This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 12th–28th August 2017 at Charlotte Square Gardens and George Street, Edinburgh. The events ‘Outriders: Mariana Enriquez & Kevin MacNeil. Argentina: In Search of UFOs’ and ‘Outriders: Jennifer Haigh & Malachy Tallack. USA: From North Dakota to New Orleans’ took place on the 15th August 2017.
Kevin MacNeil (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson. An Anthology. Selected by Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares (Polygon, 2017)
Mariana Enriquez, Things we lost in the fire, translated by Megan McDowell (Portobello, 2017)
Silvina Ocampo, Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston (New York Review Books, 2015)
Silvina Ocampo, Silvina Ocampo, NYRB|Poets series, (New York Review Books, 2015)
Malachy Tallack, Jennifer Haigh et.al., Outriders (Polygon/Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2017) [For a free eBook, please email email@example.com]
By Rebecca DeWald
The Outriders programme paired five Scottish authors with a local writer each to travel through the Americas. Programme coordinator and this year’s EIBF acting director Jenny Niven explained during one event that part of the idea was to not “quite predict where it was going” and to match the writers with “people in the area they were interested in travelling, though not as guides, but to go on the journey with them, as creative stimulus.” In times of political turmoil, she explains in the Outriders booklet, “revealing connections between unlikely sources” is pertinent since “writers and artists’ representing of the world leads ultimately to better understanding and to empathy.”
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After the book signing for the Outriders USA event, I was asked if I was willing to be filmed saying a few words about the event and the book festival more generally. With time on my hands before the next event, I agreed, was immediately mic-ed up and asked the question: “What do you think is the advantage or appeal of an event like this?” (you’ll be able to verify the exact phrasing of the question once the video is up on the EIBF site). Since I hadn’t prepared for this question, my answer was more of a gut reaction: I think the appeal of events like the Outriders series lies in the fact that they show the backstory of a literary text and shed light onto the way in which it came into being. They answer a favourite amongst audience questions: “What inspired you to write this work, what were your influences?” in a more insightful way by showing the process of creating it. And everybody likes to hear about others’ travels, surely.
Why that is, is perhaps a deeper question. The quick answer might be curiosity and the human brain’s desire to seek out stimulation by looking for the new. Wanting to hear about other people’s travels fulfils that need, while also providing safety from the unknown: I don’t have to leave my known surrounding in order to imagine these journeys. Written travel accounts offer the additional joy of linking places on maps with passages in books, creating textual networks.
Scottish writer Kevin MacNeil said about his journey through Argentina with Mariana Enriquez: “We both had a life-enhancing, literature-enhancing, memorable, inspiring, sometimes challenging encounter and are still at the start of this journey.” These travels come in a series of long-standing intercourse between Scotland and Argentina which he discovered – or rather uncovered – on his trip to South America, and through compiling an anthology of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work as imagined by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares:
This anthology does not build a notional bridge between the literatures of Scotland and Argentina so much as shed light on a tangible, pleasing and under-recognised connection that already exists.(Stevenson anthology)
This connection is based on the ability to travel in space, to facilitate encounters between writers of different nationalities. There is a hint of irony – of the Borgesian sort, if you wish – in choosing Borges as the subject of a journey, when most of the blind writer’s own travelling happened in his library and in his mind, through writing fiction, fictional essays and poetry. I remember first reading Borges and being intrigued by his metaphysical play with words, though not fully grasping his ideas in any tangible way. It is another Scotsman, and unsurprisingly one of his translators (translation, after all, is a form of intensely close reading), who managed to make Borges’s ideas more palpable. MacNeil quotes Alastair Reid in the anthology:
We are physical beings, rooted in the physical cycle of life-and-death. Yet we are also users of language, fiction-makers, and language and fictions are not, like us, subject to natural laws. Through them, we are able to cross over into a timeless dimension, to bring into being alternate worlds, to enjoy the full freedom of the imaginable.
In a passing comment, MacNeil highlighted the equal importance of time travel to physical travel. The “lasting legacy” of his journey to Argentina “has to be books”, precisely, the anthology of Stevenson’s work, a book “conceived by Borges and Bioy Casares before I was ever born.” The goal of the publication is hence, through this delay in time, to show “that this tangible link between Argentina and our wee island has already existed. I hope to shine light on this bridge and highlight both.”
