Words Without Borders’ 2021 Queer Edition: ‘Reckonings’

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At ‘Words Without Borders,’ Susan Harris’ curation of this year’s queer issue has focused on inflection points that require ‘reckonings.’

Held on Monday (June 28), a pride parade focused on trans rights in Valencia. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Bpp Photo

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

‘These Critical Moments’
Part of the good news of Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris’ 12th annual “queer issue” for gay pride month is that it won’t disappear after gay pride month. This edition of the magazine retains its lead through a couple of weeks into July, we’re told, so if you’ve missed it during June, it’s still waiting for you.

The focus this year is on “seven pieces depicting queer characters confronting decisive moments,” Harris writes, having titled her introductory essay “Reckonings: The Queer Issue XII.”

And as Deirdre Shesgreen’s article today (June 30) at USA Today indicates, Harris has caught this year’s moment well.

“From Central America to Africa, LGBTQ communities have been disproportionately affected by a global backsliding on democracy and human rights and by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shesgreen reports gay advocacy specialists saying.

Jessica Stern

Granted, in the United States where the nonprofit Words Without Borders is based, the advent of the Joe Biden administration is quickly showing improvement in the outlook in several moves, but most prominently in its appointment on Friday (June 25) of Jessica Stern as US Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons at the Blinken State Department. The executive director of OutRight Action International, Stern is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

And Stern in her new role with the Biden administration follows no one, of course. Donald Trump never filled the position.

In international gay communities today, Harris writes at Words Without Borders, “Some find themselves at turning points, while others reckon with past choices or cope with the fallout of decisions made by those around them.

“In their divergent settings and circumstances, these characters confront their individual crises with ingenuity and alacrity, pivoting within their shifting contexts.”

In a work from South Africa, Harris writes of a trans woman whose “preoccupation with a childhood friend’s descent into addiction and his subsequent disappearance intrudes into even her most pleasant reveries.”

Susan Harris

She writes of Raúl Gómez Jattin, a Colombian poet of Syrian descent, recalling “the endless sun and welcome shade of his hometown.”

In Nina Bouraoui’s contribution, the piece’s narrator is a woman who leaves her sleeping husband and children in Algiers for “A Night in Timimoun” and an encounter that has her, in monologue, saying:

“I’ve long believed that we could choose our life, make the decision to follow one path rather than another; if I were truly free, as I claim to have been in the plane that was, unbeknownst to me, leading me to you, I’d have come and told you how much your beauty unsettles me, how much your solitude resembles mine.

“I’m waiting for the light; for mirages are born of light.”

If anything, Harris’ selections might make you wonder if memories aren’t mirages. More than one of these characters depend on memory, sometimes inaccurate, giving way, as in the work of Panama’s Javier Stanziola, to “a revelation.”

“These characters pursue solutions that differ as widely as their situations,” Harris writes, “but they share the determination to move through these critical moments to a place of comfort and understanding.’

And as in years past, Harris’ curation provides some cultural translation that illuminates borders of identity and selfhood–almost making national and territorial borders look easy by comparison.

In the June Edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

Writers with work represented in this edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ include, from left, Nina Bouraoui; Li Kotomi; Fahmi Mustaffa; Olivia M. Coetzee; and Javier Stanziola

  • Yun-Fan: Singing the Variety of Queer Life” is a nonfiction extract by Wanning Chen from the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association compilation Grandma’s Girlfriends: The Splendid Youth of Older Lesbians, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. In it, “an elderly butch lesbian who joined the queer community at 44 looks back on her life. Wanning Chen, since 2009, has been a volunteer with both the Beijing Queer Center and the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association.
  • A Night in Timimoun” is a short story by Nina Bouraoui, translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Bouraoui was born to an Algerian father and French mother in Rennes. Her last novel, Otages (JC Lattès), and her novels have been translated into more than 15 languages.
  • In the Shadows” is an extract from the novel Innie Shadows by Olivia M. Coetzee, published in 2019. This extract is translated from Kaaps by the author. Coetzee was born in Mariental, a small town in Namibia, and grew up in Electric City, a suburb of Cape Town.  She’s working on PhD research around the history of Kaaps, or the language variant sometimes referred to as Cape Afrikaans. Coetzee’s debut novel, Innie Shadows, was published in December 2019.
  • Gustavo” is an extract from the novel Hombres enlodados by Javier Stanziola, translated from Spanish by Alexander Aguayo. The story has to do with a teen’s receipt of a letter from the stepfather who deserted his family. Stanziola is a writer and university professor, the winner of Panama’s National Literary Award for three of his plays and for his novel, Hombres enlodados. He writes for one of the largest newspapers in Panama, La Estrella de Panama, and for the Central American cultural magazine (Casi) Literal.
  • Cereté, Córdoba” is a poem by Raúl Gómez Jattin (1945-1997), translated from Spanish by Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott. Gómez Jattin was one of Colombia’s most outstanding poets and the author of seven books of poetry. Of Syrian descent, he wrote in a way that broke with his country’s tradition. His untimely death at 52 was the result of a bus accident.
  • Solo Dance” is an extract from the novel Solo Dance by Li Kotomi, translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce. The bilingual author wrote this book in both Japanese and Chinese. This translation is from the latter, but the one forthcoming from World Books is from the Japanese. In the work, a solitary preteen finds her crush on a female classmate interrupted by tragedy. Li Kotomi was born in Taiwan and moved to Japan in 2013. In 2017, she won the sixtieth Gunzō New Writers’ Prize for Solo Dance.
  • Theo” is an extract from the novel Amsterdam by Fahmi Mustaffa, translated from Malay by Adriana Nordin Manan. Mustaffa is a writer, translator, visual artist, and illustrator making his English-language debut. His first novel is Laknat (2016). He’s also the author of the novels Suatu Hari Nanti Manusia Akan Melupakan Tuhan and Manusia as well as Amsterdam.

From Words Without Borders’ June edition, Hung-Chi Chen, 耽溺與背叛, ‘Addict and Betrayer,’ acrylic and glitter on canvas. Image: Courtesy of the artist and provided to Publishing Perspectives by Words Without Borders


More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here. More from us on LGBTQ issues is here, more on the freedom of expression is here, and more on political literature is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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 as an arts critic (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.

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