Haruki Murakami, Memory, and the Seven-Year Novel

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been drawn to the novels of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. For some reason, his novels, and the experiences that I’ve had while reading them, remain quite vivid in my mind. There was the time in the summer of 2009 when I sat poolside, watching the lap-swimmers paddle from one end to the next, as I read Kafka by the Shore. Later, in the fall of that year, I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle while I rode the commuter train home from College Park. In my first year of graduate school, a colleague gave me a copy of What I Think About When I Think About Running, Murakami’s memoir about running and homage to Raymond Carver whom Murakami, himself, translated into Japanese. There is something about Murakami’s writing, the interiority of his fiction and the nostalgia of his prose that has made me associate memory with his works.Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 11.34.44 PM

For as long as I have considered myself a reader, Murakami has been there, with a ringing payphone ready to send me and his protagonists into a shadow realm or an elevator to the recesses of consciousness. In this way, reading Murakami makes me think of memory in the way that Toni Morrison writes about memory and the Mississippi River: “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it always was.” Murakami is the “flood,” he’s the writer whose work flows back into my life at various moments, marking the time the way the water expands the banks of a river, a tributary, a stream, or an insignificant rivulet of running water.

These past few weeks, I’ve been returning to books that I’ve set aside, their pages marked with a rectangular placeholder, either a business card or a bookmark. For almost eight months, I’ve had a bookmark I purchased at a Tennessee craft fair placed two thirds of the way through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, his three-part novel about an alternative 1984. In the past year and change I’ve carried this book from bedroom to living room more times than I can count. The book has traveled with me to conferences, on vacations, to my brother’s bachelor party, and to at least two of last year’s six weddings. From January 2019-May 2019 I read the first two of the three-book series in stolen time between waking and lesson planning, at night before I fell asleep with the book splayed on top of me, and in small snippets of time waiting for a plane, a travel companion to ready themselves, or for the day to start in earnest. But, to be completely honest, my journey with 1Q84 began seven years ago, when I bought it to reward myself for finishing my senior year of college.1Q84

I first started 1Q84 the day before my last exam of my final semester of undergrad. Exam week was always one of my favorite times of the semester because, as an English and French major, most of my exams were already done by the time exam week arrived, all I had to do was hit send on an already composed final paper. Because of this, I was able to immediately turn to my neglected stack of books to be read that I had accumulated during the semester. I often started reading a new book to distract from the stress of any in-person exams I needed to sit for, usually a French course, but sometimes a science or math course. I would read these books on my commute on the DC Metro, giving myself about 45 minutes of solid reading time in each direction a day. I relied on this reading to keep myself balanced and ready to take my exams, but the act of rewarding myself helped me ease into a winter or summer vacation rhythm where things would be inevitably less hectic.

I remember that I couldn’t wait for my commute to begin 1Q84, so I started the evening before, reading the first hundred or so pages of the book that night. As I headed to my exam in the morning, I carried the heavy multi-volume tome with me, reading it along the way. But then, for some reason, after our exam, which wasn’t so much an exam as it was a presentation of our final projects, I stopped reading 1Q84. I don’t even really remember what caused me to stop reading, I enjoyed the prose, the intrigue. Everything about the start of the novel reminded me of why I loved reading Haruki Murakami. Was it that I was starting graduate school in the fall? Was it that I was reeling from my mercurial relationship at the time? I can’t remember.

All I know is that reading Murakami changed for me then and his writing means something different to me seven years later. I started re-reading 1Q84 last spring when I first started applying for academic jobs, when the possibility of finishing my PhD became a reality; I picked 1Q84 back up this spring when the possibility of finishing my PhD became a reality once more. Although I managed to complete the novel this spring, I now know that reading Murakami is more about returning to a feeling, a rhythm, a memory. Murakami helps me with periods of transition and allows me to escape to his strange realms and imagined worlds. Murakami’s writing is for me like Morrison writes about water, “forever trying to get back to where it always was.”


