THREEDOM! (#12) M L Clark's Monthly Miscellanies
Welcome back from your start-of-August holiday, if you had one.
This month is all translation and OnlySky work for me, and I only have three short stories in fiction queues, while I await my agent’s feedback on the next novel manuscript. But I’m also making a concerted effort to bring “community” into my life again—no easy task after years of COVID culture, and when I already feel like I’ve got a million different projects to advance if I’m ever going to fix my greatest problems.
Not listed here, for instance, is the fact that this month I’m having friends over for a proper pasta party, in which I’m looking forward to trying out a few simple takes on some tasty recipes. Nothing too fancy! The idea of pasta is luxurious enough for my native-paisa friends. But I should have at least one recipe for you next month.
I’m also visiting a small town with a friend who runs a humble street stand—my treat, obviously, for someone who doesn’t get to take vacation days as a matter of course, but also a “treat” in the full sense of the word, because I’m very much looking forward to his generational insight on the region, as I’ll talk about in C3.
And on CounterSocial, which I still vastly prefer to Twitter for its lovely sense of community and absence of hashtag-driven “discourse”, I’ve started a book club focussed on reading and discussing texts with immediate sociopolitical relevance. Our first is How Civil Wars Start, and How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter, a civil conflict specialist. It contrasts the current situation in the U.S. with similar in other parts of the world—and although I’ve heard that the last chapter might be too slap-dash in its attempt at positive spin at the end of bleak intel, I’m hoping for some meaty comparisons to build a shared vocabulary around civic unrest with fellow readers when we have an on-site video chat about the book.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe how many trials the world's compounded this year. There is an active war in Europe, with blatant crimes against humanity that sanctions cannot halt, and Russia is stepping up its counter-sanctions by cutting off energy supplies to Europe. India and the U.S. also share the dubious honour of having escalated nationalist extremism: Hindutva oppression of religious minorities and women in the former; emboldened Christo-Fascism in the latter. (With Japan maybe in line to follow suit, with Shinzo Abe’s death galvanizing a military-nationalist party that wants to make Shinto great again.)
In Sri Lanka and the U.K. alike, boorish and incompetent leadership has required Herculean efforts to oust from office—but not always with better leadership to take its place. We're also failing to meet our climate change mitigation targets due to hijacked government activities (as ever), and our sociopolitical discourse continues to be overrun by hatemongers and spoiled billionaires.
Are there any bright spots? Chile's proposal for a new constitution, a collaborative effort by a third-party assembly made up of a more representative body of the country's citizens and including a huge leap forward in environmental rights advocacy, is certainly one shining beacon in the shadows. And I'm hoping that Colombia's first left-leaning president in modern history will help establish a more balanced view of the political spectrum.
But mostly, we're living through a moment that acutely illustrates both the impoverished nature of our existing systems and how fiercely some are willing to fight to maintain their vision of them. Nationalists aren't actually calling for a return to some traditionalist heyday; they want something even more rigidly divided than even the “heyday” ever was. And plenty of nice folks who aren't nationalists, per se, will go along with them, because deep down they feel the world is a bit too “fallen” or “degenerate”, and could use a bit more “structure”—even if the path to that end is fraught with great pain for some people who have “lost their way”.
I have, perhaps, a bit more empathy for people with such views than many, because as an atheist I'm very familiar with the frustrated feeling of “if only everyone were like me, and just quit believing in gods!” It feels so good sometimes to see the world in a reductive way, to imagine that “if only!” our views and experiences and hearts were always in alignment, everything would be so much better. So when I see people express frustration about other forms of human variation, and secretly think the world would be better if there were just... less all around, I see people who’ve simply acclimated to living longer in that moment’s frustration than I do.
And I don’t live in that frustration for long, even when the world manifests so much added harm over so absurdly little. Why not? Because to do so is to wish for my fellow human beings to be less than human. I disagree vehemently with many of their politics. I think many Very Nice People believe in and vote for things that do active harm. And I am furious about the harm itself. But our diversity of experience, and the cacophonous dissent of our views, is an integral part of our humanity. We cannot reach a better world by trying to wish away the basic fact of our difference.
Managing so much hurt all the time is a tall order, though, which is why it’s also important to find grounding in immediate community, too—and also, to try to let go of the idea that the (already burning) world will end if I, personally, don’t get everything done that I wanted to achieve.
The fact is, I’m in one heck of a long term quagmire. My life is pretty much doomed in major ways—but hey! Who ever makes it out alive, right? So there really is no point to burning myself out by running too wildly in place.
One step at a time. One project at a time. One brand-boost at a time.
And then maybe, just maybe, a time will come when I can make a difference after all.
Until then, thank you as ever for supporting the work, whether by reading it, by donating to my Ko-Fi page, or by contributing to my Patreon account. I need relatively little to get by—but every bit counts tremendously, both to help me achieve my long term goals and to spread care in my community when I can.
Wherever your own hearts find you, may you be kind to yourselves, hydrate frequently, take a beat to enjoy the little things, and—as always—seek justice where you can.
Oh, and happy Feria de las Flores! (August is Flower Festival month in Medellín!)
All best wishes from afar,
Table of Contents
Three miscellaneous items
A quotation (M1)
A photo (M2)
A writing note (M3)
Three international films
Udaharnarth Nemade (F1)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (F2)
Three articles of note
“David Foster Wallace’s Final Attempt to Make Art Moral” by Jon Baskin (A1)
“Toward a Queer Theory of the State” by Samuel Clowes Huneke (A2)
“How to Read English in India” by Akshya Saxena (A3)
Three translation challenges
Diving back into Carrasquilla (T1)
Colonial racism on fuller display (T2)
The structure of local mythologies (T3)
Three Colombian reflections
Sonder, and creative nonfiction (C1)
Clan del Golfo and the Peace (C2)
Gearing up for small-town explorations (C3)
M1. A quotation
“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek”
T1. Diving back into Carrasquilla
This month my main priority is getting through the bulk of my translation of Tomás Carrasquilla’s most famous novel, La marquesa de Yolombó. Yolombó is a small town around two hours from where I live, and even closer to the town of Santo Domingo, where Carrasquilla spent most of his life. As I’ll talk about more in C3, I have trips planned to both towns (though one is easier than the other), but it would please me greatly to have this translation project more than halfway finished before the first.
