Here you’ll find four stories by Slovene writer Lili Potpara published in a quartet with Alchemy. I am grateful to Lili and my mom for being my first readers and giving me preliminary feedback, and especially to my Slovene teacher Marta Pirnat-Greeberg and Ellen Elias Bursac for their help in editing and workshopping these pieces!
And with that, all my Fulbright translations from my year in Ljubljana were published.
It took a year to translate them all and nearly three to send them out, find homes for them, and wait for the projects to materialize in print (or online). I still remember now how I used to feel about translation: how, on that too-warm afternoon in Ljubljana in April, I sat from 7 am until 1 pm in my pajamas, because I thought the solution to the word games in my head was just around the corner–just five minutes more–until I had missed two meals and my morning classes, my hair had become heavy with sweat and was slipping out of its ponytail, and I jumped out of my chair and hit my head on the chandelier because I had translated a whole piece of flash fiction on my own without a co-translator. It had errors and discrepancies that needed to be corrected, but I felt dizzy with euphoria in a way I never had while writing my own fiction. There was an end-game in translation that fiction writing didn’t have. Of course, you can second guess yourself forever and continue to edit and change things with a translation; it’s certainly not an immutable concept. Yet that first draft usually comes across cleaner and closer to finished than any first draft of a fiction piece I’ve ever written. Translation is knowing that the sculpture exists beneath the stone in front of you, and knowing that you have the tools to chip away to find it inside–no matter how long it takes. Fiction writing is looking at a lump and wondering if it’s even stone, or if you can pretend it is, and staring at your hands wondering if your joints even bend in the right way to grip a chisel, never mind use it.
Translation: that project I began because I was at a loss with my own fiction writing, and I thought: if I can crawl around inside the words of another author, I’ll feel the edges of fictional worlds, explore the contours of character in a way I cannot yet in my own writing.
Has translating made me a better fiction writer? In a word: yes. I have learned invaluable lessons from my co-translators, from the women who entrusted their writing to me, and from the editors and professors who have generously corresponded with me through the years.
As I celebrate the publication of five stories in translation this month (Nina Kokelj’s “The Beggar” in Slovene Studies, Silvija Borovnik’s “Guti’s Stories” in Slovene Studies, Suzana Tratnik’s “Ana’s Note” in Slovene Studies, Nina Kokelj’s “Early Butterfly” and Jimena Nespolo’s “The Dorado Woman” in the Brooklyn Rail’s “InTranslation” section), I am ready to turn back to my own writing as I join a new writing workshop this spring. I won’t be taking a break from translation, but as I turn back to my own fiction writing more seriously, I’ll be curious to see how it seeps into my words and plotlines.
Why hello there, snow. Where have you been? Your absence has allowed my sister, brother, and me to race around our hometown on Christmas break, ratcheting up outdoor miles as the street salt kicks up the back of our legs and our breath puffs out in small clouds. Andy, heading out first, runs loops around the town center, heads into other towns on long, hilly roads, and circles home, training for his first Boston Marathon in April. Julie, heading out next, sometimes runs with me, but on her own sprints to the next town over and then back again, cheeks red from cold. Me? I’m the last of the three siblings to complete a half marathon, never mind a marathon, in the slowest time. I head out last, sprinting harder up the hill on Church Street when my asthma acts up so I can cough it out and keep going. When I run the paths around home, I’m running through memories thick as fog. When I run along the chain-link fence by the Progressive Club, it’s fall, and I am sixteen and walking with my backpack to pick up my brother from elementary school, walking him across the church yard to teach his CCD class. When I go on by the Blanchard School, it’s a cool August morning, and I am six years old and walking with my mother on my first day to kindergarten in what was then the nation’s oldest continually running wooden schoolhouse. When I round the corner by the Baptist Church, I’m eight, and my mother is pulling my younger sister in our red wagon to the old Hay Wagon ice cream stand, and it’s summer, and I swear this time I’ll convince them to let me get bubble gum ice cream, even though my friend Eleanor told me that if you swallow bubble gum it stays in your stomach for 70 years. When I follow the sidewalk up by Saint Mary’s cemetery, I am seventeen, and I’m walking home mid-day when I should be in school, and watching as the blurry line of long cars exits the grassy field of granite stones, fresh turned dirt over the grave of the 12-year-old boy I mentored at summer camp. Every step bears some trace of the twenty-four years spent in this town. But now, temporarily, the past is covered with a thick piles of frozen whiteness, the storm threatens not to stop for another day, and we’re all inside, for a few days, or weeks, or months, until the sun comes up and the weather warms and the thaw sets in, and the snow becomes translucent and old memories break through their blanket covering, open and exposed and asking to be tread on once more.
