At the end of January Poetry Inside Out hosted a daylong introductory workshop with eight English Language Development (ELD) teachers and two administrators here in San Francisco. We started this partnership with San Francisco Unified School District to help teachers build English language skills among their diverse students. Throughout the day teachers spoke passionately about their students, swapped classroom stories, and learned how to use the curriculum to bring out their students’ unique voices.
Teachers split into groups and were guided through translating two poems. By going step-by-step through the translation process, they were able to experience what they would help their students do: debate word choice, find meaning beyond a word for word translation, and work together to create a final translation.
One teacher remarked that through this process her students could learn the value of slowing down–looking at language word by word–a practice that is particularly important for English language learners. Others were eager to give their students the opportunity public speaking and performance. In many Poetry Inside Out classrooms, students have read poems aloud in the original language–piecing together syllables and wrestling with new sounds–and in English, sharing their group’s translation with the rest of the class. Some classes have then decided to present their translations to the rest of the school. We’ve seen students schedule assemblies, organize exhibitions, put together a class book, or invite their parents to come hear them read their translations.
Teaching translation is new for most teachers and can seem less structured than a typical lesson, but it leads students to truly engage with what they are learning and changes how they think about language and about themselves. These San Francisco teachers will be supported with monthly meetings and classroom visits during the semester, where they’ll have chances to ask questions and share their experiences and strategies with one another as they encourage their students to dive into language at its purest. Stay tuned for updates–we’ll be reporting on their experiences in the coming months!
If you'd like to learn more about having Poetry Inside Out in your classroom or school, contact Mark Hauber, Poetry Inside Out Program Director.
Next week, Thursday, February 11th, is our first Two Voices Salon of 2016. Valerie Miles will be joining us via Skype to discuss her career as an editor, writer and translator, as well as her recent translation Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas.
While in no way obscure, Vila-Matas has not enjoyed the same degree of fame in the United States as that of his contemporary Roberto Bolaño. And yet Vila-Matas is undoubtedly a towering force in Spanish literature. A Barcelona native, he has written more than twenty novels over the course of his career. He is known for creating strange worlds in his aptly named “auto-fiction,” where fiction and reality are fused into an indistinguishable and singular entity.
Vila-Matas first turned heads with the publication of Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (A Brief History of Portable Literature came out last June from New Directions, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean), a slim novel of less than 100 pages. The story revolves around a secret literary society of so-called “Shandies,” a name contrived from Laurence Sterne’s groundbreaking 1759 novel Tristram Shandy. The Shandies are well-known artists and writers turned fictional characters: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Georgia O’Keefe, Witold Gombrowicz, Federico García Lorca, and others. The result, as you can imagine, is bordering on absurdity. Vila-Matas continues in this vein with Because She Never Asked, although this time his subject is the French artist Sophie Calle.
Who is Sophie Calle?... (Read the answer to that question and the rest of the post on the Two Lines Press blog)
Photo from Suite Venitienne, by Sophie Calle
In the last few years we’ve seen Poetry Inside Out spark particular interest among teachers of English language learners. While it’s designed to be taught in any classroom, it seems to fit well with the needs of ELL students and engage them. A multi-year partnership with schools in Worcester, MA has given us the chance to observe how students in the program are learning and building skills.
Two years ago, two teachers from a local Worcester school attended a Poetry Inside Out workshop that prepared them to teach the curriculum to their students. Their classrooms doubled as research sites as they worked with Clark University professors and several Clark students to look at the effects of Poetry Inside Out on student learning.
These teachers’ classrooms were perfect microcosms of diversity. In their school of 400+ students, 71% did not speak English as their first language and 40% were officially designated as “English learners.” Both teachers began translating poetry with their students, recording class discussions and closely observing the students and how they changed over the year.