My first two weeks were inconsistent due to other tasks springing up—paid article work, students switching around their schedules, last-minute OnlySky tasks that really threw off my sleep schedule (simply put: audio is something I can’t do at any hour but 2 a.m., if it’s not thunder-storming and there’s no party outside).
But those weren’t the only reasons. I find that my first phase in any deep research project involves… a lot of giddiness, as I re-immerse myself in the chewy, nuanced world of the work itself. I bounce around a bit, I chew over singular translations to excess, and I spend a lot of time researching while thinking through bigger issues.
As such, those “warm up weeks” didn’t see me making as much page-count progress as I wanted, but they did help me establish the operating principles, the “rules” for this translation project, that I’ll be using to navigate the problems I’m going to face for the chapters to come. In particular, the backend work for this novel involves returning to a time in Colombia’s past when Spanish colonialism reigned, and while I’ll talk more about the racism that yields in T2, there are two other major concerns I needed to think about carefully from the outset.
The first has to do with geography, because the book involves a seamless blending of regionalist elitism in Spain with histories of major families here in Colombia. This is a huge component of the genre known as “costumbrismo”, a kind of period drama that best correlates to British Victorianism… if the latter genre centered more on, say, British family life in the colonies and at war. But how on Earth to translate the character of a Sevillian versus an Aragonese person effectively for an English reader?
Similarly, Carrasquilla lived as a paisa, a rural denizen surrounded by a wealth of small-town personalities, but with a depth of literary and historical know-how that marks out his writing both on the level of individual expressions and canonical references. His book is steeped in sly allusions to whole periods of literary and Spanish history that won’t be well known to most English readers. But when will this really matter in translation? When won’t it? That’s the tricky question for any translator.
For instance, Carrasquilla is ambivalent about the idea of royalty always being righteous representatives of the Christian god, as was maintained by Europeans for centuries. (Although, elsewhere, Carrasquilla also sustains the very common Catholic belief of the era that conquest in the name of Christ was absolutely a primary mission of the Church. Ergo the reason we now have the Pope apologizing to Canadian First Nations, Inuit, and Métis for the brutality of the Catholic residential school system, among other egregious colonizer abuses.)
But how does Carrasquilla convey this ambivalence? In the prologue, he does so in part by describing a king of Spain with the phrase “sacra y real”, which comes from the first line of a pointed critique of King Felipe IV: a poem attributed to the famous-in-Spanish-literature Quevedo. And maybe, if you’d been raised on Spanish literary canon and history, you would grasp those references!
However, the English equivalent might be saying “Celia shits!” and having your listener immediately recognize the Jonathan Swift poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, that scathingly mocked the illusion of feminine perfection men expected and women desperately sought to perform.
And if you’re about to tell me, “But ML, that’s way too esoteric an English literary reference!”—yes, that’s exactly my point. I’m not so sure the average paisa in Carrasquilla’s time was reading Quevedo, either.
What’s the solution to these eclectic references? Oh, it’s all case by case. In the prologue, for instance, there are other cues to help the reader grasp that Carrasquilla is not on the king’s side, so there’s no need to go mucking up the whole of the main text with explanation of that one little phrase. Instead, I can save such choice translation tidbits for the new introductory essay I’ll be writing for this piece.
As for the geography and history? Well, I think those are going to require not just a few paragraphs in the new opening essay, but also two solid regional maps (one of Spain, and one around Yolombó) and an historical timeline. Knowing that I’ll be providing those resources in the final collection helps immensely in the present (i.e., it makes certain translation choices easier), but it also means that I have to take careful note of every reference to a person by regional lineage: not only so that I can properly define them in surrounding materials, but also so that I can ensure consistency across the text. (No easy feat when we come to the many “blends” of regional inheritance!)
All of which is to say that, although there’s plenty of work ahead for these coming weeks, the giddy thrill of my last two has left me with a strong sense of my framework, along with my vision for what I want this translation to achieve. I’ve never had formal training as a translator, and I’ve had a devil of a time breaking into the formal translation communities. But I am a literary researcher—and those skills, so painstakingly honed during my doomed PhD, get to thrive anew in this work. I know what I’m doing. And if I keep at it? Publishing the fullness of Carrasquilla’s complexly motivated work in English for the first time, before moving on to other local authors of repute? Well then maybe, just maybe, one day someone with industry clout will finally believe in the work I’m doing, too.
F1. Udaharnarth Nemade
This first movie is a bit of a cheat, because I didn’t watch in July, but something about this piece won’t let go. It’s a 2016 docu-fiction about Bhalchandra Nemade, an Indian Marathi-language writer whose work I haven’t even read, and which belongs to a literary canon I definitely don’t know much about. A whole other universe of formal, figurative, and historical references! (And here I was, just coming to grips with how little I knew about Spanish literature in the colonies…)
And yet, even though we exist in fairly different literary worlds, there are always resonance points in the work of fellow human beings. Nemade’s first novel, for instance, was an autobiographical exploration of a young man’s early years—existentialist, estranging, thematically open-ended, and structurally at odds with the traditional Bildungsroman in which a youth grows into a fully fledged, independent, and wiser adult. (In his story, conversely, the young man goes out into the world, tries his luck, fails, and returns home.) In those kinds of (post)modern subversions, Nemade finds plenty of kin among world literature of the 1960s.
Nemade is also (in)famous for advancing a theory of “Deshivad”, a school of nativist thought that is anti-globalist but not anti-humanist. Nemade has come out strongly against nativism that cultivates hatred, but also strongly argues that English should be banned from India’s education system, and priority given to children being raised up to write in and love their own local languages instead. (Amusingly, though, he’s also taught English and comparative literature in various universities; but he’s done this while openly critiquing VS Naipaul’s writing as Western pandering, and Salman Rushdie’s as rubbish after Midnight’s Children. The cranky old man in me is greatly amused by the cranky old man in Nemade.)
