Personality Without Ego
A Review of ALTA’s 31st Annual Conference, October 15 – 18, 2008, Minneapolis / St. Paul

By Lucas Klein


Translators are, by definition, interested in more than one thing. This makes them great people to talk to, and marks a distinction between translators and academics, who are often interested only in one thing.[1] Translators are also different from writers, many ALTA participants reminded me, who also tend to talk about one thing: themselves.[2] You can’t be a translator and be egocentric. While we all bemoan what Lawrence Venuti calls "the translator’s invisibility," the benefit of being under-noticed is that as a group we’re generous, considerate, and, because we’re conscious of how much we haven’t read and grateful for what we have, very warm to each other. Of course, we all enter this profession for money and fame, but somehow in pursuit of that we have learned the value of listening to others before we speak, and of incorporating the viewpoints of others into our self-expression. With translators, you get lots of personality without lots of ego.

This also means that, as opposed to an academic conference, where people go not to learn but to cherry-pick, and where possibilities for discussion boil down to possibilities for one-upmanship, at ALTA the panels are very well attended and discussion is fruitful. People actually want to go to panels at ALTA, and this year’s panels drew large audiences. I showed up too late on Thursday to hear the panels “Translating Poetic Form,” “Talking Shop: How to Workshop a Translation,” “Retranslation: Influence, Interference, Infraction,” and “Translation in Every Classroom,” which I remain curious about. But the first Plenary[3] lecture by Peter Theroux on “Arabic Translation in English: Be Careful What You Wish For,” which critiqued America’s failure and resistance to representing Arabic literature in English embodied the spirit of agreeable and constructive contradiction exemplified by the ALTA conference year after year

Friday morning I attended the tail end of Cris Mattison’s panel on “The New Collectivization,” which asked whether anthologies helped introduce foreign literature into English or else stopped single-author projects from finding publication; the discussion ended up looking for new ways to bring translators into the marketing of anthologies so that they could be starting points, rather than endpoints, of international writing. Then, unable to decide between attending a panel on the complexities of translating punctuation and one on “Forming the Literary Translator and the Critic of Literary Translation: International Perspectives,” I stopped by the buffet to grab a coffee and pastry and found myself in conversation with Richard Jeffrey Newman, translator of Persian poetry, before a truncated meeting with a publicist from Penguin Books.[4] Early that afternoon I was on the “Reviewing Translations” panel, chaired by
Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. The panel began with Martin Riker bemoaning a state of translation reviewing where [this] passes for praise.[5] Daniela Hurezanu echoed, noting the problem with reviews based on the premise that we all know—and agree about—what literature is. Johannes Görannson, quoting Slavoj Žižek, followed by challenging us all even further by dis/agreeing with Martin’s notion that translation was good for the health of American literature, saying instead that he wanted to destroy American literature. Somehow, we were all nodding along. I spoke last, and mentioned a few of my standards for judging translation while reviewing translation, followed by a synopsis of a review’s afterlife in preparing it for translation into Chinese.

Saturday morning began with Esther Allen’s Plenary lecture, “Pastiche, Imposture, or Commentary? Thoughts on the Scholarly Status of Translation,” focused on the problem of tenure-review committees ignoring translation. More than just preaching to the choir, her plea for literary translation to count toward promotion passed through a sociology of our culture’s academic sphere as well as a number of new approaches to understanding translation as scholarship and commentary. She says she hopes her talk will be published in the
PMLA, and I hope to have a chance to read it. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if they do not print it, we should all withdraw our subscriptions in protest (by a show of hands, the vast majority of her audience at ALTA were academics of some stripe).

The panel Art Beck and I co-chaired, “Versions, Forgeries, Colonizations: Deliberate Departures from the Text,” followed the lecture, and Art and I managed to come down on opposite sides of the ethic that says the translation of a good foreign-language poem should be a good English poem (him for, me against), but again, our opposition came from a fundamental agreement. On the same panel, Silvia Kofler mapped the ways that a paragraph of Goethe’s from The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) has been translated over time; by the end of her talk, I found myself changing my mind about my preferred translation. Steve Bradbury closed the panel with a take on the colonized writing back, focusing on how the new work of Taiwanese avant-garde celebrity poet[6] Hsia Yü 夏宇 uses translation as a condition of its creation, and how he goes about trying simulate its effects in English to create its translations.