How Do We Remember?: The Many Lives of Barbara Bray

In late December, I decided to go browsing at a used bookstore outside of Nashville to take a much-needed break from writing my dissertation. There are few things in this world more comforting than perusing the spines of books, never knowing what you might stumble upon. A few minutes into my trip, I found a hardcover copy of Maryse Condé’s Segu, translated by the late Barbara Bray. The dust jacket was pristine, its cover featured dying African man surrounded by his family beneath a pulpy font. I knew instantly that I had to buy it, having recently talked about the novel’s translator with a friend a few weeks before. Unfortunately, Barbara Bray’s name appears nowhere on the cover of Segu, its first edition or its subsequent editions, which led me to wonder, how do we remember translators when they are gone? Will we even notice? What becomes of the many lives they’ve lived through the words of others?

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Although I wound up gifting the first edition of Bray’s translation of Segu, I just finished reading a trade copy of the book. For those not familiar with the novel, it was initially published in France with Editions Robert Laffont as two separate novels (Ségou I – Les Murailles de terre and Ségou II – La Terre en miettes) from 1984-1985 and tells a multigenerational story from height of the Bambara Kingdom in the late 1700s to its decline by the mid-1800s. When merged into one, the novel forms a nearly 500-page epic in the way critics have spoken of Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf;  Segu is an African Game of Thrones.

When I read older novels, particularly ones that were translated a number of years ago, I always look up the reviews that accompanied the novel, curious about whether or not the translation, or the translator, was mentioned. In the New York Times review, Charles R. Larson of American University writes that Bray’s “fluent translation” was, at least in part, responsible for the novel’s engrossing quality. In a review I found from the Black American Literature Review, Bray only appears in the citation format; she isn’t mentioned textually. How could the translator of a nearly 500-page book go unrecognized? Was her labor seen as expendable? Was she simply the conduit for someone else’s story? Was she willfully forgotten?68FF5E0E-CD95-4920-A152-8163B05E281C

It turns out, Segu was not the first time I read a Barbara Bray translation. In 2011 during a graduate seminar on the theme of madness in Caribbean women’s writing, I read her translation of Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond (1974), published in French as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle by Les Editions du Seuil in 1972. The Bridge of Beyond was reviewed, along with four other books, in the New York Times by Paul Theroux in May 1974 without a mention of Bray aside from the usual bibliographical information included in all book reviews. Theroux is drawn to the novel’s pastoral imagery, Schwarz-Bart’s talent for describing Guadeloupe’s tropical flora, and all the other elements that lend the novel to the notion of an exotic idyll. What about Bray’s knowledge of tropical flora, her ability to carry forth this imagery for Theroux and other readers’ consumption so that they need not venture beyond their armchairs to travel to Schwarz-Bart’s world. Theroux also summarizes the general elements of the novel’s plot, including a death followed by a nine-day period of mourning and “the ritual purging of grief.”Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 2.45.46 PM

But, can The Bridge of Beyond as a translation serve to grieve Barbara Bray, its translator? Is this even possible when neither the translator, nor her craft are accounted for in the novel’s various reviews? In fact, when The Bridge of Beyond was reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2013, the reviewer for The Daily Beast failed to notice that Barbara Bray had passed away three years prior to its release in February 2010, blithely stating that the work was “newly translated by Barbara Bray.” Even the more thorough accounts of Bray’s intellectual contributions to the work of literature and translation ignore her translation of The Bridge of Beyond, and occasionally, Segu as well.

Only in Bray’s obituaries in The Guardian and the Journal of Beckett Studies do we learn about how involved she was in the production, translation, and promotion of literature. It is here where Bray is credited as instrumental in supporting Harold Pinter’s BBC radio plays, in advocating for the French “New Novelists” in English, and for her intellectual contribution to the work of Samuel Beckett, with whom she was romantically and intellectually involved. Bray was also the principal translator of one of my favorite writers, Marguerite Duras. Although, I admit that I haven’t yet been able resist the austere aesthetics of Les Editions de Minuit enough to read Duras in English. That soon may change.Barbara-Bray-001

Still, aside from bibliographic citations in reviews and literary criticism, there is little left to remember Barbara Bray’s Caribbean translations by. One way to address this void may be through readers themselves, sharing stories about their experiences with Bray’s translations and the impact they had on their view of Caribbean writing. The only way to acknowledge the translator is to write with and about their translations, because these books, as Emily Callaci explains, “are the products not just of minds, but also of lives.”

