European Refugee Lit: Anna Seghers’s “Transit” Reviewed
By Joe Winkler On May 2, 2013
by Anna Seghers; translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo
NYRB Classics; 280 p.
Anna Seghers, one the most respected and important German authors of the 20th century, wrote perhaps the earliest account of the Nazi concentration camps. That book, The Seventh Cross, tells a similar story to her own time in a camp. Now, NYRB Classics has released a sequel of sorts. Transit tells the story of a lesser-known component of the Second World War, the displacement of millions of refugees. While it pales in comparison to the genocide, the displacement of millions of refugees signified its own traumatic experience which ended up changing the map of postwar Europe. Seghers’s unnamed narrator escapes first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from one in Rouen, France. He finds his way to Marseilles, a port city, which in this era of refugees desperate to leave transforms into a bustling town of the lost. The narrator feels a sort of modernist ennui until he finds himself a hustler in the shady business of visas and departures. There, he begins to create a glimpse of a solid life while remaining on the precarious ground of a displaced person. He loves, he attaches himself to a family and friends, all with an awareness of the inherent transience of his situation and consequently life in general.
The book begins with talk of a downed ship of refugees, and then the narrator proclaims his manifesto: Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: After spending two years among indigenous farm workers in Mexico and in labor camps in the United States, medical anthropologist Dr. Seth M. Holmes documents how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism undermine their health and access to health care in his book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. He spoke to NAM Health Editor Viji Sundaram.
NAM: Did you set out on this project as a purely anthropological endeavor, but which later changed into something more?
Holmes: Yes, as I said in my book, I set out as an anthropologist to do the classic field research method of participant observation with migrant farmworkers. I wanted to learn about indigenous Mexicans who come to the United States to work on our farms, about their health issues, and about how this group of people is perceived.
NAM: So how closely did you observe the indigenous farm workers?
Holmes: I started this research in rural Washington State, living in a labor camp and picking strawberries and blueberries along with them. We next moved to the Central Valley of California, to Madera, where we first lived homeless for a week in our cars, until we found a slum apartment willing to rent to people without a credit history. In Central California, we were not able to find much work; we pruned vineyards very intermittently. After California, I moved with them to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, and lived in a partially constructed concrete home built piece-meal with money sent by relatives in Madera and Washington State. Continue reading →
Rachida Madani and Marilyn Hacker, photo by Tam Hussein
by Tam Hussein
Multiculturalism has lately taken a bit of a thrashing from the political and intellectual elite in the West. It used to be the answer for everything, the epitome of respect, inclusiveness and fostering tolerance. Somewhere along the line it suddenly became inadequate, something that created segregation, prevented national unity and common purpose, among other things. A recent Chatham House brief, The Roots of Extremism, suggests that there are a growing number of people in Europe who believe that inter communal conflict is inevitable. Yet perhaps the relationship between the award-winning poet Rachida Madani her translator, American poet Marilyn Hacker, is a great example of how to reverse this worrying trend.
On the face of it, one would not expect these artists to get along; they seem like oil and water. Both were in London to promote Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head, which was translated by Hacker. The collection of poems addresses the issues of colonialism, corruption, human rights abuses, poverty and misogyny. In a way, as she says to The Majalla, her book is “effervescence of consciousness amongst Moroccan women which had been there long before the Arab Spring.”
According to Hacker, her latest collection is not about women in society, but “about women in revolution and what it means to be part of that process.” Continue reading →
“Lament in the Night” by Shoson Nagahara (Kaya Press: 452 pp., $19.95 paper
It’s 1920 in Los Angeles, and Japanese immigrants are spending another restive night trying not to die an ignoble death in a foreign country. Ishikawa Sakuzo, a Japanese immigrant lies, begs, and gambles in order to survive his “good-for-nothing” life in Japantown. Osato, a newly arrived Japanese bride, struggles to survive after her gambling-addicted husband Ryosaku runs out on her. She works nights in a bar and eventually owns her own establishment only to find herself remarried to a dying man.