That afternoon, I also made it to the second half of Becka McKay’s panel on “Comparative Translation: A Teaching Toolbox,” where she, Emily Goedde, Jason Grunebaum, and Diana Thow looked at how to teach translation in the literature class, the English class, the creative writing class, and the foreign language class. The discussion afterwards pointed to different ways of teaching translation—one memorable comment was for students to translate between different modes of discourse, in English—with an overall sharpening of knowledge of why we need to explore ways of teaching translation.

Any conference is a wrestle between professional and social obligations, and while at ALTA the two seem to blend more easily than anywhere else, my review should focus at least as much on the liquor & conversation as on the coffee & discussion. Yes: translators translate In vino veritas, or Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια, or 酒後吐真言 into action. And while not everyone is friends with everyone, I noticed no cliques or camps, no divisions or partitions. Everyone seemed to be united by an uncommon common interest, and many were sharing their books along with their stories. Tying these ends together, I heard Willis Barnstone and Suzanne Jill Levine each get asked about their memoirs. The common interest was palpably political, too: Barbara Harshav wore a pin with Obama spelled out in Hebrew, but don’t tell Fox News that Russian translator Peter Golub was wearing a pin from the USSR (in fact, don’t tell Fox News about this sentence at all). When Lisa Rose Bradford organized a Salsa dance outing, half of ALTA showed up, without even knowing that the restaurant used to be home to Bob Dylan, where he wrote “Positively 4th Street.”

Bob Dylan also made an appearance at Declamación, where “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was recited in Portuguese. Belgian singer Jacques Brel, via Arnold Johnston, turned up alive and well to sing “Ne me quitte pas,” first in French and Flemish and then in Johnston’s rhyming, faithful English. Declamación invites translators to recite or perform songs, poems, and rhymes from around the world, and its only rule forbids reading from a script. The only rulebreaker was Taiwanese poet Ye Mimi 葉覓覓, who read her five-minute poem
蛾在腋下產卵,然後死去, but only because she had been roped into reading by her translator, Steve Bradbury, following his recitation of his translation, A Moth Laid Its Eggs in My Armpit, and Then It Died (Steve was displeased, but everyone else agreed that his performance would have been nowhere as moving if he hadn’t forgotten his lines and scurry for his notes). Later, Chaucer showed up to recite from The Canterbury Tales.

Not all was fun and pleasant or marked by solidarity, evidently. Driving home from the airport, an ALTA board member told me about the members’ meeting, which I hadn’t attended.[7] She said the meeting had been acrimonious, that an argument erupted over the requirements of the ALTA National Translation Award: to encourage recognition for translators, a new rule stipulated that publishers could only nominate translators for the award if the translator’s name appeared on the book’s cover; as a result, submissions dropped from 90+ last year to 20+ this year. The debate was over whether to hold onto the requirement and keep pressuring publishers to recognize our work on the cover, or else to take a step back because our rule is, in the short term at least, only harming translators. I’m all for pressuring publishers, but are the terms of the award serving us? Should we instead work for other ways to compel publishers to put our names on the cover? Of course, that would mean nothing if we aren’t also well paid for our work. The point is money and fame, remember.

While this debate was evidently unpleasant, I have no doubt that it was but an uncomfortable moment amidst a festivity marked by camaraderie. Translators—translation—make people uncomfortable: in wartime we may be spies, and we have a menacing habit of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. But while the rest of the world may have trouble trusting us, we excel at trusting each other. This trust is essential if we’re going to find ways to expand translation, to push for greater recognition of our work from the book industry, and to increase understanding of what we do amongst the greater public. In short, we have to trust each other before anyone else can trust us. We’re far from attaining wide trust and recognition, but from what I saw at ALTA Minneapolis, we’re not off to a bad start.