I Gave You All I Had, or The Pain of the Dollar

When I heard last week that I was turned down for my dream job, I recalled a book I read nearly a decade ago, I Gave You All I Had by Zoé Valdés, thinking that the title poignantly expressed exactly what I was feeling at the time. The truth is that I wasn’t just turned down by one job, but by three for which I was a finalist. This meant rounds of interviews; hours of dreaming and imagining the possible ways that I could contribute to a department, a school, a curriculum, the public; lost sleep, thoughts of inadequacy, campus visits with meals that are not meals but are really interviews. The worst, still, is realizing the privilege that I had in even being able to test my mettle and put myself through all of this because too many people never get even as far as I did. The emotionally manipulative nature of the whole thing is that we’re in the exact same place, myself and the candidates who never made it any further in the interview stage––we’re unemployed.

I remembered Zoé Valdés’s book because I was talking about it during a dinner on one of my job visits. We were discussing authors who experience such acclaim in translation that it buoys their work in their first language. Zoé Valdés is a decorated Cuban writer who possesses French and Spanish nationality; her work has garnered awards in both countries respectively and she is a writer whose work is routinely translated, almost simultaneously, from Spanish into French. I think back on this now because I feel as though I am stuck between the titles of this book: the Spanish––Te di la vida entera (I Gave You My Whole Life), the English (I Gave You All I Had), and the French La Douleur du dollar (The Pain of the Dollar). The mentality of the job search is all consuming and, at least on some level, it is about seeking a future where I am paid what might be considered a living wage.

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My last six months, or maybe my seven years in pursuit of a career in academia, make me feel as though the only way to succeed is to give my whole self away. In this regard my experience accounts for the first two variations on the title, the Spanish and the English. The French title cannot be ignored either, though, because undergraduate education and graduate school these days too often entail a massive accumulation of personal debt and/or the persistent wear and tear of living on or beneath the poverty line. The Pain of the Dollar is the lived experience of working poverty, but it can also mean the unsettling of years of sedimented financial trauma. This is magnified for students who grew up poor and who carry these experiences into the halls of the university where it must be either routinely suppressed or denied.


            I Gave You All I Had is a novel is set during the decline of the Cuban belle époque and Fulgencio Batista’s regime and follows the protagonist, Cuca Martinez’s, life through the years of the Special Period. It is a novel about excess and scarcity. The overabundance of music, swaying hips, and revolutionary spirit in the beginning and, in the end, the outright lack of provisions, social well-being, and sanity. At one point, Cuca has all of her teeth extracted as she plans for the day when there is no dental care available on the island. Her friends covet what little they do have and one female character notably hides a dollar bill, wrapped in a plastic bag, in her vagina for safekeeping. The coup de grace is when Cuca’s former lover and the father of her daughter, Juan Perez a.k.a. Uan (One, as in, “One Dollar”), to find Cuca toothless and withered. At this point in the novel, her closest friends are Nadezhda, the Russian Cockroach, that inhabits the butter drawer of her broken Soviet refrigerator and an Ethiopian rat that Cuca has named Juan Perez to honor her former lover. Despite all of her challenges, Cuca fashions a certain kind of life for herself and her daughter, Maria Regla, in a world that seems bent on their dispossession and deprivation.Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 6.00.41 PM

As I re-read I Gave You All I Had, I caught myself laughing hysterically at the more hyperbolic moments and feeling genuinely crushed by the circumstances described in the novel.  (This is, for the most part, thanks to the tireless work done by the novel’s translator, Nadia Benabid, to make Valdés’s prose come alive in English). On some level, I could understand why money and the feeling of lack could cause someone emotional and psychological strain. My life experience is certainly not comparable to the lives of the characters in the novel. Indeed, US academia is not the world of Castro’s Cuba under a US trade embargo. Even writing such a sentence makes me feel ridiculous. But, there is something about structures and systems that makes the novel ring true to me. Systems manipulate and take advantage of those without power. In Valdés’s novel, the average Cuban is neither for nor against the Revolution. It wouldn’t matter if they were or they weren’t because either the Revolution or United States economic imperialism would be their undoing. Reading this sense of resignation helped me, in some way, to put things into perspective.Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 6.02.50 PM