All of these details are secondary to the documentary itself, though, in which we see Nemade as a deeply thinking, creatively active, physically unassuming writer in his little slice of the globe—and very much content to be so. Although surrounded by many people who believe in spiritual concepts he does not, who go about their rural-poor existences with much more focus on everyday survival, and who find joy in the quotidian business of neighbourhood, familial, and calendric rituals, Nemade lives out a firm sense of belonging to his home, the root of all his most famous fictions.
He’s not unlike Carrasquilla in this regard, then (though Nemade is supported by a most wonderful wife, and Carrasquilla was religious): two men whose deeper learning did not hold them far from the madding crowd, so to speak—but rather, gave them the tools with which to better observe, love, live in, and write the world around them.
Do I see a bit of my own longing in their achievements? Perhaps that’s the binding thread. Perhaps that’s what made Nemade’s call to cleave to the details linger in my mind long after watching this documentary about his life. I’ve written in so many ways, trying to find purchase in so many possible outlets—but also, I myself was a seed in the wind, aching for a place to call home. Much of my fiction reflects a reluctance to immerse itself too deeply in the details of any given time and place.
And even now, my grip on a place I can call home is so tenuous. I could be blown from it at any moment, and find myself back in a land where I never could flourish. Where the culture routinely stressed and wilted and brought out the worst in me.
I am not a nativist. I am not someone who has naturally “belonged” anywhere.
And whenever and wherever I pour out love? It does not ever easily grow.
So yes, maybe I do see a bit of my own longing in these two fellows’ journeys.
But my own road will never be as easy. I will spend, I suspect, my whole life yet trying to figure out where it’s going to go.
C1. Sonder, and creative nonfiction
Inspired in part by Nemade (F1), I decided to lean more into creative nonfiction this past month. For OnlySky, I wrote a piece on the concept of “sonder”—but with a Colombian twist. In “Wherever we might ‘sonder’, there are microcosms we will never know”, I absolutely take Nemade’s counsel to a young aspiring writer to heart, and focus on the little details. I was quite delighted to see how well they built upon one another to create something at once real and also, necessarily, a gloss on real life. There is a patience in this kind of writing that I don’t think I’ve trusted as much before as I do now—anxious as I’ve been (as I’ve written about here before) about my right to write about lives intersecting with mine at all.
Indeed, I’ve wanted to publish more work about Colombia for some time, but I’ve always thought that fiction would be “safer”—and yet, my mainstream fiction stories about life here just haven’t found a home. I have one, “A Walk in the Park”, out at The Atlantic right now, after a 90-day no-response from The New Yorker, and I have to give The Atlantic another month or so before I mark them as a no-response as well. (So let’s not entertain any illusions of publishing being a speedy game by any measure!)
But is there another way to boost myself as a writer on these themes?
Well, yes, of course! By pitching essays to online magazines!
Except… even those magazines want to see published samples of your work in advance, and I have the extra “challenge” of being a White Person Writing About A Non-Western Culture. (Oh woe is me, etc.) I’m only being a bit glib, mind you: The problem is that some editors absolutely love the “exotic” angle, and I have zero interest in working with publications that prefer that vibe, whereas others are rightfully wary about accepting work even by a white person who’s lived in this other culture for years. I need an editor to trust me to do this non-native culture justice—and that kind of rapport isn’t easy to build when I’m not living in the same cities as the main literary set, able to chat with them and network at book talks, readings, local workshops, and similar events.
(Have I mentioned that publishing is geopolitical? Publishing is very geopolitical.)
Now, I know that as I build my translator brand for Colombian fiction, my authority claim will also improve for these article pitches, too—but why wait if I don’t have? So, for OnlySky in the coming months, I’m going to be doing more “slice of life” pieces that both help me flex my creative nonfiction muscle and build up a portfolio of sample essays that I can link when pitching future article ideas to other magazines.
It’s the long game, baby. As ever!
A1. “David Foster Wallace’s Final Attempt to Make Art Moral” by Jon Baskin
There are many articles I could have highlighted this month, especially as the world is burning in ever so many ways. So why on Earth have I chosen to focus on yet another retrospective of David Foster Wallace, of all people?
(For those not in the know, DFW is somewhat of a joke in literary circles because a subset of white male readers all but canonized him for years, as the person one had to read and love, and against whom no criticism, not even of his explicit physical abuse of Mary Karr or sexually exploitative conduct of students and fans, could ever be tolerated. DFW memes include seeing a copy of Infinite Jest in a potential date’s apartment as on par with finding Ayn Rand lying around their home: “Run, girl!”, etc.)
Wallace killed himself in the middle of a novel on the I.R.S.—which came as no surprise to those of us who had read other work in which he negotiated his suicidal ideation, depression, and addiction with a nuance and precision I certainly envied. I quite enjoyed Wallace’s work in general (though more his essays and short stories than Infinite Jest), and I don’t belong to the subset of “liberal” that somehow manages to be “for” prison abolition and also wants people who commit sexual and domestic abuse to be dropped into solitary for life. We are not good people, and I advocate for restorative and rehabilitative justices that recognize our continued, shared humanity no matter what brutal transgressions we enact.
All that said, this article struck a chord with me because of its focus on Wallace’s struggle as a writer nearest to his end, and the sense of failure he’d lived with all throughout his life. Those themes are especially near and dear to me, and I found myself deeply affirmed by the reminder that I am far from the only one who feels sometimes, as one of Wallace’s characters does, “like a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I’ll blow this way, now I think I’ll blow that way’.”
In “David Foster Wallace’s Final Attempt to Make Art Moral”, Jon Baskin explores Wallace’s attempt to make a frank, decisive authorial style “useful” to the world, and worthy of a reader’s committed attention. Are you ready to get lofty? Here’s how Baskin describes the man behind this struggle:
Wallace was an uncommonly philosophical novelist in part because he believed that cultural life was oriented by a set of dominant ideas and pictures, which were both older and more entrenched than any specific trend or technology. The wasteland in which the wastoids live is, then, not merely attributable to the influence of popular media in seventies America; it emerges from the rocky soil of secular, modern ideals. The invocation of “nihilism”—a word that Fogle uses to describe himself five different times—connects his condition to the skepticism so often targeted by modern philosophers, from Kant to Simone de Beauvoir, in their attempt to secure a rational basis for morality after the death of God.