Lori was struggling with her eleventh grade class. She described them as “disengaged” and unwilling to listen to one another. She introduced the process of translation with a haiku by Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide and for the next lesson chose a poem by the exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang. This poem sparked a class discussion about communism and exile, unfamiliar to some students but first-hand experience for others. Lori explains:
“In discussing the meaning of exile and the consequences of defying one’s government, students drew on current and past events, such as the case of Edward Snowden and Cuban immigrants. They also shared their home countries’ stance toward free speech. In the 20 minutes it took to discuss a four-sentence-long biography, students gained greater understanding of exile, democracy, treason, and communism. They also pushed each other to restate, clarify, and elaborate.”
Over in Jesse’s classroom, things weren’t going as smoothly. His class was made up exclusively of Spanish speakers, mostly newcomers with very limited English, and was consistently shifting as new students enrolled throughout the year. He wondered whether or not his expectations had been fair, reflecting that “...for the newcomers there was little conversation and they mostly substituted English words for the poet’s words. I was expecting them to translate from one foreign language to another language still foreign to them.”
He tried making adjustments. Since all of his students spoke Spanish, he tried selecting only poems in Spanish for them to translate. The results still weren’t what he had hoped. “I wondered whether my newcomers possessed the requisite capacities and knowledge to engage with Poetry Inside Out. I also wondered how the changing dynamics of my classroom–with students joining and leaving throughout the year–was working against a culture where students could take risks with English, and with each other.”
His experience highlights a common and persistent struggle for ESL teachers: students with virtually no English and classrooms that are constantly in flux. Still, Jesse was determined to keep pushing his students to take on this challenging curriculum. In their last translation of the year, he decided to try having his students translate into Spanish and recorded their discussion so that he could have it transcribed and translated. When he read through the transcript of the discussion, he was impressed:
“From the translated transcript, I was able to hear what these kids sounded like when they spoke fluently. They argued with not only reason but also humor and grace. They played with word meaning and used their expertise in their respective countries as evidence for why they chose to translate the way they did… one of my newest students who also had a learning disability stood her ground against two girls. The poem and Poetry Inside Out had created the space for these students to work together in a group and begin to wrestle with the language. They were working collaboratively and creating meaning together.”
Perhaps the most important element of this curriculum is the way in which English learners are encouraged to speak, listen, debate, and grapple with complex ideas in their own voices. Both teachers agreed, “In both classrooms, we also noted how ‘silent’ English learners, leaning on the voices of master poets, began to trust in and use their own voices.”
From the Two Lines Press blog, we're happy to share an interview with Catalan writer Toni Sala and his translator Mara Faye Lethem. They recently spoke with Sarah Coolidge about The Boys, the latest book from Two Lines Press. If you weren’t able to attend our book release earlier this month, you can listen to audio from the event.
Sarah Coolidge: Mara, how did you discover The Boys and the work of Toni Sala? What were your first impressions?
Mara Faye Lethem: I first remember being aware of Toni because of a book he wrote in the early naughts about Floquet de neu [Snowflake], the albino gorilla. I was also working on a photo essay about this somewhat tragic Barcelona figure. Later I was asked to translate some of his work, which you can see here.
The Catalan original of The Boys was the debut title of a new publishing house called L’Altra, run by a very talented, brave editor named Eugènia Broggi; we were at the party for the Herralde Prize when she told me—almost in a whisper—that she was leaving the big publishing group and starting her own house. I remember thinking what a bold move that was in the midst of Spain’s worst recession ever, and what good news for Catalan literature.
Both that book and his previous one, Provisionalitat, were chosen by the Institut Ramon Llull to feature in their New Catalan Fiction catalogue, which I write for them, so now that you ask it seems like I was hearing about Toni’s work from all sides.
What I’ve always found most striking about Toni’s prose is how his often turbid meditations—on situations that most likely don’t coincide with yours—still end up feeling like the voice inside your head.
SC: Toni, The Boys takes place within a very narrow timeframe. How long did it take you to write the book and what was going on during that time?
