Friday, April 27, 2007

PEN World Voices: From Page to Stage I

This year’s International Literature Festival brought about the first collaboration between PEN American Center and the Martin Segal Theatre Center. Thursday afternoon, a Polish, Russian, and Portuguese playwright gathered in this intimate theater setting with moderator Tom Sellar, editor of Theater Magazine to talk about the challenges of bringing the private work of a play into the public eye. How does it feel for authors to see their work produced? To what degree do they get involved in the production process? How do they deal with issues of translation when their plays cross borders to different countries and cultures? What’s the difference between the work of translating plays and translating other literary forms? Those were some questions that Dorota Maslowska (Poland), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia), and José Luis Peixoto (Portugal) confronted during this session.

The highlight of this session involved a group of young actors, whom were not introduced to the audience, giving dramatic readings of the English translations of these playwrights’ recent plays. First up was Vladimir Sorokin’s Dostoevsky Trip. The premise of the play grew from the idea that literature is a drug. In the future, perhaps, we will live in a time and place where people can get their favorite literary fix in the form of a pill. In this play, seven literature addicts decide to take some pills together. They go to the dealer who is prepared to sell them Alexandre Dumas pills that offer a mellow trip, suitable for twelve friends. When the dealer realizes there are only seven of them, he shakes with disapproval; the Dumas pill will not work for seven; they must try the Dostoevsky drug. The friends make the purchase, pop the pill, and are suddenly transported to scene in The Idiot in which The Prince is admitting that he would like to marry Natasha Filippovna.

We heard a dramatic reading of an excerpt from José Luis Peixoto’s The Winter Arrives. The playwright was influenced by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Faulkner’s pregnant woman character from Light in August who changes the lives of the three men in the sanitarium. In Peixoto’s scene, three men talk nonsense over a grave then we see them sick in an asylum. Personally, I felt this play might be a more interesting read by an individual reader. It didn’t come off as well as Sorokin’s.

Dorota Maslowska’s play A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians includes two young Polish people who have this idea of dressing themselves up to try to convince others that they are almost homeless Romanians. Over the course of the play, their ruse breaks down. It is a play about hatred. The actors read lines that came off as crude, sad, and funny. Their dramatic interpretations were quite gripping, and I would have loved to see the whole play in context to get a better idea of these characters’ motivations.

Overall, I felt that the discussion with the playwrights relied too much on this idea of drama being difficult to translate. Instead, I wished the discussion could have focused more on the playwrights’ writing practice, craft, and influences. For instance, it turned out that the only answer Vladimir Sorokin could give to the question of his involvement in the production is that he doesn’t get involved. That is not his business. His business is the text. He admitted that he has walked out on the opening nights of his plays because he is so overwhelmed by what monstrous creations they become once they are produced. He laughed that he was sure the same thing would happen again in the future. But he also admitted that a writer shouldn’t get involved in the production of his plays. Maslowska and Peixoto echoed these sentiments. A play, in its life, goes through many layers of translation and interpretation, and everyone participates: directors, actors, and audience members. These playwrights agreed that variety is something to celebrate. There seemed to be a lot of consensus on this panel, though we had just witnessed vastly different dramatic creations.

Saturday, April 28th at 6:30 pm, the Martin Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY will host “From Page to Stage III: Whose Translation is it Anyway?” Speakers include playwrights Charles Mulekwa from Uganda and Koffi Kwahulé from the Ivory Coast. Their plays will be read in English and discussion will follow. Again, the discussion is supposed to focus on cross-cultural challenges. I wonder if there will be a future PEN festival that won’t be so hung up on the challenging aspect of translation. Of course crossing borders poses challenges, but aren’t the audience members who are hungry for this PEN festival showing that they are willing and ready to cross borders, face the challenges, become more aware of the World out there? Perhaps someday panel discussion will better reflect our readiness to feel at ease with the challenges, confront them with grace, and move on so that we can ask these artists and translators about craft, transitions, adjustments, and fusion. Crossing borders is nothing new, really. It’s been going on for thousands of years. When people learn that I speak and write the Chinese language, they often will say, “Isn’t that a hard language to learn?” I have not figured out a good answer to this question yet, but I know the question unsettles me. Usually I tell them, compared to English, Chinese grammar is very simple. So what if learning a language or translating a text is hard? Life is hard for most of us, and a hard life is also a good life and is someting to celebrate. No?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Home & Away: The PEN World Voices Festival