Thanks to my friend, Devin, for passing along a CFP on Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and to Prof. Sebastian Wogenstein for organizing the course on human rights and literature post-9/11 in which I drafted this piece last spring.
A link to the article is here.
I’m also pleased to announce that a piece of micro-fiction I drafted this summer called “Red Wine with a Hint of Shoe” is forthcoming in a journal this spring and that two pieces of my MFA thesis (“Cardboard Boxes” and “Left”) were nominated as the UConn submissions for the AWP Intro Journals Awards in the categories of non-fiction and fiction, respectively.
Lots to be thankful for this week.
Now: if only I could get these seminar papers done…
So, I have an old phone. That’s not news to anyone who knows me. I carry around an LG Cosmos 2 by choice, intentionally avoiding a smartphone, something I’m not sure I can get away with for much longer.
Let’s go through the reasons that I’ve been told I will enjoy a smartphone when I eventually upgrade to one.
1. Your music and phone will be integrated!
I can, by choice, carry my music and my phone separately. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t need music walking from place to place and enjoy the sounds of life around me. If I go for a run, it’s cumbersome to carry a phone and prefer my iPod mini clipped to the waistband of my shorts or leggings, if I run with music at all. (Again, I prefer hearing the rustle of leaves under my sneakers and almost any time I use my iPod almost get run over by some biker on the trail as s/he passes me, since I’d been too busy bobbing to some pop song to notice anyone ringing a bell.)
2. You can check your email on the go!
Yikes! Count that as a reason I don’t want a smartphone. Yes, I can see the convenience. But it also gives me anxiety to know that my email can follow me anywhere. I get dozens of emails a day which all require responses within 24 hours. If I checked more than two or three times a day, then I’d just get panicked–and I’d never get anything real done. I deliberately choose to check my email at designated times during the day, setting aside 30 – 45 minutes to deal with the messages I receive, all from colleagues, friends, students, and professors. I find my approach reasonable and think it’s unreasonable to expect a response to a message you send me within less than 24 hours. If someone needs an immediate response, then they should just call. (Most people do that when they have something important to discuss, anyways).
3. You can use the internet while you’re waiting, or on the go, or when you’re not in front of your computer!
Again, yikes. I’d prefer not to. I am an extremist, yes, I understand that, but I functioned without a cell phone for all intents and purposes for one full year while living in Slovenia–again, by choice. I had a little pre-paid phone for emergencies and to text my cousin when my bus was arriving in her town on the weekends. But other than that, I never used it. Oh, once I called my dad from Venice for 7 minutes to use the 20 euros I had stored on the phone that were set to expire before the end of the month. But yeah. Other than that…
I’d prefer not to check the internet while I’m waiting at the bus stop, or walking down the street, or whatever. I have a GPS in my car for driving directions, and otherwise, I just call people or read a book if I’m feeling anti-social.
4. There are, like, a hundred things you can use your iPhone to do! I don’t know how I survived so long without one!
I honestly have never thought to myself: “If only I had an iPhone right now, I could…” Maybe it’s because I’ve never had one. So I have no idea what I’m missing, probably. So I’m not qualified to answer this one. I just know that, much like I survived without chai lattes before I knew they existed, I am surviving now. And I could, if my addiction to chai were taken away, survive without them again.
There is a basic difference between my view of a phone’s function and most other people’s which explains why I couldn’t care less about not having an iPhone. I subscribe to the idea that phones should be phones. Other people want phones to be small computers. That’s fine by me… most of the time. Except for the two times when it is not, which are irritating enough to merit me finally caving in (whenever my upgrade becomes available) and getting a smartphone:
1. They intentionally make dumb phones (like my current phone) hard to get, fix, or maintain because they don’t make that much money off customers who use phones as phones only. My phone broke three times already in the less than two years I’ve had it, and its battery is currently held on by clear packaging tape. Yes, that is partially my fault. Yes, I break phones. I get that. But… nobody at the cell phone ER at my local cell phone shop cares about it because it’s a dumb phone and that means I don’t pay a monthly data plan fee, which means I’m a customer low on the list of priorities.