In the novel, Valdés also makes a compelling argument about the way that trauma and anxiety are stored in the body. She, too, experienced a great deal of financial hardship in her life and eventually fled Cuba to live in France and later Spain when the French government failed to grant her citizenship after numerous attempts. Occasionally, these traumas have a fixed origin, a place in time from which they emanate. Others are constant, they’re the little indignities and aggressions that cause past traumas to build to the point where they cause emotional distress. My financial anxieties began when I was ten and my parents separated and divorced in 1999. It has taken years and, finally, months of therapy to make sense of how these early experiences with financial hardship affect my adult life. I may have diagnosed the problem, located its origins. I may have even found productive ways of coping with these creeping and arresting sentiments. The narrator of I Gave You All I Had reminds us that reading can help us cope, too, if we “just prick up [our] ears and listen up now, or better yet, plunge into these pages where my spirit has managed, with more than its fair share of love and pain, to survive.” These feelings inhabit us and we carry them with us for life, sometimes spreading them out in words on a page of a book, or a blog post.

La Marée


Malgré vents et marées, malgré ce présent en feu, ce temps de tourments, cette éternité dans le purgatoire, nous continuons à survivre en nous livrant à d’impossibles gymnastiques. – Émile Ollivier, Passages

Pendant sa vie, Grand-papa nous disait qu’il pouvait y avoir une marée montante si haute qu’elle envahirait les maisons de tous les habitants de Crisfield. A l’époque, je ne lui faisais pas confiance à cet égard, comme j’avais eu tort…


Nous venions de reconstruire notre maison après la destruction amenée par l’ouragan Sandy. Affectant seulement les zones les plus pauvres de la côte est des Etats-Unis, Sandy était le deuxième acte dans une pièce mise en scène par Dieu lui-même dont Katrina semblait le premier. Grâce aux secours du FEMA et toute une gamme d’organisations non-gouvernementales, le quartier de Calvary – une des premières communautés établies par les immigrés écossais sur la côte est du Maryland – pouvait recommencer à vivre plus normalement. Alors que les cinq familles constituant notre petit quartier pouvaient respirer de nouveau, nous avons assisté à des situations affreuses dans les zones voisines.

A un moment donné, je dirais que leur situation semblait s’améliorer. Les ONG ont fourni des abris temporaires pour ceux qui avaient besoin de tout reconstruire. Le moral, au fur et à mesure, remontait à Crisfield. Bien que la récolte devenait de pire en pire, les pêcheurs reprenaient leurs activités. Allant en mer de l’aube jusqu’à une heure de l’après-midi, ils profitaient de chaque jour comme s’il s’agissait du dernier. Les femmes de Crisfield retourneraient à leurs tâches habituelles, s’occupant des enfants, du ménage, de la vaisselle et de la cuisine. Les enfants, coquins et complices à la fois, jouaient dehors toute la journée car les écoles n’avaient pas encore pu rouvrir. Cela allait venir, je suppose.


            Ici, à Crisfield, on garde un scepticisme profond envers le discours médiatique sur le changement climatique. Quel changement ? On a toujours eu des désastres naturels chez nous. Cela faisait partie de la vie quotidienne depuis toujours. On raconte encore aujourd’hui des histoires de tempêtes et d’ouragans infâmes. En un mot, ces phénomènes nous ont créés. Cependant, je ne crois pas qu’il s’agisse de l’intervention de Dieu, mais d’un déterminisme social plus affreux.


Au lieu de dire qu’on vit dans une zone rurale et déconnectée, il vaudrait mieux dire qu’on habite le tiers monde des Etats-Unis. Ceci dit, d’autres régions nord-américaines nous ressemblent. Les Ozark, le bayou de la Louisiane, les zones réservées aux Amérindiens dans les Dakota – nous sommes tous les citoyens perdus, ignorés de ce pays. Oubliés jusqu’au moment où une catastrophe nous propulse vers la une de ces journaux qui ne sont même pas vendus chez nous. On habite le creuset de la société, et on en est conscient.