This is the theme of this year’s PEN World Voices International Literature Festival: Home & Away.

Last night, the festival began with an amazing line-up of writers reading from works, others’ and their own, with the theme of “Green Thoughts: Writers on the Environment.”

Here was a splendid literary banquet: We heard Geert Mak read a Frisian poem; Gary Shteyngart read about SUVs melting in Syracuse; Roxana Robinson read a Chekhov story about the Steppes of Mongolia; Moses Isegawa read about machines making the farmer’s life easier; Billy Collins read about gated communities; Janne Teller read about a Norwegian hermit and hunter; Colson Whitehead read about a father and son post-apocalypse road trip; Jonathan Franzen read about a polar bear raised by a generous father who then let the polar bear eat him; Pico Iyer read from Peter Matthiesson’s Snow Leopard; Marilynne Robinson discussed the perils of nuclear power and read from her amazing essay “Wilderness”; and Salmon Rushdie read from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

For Vimeo coverage of the event, check out Bud Parr's site Chekhov's Mistress.

Last night’s was a splendid opening event for this year’s festival that is in its third year running. I can boast perfect attendance, as I have been a fan of this festival since its initial run in 2005. At that time, PEN’s idea was to provide New York City (and America) with a service that it was missing: A real dialogue between the U.S. and the rest of the world. As Salmon Rushdie commented, at least we can do this in a cultural realm. Now through Sunday there are over sixty events and over 100 writers from all over the world giving readings and speaking on panels at venues all over the city. It’s thoroughly refreshing and inspiring. I don’t even have to say, “I wouldn’t miss it for The World” because this festival is for The World.

Below are my own five little riffs on the PEN Festival theme:

When she’s home, she often thinks of those she loves who live far away. When she’s away, she often thinks of those she loves who stay home.

Home is where, even if you don’t speak their language, they understand you, or more often where you do speak their language, and they don’t understand you.

Away from home, the supple mind will surrender to a home away from home.

Home offers a place to invite friends and keep rivals away.

When the situation at home overwhelms, away sweet away.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Ghosts of All Aborted Fetuses

Riva Djinn has been hanging out with the acid rock band again. She’s not a groupie in the traditional sense. She’s more like their occasional muse, though the rhythm section likes to refer to her as its throbbing wet nurse. When it’s looking for a sharp lick, the band follows Riva’s whims; and this week she just feels like slapping any joker who mistakenly refers to the medical procedure of Intact Dilation and Extraction as “Partial Birth Abortion.” Not only does Riva think that the Supreme Court’s most recent decision about “Partial Birth Abortion” can be easily dismissed by its lack of concern for medical science, women’s health, and Constitutional rights, but also the majority opinion is fraught with mistaken terminology. How can we have a real debate about women’s rights to choose when we’re caught up in the issue of fetal viability? So what does The State plan to do with all those “Viables” anyway? Plenty of living, breathing children are ignored by The State every day, plenty of children are left behind. Where is federal protection for an unwanted child once it is living in the cruel world? Why does The State give such a hot damn about fetuses and then ignore children? So this week, Riva felt obliged to experience her morning sickness vomiting episode on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. Write a lyric about that, acid rock band!