2. Text messaging has changed with the advent of the iPhone. I seriously want to throw my phone out the window whenever someone with an iPhone texts me, particularly in a group message. No matter how many times I ask people not to include me in a group message or send weird “stickers” of fish sticking their tongues out, it inevitably happens: one message lights up my screen, alerting me to its receipt. As I go to click it open, which takes a few seconds, a second alert appears: someone has responded. I go to hit “clear” to read the original message, and an third alert appears: the original sender has responded to the response! Before I can even hit “clear,” a fourth message pops up: the respondent has decided to amend his/her message–or write it in two parts! (Because that apparently looks cooler on an iPhone or something?!) Fast forward to three minutes later, and the 42 messages of the conversation have been logged in my phone, in a jumbled order, with emoticons appearing as random symbols and photographs showing up as tiny asterisks, and my phon is beeping: “Text message box full!” And then I have to go in an delete each message individually in order to be able to receive new messages. If I don’t, my phone will beep three times on high every three minutes until I delete the messages or smash it with a hammer. In addition, from the moment of the first receipt of a message until the last one when through, my phone was completely, unable to be used to read or send text messages, make phone calls, or check voicemail–it was just having a panic attack in the corner, lighting up and vibrating at random, about to self-combust.
Ah, you say: your phone is the worst! You should clearly get a smartphone!
No, I say, YOUR smartphone is the worst, and it doesn’t play well with others, in group messages or otherwise (even sending two or more messages in a row paralyzes my phone). I just want to exist in peace, away from the internet with my dumb phone, but the smartphones of the world make that impossible.
So, whatever, I guess I’ll trade in my dumb phone one day, six months or a year from now, when I have a phone upgrade. But it’ll be with mixed feelings and really only because smart phones are secretly conspiring to kill my dumb phone, which I was perfectly happy with before the smartphone existed.
Before I knew what the words meant, I wrote an ending to a short story in college: something about how things were always coming and going, coming and going–how everything was moving and nothing ever stopped. At the time, it felt like the vocalization of a yearning–for a life that would pull me out of my stagnant existence in one place. But for the character to whom I gave the words, it was a refrain. People are always coming and going, coming and going. Places disappear. Moments pass. People are always coming and going.
The night before I left Ljubljana, the furniture inside the Vrhovčeva Street apartment was mildly sticky from humidity. It smelled like summer–like cherry trees and grass, and grapes that were not yet ripe hanging on vines beneath the windows. When I walked into our courtyard, the automatic lights came on and illuminated the path to the tree and the patio chairs. I side-stepped the patch of light and walked behind the garden bamboo branches and stood, frozen, until the light went off. I tried to count the stars, but I kept losing track. My books were no longer on the shelves inside. My roommate was making English lesson plans at the table.
Patches of my memory from the next day are gone. I remember wheeling my suitcases out to the street and that I looked down Vrhovčeva one last time as the shuttle bus pulled away. The woman at the Adria Airlines counter complimented my Slovenian. I bought a water bottle in the gift shop, and on impulse, another book. I remember those facts but not the moments or the feelings.
People come and go. Places disappear. Moments pass. Good-byes, however temporary, are hard.
When Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-indulgent turned feel-good Julia Roberts story Eat, Pray, Love hit the theaters in Europe, it was a few months behind, and I’d just moved to Ljubljana. Fresh off of break-ups, my new roommate and I were coping with things quite well, actually. She was seeing someone, taking emotional risks and moving forward in a healthy way, while keeping some perspective and staying grounded. And I was studying. Hard. I had been placed in a Slovenian language class with a group of Slavic language speakers. I had a lot of catching up to do.
I took issue with the book/movie, mostly because the narrator seemed really selfish. It was also because I couldn’t imagine ever leaving someone who loved you because I’d never left anyone–though I’d watched someone leave me–and in my early 20s, was still trying to unravel a pattern or a formula that would reveal to me the alchemy of love.