[1] At a conference in my academic field, the often hierarchical Chinese studies, convention seems to disallow anything but progress reports on research, and that everyone wants to be talking to someone else: grad students want to talk to the young professors who seem to have “made it,” young professors want to talk to senior professors, and senior professors want to talk to their friends and elders, whom they may only have a chance to see once a year.

[2] I’ve never been, but see Brandon Holmquest’s review of AWP New York, “Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw,” parts I and II.

[3] Aside from the ALTA program, I have nowhere else encountered the word “plenary.”

[4] I’m not sure how he found me or what he got out of the conversation. I left the meeting feeling good that Penguin was reinvigorating its desire to print translations and overcoming its history of bad work and low pay, but also that my areas of expertise are probably not right for the direction they’re headed.

[5] Martin quoted the second to last paragraph of Er and Beau Friedl’s
LA Times review of The Temple of the Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen, by Tsutomu Mizukami, translated from the Japanese by Dennis Washburn (Urbana-Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008), the only paragraph to mention the translation:
Fiction in translation can sometimes be a painful slog. Not in this case. Even the best translations put a pane of glass between author and reader, but while some lines here buzz with what seems the white noise of an interloper, most of Dennis Washburn’s translation is imperceptible.
But how would that be received if we translated it into a discussion of fiction in general?
Fiction can sometimes be a painful slog. Not in this case. Even the best novels put a pane of glass between story and reader, but while some lines here buzz with what seems the white noise of an interloper, most of Philip Roth’s writing is imperceptible.
[6] Perhaps only in Taiwan can these terms string together without resulting in oxymoron.

[7] I had forgotten to pay my dues, so I’m technically not a member.


Lucas Klein is a union organizer and editor of the online journal of creative translation, After living in Beijing and Paris, his current home is in Connecticut, where he slouches towards a PhD in Chinese Literature at Yale. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at CipherJournal, Frank, Mānoa, Composite Translations, Big Bridge, and Jacket, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues.

Diaspora in Translation
A Happy Correspondence

An Interview with
Joshua Ellison
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


About a month ago I was invited by Will Schofield to attend the Brooklyn Book Festival (my first). I would give him a ride in exchange for a spot at his table with Paul Dry Books. Fair deal, I thought, and printed up a batch of spiffy 3x5 business cards. We left Philadelphia at 6:15 or so and drove like crazy for ninety minutes in order to beat the Jersey traffic into the city. After setting up and getting some rations, we settled down among our books. A few minutes later an uncombed middle-aged couple approached the table and the woman picked up a copy of Calque 3. "Oh! Swedish poetry," she warbled to her companion, who was absent-mindedly picking at food particles stuck to his oversized sweater vest. I held my breath as the woman flipped to Jennifer Hayashida's elegant, spare translations of Fredrik Nyberg's even sparer poems.

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.


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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.


Obsessive Editorializing: A Roundup

Eyeseas (Les Ziaux)
By Raymond Queneau
Translated from the French by
Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler
$18.95, Black Widow Press
Reviewed by Brandon Holmquest

Long-time friends to this publication, Daniela and Stephen's new book attempts the practically impossible, translating Queneau's poetry, and pulls it off as well as anybody could. Toss out any sort of hard, fast rules and take every poem on its own terms and do the best you can, getting what you have to get into English and sighing over what gets lost in the process. They do a good job of catching the tone of these poems, which range from the glibly playful to the very very French, and their English versions never sound corny, no small feat when the poems are full of oh's and ah's and references to the soul, etc.