Fancy, right? But absolutely integral to this struggle to be “useful”—as an artist, or in anything else we might do. Using a selection from The Pale King, the unfinished I.R.S. novel that’s been patched together in different forms for posthumous publication, Baskin explores how public service both offers a place where a man might “subsume his self-interest in some larger purpose” (i.e., the traditional role of religion), and also suffers from the same disillusionment that has afflicted every religion come before.
The same is true for the world of writing. Here—right here! right now!—I am making a stab at sincere, committed action, striving to reach across the void and be understood. To “connect”. But to what end? Upon what solid firmament of purpose?
The material cynic will say “Easy, ML: to grow your literary brand, for the purpose of developing a surer path to future socioeconomic stability”.
And… the material cynic will quite possibly have a stronger evidentiary foundation for their claim than anything we moralizing thinkers and writers might hope to dream up.
Which is where the existential despair creeps deliciously in—for folks of a higher quality prose, like Wallace, who wanted their work to be about something more; and also, in its own way, for we lesser writers, too.
F2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
I’d been meaning to watch Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) for years now, because the Turkish film was first presented to me as a kind of “anti-noir”, a subversion of the usual detecting and police procedural tropes that line so much crime-based cinema.
Its premise alone seemed more than up to this task, too, because the film starts after the culprits of a murder have been caught, after a confession has been elicited, and after a deal with the prosecutor has been drawn up. What remains to be done? Oh, a simple task, really: this motley crew of police, detectives, prosecutor, culprits, and medical examiner just need to drive out in the middle of the night to find the actual body, which was buried somewhere in the Anatolian steppes. No biggie, right?
Anyone familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant Memories of Murder (2003) will probably resonate with this film’s depiction of rural investigations, which has these beat-up cars filled with weary men wending their careful way through desolate backroads countryside and at one point waking up the mayor of a small town to be given food, tea, and rest in his home. But whereas Memories remains a police procedural at its heart (to truly undersell an exceptional film), Once Upon a Time… is about a very different kind of mystery: the kind that people who live fairly closed off existences rarely have an opportunity to explore with one another.
What’s truly happening in this film is that, sporadically, and yet in ways that build off one another, these men fill the gaps in their frustrating hunt for a body with conversations that inadvertently bring to light unsolved questions in their own lives. But this is all done so delicately that, right until the final third of the film, many of the stories they tell each other don’t seem to be about themselves at all. In one case, it’s about a beautiful woman the prosecutor once knew. In another case, it’s about a wife’s struggle with a special needs son. In another case still, it’s about a man who thinks he’s simply observing, and not actually a part of, the local legal system of lies.
All the while, too, the viewer becomes increasingly aware of something that seems to slip all the officials’ notice: the real reason that one of the culprits in their care is having so much difficulty figuring out where the body was buried.
In the self-absorption of these men, and their gradually unfolding preoccupation with inner mysteries above and beyond all else, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is also close kin to aspects of Memories of Murder. But there is also a tremendous gentleness, and an altogether soothing cadence, to the conversations these men have—about cheese, about the mysteries of women, about rural politics, about the purpose and meaning of hardship in their lives—that deeply moved me. These men are intimate with each other, sharing in friendships shaped around the work that nevertheless yield important allowances and understandings of each other over time.
Even then, though, one sometimes needs exactly the right set of circumstances to bring deeper questions to the fore—but to what end? Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a few men’s self-knowledge grew… for a few hours, at least.
But whether it would change anything thereafter, or recede again into the backdrop of small-town, quotidian lives, is anyone’s guess.
Then again, how many quiet revelations ever truly transform our own?
T2. Colonial racism on fuller display
Another huge challenge for my translation of Tomás Carrasquilla’s La marquesa de Yolombó is, unsurprisingly, the racism.
Unlike Carrasquilla’s short stories, all contemporaneous to the turn of the twentieth century and boasting a different, more complex range of racialization more pertinent to the Colombia of today, this novel is set smack-dab in colonial times and very much sides with the colonizing Spanish families. (Indeed, it kind of has to, since the book is a fictionalized history of a hardworking young woman from one of those families, who played a central role in raising up her community.)
As such, almost from the beginning, we do get some pretty awful depictions of Black slaves as lazy and careless (gosh, I wonder why an enslaved person would be less than thrilled at the idea of being productive for someone else’s benefit!), along with a few more humanizing portraits of others… in the context of their talents and service. Granted, our protagonist is also valued for her service—so in that, there’s at least some equity in authorial treatment—but I have no interest in sugar-coating any blunt stereotypes, whether against Black or Jewish or Indigenous people, in the book.
Here, however, is where my extensive reading of English literature will absolutely serve me well—because I am definitely no stranger to reading texts laden with colonial prejudice. Anthony Trollope is perhaps the best comparison here: a witty and erudite writer of mid-nineteenth century novels that depicted the slings and arrows of small-town clerical and gentrified politics—and who also never gave up a chance to poke fun at the seeming ridiculousness of women in roles of authority, as per his vein of Christianity. His books are brimming with insights into human character, despite this clear inability to imagine life beyond his prejudice, and so too does Carrasquilla capture a great deal of interpersonal nuance without thoroughly questioning how colonial families viewed their slaves.
The real question though, is how to navigate this treatment in surrounding text—because I’ve already made it my mandate never, ever, ever to put a footnote into the body of the translation itself. I do believe a full section in the new introductory essay will be necessary—but also, what am I to do for the person who might skip the introduction and dive into the main text? I think some very careful coding in the back copy for this volume will also be required, because I don’t want someone to pick up this text and expect that, since it’s by a Spanish author instead of an English one, they won’t have to worry about finding all the usual prejudices ascribed to Anglo-Western culture in it. Spanish colonialism was brutal, as any trip to Cartagena (a major port in the slave trade) makes abundantly clear, and not every reader will want to dive into a text written with their dehumanization front and center on many pages.