“I don’t get it,” one of the Serbian girls in my Slovenian class said one day, in reference to the movie. “She seemed really happy in Italy. Why didn’t she just stay in Italy?”
Italy was the “eat” part of the movie. The part where Julia Roberts feels sad but finds friends, lets loose, eats a lot of pasta and pizza, gains 15 pounds, and learns how to smile again. The part before the part where she goes to Asia, prays and finds balance and solace, and then moves on to find love again.
My roommate and I, consciously or unconsciously, took my classmate’s words to heart.
“It’s like, Eat, Eat, Eat,” we said more than once, in reference to our own situation. Disillusioned with prayer and skeptical of love, we stayed in that Italy phase for quite a while.
With an open market down the street, a small refrigerator, relatively little access to processed foods, and too much time on our hands, one or both of us would end up buying groceries every day and baking hours-long meals. She perfected baklava. I brought home a whole chicken and cooked it with lemon and cinnamon. She went to the Mlekomat to get raw milk. I bought red peppers while wearing a red shirt and was called a communist for my alleged red obsession by a homeless man. We laughed. We ate. I walked five kilometers to buy imported British cheddar cheese. She bought a bike with a basket and got around a lot quicker than I did. She did yoga down the street. I took pilates with a French woman from my class. We found a pizza we could split at a restaurant on the river. She told me not to order another glass of wine at the wine bar just because it came with a plate of cubed cheese. She promised she would cube the imported British cheese when we got home. We went out. We stayed in. We discovered Glee. When summer came, we talked outside in the dark under our tree and reached the weighted down branches and picked the cherries till juice ran down our hands.
She found new relationships that year and learned from them. I, two years older, felt slightly more disillusioned. Just as there was no clear way to fall into love, there was no clear way to fall out of it. But between the open market and pilates, the pizza place on the river and those British cubes of cheese, I gave up on the pattern-hunting. The search for meaning that only existed insofar as I needed it to, wanted it to. Self-indulgent? I became guilty of being that, too. But, I realize now, that’s what healing looks like to me. It looks like bicycles with baskets and cherry trees and friendship.
Anything else is just superfluous.
Thanks to Elena Arranz Alonso for sharing this TED talk with me. I’ve seen a few talks, but this one, so far, is my favorite. She gets at the heart of why I love to study the traces of politics in literature at the very same time as she reminds me that doing so must be a recursive act. After all, sometimes fiction is just fiction, and identity politics have nothing to do with the author or his/her characters. Taking in that messiness is part of what I feel we need to do better as scholars.
Participating in the Connecticut affiliate of the National Writing Project, where I am a teacher fellow, has required that I produce more original, first-draft writing in four weeks than I ever did in a whole semester of my M.F.A.
That means that I have to do what it often so hard to do: produce text, not just talk about it. Sit down and reflect on it for one to two hours, daily, with people. Show off the glory of what Anne Lamott calls those shitty first drafts. Lose any sense of writerly posturing. Show something half-finished. Think about how my students must feel when they come in exhausted from their nine million activities and show me the draft they managed to squeak out somehow–the one that reflects some, but not all, of their best efforts.
But really, what I have to do is sit down and write. And to do that, I have to confront the voices. The same ones that giveth taketh away. Or: the same ones that create projections of characters onto the bluescreen in my mind interrupt, pause, and paralyze.
During a reflective moment in the program, we had to sit and jot down–to be as honest as possible–and this is what I wrote, in the heat of the moment:
The voices say: I see what you’re getting at, but it’s not quite clear. You need to amp it up a bit. What’s at stake? How can you write a story about something you don’t know? Who are you speaking for, and what is the impact of your words? Why are you writing this? Could you live without writing this? Because if you could, you probably should. No need to add to the clutter of bad writing. Is the toilet clean? Wouldn’t sticking your hand down a toilet right now seem more productive and pleasant? At least you’d be accomplishing something you could see. Have you gone running today? You should probably do that; you’re going to gain weight if all you do is sit around and write all day, and then how would your book jacket author photo look? But wait, you’d have to write to get to that book jacket. Why aren’t you writing? Try just a few sentences. OK, you did it, congratulations—you’re the worst. Delete. Backspace. Start again.