Though the musicians of the acid rock band have tried on many occasions, none have discovered what is eating Riva Djinn; they have tried to discover the secret in Riva’s heart. They’ll never find it, and that’s because they’re looking in the wrong place. Riva doesn’t keep secrets in her heart. She keeps them in her womb, which is much more central to a woman’s physiology than the heart ever was. While someone like Don Juan will seal his doom when he dines with the ghost of the father of a woman he tricked and raped, Riva Djinn feasts with ghosts of aborted fetuses who are more than grateful they never saw the daylight that slips off this greasy planet. And it’s not her doom Riva seals during this feast. No. She seals a promise that in the Land of the Never-Have-Lived, no being ever knows the dehumanizing feeling of rejection.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Belly Dancer is Expecting

Lyric Evans worked years at mastering her skills as a professional Belly Dancer. She recently received the good news that she is pregnant. And, yes, the pregnancy is desired. As of this week, Lyric is eight weeks along and feeling the unpleasant effects of the first trimester. But she is also feeling how silky and luxuriant grows the lining of her uterus. When she is supremely relaxed, quiet, and indulging a state of bliss, Lyric feels a miniature sensation, a tiny, rapid beating, a primitive heart rhythm, a fluttering yearn for human life surging up from her core. This is pure joy, and Lyric, who is normally very composed in her “too-cool-for-school” urban attitude, can hardly keep her eyes from tearing up, due to the unspeakable elation.

On the other hand, a few days ago, she was taking a leisurely stroll down Broadway. She passed the old “It’s a Wrap” sandwich shop whose window had gone dark. There was a sign that read: “We’ve closed. Thanks to the neighborhood for ten great years!” At this, Lyric started crying, no, grieving over the done-for business, even though she’d never even been to that sandwich shop. A funny-faced stranger felt sorry for her and handed Lyric a clean, folded polka-dot hankie. He said, “Dry your eyes, Lady! Nothing to cry over. That was a lousy lunch dump, anyway! Wasn’t even organic.” Lyric wiped her eyes and thanked him and said, “You mind if I soak your hankie with my pregnancy hormones?” Lyric didn’t even see what happened to the man next. He either ran away or tripped into the gutter or disappeared or fainted. What did it matter? She had a crying fit to work her way through and then she had to vomit and then it was off to the studio to rehearse.

Lyric considers herself most fortunate because her pregnancy will never get in the way of the growth and mobility she will enjoy in her career. Pregnancy is to a professional Belly Dancer what a fat holiday bonus is to a financial analyst: abunDANCE!

Dance on, Lady Lyric, dance on!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Who is Doctor Pablo Delgado?

Pablo Delgado is a scientist who writes erotic graphic novels in his spare time. He has secured a mobster’s trunk-load of grant money to continue his highly confidential lab research. Doctor Delgado is concocting The Elixir of Immortality for our planet Earth. He pulls his dread locks out trying to come up with the perfect eco-chemical equation that will save the Earth from its environmental demise. Indeed, Doctor Delgado has got a tough job to do.

But who wants to have the job of breaking the bad news to Mother Earth?

“Mother Earth, darling, you have a condition. I’m sorry, it’s terminal; it’s fatal; there’s no cure.”

Breaking such news to the Earth would be as challenging as convincing the Bush administration that the War in Iraq was always, and will forever be, a deadly mistake. Face it. It's a bust.

But Pablo Delgado is not someone who takes war stories, nationalism, or violence all that seriously. Nope. When Doc Delgado has had a hard day's night, he removes his lab coat and goggles and gets busy airbrushing the genitals onto his wild-haired fictional characters. In fact, right now he is finishing up a story about two lovers who met in the Pentagon and made the humiliating mistake of consummating their relationship on a desk piled with documents revealing some doped-up enemy’s weapons plans. Delgado is working out the scene in which the tears, jism, blood, and shit left by the lovers on the documents lead to a totally misguided military occupation.

Keep the midnight oil burning, Doctor Delgado! Someday, even if it is the last day of Earth, there may be an audience for your deranged scribbles.