Really good back copy, I hope, will help everyone to make informed decisions, whether or not they read my opening essay first.
(So much fun work ahead, to make this translation shine!)
A2. “Toward a Queer Theory of the State” by Samuel Clowes Huneke
Oh, I love a good curmudgeonly read, which is why Samuel Clowes Huneke’s “Toward a Queer Theory of the State”, at The Point, leapt out for me this month.
Possibly, my interest in this piece also had something to do with having written a book review this month that raps my SFF community on the knuckles a bit—because there’s a certain way of “being queer” that’s very much acceptable in the culture, and a way of “being queer” that is not. Essentially, “queer” is often SFF-coded for a kind of urban-liberal politics that… isn’t actually shared by all queer people. Many queer people are familiar with and participate in military and gun cultures, for instance—and not because they’re all right-wingers, either. There’s a very strong argument for trans and non-gender-conforming people in particular being pro-concealed carry, because how else are they supposed to defend themselves if they can’t trust police or bystanders to intervene in escalating public attacks?
What Huneke argues is twofold: First, that queer discourse has historically been disinterested in conceiving of a better state (in the political sense of the term) precisely because the state represents normativity, the status quo, and everything queerness is not. Instead, queer discourse has used notions of the state to stand in for generalized power dynamics, and fought those instead of actively engaging with what a better governance structure might look like, if it could be stripped of its power to set oppressive norms in the first place.
Second, because of this failure to engage more directly with transforming our social contract on a state level, queer people have suffered just as much as everyone else (if not more) from the last forty years of neoliberal gutting of public institutions and whatever hope of social protections might once have been found therein. As much as queer discourse has been disinterested in transforming the state (settling, instead, for fighting for equal rights within its existing paradigm), the state has remained a critical site of “large-scale collective action”—and so, the state’s loss of power directly diminishes the value of any short-term gains activists might make within its laws.
Huneke doesn’t offer any definitive answers to this serious problem, but he walks through histories of queer activist struggle and theory to suggest that one of the greatest contributions queer activists might make to reimagining our way to a better political state lies with questioning the very stability and homogeneity of “the state” as a concept in the first place. What if we instead saw it first and foremost as a shifting, dynamic, and above all else pragmatic assembly of “competing interest groups and actors”? Would that help at all to mitigate its overwhelming conceptual hold?
This approach still has its issues, of course. Huneke draws from historian Brent Cebul to observe that “we need to rebuild the state from the ravages of neoliberalism, even if it is not entirely clear why or how we need it.” Huneke goes on to say that Cebul “holds out hope that we are living through ‘the beginnings of a truly emancipatory set of intimate rights in which the state plays a positive rather than a discharging role.” But the struggle to build a “coherent framework for thinking about the role of the state” persists—especially as we’ve recently seen how dreadfully easy it is for current state apparatuses to strip citizens’ rights at the behest of minority interest groups.
The U.S. is in a particularly horrific position right now, utterly unsafe in many quarters for women and queer people alike. (For a truly discouraging run-down of how many U.S. Christo-Fascists feel comfortable openly talking about killing queer people again, or otherwise pathologizing and criminalizing their existence, It Could Happen Here’s “The New Wave of Queer Exterminationist Rhetoric” is a worthwhile listen. And the U.S. right wing’s insistence that rapists should get to choose the mother of their children continues with West Virginian representative Chris Pritt advocating against paternal child support on the grounds that it makes men more likely to pressure women into abortions. It’s not about whether these horrible statements become law; it’s about their increasing normalization in political discourse.)
But although queer discourse has often been “too safe”—and I would even go so far as to say has often cozied up to neoliberalism, finding all kinds of hidey-holes especially for class-comfortable queer persons within contemporary academia, publishing, and related industries—it’s not too late to leverage its greatest power, a refusal of stark binaries and absolute categories of human experience, to reframe how we think about “the state”, and what we expect from this nebulous concept of collective authority.
Or! We could all make for the trees and see how that suits us.
I mean, at this point, 50/50 one strategy works out better than the other, right?
C2. Clan del Golfo and the Peace
Lately, I’ve been listening to a local daily news analysis podcast, El Primer Café, a production of El Tiempo, a national newspaper. (And yes, yes, I’m beyond chuffed at my ability to listen to news analysis in another language, the same as I might the CBC or NPR. One day I hope to be able to do the same in Levantine Arabic!) With the new president, Gustavo Petro, set to take office on August 7, there has been a lot of discussion about cabinet placements, and what he can expect from the upper and lower chambers of the representative assembly in the way of political support.
But there’s also been a wealth of discussion about how Petro is going to handle a situation that I've been telling folks for months would probably rise to the fore here, on the back of the Duque government cracking down on a notorious narcotrafficking gang known as Clan del Golfo. Colombia made international news when it captured the then-head of this organization, but as I pointed out at the time, there was a strong chance of severe retaliation—especially since Colombia’s plan was for U.S. extradition.
Sure enough, this group, which has many serious operations right in the department where I live (but in remote, tiny towns far north of Medellín), has stepped up its retaliatory activities in all hotspots. It took a few towns hostage for a while, and had the audacity to call this a “strike”, and members have been killing police and military.
So. Not an ideal situation—but also not surprising, because Duque’s government was extremely reluctant to support key rural development and protection components of the 2016 peace deal, which meant that quite a few power vacuums left by FARC were quickly filled up in many of these rural sectors by local and international gangs.
(There’s a reason the country swung to the left of the political spectrum for the first time in recent history, with their election of Petro: folks are very much fed up with a lack of fuller investment in poor and struggling communities. The hard-nosed, strongman approach to combatting violence and criminality emerging from socioeconomic precarity will only ever take a country so far!)
Here’s where things get interesting, though: Clan del Golfo is not like the ELN, a political dissident paramilitary group that Petro also needs to be in negotiations with once he enters office. And it is not like FARC, another guerrilla group with a clear political agenda. Clan del Golfo is best compared to, ugh, Pablo Escobar’s operations. Yes. There I go using the name I hate using—but it was expressly mentioned in El Primer Café, as the clearest comparison to the criminal operation currently terrorizing remote regions, and any government forces trying to reassert state control therein.