The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth
By Valery Larbaud
Translated from the French by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky
$19.95, Black Widow Press

Reviewed by Brandon Holmquest

Every time I see Ron Padgett at the Poetry Project I think about going up and tickling him. I have no idea why. Seems like a nice enough guy, he might not take it that badly, but still, he's Ron Padgett. Can you really just go up and tickle a guy like that? Anyway. These poems were published under a pseudonym in the now familiar fashion of Pessoa, etc. Fake biography and all of that. It was a few years before Larbaud copped out to having been the guy behind it all. Padgett and Zavatsky's introduction is really good, so go read that if you want to know why Larbaud did it and how it all went. The poems are a little Ro-man-tic for my taste by they do suit the idea of Barnabooth that was originally put forward. This edition also include the original illustrations, photos from postcards and advertisements. It's neat and really fleshes out the general aesthetic, like the photos in Sebald's books.

By the way, I can't be the only one who noticed that Black Widow has been putting out some amazing books lately. Desnos, Breton, Tzara, and Eluard, yeah sure, but Joyce Mansour? Hell yes Joyce Mansour. Have you read that book? Listen, I get a free book in the mail almost every day and you know what, I paid retail for that thing.


Lands of Memory
By Felisberto Hernández
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
$14.95, Paperback, New Directions

Reviewed by Bela Shayevich

If you are wondering why your private bird of fey obsessions has been singing since July, this story will come as a relief. The fact is that Esther Allen’s translation of Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory has been out in paperback for several months now: the Joseph Cornell box on the cover and the cartoonish Cortázar quote on the back (“Felisberto, I will always love you!”) is awaiting your hot little hands on many a bookstore shelf. I repeat: right this minute, Felisberto Hernández is widely available in paperback. If you are like me, you will buy multiple copies in order to finally prove to yourself and your long-tormented friends that this man exists. If you are not like me and getting impatient with this review:

Felisberto Hernández was born in 1902 in Montevideo, where he died in 1964. Though at one point he too traveled the secret tunnel between Montevideo and Paris that brought the world Laforgue and Lautréamont , he spent most of his life in Uruguay. One of the more enchanting stories about him is how for some time, to support his family, he traveled the country as a piano accompanist for silent films. His rather small literary output holds writers like (the ebullient) Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez in its debt; however, he is a quintessentially minor writer. And therein lies his charm.

His great longing grasps at the minute. His most wildly eccentric loners possess only the most privately manifested and ultimately inconsequential manias. The mystery of the defamiliarized mundane is in itself mundane—and yet, the timbre of Hernández’s lyric voice elevates the Minor Mystery with its true reverence of small intangibles. While Brechts and Tolstoys shine their beacons on the marble pillars of existence, Felisberto illuminates the space around pockmarks of stone shadows. You lay awake in the dark feeling strange and special in your loneliness. You are not special, and if you’re strange, you’re not alone: this is the place of Felisberto.

Esther Allen does a much better, in fact, fantastic job of introducing him. Her prologue to Lands of Memory is earnest and nearly ecstatic. Uncrowded by academicish justifications, it is a work of genuine appreciation. This refreshing essay alone makes the book remarkable. The only other Felisberto Hernández available in English is Luis Harss’ 1993 Piano Stories, which presents a better selection of stories, though in spottier translation. All in all, this glimpse of Felisberto is a supremely poignant addition to the library of regretting you don’t know Spanish. Get it before it disappears.


Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Other Stories
By Manuel Rivas
Translated from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne
$21.95, Clothbound, Overlook Press

Reviewed by Steve Dolph

For a while now I’ve only known of Manuel Rivas as a writer of poems, having seen these here and there, and stupidly pinning him exclusively to this company. I’ve also known the work of translator Jonathan Dunne for some time—I gleefully read his translation of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby and Co. over a year ago and stickynoted: solicit work for Calque. It wasn’t until I actually corresponded with Jonathan Dunne and discussed publishing some prose poems by Rivas in the forthcoming Calque that I finally managed to slouch downtown and pick up a collection of his stories. Vermeer’s Milkmaid is an excellent grouping, at once sensitive and disorienting. Fantaticism for Iron Maiden and Aerosmith pages apart from allusions to Vermeer and Yeats? You betcha. And Dunne’s translations from the Galician are nicely pitched, reaching for obscure Britishisms infrequently and tactfully in a way that captures the disglossia of Galician for what I suspect is Rivas’s largest audience, the Spanish. Here’s a taste from the eponymous story, a passage that flirts with the way Rivas sounds in his prose poems:

I am three. I remember it all very well. Better than what went on today, before I started this story. I even remember what the others maintain did not happen. For example. My godfather – and I don’t know how he got it – brings a turkey for Chrismas. On Christmas Eve, the animal escapes up the hill for Hercules Tower, pursured by all the neighbours. When they’re just about to catch it, the turkey spreads its wings impossibly and flies out to sea like a wild goose. That was one of the things I saw that did not happen.

Whatever kept me from realizing until very recently that Rivas is a storyteller, and that Dunne has translated his prose with aplomb again and again is beyond me. It strikes me as alarming evidence of my drifting taste under the criminal influence of shady people like Bela and Brandon.


Croatian Anticharlatanism

Nobody's Home
by Dubravka Ugrešić
Translated from the Croatian by
Ellen Elias-Bursać
Open Letter Books,
Hardcover, $13.55


On her website Dubravka Ugrešić describes herself as possessed by the spirit of Dorothy's Toto from The Wizard of Oz, who is always daring Ugrešić to tug back the curtain and expose the Wizard for the charlatan that he is. The Toto factor combined with her fascination with the issues associated with the transnational movements of people, displacement and exile, and the resulting interplay and mingling of cultures propel her newest book of essays, Nobody's Home.

Her interest in displacement ranges from human trafficking to the trend of Western Europeans snapping up vacation homes for a song in what used to be Eastern Europe. The Toto factor keeps her showing us that things are not as they seem.

Dubravka Ugrešić comes by her interest in displacement honestly. After the breakout of war in the early 1990s, Ugrešić moved into voluntary exile from Croatia, spurred by her defiance of the nationalist regimes dividing Yugoslavia. She spent this decade as a visiting lecturer at universities in Europe and the United States, until she finally settled to live and write in Amsterdam. Nobody's Home is her fourth book of essays. She has also published three novels and two books of short stories in English.

After Yugoslavia was patched together in 1918 the country oscillated between a more liberal system and repression. Any swing toward greater democracy was followed by an upsurge in separatist nationalist movements. In 1971, for instance, when Dubravka Ugrešić was a student at Zagreb University, there was a push toward a more liberal socialist regime in Croatia coupled with vociferous Croatian nationalism, immediately repressed by Tito's government. The same happened in Serbia in the 1980s during the liberalization that followed Tito's death, leading this time to the wars of the 1990s.

In her work published before the outbreak of war in 1991, three collections of short stories and a novel, Dubravka Ugrešić's poetic was one of a cosmopolitan post-modernism. The virulence of the nationalist rhetoric was antithetical to everything that mattered to her, nor was she of any use as a voice to the rising regime. The essays that she wrote at the start of the war, sharply critical of the harnessing of literature and culture to the nationalist cause, quickly made her a scapegoat in public life. Her telephone number was even published four times in the press as active encouragement for people to hound her, which they did.

Dubravka Ugrešić has always written in Croatian, and, with the exception of a few titles which came out first in translation during the early 1990s, she publishes her work first in Zagreb before it appears abroad. Even while she was still a public anathema her books sold as soon as they appeared in the Zagreb bookstores, though the titles seldom appeared on the bestseller lists.

The essays in Nobody's Home are wry, and peppered with little stories. In fact the stories and anecdotes she uses to make her point take her essays to the brink of fiction. For instance in a short piece, "Identity", the narrator claims a powerful allergic reaction to the word "identity", probably due to over-exposure. Her community as it embarks on war calls on her to commit to an identity. She refuses to change her self-definition from "Yugoslav" to "Croatian" or "Serbian" or anything else. Ironically, to flee these demands she needs a passport, yet another label. And she cannot get away by simply being a writer; she is quickly labeled by the rest of the world a Croatian writer. In quick succession she juxtaposes four identity-related stories: a hairdresser whose identity it is to cut hair in the nude, Madonna with her mantra Express yourself!, a Japanese bestseller with the sentence: Come let me introduce you to my mother who used to be my father!, and Linda Evangelista whose sentiment: I have no Identity! was referring, it turns out, to a perfume. She concludes that people hold on fiercely to their identity precisely because they know that it can easily be changed, and she calls for a shift to the notion of: integrity. While identities, as she explains, are interchangeable like passports, integrities are not.