Somehow, with strict deadlines, I manage to shut those voices up long enough to get a word in edgewise. I’m grateful I wrote a weekly column that I knew would be read by a wide audience in a dozen New England papers for nine years. It forced me to write weekly whether I wanted to or not. Some weeks, the ideas came early and with great wit; other weeks, I had to stare down the screen with 30 minutes left before deadline. Yet somehow, 800 words jumped onto the page. 50 weeks a year. For nine years.
Am I proud of all I wrote? No way. I do think it would’ve been a better investment to have stuck my hand down the toilet some weeks. But at least I wrote, I reason, as I look back at some of those columns and cringe.
Fellow writers, what are the voices telling you?
I first read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as a college sophomore in a seminar on women in literature. I remember it distinctly because I’d decided not to read it. I’d planned to read a summary in an attempt to heed the advice of a pragmatic professor concerned about my sleeping patterns (or lack thereof). So what if I was in the honors program with a double major and a minor and worked on the college paper and wrote a weekly news column and held down a work-study job? I was still going to read every single word that I was assigned to read. “Half of college, and graduate school, is figuring out what you need to read and what you don’t,” this professor told me, as he examined my copy of Mrs. Dalloway, which I’d not only read twice for seminar–but had highlighted in eight different colors, tracing patterns of imagery and major themes throughout.* My cheeks flushed as I tried not to smile. Graduate school. I was being told in a backwards way that I could maybe go to graduate school!**
Of course, the moment I’d decided not to read The God of Small Things, I couldn’t put it down. Not only was it a forbidden task–which made it all the more alluring***–but I realized something, then: I couldn’t not read all the words I’d been assigned to read back then because I loved them. Papers and deadlines aside, I quivered in anticipation of doing my readings at night. While peers pored over textbooks and scribbled solutions to problems in their notebooks, or made note cards to memorize terms, I found my favorite chair in the library and read and read and read. Which is all I ever wanted to do anyways. I was in disbelief that they let me do this for class credit and call it a major. I felt like I shouldn’t talk about it too much. As if they’d discover me and force me to study something else once they realized how much it meant to me. I felt like I was tricking someone; surely, it wasn’t possible to mold your life around something you cared about so deeply, was it? Wasn’t ‘work’ supposed to be quotidian, repetitive, and somewhat unpleasant?
Sometimes, the books I read challenged me. Sometimes they confused me. Most times, I liked them. Sometimes, I disagreed with them and disliked them because of it. Sometimes I loved them so hard their pages wrinkled because I cried on them. Because that’s what I do when I love something: I cry on it a little bit. And then I fall asleep next to it, and the pages get a little bit wrinkled.
That’s what happened with The God of Small Things when I read it as a 19-year-old. As a 26-year-old, I was drawn into the story again, though I was reading it with a different lens: as someone slightly older, more mature, and with an eye on a 20 – 25 page final paper for a seminar in a class entitled Human Rights and Literature. But I was pulled back into being 19 again as I read. Can’t you always remember where you were, how old you were, how you felt, when you read a book that moved you deeply? The way you felt when you saw the plot unravel for the first time? I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading that book and stared out the window into the pitch black sky for a long while afterwards. The next morning, I had a headache–my version of the college kid hangover–but I regretted nothing.
I continued to do my readings all throughout college because I was idealistic–but also because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my days, anyways. I was 19, after all. There probably isn’t anything better I could have been doing.
Sometimes, deep into final papers, reading assignments, and grad school life, it’s nice to be re-assigned a book you once read a long time ago because it makes you remember how you got here in the first place.
*Don’t worry–that was my “working copy” of the novel. I have a clean, beautiful copy in hardcover for pure enjoyment when I’m not thinking about papers.
**Future Kristina would like to punch Past Kristina in the face, right in that moment. Future Kristina is somewhere in the midst of writing her dissertation, and inevitably frustrated with her ninth draft of her first chapter, and wishes she could tell Past Kristina to take that journalism job offer back in ’08. Present Kristina (a.k.a. the one writing right now) is too tired after M.A. exams and final papers to analyze the interactions between Past and Future Kristina–never mind the weirdness into which this quasi-footnote has devolved.
***I should try to forbid myself from doing laundry. Maybe that would make me actually do it instead of buying more clothes each time I run out to delay the inevitable.