And this difference puts Colombia in a very interesting position, because the peace deal with FARC involved the creation of an extraordinary independent judiciary to deal with war crimes, the JEP. It’s more than a truth and reconciliation process; it’s a specialized court that over the last few years has been gathering witness and victim testimony to create a full accounting of the crimes committed by police, military, and FARC alike against civilians of this country—and then to present consequences.
These consequences have been extraordinary leaps forward in the realm of restorative and rehabilitative justice, because to date they’ve treated a formal criminal trial and jail time as less beneficial to healing than the perpetrator’s willingness to take full responsibility for his crimes, make a full public accounting of what he did, disclose whatever further details he has that can give the victims’ families greater closure, and submit to limitations on his liberty joined with mandatory work on peace and reconciliation projects (e.g. landmine removal projects, veterans’ aid, rural development) to contribute constructively to society instead.
Words cannot fully describe how ambitious and forward-thinking this sort of attempt at a better justice has been. It’s not simply the consequences themselves that are revolutionary; it’s also the sheer act of turning Colombia into a culture where such decisions are normalized in the backdrop of citizen lives. Where average citizens, however deep and complex the well of retributive anger and generational hurt may run, are increasingly acclimatized to the idea that this too can be how society manages and responds to egregious transgression.
We know full well that when you live in a country with the death penalty, more people are likely to be pro death penalty. And when you live in a country without the death penalty? Suddenly it becomes a lot more obvious to a lot more people that the death penalty is a bad idea. So if we really want to transform our relationship to justice? To build societies with individual moral codes that “obviously” align with the principles of restorative and rehabilitative justice? Then we actually need to start embedding those restorative and rehabilitative processes in the law and its applied processes.
If you build it, etc.!
But… Clan del Golfo’s rise marks a huge challenge for this shifting relationship to justice—and that’s not going to be easy for the country, or its incoming president. What FARC did, and what the ELN still does, were for political reasons but no less cruel and violent than what Clan del Golfo is doing now. The question then becomes, how does one differentiate—from a legal enforcement perspective—between how one seeks justice with an overtly criminal organization doing harm for sheer profit motives, and an overtly political organization using criminal activity to do harm?
And if you expect me to answer that question in this newsletter? Ha! You wish. But I’m going to be following this aspect of Colombia’s Great Experiment very closely—and not just because Clan del Golfo’s activities are of such rising importance a few (remote-township) hours from my dear and precious home.
M2. A photo
I love most of my neighbours, but especially some of my four-legged ones. Whenever I share photos of cows or horses wandering through the highway or into the park where I run, there’s always someone commenting that the farmer must have forgotten to close the paddock gate. And sure, that’s possible. But also, I live in such a relaxed northern district of the broader, sprawling valley-metropolis of Medellín that I hardly think the farmers are greatly worried when their animals go for a wander.
It reminds me a little of James Herriot’s children’s book, Blossom Comes Home, where a farmer sells off a cow who’s no longer producing milk—only to find that Blossom has other ideas about where she belongs, and returns to her rightful (and forever) home.
These animals all know where home is, and they’ll return in due course. But for a little while, on the occasional treasure of a morning or an evening, I’ll find them wandering out to be where the people are—and what’s wrong with that?
This is their world, too, is it not?
A3. “How to Read English in India” by Akshya Saxena
I love when an article written by someone from a completely different subject position deeply resonates with my own. Often on social media, people will have A Thought or An Observation, and then immediately lock it off as the experience only of others in their demographic. “Passive-aggressive mothers” becomes an [X] ethnicity thing. “Getting distracted under stress” becomes a [Y] neurodiverse thing. “Writing protagonists with minimal agency” becomes a [Z] cultural thing.
I’ve written before about the sheer incuriosity and neoliberalist B.S. of this form of activism, which is all about vying for personal authority and, with it, a rise through the perceived social hierarchy to reap industry benefit. You need to be decisive, and singularly exceptional, to get a boost through our current systems—so to hell with the harder, messier, and more meaningful work of coalition-building, of creating collaborative groundswell to change the system itself. Get in. Get yours. Get out.
(NB: I don’t think people always do this in a calculated way, but they do see the power of the rhetoric, and how it leads to retweets and massive signal-boosts that can sometimes transform careers. We are very good emulators of whatever we see working for others—and sweeping declarations of in-group exceptionalism do just that.)
Akshya Saxena’s “How to Read English in India” is by no means incurious, of course. Quite the opposite: It’s a rich, thoughtful exploration of how the semiotics of “learning English” have played out in India, interwoven with a range of complex local politics and histories. I especially recommend the sections on Dalit speakers, and on an English-language teacher, Madri Kakoti, who takes an approach similar to my own, in foregrounding why the language is so coveted, and how to (re)gain personal, professional, and political power in this culturally loaded tongue.
And yet, her approach is similar to mine because a lot of the mythology around “learning English” is exactly the same here in Colombia, where English is also seen as “A Good Thing to Have”—even if the reasons for having it aren’t quite clear.
But the resonance also goes deeper. This bit in particular gave me a good chuckle:
As a nation, we are obsessed with correcting each other’s grammar. Just look to Twitter. We shame celebrities for speaking “wrong” English, whatever we think that is. The memes and jokes about Indian English write themselves, filling up a billion-people-sized cloud storage on the internet and spilling out of WhatsApp groups. But this preoccupation with linguistic propriety is not about English at all. It stems, in fact, from a desire to claim English — either as a marker of class and caste authority or as its rejection. It stems from the lush possibilities associated with English — what it could be made to mean, what it could be made to do, what one could do in it.
I recently explained to a writer-friend in Africa that this grammar-policing was a common phenomenon in North America. He was frustrated because his misuse of a superlative case had caused a bit of a stir, and I’ve rapped knuckles a few times about the need for greater linguistic precision whenever he’s posting to be read by the Western publishing world. He sees this as frivolous gatekeeping when there are far more urgent issues for us to address—and he’s not wrong there—so I had to explain the extent to which “good grammar” is ingrained in our cultural DNA, by sharing some of the everyday language games that I grew up with as a matter of course, by virtue of living in a culture that loves to police grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.