Nobody's Home is organized in five parts. The first part consists of shorter essays such as "Identity". The other sections have longer pieces, which interweave a complex palette of narrative voices, some tender and humorous, others cutting and critical.

In "Amsterdam, Amsterdam" Dubravka Ugrešić examines Dutch life with affection interlaced with the occasional mildly critical observation. Cities are like coats, the protagonist explains, then describes Amsterdam as a doll's house, a city of diminutives. When the fog rolls in, says the protagonist, Amsterdam is in the thrall of cats. She describes the perils of being a pedestrian in Amsterdam with the ubiquitous cyclists, and describes the moment when after many years of living in the Netherlands she finally understands the importance of the bicycle to the Dutch. She is on a plane, coming in to land at Schiphol Airport. She looks out the window and is struck by the fragility of the Netherlands. Only the bicycle is light enough not to harm it. She is choked with sadness and has ever since been tiptoeing around on the Amsterdam streets as if walking on eggs. On a more sober note she realizes with a shock, after visiting the Anne Frank Museum, that in the version of the Diary that she read as a child it was never clear that Anne had actually died in the camp where she was incarcerated. The protagonist offers her final metaphor for Holland as a homely Dutch treat, the gevulde koekje, which, with its plain exterior hides a rich marzipan heart.

At the other end of the spectrum are her biting, Toto-driven essays such as, "A Postcard from My Vacation," about a visit to the site of a former prison camp in Croatia. The story/essay describes a writer who visits the camp, Goli Otok, with a group of fellow-writers. As they tour the grounds, it turns out that some of the members of the tour were incarcerated there during the time when the island was either a political prison for pro-Stalinists in the 1950s, or a more ordinary prison in the later years. One of the former prisoners had moved afterwards to Australia and was back for the first time. The protagonist observes that as the former prisoners describe what their life had been like they seem almost joyous. Indeed, one of them bursts into song to show what they had been forced to sing as they did their hard labor, and he throws himself with gusto into the singing. They tell of how the prisoners taunted and informed on one another and expose the complexities of camp life. During their tour the group comes upon the set for a pornographic movie. The government, it seems, has been renting out the former prison as a location for making porn. The group reconvenes at the tourist shop where there are miniature versions of cudgels and other torture instruments to purchase as souvenirs. Despite these distractions, the horror of the camp propels the protagonist into a panic attack. She muses on how everyone is out to extract a profit from the past except the victims, and leaves us with an image of Goli Otok inmates, forced to stand and shield from the baking sun with their shadows the saplings they have planted in the island's barren rocky soil.

Nobody's Home takes the reader on a transnational tour of the world, showing us the mingling of people and places. In a New York nail salon the essayist watches the Vietnamese proprietor instruct his fledgling Mexican beautician how to do nails. She watches Europe flit by through the windows of a train like a slide show of attitudes, prejudices, and nostalgia. When she sets the beeper off as she is leaving a store where she's been shopping in Stockholm, the kindly saleswoman suggests it might be her cellphone or an iPod. When it is neither, she tells the protagonist: "Relax, all the foreigners are beeping."

Dubravka Ugrešić lends us her wry, thoughtful gaze, her way of seeing things we thought we knew.

Ellen Elias-Bursać


Ellen Elias-Bursać has translated works by several writers from the former Yugoslavia, including David Albahari's Götz and Meyer, for which she was awarded the ALTA National Translation Award in 2006. She also received the AATSEEL Award in 1998 for her translation of Albahari's Words Are Something Else.