Toni Sala: The writing of The Boys was strange. I was stuck for about year in the first chapter, which was initially a short story, thinking that it was over. Then, in the summer of 2013, in three months I wrote the three other chapters. It was very intense. I don’t know if I would have endured many more months at that rhythm. I remember thinking about the book while underwater, while I snorkeled and watched the fishes.
SC: What was it like having your novel translated? Have you read the English translation?
TS: I have not read the whole translation because I get nervous, and I don’t know enough English to draw any conclusion. Just know that if the book works, if a competent reader finds it acceptable, it is thanks to the translation of Mara Faye Lethem. When a book is translated, its benefits are both to the author and the translator. I think it’s interesting that a translation can cross the bridge across languages: literature works like a universal language, a language as accessible to the human condition as music or mathematics.
Toni Sala is a leading Catalan author and The Boys won the Premis de la Crítica, the most prestigious award in Catalan writing, after its release in Spain in 2014.
This is the first book of Sala's to appear in English, and we're excited to share with you the book that Kirkus Reviews recently called "altogether brilliant".
The Boys is a profound story of how the deaths of two young men change the lives of four individuals in the small town of Vidreres. With intricate meditations worthy of Javier Marías, Sala masterfully conjures the voices of each of the four characters and entwines their lives and their feelings of guilt, fear, and rage over an unspeakable loss.
We hope you agree that this English-language debut puts him in the company of the best world writers.
On November 3 we hosted Sala and translator Mara Faye Lethem (center and right in the above photo, with Two Lines Press Editorial Director CJ Evans at left) for a dynamic reading and discussion at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco. We've posted audio on the Two Lines Press website.
If you needed more reasons to read the book, here are a few: Powell's Books called Sala a "stirring, unique new voice in English translation", and Publishers Weekly gave The Boys a starred review and wrote "Sala is a master of meditation, and the excitement and intrigue are never sacrificed despite digressive passages on Internet alienation, art, violence, phrases of grief, the Spanish recession, and love."
Buy the book now for just $10--a 30% discount off the $14.95 cover price!
“My negritude is not a stone / nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day,” reads one translation of Martinique poet Aimé Césaire’s famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (or Return to My Native Land). The 7th graders at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in North Philadelphia had already translated an excerpt from the poem when Poetry Inside Out’s Mark Hauber and Marty Rutherford visited their classroom last week. The two were in Philadelphia on a follow-up visit with teachers who were part of a Poetry Inside Out workshop during the Philadelphia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in July.
Hauber and Rutherford scheduled their trip to be able to spend two days visiting area schools where students were being introduced to Poetry Inside Out. Now, on the second day of classroom visits, the Cook-Wissahickon students were reciting their translations to the class. Like most of the schools where Poetry Inside Out teaches, the student body there is diverse: 50% white, 35% African-American, 11% “Other” or multiracial, 3% Latino, and 1 % Asian. Poetry Inside Out’s poems from more than 25 languages reflect and tap into this cultural and linguistic diversity.
Between readings, however, students seemed unsure of the context or significance of the poem—essential for any translator, who owes fidelity not only to the words themselves but also to the poet’s intent. What did this poem mean? Almost everyone in the class had translated the repeated phrase “ma négritude” as “my negritude,” but what was “negritude”?
While the word itself is somewhat obscure in the United States, it speaks to issues that are especially relevant today. Aimé Césaire himself defined negritude as, “The simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture”. Though Césaire grew up on the French-colonized island in the Caribbean and wrote the poem during the 1930s, his ideas have crossed seas and influenced nearly a century of subsequent movements.
The class circled back to the author bio included on the poem page and focused on a single word: “movement.” Most students didn't know that it could refer to a group of people organizing toward a political, social, or artistic end. Armed with that critical piece of information, the students were ready to revisit the poem.
And then it clicked. Digging deeper into the poet’s biography and the meaning of that one word, students began making connections between negritude and the Black Lives Matter Movement, between negritude and the Civil Rights Movement. Suddenly the poem held more weight and was related to their own lives and experiences. As the students continued to read their translations, one girl belted hers out with preacher-like emphasis. Another revised her translation to read “my blackness.” For these 12 and 13-year olds, it was no longer about Césaire’s negritude, blackness, or identity, but their own.
