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One World, Many Narratives November 11, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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Or why the Germans have a word specifically to lament the death of their forests and Americans just mow them down to print more books about dogs. Another Dispatches from the Back from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Words & Music Conference from Odd Words.

[Ed.’s note: This is as much a typical Odd Words literary ramble as an exercise in journalism as my audio recorder was giving my trouble tonight and I was so fascinated by the discussion that my note taking often fell behind. I have now got my tech glitches ironed out and without time for a re-write before this morning’s sessions, I am embedding the full podcast at the end.]

Let’s start with translation, the moderator suggested. In Germany sixty percent of the literature read is in translation from another language. In the United States, that figure is one percent. With that stark contrast Eric Leibetrau, managing editor of the Kirkus Review, kicked off Tailoring Literary Art to the Requirements of the Global Village, which quickly turned into a wide ranging discussion of translation, American exceptionalism and our increasingly cosmopolitan culture, Murakami and manga, why American symphonies are filled with Asian-American musicians playing for aging Anglo audiences, and what Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood can tell us about the difficulty Americans have processing what does not fit our carefully tailored ideas of who we are.

Or we can begin with the first question: why American’s don’t read more foreign literature. "Its about what we are prepared for. Our teachers simply aren’t prepared to teach international literature, suggested John Biguenet, poet, playwright, novelist and twice President of American Literary Translators Association. Andrew Lam, journalist and web editor of New American Media, an association of multicultural literary associations. “At a time when we need to have eyes on what’s happening overseas we are cutting back on foreign correspondents. We have less interest in putting our eyes and ears overseas,” suggesting a willful American ignorance of the outside world.

In answer to Leibetrau’s observation that the Germans have a word for the death of the forests along the Autobahn due to pollution–Waldsterben–and Americans have no such term, suggesting a lack of concern for the environment, Biguenet quoted a philosopher (not in my notes; blame my audio recorder): “Language is an agreement among a group of people to avoid saying something.” I think it was Spinoza but don’t hold me to that.

Leibetrau tried to turn the discussion back to the original topic, asking what a good non-fiction piece do that a novel or a play or a poem can not, but the conversation seemed to veer away from the published topic like a driver fiddling with his cell phone at hurtling down the autobahn at 180 KPH, and the moderator seemed to sense the panel had found its groove and let it go. Biguenet spokes about his columns for the New York Times after the Federal Flood, how unprepared conventional American journalism was for a disaster on a scale not scene in this country in over a century. “The reason writers from New Orleans turned to non-fiction was because we had to get the story out,” to correct the poor information coming out of traditional journalistic channels. The issue wasn’t so much how to write for an international audience as how to write for an insular Anglo-American audience. “As I writer I have to write taking into account the ignorance of Americans.”

Lam turned the conversation back toward the world, pointing out how Japanese author Haruki Murakami first wrote a non-fiction account of the great Kobe earthquake and only later turning back to fiction and the excellent After The Quake, a collection of stories tied to how some slim connection of each protagonist to that event effected their later lives. There is a cultural gulf in how Americans react to disaster versus the Japanese that escapes most Americans, Lam suggested, sharing the anecdote of a boy who lost his family in the Fukuyama tsunami. Found wandering in his gym clothes (he had been in that class when the tsunami struck), he told a police officer how he had most likely lost both his parents. The cop gave him his own rations, and the boy promptly walked to the head of the meal line and put them on the table and got back in line. Asked why, he told the officer that everyone here had suffered the same, and the others were in line before him. Try transplanting this scene to America. You can’t. Biguenet suggested the audience read the book The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan to understand that gulf, to contrast American hero worship with Japan’s history of heroic figures who failed.

Lam brought up the current flooding in Thailand, suggesting that rather than consider how to expand America’s consciousness of the world that Biguenet write a letter to the people of Bangkok, to counsel them on how to handle the complete inundation of their city. The panelists did not however give up on the possibilities of an America more open to the rest of the world and its literature. One pointed out that Los Angeles had the largest number of Buddhist temples in the world, representing all sects; another that it will soon be essential for Americans to speak a second language as the latest wave of immigrants make the largest coastal cities among the most cosmopolitan in the world.

The hyper-nationalist, 9-11 flag pin American heartland is increasingly hemmed in by a cultural pluralism, by a new generation of immigrants not driven to respell their names and abandon their own customs but determined to make America both their home and their own, to adopt to their American homeland as Lam did when his family fled the fall of Saigon in 1975 while maintaining their own cultural identify. Biguenet (I believe, its not clear in my notes) told the story of a niece living in Houston and married to a Dane, how there was even a Danish school there. “It’s the most cosmopolitan city she’s every lived in. Pretty soon it will get to Dallas.”

In the end none of the panelists had a past answer on how to write for a global village audience, but they suggested that the days when only one percent of the books read in America are translations may be coming to an end. Much of Tea Party shopping mall America may be ready to turn its back on the world, but the world is coming to America’s shores and therein the answer may lie. I thought of my own experience in Fargo, N.D. as culturally homogenous a place as any mid-20th Century Scandinavian country and yet a also a city where Lutheran Social Services brought refugee immigrants from all over the world. I thought of the map in my childrens’ elementary school marked with the native lands of all the students.

The lesson of this panel wasn’t a neat formula for writers who want to communicate with a world-wide audience or a program to disseminate translated world literature. The message in the end is that if America will not embrace the world, the world continues to embrace America and come to its shores, yearning to to be free. The answer won’t be found in the pages of The Kirkus Review or a conference paper at AWP. The answer is in that growing segment of America where the release of Murakami’s 1Q84 was as anxiously awaited as an installment of Harry Potter, in a country where–in Biguenet’s words–Houston is the most cosmopolitan city his niece has ever lived in.

Here is the podcast, with the introduction by Rosemary James of the Faulkner Society and Faulkner House Books:
Tailoring Literary Art to the Requirements of the Global Village

Bonus podcast of the first half of the session The Impact of the Internet on Artists:

The Impact of the Internet, Good and Bad, on Artists


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