Tout allait bien pour nous à présent, la récolte de crabes s’améliorait, les enfants retournaient à l’école et ma femme reprît ses études en ligne – parce que l’université la plus proche est à 50km de chez nous – et moi, j’étais plein d’espoir pour la première fois depuis deux ans. Je pourrais m’habituer à une vie aussi normale que celle-ci, sans le moindre stress supplémentaire.

Cependant, il faut toujours éviter de se sentir trop à l’aise, trop complaisant.


Il faisait nuit, le ciel éclairé par la pleine lune. J’avais du mal à dormir, alors je me suis levé pour chercher du lait. Depuis ma jeunesse le lait chaud m’aide à m’endormir, et même parfois à me rendormir. J’ai fait chauffer le lait dans une casserole. Lorsqu’il était bien chaud, je l’ai mis dans une grande tasse et suis sorti sur le balcon pour regarder la lune se traîner sur l’horizon noirci.

Je me rappelle la fois où mon grand-papa m’a appris le rapport entre la lune et la mer. Il n’était ni astrologue, ni scientifique mais simple pêcheur. Cependant, la façon dont il appréhendait son travail l’avait rendu plus ‘scientifique’ que les autres pêcheurs. Ce qui faisait que les gens de Crisfield le vénérait. Il m’avait dit que la pleine lune pouvait causer la montée de la marée jusqu’à une hauteur inattendue, dévastatrice. Normalement, les renseignements du bureau météorologiques sont exacts – on les suit aveuglement. Mais, un des ces jours la nature va désobéir aux règles établies par les humains. D’ailleurs, mon grand-père postulait que le rapport de la lune avec la mer n’affectait pas que l’eau, mais aussi les organismes marins s’y trouvant.

A trois heures du matin, je pensais à lui et ses théories naïves. Est-ce que l’augmentation de la récolte prévoit un changement plus grave ? Plus malheureux ? En avalant les dernières gorgées de lait, je suis rentré dans la maison et me suis allongé à côté de ma femme. Je me suis rendormi en l’embrassant.


Lorsque je me promène le long de la rue principale à Crisfield, j’entends les chuchotements d’une ville se cachant derrière une voile translucide d’orgueil. Passant devant les jetées, j’aperçois les pêcheurs revenant d’une matinée de travail. Leurs chemises mouillées de transpiration et de l’eau salée du bras de mer Pocomoke. Ils restent positifs pendant qu’ils déchargent des crabes de chaque bateau. « Y a des crabes là, mais il faut les chercher ! » balbutient-ils, tous espérant de tenir secret les endroits précis où ils ont trouvé les crustacés qui régentent cette petite ville côtière.

Malgré leur caractère malin, le rythme avec lequel les marins parlent me calme comme celui de mon grand-père décédé. Une douceur perçait dans sa voix lorsqu’il racontait des histoires d’aventures en mer. A chaque fois, il nous emportait dans un monde dont les capitaines des bateaux à huitres étaient les héros. A l’époque où un homme au gouvernail était respecté de toute la société.

Cependant, on ne vit plus dans ce monde-là. Est-ce qu’on l’avait véritablement vécu ? Pour moi, ce n’est qu’une illusion, un souvenir. Des fois, je songe à mon grand-père, et ce qu’il aurait pensé de notre société actuelle. Est-ce qu’on a gardé nos coutumes à nous ? Est-ce qu’on a choisi celles qui étaient les plus rentables ? Peut-être qu’il aurait honte des ces pêcheurs perfides et orgueilleux qui n’aident jamais leur voisin sauf s’il lui a déjà rendu service. Je crois que oui, malheureusement.