Such are the lives of the two main figures in two lost (that is, overlooked) novels of Shoson Nagahara, which have been translated by Andrew Leong and reissued under the title Lament in the Night. Nagahara’s work focuses on the lives of those attempting to escape poverty, whether through get-quick rich schemes played out in gambling houses or mining camps, or the bone-aching labor exerted in restaurant kitchens, or as house servants. In Nagahara’s work, these bleak lives are not portrayed for sentimental value, but as part of the raw urban reality of 1920s Los Angeles. Continue reading →
A Latina writer and scholar, Sandy Florian is the author of four full-length books of prose poetry – On Wonderland & Waste (Sidebrow Books), Prelude to Air From Water (Elixir Press) The Tree of No (Action Books), and Telescope (Action Boos) – and one chapbook – 32 Pedals & 47 Stops (Tarpaulin Sky Press). Her creative work has appeared in over 50 international journals including Bombay Gin, Gulf Coast, /nor, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, and New Orleans Review, and she has been awarded residencies at Caldera Arts and the Headlands Center for the Arts. Her current semi-autobiographical project focuses on the hybrid issue of postmodern identity.
When we think about Latino Literature, we often think about a certain kind of Latino Literature, a type of sociological or ethnographic literature that gives voice to people with Latin American heritages who grew up in the Latino ghettos of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Rightfully, those voices are canonized and taught in classrooms, presumably in celebration of the cacophony of multi-cultural America. What happens, though, when someone who claims to be a Latina writer doesn’t write directly about her heritage? What happens when the African American student writes whatever the hell she pleases? We are told we aren’t “really Latina,” that we aren’t “black enough,” by our peers, our professors, our own people. We are told that our writing doesn’t contend with the struggle of being a minority, different, an “other.” If we want to write novels and poetry without place or placement, we have to quietly erase our heritages and try our damnedest to be white.
In an article about art, Johannes writes that he got into an argument with a Latino poet who claimed I am not a Latina writer, and I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, namely because claims on my heritage seem to be blocking my professional path. And I’ve been doing a bit of research here and there in preparation for a long and angry sabbatical. I won’t get into postcolonial theories here, though, because here I would like to explore this problem personally. Continue reading →
Essay: The leading writer and maverick reflects on the ties between literature, freedom and the state he left behind
As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.
It was quite a while after my move from Pushka to the canton of Zurich before the bizarre sense of the unreal, the carnival quality of what was happening to me, was gradually replaced by the tentative and amazed confidence that, indeed, this was no illusion. The trains were not toys, the landscape not painted, the people not planted.
Immediately following the change of scenery, I tried to finish writing the novel I had begun in Moscow, but I got nowhere. The letters I had traced out there had an utterly different density here. In the end, the novel was about something else. Every word is a high step for you to trip over.
Borders, distance and air do wonders with words. A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka Street, with the Chekhov Casino raging outside my window, won’t make it through customs here. Words stripped of all independent existence there acquire residency permits here and become not a means but a subject of verbal law. Here, any Russian word sounds completely wrong and means something completely different. Just as, in a theatre, the meaning of a phrase shifts when uttered after a change in scenery. Continue reading →
she wasn’t born in this city. she found its basalt greenstone chunks, seafloor forced skyward. it found her hands through mist and odors whirring pigeons’ clubfeet fluttering, toothless men’s paper sacks spilling elixirs, roots, shark fin tonics. heat swelling sewer steam rising, side street chess match maneuvers mystifying. it sought her whirlwind hair, grown seavine thick. songbird, adrift, nestling neon, she crafted snares for moths, butterflies, treasure hunting children tracing ideographs: sky, sun. patina spires, smirking dragon boys humming silk lanterns, flight of phoenixes through fish vendors’ stalls, corrugated plastic blackbird perches, jade-ringed gardens, needle-tipped shanties. it bulleted trees, lighting hash pipes; herbalists’ storefront canopies concealing leathered men, versed in languages of whiskered ghosts. it invented her dialect carving tongue: salt fables, yellow caution tape palaces. she lost herself in this city. it lured her, drank her air; honey voice’s precision, hybrid beyond memory. songbird, adrift, this city’s misplaced siren. migration patterns subterranean streams swallowed whole.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of Center (2003), Poeta en San Francisco (2005), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Diwata (2010). Continue reading →