others do not. We are trying to capture each place in its fullness and complexity, and we want to enlist every possible voice that has something to offer.
In our first issue, the Hungarian writer George Konrad talked about "the legacy of humanistic engagement with the world" as one of the pillars of Jewish civilization. The Jewish experience is where our investigation starts, but it can't be where the journey ends: otherwise we're not living up to those core values. That is also why the notion of Diaspora is so important. I understand Diaspora as a process of creating proximity across distances, which is also an imaginative act, and that is also how I understand literature. The idea of exile is as old as Judaism itself--going all the way back to Abraham--but what excites me even more is that it is also a profoundly modern experience, something that defines the state of humanity today. In some way or form, we all start in one place and end in another. At the same time, I think that a sense of belonging is just as important to the idea of Diaspora as a sense of displacement.
I think part of what makes Habitus unique is that we don't assume that Diaspora is the same as homelessness or rootlessness. These writers, in each city, have a profound relationship with their homes, cultures, and languages--we don't experience the world in a narrow way, through a single lens or identity. We need to understand this better if we are going to have a meaningful way to interpret the world we live in today.
CALQUE: In four issues you've published an astonishing variety of art and critical matter. What are you trying to show about the world that is unique to Habitus and that makes you different from, say, World Literature Today or the Virginia Quarterly Review?
HABITUS: I have a lot of respect for those magazines, and all the other publishers (including Calque) who are doing the hard work of bringing international voices to new English-language readers. It's an important and largely thankless job; if we had no other goals than that, it would still be very worthwhile. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum said something I really love: that literature is our best tool to understand those who don't share our fate. I think that speaks directly to this magazine's goals, and to our reason for being.
We are also, alongside that, trying to offer an alternate vision of Jewish literature: as something fundamentally hybrid, shaped by contact with other cultures, languages, religions. Something inclusive, with room for many new contributions. We want to show a Jewish literature that is engaged with history in a creative way, that is open to the world-at-large, and can address some of the pressing issues for humanity through a Jewish lens. I think, in our first four issues, we have made a strong case that this literature is out there, and deserves more attention.
CALQUE: Highlight Issue 4: New Orleans.
HABITUS: So much has been written and said about New Orleans in recent years that we had a very interesting challenge offer a unique perspective. New Orleans is a great Diaspora city. It's a place where people from all over the world once met to lay the foundations of American culture. Today, after Katrina and the mass dispersal that followed, the Diaspora saga of New Orleans also extends in a new direction. Katrina still looms large, but this issue of Habitus isn't just about the storm. It's about the city in all its richness--past, present, and future. A city that's loved more passionately--by it's citizens, by visitors, by people who've never even been there--than almost any place I've ever been.
Some highlights include: • A remarkable personal essay abut the conflict between restoration and renewal from Rodger Kamenetz • Poetry from Andrei Codrescu and Maxine Cassin, fiction from Nancy Lemann and Moira Crone • A guide to disaster and memory from environmental historian Ari Kelman • L.J. Goldstein's photo essays on the city's singular and dynamic street culture • Ronne Hartfield's extraordinary memoir about the intersection of African-American and Jewish roots in one New Orleans family • Interviews with musician-historian Ned Sublette and the Brazilian urban planning innovator Jamie Lerner
CALQUE: What's next?
HABITUS: Our next issues are Moscow and Mexico City, and they are already starting to take shape. We are also working on a new website that will dramatically expand our content and scope. We are also developing our in-person events and programs as an essential complement to the print journal. It's the next step: to give readers a chance to interact directly with some of our contributors, to have the pleasure of discovery first-hand. In November, we will be visiting a few college campuses with Marcelo Brodsky, an extraordinary photographer and activist from Buenos Aires who was featured in our last issue. He's a great talent and a fantastic personality, so I'm sure people will really enjoy learning about him and hearing from him.