Here's the poem:
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (fragment)
ma négritude n’est pas une pierre, sa surdité ruée
contre la clameur du jour
ma négritude n’est pas une taie d’eau morte sur
l’oeil mort de la terre
ma négritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l’accablement opaque de sa droite
Return to My Native Land (fragment)
My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against
the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth's
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience
(translation by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
In October we welcomed Baboon author and poet Naja Marie Aidt back to the Bay Area for a reading during this year's Litquake literary festival. Aidt discussed her new book Rock, Paper, Scissors, recently translated by K.E. Semmel for Open Letter Books, with Two Lines Press editorial director CJ Evans.
Their conversation delved into the book’s plot, the breakdown suffered by its protagonist, the appearance of a Paul Celan poem in the book, the differences between writing poetry and fiction, and Aidt’s relationships with her three English translators.
On November 18, we presented translator Isabel Fargo Cole, the award-winning German authors Ingo Schulze and Inka Parei, and translator Katy Derbyshire at the Brecht-Haus in Berlin to celebrate author Wolfgang Hilbig.
They talked about Isabel’s translations of Hilbig’s book The Sleep of the Righteous, just published by Two Lines Press, and “I,” published earlier this year by Seagull Books. Hilbig was one of Germany's most important post-war writers, but his books have never appeared in English until now.
The bilingual (English and German) conversation ranged widely over Hilbig’s life, his influence, and his importance as a German writer. It also touched on issues with translating his work, and Isabel’s own interactions with Hilbig before he died of cancer in 2007.
Listen to audio from the Naja Marie Aidt event or the Wolfgang Hilbig event on the Two Lines Press blog.
The following interview with translator Isabel Fargo Cole is posted on the Two LInes Press blog. Staff member Sarah Coolidge interviewed her about her work translating Wolfgang Hilbig's The Sleep of the RIghteous, out October 13.
Isabel will talk about the book at an event December 1 at the Goethe Institut in New York City, and will be in conversation with editorial director CJ Evans on December 3 at the Goethe Insitut in San Francisco.
Sarah Coolidge: The stories in The Sleep of the Righteous are set in the uniquely insular world of postwar East Germany. What is it about this world that appealed to you as both a reader and a translator?
Isabel Fargo Cole: I always felt drawn to the East since my first visit to Berlin in 1987, as part of a class trip, when the Wall was still standing – the sense of standing in front of a wall with an inaccessible world of human beings behind it was very powerful. I visited a few more times after the Wall fell, and moved there for good in 1995, studying German and Russian literature at the Humboldt University in the former East. For a long time all my friends were East German, and it was fascinating to hear their stories and try to get a sense of what life had been like. It wasn’t that the world seemed pleasant or appealing, it was just the fact that it was a human reality that we had gotten only a very superficial idea of. In the US you tended to grow up with clichés about people in East Bloc countries being sort of grey, brainwashed robots without any culture aside from crude propaganda. So it was rewarding to discover the richness of human experience in the East (of course including many dark things as well), and the richness of the literature dealing with it. As a translator, I’ve always been drawn to things that need to be unearthed, rediscovered – there’s a special fascination to the process, and a pleasure in rescuing bits of past life and passing them on, even if these bits of life are dark and painful. Perhaps here this echoes Hilbig’s urge to write these stories, to resurrect his childhood and the dark past of this little town, Meuselwitz. And what is resurrected here, or created, is in fact a world unto itself. And as Laszlo Krasznahorkai puts it so beautifully, “Hilbig’s art… is built upon the fact that East Germany is identical to the world.” I think that is what drew me to Hilbig’s writing – the sense of a whole rich world opening up in a seemingly unlikely place.
SC: You’ve said in previous interviews that there are autobiographical elements to these stories. Is there anything you can tell us about Wolfgang Hilbig’s life that might surprise us or add to our understanding of the book?