(For example, the “can I have” vs. “could you please pass me” vs. “would you please pass me” stalling tactic to teach children how to ask for things “correctly”.)
And yet, like Saxena, I also came to realize that all of these language games weren’t really about English, so much as about the perceived class status that might be achieved if only one were to master “linguistic propriety”. (I call it “aspirational classism”, myself.) But this whole My Fair Lady mythos, a fantasy of changing the exterior so as to better one’s social condition, is a painful deception for the vast majority of us. I followed “higher education” for far too long in pursuit of that golden ring, believing that if I just played the game a little better for a little longer I could find class stability within it. In my lifetime, though, I’ve also plainly seen my fair share of boorish, ill-spoken human beings flaunt wealth, access, and power, the likes of which most of us will never know firsthand—because even if language acquisition can and certainly does yield many benefits, having the “right English” is not a guarantee.
Having the right connections is. Having the right starting position is, too.
And all the while? As the rest of us churn in a widening rich-poor divide that unifies people all across the world, despite how little they might be aware of their kin in other countries? There remain plenty who find their satisfaction in cutting you down the moment there’s an opportunity to catch you out in the tiniest of English errors.
Because they might not ever be rich or even comfortable themselves—but by golly, they can content themselves in the midst of collective economic struggle with the knowledge that they still have more middle-class wherewithal than you.
I was delighted when Burning (2018) finally hit Mubi, because Lee Chang-dong’s long, patient films have never failed to linger in both heart and mind. Poetry (2010) remains my favourite: the story of a mid-60s woman who takes up poetry classes while Alzheimer’s starts to set in, and while she’s trying to ascertain the depth of a crime committed by the grandson in her care. It’s a beautiful, slow-build piece that honours our lifelong attempts to stay connected to a world we will ultimately leave before all its wrongs have been set right. Scenes still come to mind for me years later.
But Burning, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, also promised an experience that would linger—and I truly don’t think I’ll be forgetting aspects of this film, either.
Like most of Murakami’s work, the story “Barn Burning” trades on the idea of the unknowability of other people—and because they’re written through a heterosexual male perspective, this means that most of Murakami’s stories configure women as mysterious and ineffable to the male protagonists. Murakami’s taken some flak for this singularity of focus, this mythmaking around femininity as elusive and fantastical, but I think such critics are too quick to overlook the way his stories simultaneously critique the men for having this view in the first place—for throwing their lack of self-knowledge onto other people, and wounding themselves on the fabricated notion that women should be more stable to offset their own inner turmoil.
Burning does an excellent job of illustrating both halves of this equation. In it, young and aimless Jong-su runs into Hae-mi, an old childhood friend, after many years. Jong-su’s life has not been easy; he’s had to manage his father’s temperamental moods, which drove away his mother and brought their farm to near-ruin, and amid catering to other people’s emotional inconsistencies he’s never really found himself—though he hopes to be a novelist somehow, someday.
Hae-mi, meanwhile, is a burst of transformational energy, a whirlwind of surface emotions that are both easy to fall into and also very much a cry for help from a person in pain for want of purpose. After she welcomes him into her bed, she’s off for a spurious adventure to find meaning in Africa—and could he please look after her cat while she’s gone? But when she returns, she’s not alone. She’s picked up a slick, rich, self-confident fellow traveller named Ben—a man who’s everything Jong-su is not, in part for better but mostly for worse.
Jong-su’s actor, Yoo Ah-in, is brilliant in his role as a very confused hanger-on—a man who routinely jacked off in Hae-mi’s apartment while she was away, clinging to the flimsy promise of her that he’d been building up since their first fleeting connection; and then painfully but also dutifully answering her every call for him to join her and Ben at various outings after their return.
Ben is, of course, incredibly dangerous, and the film’s second half transitions beautifully into a narrative tension that will hold until the very end. But it’s all the delicate echoing that Chang-dong seeds into this production that truly makes this film sing. Symbols and behaviours that repeat without being heavyhanded. Stories that are retold in different, more enlightening ways as the film progresses. Characters whose brief appearances suddenly add whole layers to our protagonist’s backstory.
It’s a masterpiece of a film, but also one with a painful message to sit with for so long. After all, the world has plenty of Bens. Are the rest of us Jong-sus and Hae-mis?
Is there any other way for a person to be?
T3. The structure of local mythologies
When I talk about having a vision for my translation project, I’m referring to what I want Tomás Carrasquilla’s writing in English to do—and that’s a big question, because there are so many ways to read this work even in its native language.
La marquesa de Yolombó is like Antioquia’s Catcher in the Rye, inasmuch as every student of the school system here has heard of it, and reads it in high school. And why wouldn’t they? It was expressly written as a fictionalized account of local history: an account of one Antioqueño town’s rise that now stands in for many such small-town histories. Although initially written as a work of costumbrismo—that grand, colonial narrative style which pays such attention to performative detail—it serves today as a way of connecting Antioqueño youth with their history, their immediate geography, their traditions, and the moral underpinnings of their culture.
This last is especially important to understanding the novel, because La marquesa… is ultimately a book about service: about a woman’s dedication to her community, and how that dedication, joined with the fate of a few key families, helped give rise to a flourishing township. For Carrasquilla, living in a nearby small town himself, this would have been an important tale to tell, especially after his adoring early readers—mainly women—were more than a little hurt by how much he focussed on the hypocrisies of women’s fervent faith in his first stories. He amended his approach in later work, including this book, and what emerges is a depiction of femininity that—while not quite as sanctified as any Virgin narrative—still leaves much to chew over with respect to the high expectations it sets for women of the region.
The costumbrismo angle is also pretty fascinating, though, because while the book celebrates Spaniard ancestry, locals today don’t give a fig about similar. Truly! “Todos somos mestizos” (we’re all mixed blood) is a common reply when folks are asked about their ancestry, and genealogy is definitely seen as a “white person” hobby. So although that aspect of the book could easily have been picked up in schools… it isn’t. The book is instead taught centrally in relation to Colombia and points of regional relevance.
