Words Without Borders April: To Read ‘Within a Tradition’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In this month’s edition of ‘Words Without Borders,’ guest editor Lina Meruane gives us a look at Chilean writing, and we talk with WWB editor Eric Becker about the process behind the prose.

Image: Marcela Trujillo, ‘FamilienKern,’ acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2008. By arrangement with the artist, and provided to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Lina Meruane: ‘This Slim, Peripheral Country’
While Words Without Borders‘ (WWB) thematically focused editions are never without interest, regular readers of our coverage of the organization’s work in translation quickly become aware that the context very much a part of the value here.

The way WWB curates its magazine issues is frequently by having a guest editor provide a curated selection of translated content with an introductory essay to contextualize the writings. Other instances involve editorial director Susan Harris or anther staff member create in edition in-house, as was the case in February’s edition looking at graphic novels and nonfiction in translation.

The April edition of the magazine, Behind Closed Doors: Chilean Stories of Domestic Life, is an especially good example of the first approach–curation by a guest editor. And we’ve had a chance to ask WWB editor Eric MB Becker about the concept and process behind it.

In this month’s edition, the guest editor is the Chilean writer and instructor Lina Meruane, who teaches at New York University. A highly regarded playwright and author, Meruane has been was awarded the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize (Mexico, 2012, for her Sangre en el ojo), as well as the Premio Valle Inclan Prize (UK, 2019) for Megan MacDowell´s translation into English (Seeing Red).

Meruane is also a laureate of the Anna Seghers Prize (Berlin, 2011) and Calamo Prize (Spain, 2016), as well as a recipient of literary fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (USA, 2004); the National Endowment for the Arts (USA ,2010); and the DAAD Artists in Berlin Program (Germany, 2017).

Lina Meruane

Meruane breaks up her introduction this month, “Behind Closed Doors: Outing the New Chilean Narrative,” into two parts.

  • In the first of those two parts, Meruane establishes that she’s come bearing prose from a canon—native to what she calls “this slim, peripheral country—normally honored for its poetry. “Mistral and Neruda,” she writes, “were just two great poets among other notorious albeit dissimilar and even oppositional figures that together justify of the mythic moniker of land of great poets. This myth, however, has obscured the equally important prose written and published in Chile during the past century.”
  • In the second half of her introduction, Meruane explicates the through-line evoked in Marcela Trujillo’s artwork used for the edition (reproduced above): domestic life, family dynamics. These are “works of fiction in various forms and styles written by authors whose childhoods were marked by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet,” she writes, from authors “born after 1970 and raised in a subdued atmosphere of cultural obscurity and censorship where poets were regarded as heroes revolting against the system.”

Meruane ties the poetic tradition of the region’s ability to punch so far above its weight to the intensity of stylistic awareness with which its contemporary prose artists are working: “The reader will find an exquisite refined concern for form, for the right word, for the decisive phrase. For these authors, storytelling is not only about crafting a plot but about seeking a structure that can hold its constituent parts, that will engage readers and demand they read differently.”

Eric MB Becker: ‘Outside Our Comfortable Parameters’

With Meruane’s doubly evocative introduction in mind, then, we asked Words Without Borders editor Eric Becker how how the magazine creates the concept and context for each issue.

Do the editors of Words Without Borders, we asked, come up with the concept first and find then find a guest editor to realize this vision? Or do they start by finding such specialists as Lina Meruane and asking them to bring a concept to the magazine?

Not surprisingly, we got back an enlightening answer.

“These issues come together several different ways,” says Becker.

Eric MB Becker. Image: Luisa Leme

“Whenever I commission an issue, I always seek to have a through-line that ties the pieces together. In other words, not ‘Here’s a whole bunch of work from Chile,’ but ‘What are themes that seem to preoccupy a group of writers?’ Sometimes this is a group of writers in a single country, as with Chile, but there are past issues we’ve done, such as Women Writing War, that explore a theme across countries, genres, and languages.

“As a practical matter—funding opportunities, etc.—we’re often bound to country-specific issues. But why reinforce borders by selling Chilean literature by the kilo? Why feed into the easy globalism that characterizes so much international exchange? It’s my belief that if we’re going to make a concerted effort to engage with and be engaged by international writers, we need context, and the predominance of certain themes among a group of writers provides a window into these writers’ milieu.

“In the case of Lina Meruane, she’s a writer we’ve long admired at WWB. When I first began discussing the issue with Lina some two years ago, one of the first things I asked was how we might organize the issue around a theme, what that theme might be. Lina’s own recent work (Contra los hijos, or Against Children) looks at questions of domesticity, and when she proposed this theme, I was eager to run with it.

“This is, I think, one of the strengths of working with writers from around to world to help us put certain issues together. Guest editors bring different concerns and interests, and often help us to lead us in directions we may not have hit upon ourselves.

“This was a case in which Lina and I put our heads together from the start. Often, though, translators and potential guest editors pitch us their ideas for issues, and those that are most successful tend to follow this model of mining a certain theme (or common preoccupation with form).

“There may have been a time when simply presenting any international writing at all was in itself sufficient. It’s my belief that if we’re going to do more than simply parachute in to places, we need to afford writers and their work the respect that comes with trying to meet them outside our comfortable parameters and instead try to read them within a tradition, as we do with the writers from our own country.

“This also, in my opinion, places value not simply on creativity but on the intellectual contributions of these writers, their position as thinkers.”

Six Works From Chilean Writers

This month’s edition brings together Meruane’s curation of six works for that chance, as Becker says, “to read them within a tradition.”

  • Story of a Sheet,” by Alejandro Zambra, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell.Thisisa short lyric piece by Alejandro Zambra in which a bed sheet is a blank canvas and a record of family history.
  • A Bitter Pill,” by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes.  This 2019 MBI longlist duo teams up to bring readers a tale of class, connection, and human cruelty in Chile.
  • Hyenas,” by Eduardo Plaza, translated from Spanish by Rahul Bery. Boyhood friends meet again after years apart, sparking a trip through the narrator’s memory that leads to a forgotten—and harrowing—episode. This piece includes a recording of the author reading his work in the original Spanish.
  • My Name’s Nancy,” by Bruno Lloret, translated from Spanish by Ellen Jones. A girl of 17 agrees to marry a gringo on their first date. Nothing in this impulsive start to their marriage hints at the coming misfortunes that will tear them from each other and themselves.
  • The Head of Household Manifesto,” by Catalina Mena, translated from Spanish by Susannah Greenblatt.  Catalina Mena’s manifesto confronts the dilemmas facing women forced to choose between private household duties and public endeavors. As with Plaza’s work, there’s a recording of the author here reading her work in original Spanish.
  • Chilean Electric,” by Nona Fernández, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Climbing into bed with her raconteuse grandmother, a young woman expects another of the old lady’s stories of a bygone Santiago. Instead, she discovers a physical deformity that provokes a reflection on the stories our scars tell of us.

The edition also includes a short feature, this month featuring work from Mozambique, with an introduction by guest editor Sandra Tamele.

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.