IFC: To understand “The Memories,” and to a lesser extent the title story, it helps to know that Hilbig’s father had gone missing at Stalingrad, and Hilbig was raised by his mother and her father, Kaszimier Starlek, who had emigrated from the town of Bilgoraj in Eastern Poland before World War I to work in the Meuselwitz coal mines. There’s a point in “The Memories” where the narrator speaks of “the mix of peoples in the chaos of regions Gunsch came from … If you came from there, you were a leftover person, remembered by no one.” This seems to allude to the fact that Bilgoraj was located in a multiethnic region, and one that saw mass population transfers as borders were redrawn following World War II. Hilbig’s Polish grandfather may have contributed to his sense of being an outsider, and to his sensitivity toward the fates of the masses of people who were uprooted during and after World War II. Hilbig was actually known to his close friends as “Kaschi”, taken from his grandfather’s name.
SC: Hilbig wrote primarily about everyday life, though with an underlying force that Lazslo Krasznahorkai, in the introduction to the collection, refers to as “a monster that has not collapsed […] even today it lurks there in the depths, frightening, threatening, dark, just as if it were always there.” In your opinion, what is this “monster” lurking beneath Hilbig’s writing and what was it like to grapple with it as a translator?
IFC: In this passage Krasznahorkai alludes to the specific darkness(es) of Germany’s past – but I am sure that the “monster” is something more universal. I don’t think it makes sense to try to pin it down or put a name to it. Hilbig writes about the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Stasi, but he does so in a way that lifts them out of their historical confines and connects them to other kinds of darkness which he finds in everything from his (ravished) natural surroundings to grotesque, trivial human interactions. This is what makes his writing so disturbing, because the “monster,” whatever it is, isn’t safely confined to some other time or place, or some other person. Readers can also bring their own personal associations to it. Of course it is oppressive to grapple with it over and over when translating, but then there are the flashes of beauty or warmth, and his dark humor, and simply the perseverance of his narrators, that make the experience strangely cathartic.
SC: Several of the narrators appear to be estranged in one way or another from the women in their lives. In “Coming” the narrator is plagued by the suicidal cries of women, and in “The Dark Man” the narrator finds himself in an unloving, strained marriage. What roles do you think women play in this collection?
IFC: The narrators’ relationships with women are typical of Hilbig’s writing as a whole. Either the women are unattainable, or the narrator finds himself embroiled in excruciating conflicts with them. There’s a profound alienation – but then, Hilbig’s narrators are alienated from everyone. Only with the women, though, is this alienation so tormenting, because they are in some ways the fullest human beings in Hilbig’s work, the ones who seem to hold the secret of feeling and decency and vitality. The narrator feels this keenly, but for all his yearning is unable to form a human connection with them, to understand them, avoid disappointing and betraying them; he is not equal to them. He is like an alien confronted with human beings. He is consumed by a love that he can’t express, not even in words, much less in deeds, and this gives him a deep sense of guilt. This begins with his mother, who plays an important role in his writing, but as a rather shadowy, reproachful figure, and extends to his other relationships. Hilbig’s narrators often gaze at women’s bodies, trying vainly to grasp them that way. Described like this, he sounds horribly misogynist, idealizing and objectifying women, subjecting them to the male gaze, etc. – but these scenes, especially the one in “The Dark Man” where he visits his dying ex-lover, are, I find, almost unbearably moving, as he confronts his own inadequacy and a terrible sadness at the gulf that exists between men and women.
SC: Are there any idiosyncrasies in Hilbig’s German prose that were particularly difficult to translate into American English? How did you deal with them in your translation?