What, then, might a book like this do in English?
What do I want this project to accomplish?
For one, it will add to my ongoing push to change how North Americans view Colombian fiction. Even when Colombians today publish in English, they’re usually compelled to draw upon the more familiar magical-realist genre that everyone associates with the one Colombian writer they can reliably name: Gabriel García Márquez. That’s what the West knows about Colombia, so that’s what it expects of Colombian writers in English—even today.
With my collection of Carrasquilla’s short stories, I started pushing back on this narrative by introducing a more realist register to the canon of classical Colombian literature. But it wasn’t just any realism, either! I also noted that Carrasquilla’s realism was anti-modernist: a delicate balancing act wherein he prioritized his religious beliefs over what he saw as an existentialist vacuum in European realism, while also striving to depict the world as it “really” is.
With La marquesa de Yolombó? Historical fiction, both as costumbrismo and as local mythmaking, will also take its place in that wider array of literary forms. Moreover, the work will expand cultural understandings of what Colombia is, because right now the most famous loosely historical fiction, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is set in another department entirely—and Colombia is a land of stark regionalism, with the second highest level of biodiversity in the world. The cultural traditions for García Márquez’s masterpiece are not the same as what one finds in Antioquia.
Ultimately, then, my interest in this translation is not as much about the book itself, so much as about what the existence of this book in English can do for literary conversations and expansions. I see this book as a useful in-road for talking about the use of storytelling in nation- and community-building; about the complexity of role-model narratives; about colonialism in a non-English context; about rurality and religion and service and what makes a life well-lived.
As I extend the range of Colombian work available for English-reader perusal (academic and otherwise!), I’ll also be making it easier for future Colombian authors to draw industry connections between their wide-ranging work today and their equally wide-ranging cultural histories. (No more magical-realist pigeon-holing, please and thanks!) And that’s where my surrounding materials will prove especially vital: I need to be a good cultural bridge for this complexly themed tale—just as I strove to be for the last collection—to help folks understand that there is a gap to be crossed… and a whole other potent world on the other side.
Well, we shall certainly see.
C3. Gearing up for small-town explorations
I don’t live far from two important towns for any translation of Carrasquilla: his home in Santo Domingo, and Yolombó itself, the town that rose and fell in fame and fortune over hundreds of years. However, one is far easier to reach than the other: Santo Domingo is an 80-minute bus ride from pretty much right outside my apartment, at a nearby highway stop, and… Yolombó has no direct bus, at just over two hours away.
On August 21, I’ll be journeying out with a friend of mine here, an older fellow who is very excited to see the church in Santo Domingo. The main attraction for me, of course, will be the Casa Museo (museum house) of Carrasquilla himself. I’m looking forward to getting in contact with a senior staff member first, to arrange for his or her presence on that Sunday. And if that works out? I’m looking forward to introducing myself properly, sharing my first translation project, and gifting the museum a specially done-up Spanish version of “Carrasquilla’s Garden”, the glossary I wrote for The Rifle, and Other Stories, which contains a thoroughly researched list of all the plant species mentioned in Carrasquilla’s stories, along with some notes about them.
I think that should make a decent first impression, right?
My visit to Yolombó, on the other hand, is going to be postponed until January… but for a very good reason! So long as I’m still here for it, I look forward to hiring a ride for the day in the second week of January, when the town holds a whole festival dedicated to the main character of La marquesa de Yolombó, including a parade for “La marquesa” herself. It’s a celebration as much of the real history of the town’s resurgence as it is of Carrasquilla’s fictionalized account, and I am very much looking forward to taking part in those festivities.
For this reason, though, my original plan to publish The Marquise of Yolombó in the fall is naturally going to be pushed back to mid-January. Specifically, I plan to have everything else ready and waiting, and then write one last additional text, a photo essay from my time in that festival, to really sing home the value of the final production.
Will I be idle before then? Oh, of course not. I still have sci-fi mystery books to write next (at least one more by the end of the year, maybe two), and there’s always the next Carrasquilla book, Frutos de mi tierra (his first novel), to get cracking on with, too.
Boy, I am nothing if not ever-overloaded with ambitious projects that never really amount to much, am I?
Ah well. I think it’s pretty clear by now that I’m writing with posterity in mind more often than not. But at least there’s a lot to enjoy in the process as well.
M3. A writing note
One quick final comment, then, about the original fiction side of my writing life.
I sent off one short story late last month—a mundane SF piece, offering a distinct take on a first-contact scenario from the perspective of a family living in a neighbourhood trying to keep some semblance of community together in our near-future climate crisis. It received a splendidly fast one-day rejection from Asimov’s—though not entirely surprising, because stories that don’t have exceptional protagonist agency tend to be much harder sells. I’ll be sending it off to Fantasy & Science Fiction next, where… it also might flop for exactly the same reason. And when it does? I’ll pretty much be at market’s end, because there aren’t many pro- or even semi-pro paying places open to unsolicited sci-fi stories of this type right now. We are an industry with many publishers who prefer to solicit and curate content quietly instead.
In the past, I’ve published such stories to my Patreon before, but recent pieces that reached market’s end have had connecting themes that are making me think I might want to hold on to them for a possible collection instead. So, that’s a clear possibility.
In the meantime, though, short fiction continues to make me more money than any other writing venture—which, I know, is rather a sad state of affairs. But if I’m going to optimize my earnings, I think that after I finish my translation this month, I need to make a concerted effort to broaden a bit outside my usual wheelhouse, and try to write more pieces that would even begin to stand a chance at the wealth of fantasy-leaning publications that are absolutely having a field day in the industry right now.
Will that be easy? Oof. No. Fantasy isn’t something that comes altogether easily to me. But it’s definitely something I’m going to be chewing over this month. And if yet another learning curve lies ahead? Well, I guess I’ll just add it to the queue.
Wherever your own creative journeys find you, may you ever and always be up for whatever new challenges they throw your way.
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