            Le lendemain matin, je me suis soudainement réveillé après avoir entendu un bruit venant du sous-sol. Je me suis précipité vers les escaliers pour descendre voir ce qui s’est passé. Quand je me suis approché de la porte, j’ai vu la fumée passer sous la porte, à travers les fentes. Sachant ce qu’il faut faire dans ces moments de péril, j’ai couru pour chercher ma femme et mes enfants. J’ai hurlé : « Allez, la maison est en feu ! Réveillez-vous tout de suite ! Il faut tout laisser ! »

En sortant de la maison, nous avons découvert que la marée montante était à presque 2 mètres ! Alors nous sommes montés dans un bateau attaché à la remorque d’un camion submergé à côté de chez nous. Le cauchemar de mon grand-père nous est arrivé. Pendant la nuit l’eau a inondé le sous-sol provoquant un incendie. Ce type de désastre menaçait la population de Crisfield depuis toujours. Les maisons étaient toujours construites en bois car la pauvreté des habitants leur interdisait même d’utiliser du béton. Regardant l’incendie consumer tout ce que nous avions ramassé pour combler le vide laissé par l’ouragan Sandy. Tout était perdu. Cependant, nous étions ensemble et c’est comme cela que nous avons quitté Crisfield, ma ville natale, pour toujours.


What is Foreignization? Part 1

Last week I saw a post on a Facebook group for literary translators asking whether “foreignization” was still a practice used in translation today and if so, was it not solely used to exoticize a text. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, foreignization or “to foreignize,” means to retain words and concepts in the original work even in translation. For instance, if you were reading a text about bull fighting the translator might choose to retain the word corrida as an act of foreignization. Readers of the text will recognize immediately that corrida refers to bull fighting, without being lost in the process of reading.

What shocked me about the Facebook query was its tone, and the suggestion that all foreignization could be used for was to exoticize. While the literary market definitely has a penchant for marketing the exotic, the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau being referred to as the “Caribbean Gabriel Garcia-Márquez” immediately comes to mind, translators can and do use foreignization as a technique to protect the indigeneity of the original. While the poster, and others in the thread, kept making reference to translations of texts featuring one foreign language (Italian, Spanish, French, etc.), I believe that foreignization is perhaps most useful when translating polyglot texts or works featuring various dialects and registers.

I recently read Jordan Stump’s translation of Scholastique Mukasonga’s non-fiction work Cockroaches (Inyenzi; ou Les cafards) from Archipelagos Books and was struck by how through foreignization Stump was able to engage with Rwandan readers by retaining words in Kinyarwanda. One of the most remarkable passages of this harrowing book of memory, loss, and genocide is when Mukasonga explains how her family made urwarwa, or banana beer.

But on some days there was no question of prayers and processions, even for my father. Those were the days when we made banana beer, urwarwa. Making urwarwa was a major undertaking, requiring a great deal of time and the participation of the whole family, and even the neighbors. Those were festival days (Mukasonga 56).

First, the author has already “translated” the idea of what urwarwa is to her French readers. If Stump had erased the Kinyarwanda word, the cultural aspects of the passage would have been flattened and “domesticated” for an English-speaking readership. As Mukasonga walks us through the process, Stump continues to include the Kinyarwanda words, “now you have the juice––umutobe indakamirwa” (58). Perhaps rather than simply a matter of a “faithful” translation, which as Edith Grossman has pointed out is impossible, Stump allows readers of Cockroaches to feel foreign, to immerse themselves into the making of urwarwa. Even as I write this, I think it is important to have to write words in Kinyarwanda and other languages, essentially to have to meet the work in translation, the author, and the author’s culture on their own terms.img_0832.jpeg

In a work of creative non-fiction like Cockroaches, where the author recounts stories of murder, genocide, loss, and trauma, foreignization is not only important, but necessary. One of the main purposes of the book is to remember, to fight against forgetting. Mukasonga writes about her family, “the murderers tried to erase everything that they were, even any memory of their existence” (165). When the stakes are as high as they are in Cockroaches, it is easy to see the import of retaining cultural lessons facing the threat of erasure.

img_0833.jpegHowever, as a final response to the Facebook question about foreignization, it is a practice that may aid us as readers in confronting what Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes has called a failure of the imagination. Dawes explains that racism, sexism, and other forms of hate are a result of a person failing to imagine themselves in the place. A failure of empathy. To foreignize translations can certainly work the other way, especially when used to exoticize a text, but it might be the best way to expose readers to cultures and concepts other than their own.


In a later post I will talk about my own struggles with practicing foreignization.