IFC: Hilbig tends toward long, swirling sentences broken up, or held together, by ellipses and dashes, a complex stream of consciousness that often stutters or peters out and picks up again. As one blogger very astutely noted, “Like Beckett, Hilbig gets closer than most writers to the actuality of our thought processes, made up as they are not only of a flow of information but with their gaps and misremembering.” Because it is so crucial to the narrative perspective, I have done my best to retain this syntax despite the common wisdom that English-speaking readers don’t like long sentences, but have occasionally broken up the longer sentences if that seemed possible without disturbing the rhythm. It is the obsessive rhythm that carries the reader (and the translator) through the most intense passages.
SC: You also recently translated Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel I for Seagull Books, released this year. What distinguishes Hilbig’s stories from his novels and other writings?
IFC: The blog quote about Hilbig’s syntax above actually refers to “I”, yet applies equally well to the stories. So the fundamental elements of his voice remain the same. But the stories show him much more in his lyrical vein, very dense in atmosphere, with the narrator’s state of mind often conveyed through his vivid impressions of the world around him. Hilbig also wrote poetry, and very short prose pieces that might best be described as prose poems, as well as some outstanding novellas in an equally poetic style. Most of the stories in The Sleep of the Righteous fall toward that end of his spectrum, while “The Dark Man” points toward works like “I”, with a larger cast of characters and a greater focus on plot and dialogue.
SC: What do Germans think of Wolfgang Hilbig today? Is he widely known?
IFC: Hilbig is certainly widely known among German writers, many of whom regard him as one of the most important post-war writers from Germany. As a challenging writer who never made any concessions toward marketability, he never reached a mass audience, but he has a very devoted readership.
SC: You run an online publication called no man’s land featuring first-ever translations of German literature. What inspired you to start the site?
IFC: I started the magazine in 2006 out of frustration at how difficult it was to find publishers or magazines interested in translations. At that point I’d been trying for several years, without results, to find publishers for projects such as Hilbig’s works, and thought I might better put my energy into creating a place to publish German literature in translation. It has been a very rewarding experience, and has helped to pull together a very lively community of literary translators in Berlin (and elsewhere). Actually, this issue will be our last. Thankfully, we are finally seeing a real boom in translation publishing, with new publishers like Two Lines and Seagull, and a proliferation of magazines and blogs. I’m happy to think that no man’s land played some small role in this whole development, but the need for our magazine no longer seems as urgent, I have a lot of translation projects to focus on, and Issue # 10 seemed like a nice place to stop. We may continue it in a slightly different form, though.
SC: What advice do you have for young translators?
IFC: We have some practical tips on no man’s land, under Translators’ Tips. In a nutshell, I would say: 1) Translate what you’re passionate about, not what you think other people want to read. Do a sample and a synopsis and send it around. 2) But clarify the rights situation with the original publisher first! 3) It can’t hurt to reach out to the writer and see if they’d be willing to help you with translation questions. 4) Be very patient.
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photo credit Gezett
In the beginning most teachers want to know "How?" Looking down at the three lines of Japanese characters that make up Matsuo Basho’s famous frog haiku Furu ike ya, they ask, "How can my students do this? How can I do this?" And with that they begin to experience Poetry Inside Out.
Looking for strategies to build literacy skills in their culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, teachers from Oakland and San Francisco Unified school districts gathered this month for two full-day Poetry Inside Out workshops. In addition to providing teachers with teaching strategies and the preparation to bring Poetry Inside Out’s unique language arts curriculum to their classrooms, the workshops help build a community of practitioners in the Bay Area.
Each workshop began with the task of translating Basho’s haiku Furu ike ya (usually translated as “Old pond”), and then the group spent time digging into the mechanics of poetry, language, and meaning at work in the poem and revealed during the translation process. The translation work and group discussions helped the teachers see for themselves how Poetry Inside Out creates a collaborative environment in which impassioned discussions and close reading exposes students to the inner workings of language.
One teacher remarked that this was exactly what she had been looking for: a way to deepen her students’ understanding of language and the value of their diverse linguistic heritage. Most Bay Area teachers using Poetry Inside Out in their classroom work with a diverse student population including many English Language Learners. More than 30% of students in Oakland and San Francisco are classified as English Language Learners, but all students can benefit from the lessons of Poetry Inside Out.
After the initial translation, teachers looked at a handful of the nearly one hundred published translations of that particular haiku, and in doing so collapsed the myth of a single, correct translation. It’s the seemingly impossible task of translating something as nuanced and condensed as poetry that gives students the opportunity to think deeply and find meaning in language. This new awareness of language as a tool that they can use to communicate thoughts, emotions, and ideas carries over into other areas of their academic life. Throughout Poetry Inside Out’s rigorous translation and discussion process students use all of their linguistic resources—including one another—to answer the riddle posed by language. They emerge more engaged and excited about learning, and with improved reading and writing skills.
The participating teachers left with strategies to address the literacy and second language acquisition needs in their classrooms and the ability to build collaborative learning environments that support productive dialogue. As they begin teaching Poetry Inside Out to their students, the teachers will join regular group and individual meetings and will get support from their fellow Poetry Inside Out teachers and program staff.
Be sure to look out for updates about student (and teacher) progress throughout the year!
If you are interested in joining our growing community and acquiring this dynamic strategy for addressing literacy and the ELD/ELL State Standards for your students, contact Program Director Mark Hauber.
The latest release from Two Lines Press, Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, is out now!
Hilbig was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. Though raised in East Germany, he proved so troublesome to authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of over 20 books, he received many of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor.
Masterfully translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, the book reveals a powerful, apocalyptic, utterly personal account of the century-defining nation’s postwar struggles. The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote “[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.”
We’re celebrating with events around the world—in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, and San Francisco—if you’re nearby, we hope to see you. If you can’t be there, we’ll post audio shortly after each event.
To give you a taste of the book, we’re sharing a post from the Two Lines Press blog written by the Center’s own Sarah Coolidge.
What Is This Quintessence of Dust?
If, like me, you were still crawling when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall serves a primarily symbolic function: the ideological division of a city, a nation, Europe, the world. When I traveled to Berlin in the summer of 2008 and saw in person the startlingly physical barrier, though broken into crumbling stretches of wall tagged like the walls of bathroom stalls, I wondered how it would be remembered after tourists had pecked it to the ground and the debris had finally settled.
It is generally accepted that wars destroy. People, even entire villages (Lidice, for example), disappear overnight, cities are flattened by bombs, governments disintegrate, books, art, and music halls go up in flames. However, the emphasis on subtraction overlooks the massive physical outcome, the resulting excesses of war.
In Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, out today, the remnants of war are palpable, even claustrophobic. Hilbig, who was confined to East Germany until 1985 when he left for the West, depicts the postwar environment through its overwhelming presence. Though made up of seven distinct stories, The Sleep of the Righteous is blanketed in a uniform grayness. Through constant allusions to ash, dust, smoke, and clouds, Hilbig resigns his characters to the homogenized existence of the Soviet-run territory. In this essentially closed system, elements are neither created nor destroyed, merely pushed around, re-sorted, carted here, now there. Whether depicted by the spread of ash along the mines where children play in “The Place of Storms” or by the frantic accumulation of sticky bottles of cider in “The Bottles in the Cellar,” the burden of excess is inescapable.
Despite the grimy landscape, the deception and the paranoia, the strained family dynamics, I found myself strangely at ease within each story. As László Krasznahorkai points out in his wonderfully idiosyncratic introduction to the book, Hilbig wrote about everyday life. To be clear, I’m not claiming to have the same daily habits as a postwar East German family. Rather, the universe he reveals is so comfortingly confined, so perversely cozy, that it is difficult not to curl up within it.
With the succession of each story, the narrators appear to grow older, as if representing stages of life within this universe. While the stories function individually, you the reader seem to be systematically building toward something. By the end you have witnessed a series of fragments that amount to a lifetime in the Eastern bloc, from a childhood of gray afternoons by the mines, to adulthood, reflecting on the shadows of memories that, perhaps, you’re better off forgetting.