MacNeil also mentioned Borges’s well-know story ‘Kafka y sus precursores’ in the talk, in which the writer postulates that Kafka invented his own precursors by developing such a succinct style that it could be recognized in previous writers’ works in a reverse chronology. Though the opposite is also true: “Borges suggest that writers rewrite previous writers without truly realising it” (Robert Louis Stevenson. An Anthology). MacNeil sees parallels between Stevenson and Borges/Bioy Casares (the two writers often collaborated in writing, translating and editing and shared similar tastes in literature), for example their interest in fables and fantastical literature and tropes, but also the fact that all writers were attracted to the shadier, gloomier parts of society. A theme which also appears over and over in Mariana Enriquez’s collection Things we lost in the fire, translated by Megan McDowell, accompanied by a ‘Translator’s Note’. It is McDowell’s words that opened this event, read by MacNeil:
A shadow hangs over Argentina and its literature. Like many of the adolescent democracies of the Southern Cone, the country is haunted by the spectre of recent dictatorships, and the memory of violence there is still raw.
Translators’ words, in prefaces and interviews, are becoming more common, though are still not the norm (I am currently reading a book in English that does not include any reference to the translator, nor indeed the fact that it is a translation; these publications still exist). So hearing McDowell’s analysis of Enriquez’s short story collection immediately made me tune into the way in which the event was going to unfold. And indeed, chair Nick Barley confirmed: “Megan McDowell is one of the most exciting and insightful translators working on Latin American literature today and it is she who introduced us to Mariana Enriquez.” Women, indeed, played a central role in the discussion, and in Enriquez’s writing: “All characters [in Things we lost in the fire] are women, but it was not intentional, it just happened. I think there was a thing in the air.” Later on, she confirmed Barley’s characterisation that there is a surge of contemporary female writers in Argentina: “I don’t like labels, but it is true. I think it comes from many factors, too many to list. There are many women, Samanta Schweblin, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. She is very good, and she is nice. There are also guys. But I think there is a strong sense of community. There is little petty competitiveness.” Barley connected the vibrancy of the literary scene with the cruelty of some of Enriquez’s stories: “Against this backdrop of a young democracy, of femicides, there is this extraordinary vibrant literary scene.” And Enriquez offered an explanation of sorts: “I think it’s very free because it’s a country of contrast. If you go to some places in the city it feels like Madrid or Paris, and you walk a little and it’s a slum. And the literature reflects that, a strange vitality.”
Enriquez has a precursor of her own. While Things we lost in the fire shows many parallels with Victorian gothic horror, McDowell points out in her ‘Translator’s Note’ that Argentina produced a gothic tradition of its own, with Borges and Silvina Ocampo as some of its stellar examples. When speaking to Enriquez at the book signing after the event, I mentioned that her work reminds me of Silvina Ocampo, who had recently (in 2015) been published in English for the first time: selected poems, translated by Jason Weiss, and the short story collection Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston (the same Borges scholar who MacNeil references in his introduction), both published by New York Review Books. No coincidence, as it turned out: Enriquez wrote a biography of Ocampo, La hermana menor (the little sister, as a reference to her much better known older sister Victoria Ocampo). She signed my book “éste libro es muy Silvina” (“this book is very Silvina”). And “Silvina”, as I found out later, is the protagonist of the collection’s title story. Both Enriquez and Ocampo share a rich Argentine imagination, defined by Borges in his Preface to Ocampo’s short story collection (in Balderston’s translation):
In other parts of South America, the short story is usually no more than a simple sketch of daily life or a simple social protest, or often an unhappy mixture of the two; among us, in Argentina, it tends to be the product of an imagination granted the fullest freedom.
But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Enriquez as “new gothic” writer, since her stories are very much rooted in the present-day fears and anxieties of a generation raised during a string of dictatorships. “Haunted houses and deformed children exist on the same plane as extreme poverty, drugs, and criminal pollution” (McDowell’s ‘Translator’s Note’) and can be read as much in light of gothic literature, as markers of the debris the Argentine Dirty Wars of the 70s and 80s has left behind. Enriquez explained that, though she liked genre fiction, her culture compelled her to “put politics in there. Women, violence, the disappeared – it’s inescapable.”
One example is the story ‘Chicos que faltan’ (translated as ‘Lost Children’ by McDowell for Outriders), inspired by Scots clergyman Robert Kirk (1691), in which disappeared children reappear, though at the same age they were when they vanished. This story, taken from Scottish folklore, shows intricate parallels with Argentina’s own past (and with the recent French TV drama Les Revenants). “In the last minute of the dictatorship, the generals kidnapped people and gave young children to other families. They did it out of cruelty and ideological reasons, because they wanted the child to grow up in a non-Peronista family. […] I ended up writing about my history again.” It was her friend María Eva Perez, she said, who made her realise that it was in fact a story about her reappeared brother, as Enriquez explains in Outriders:
In so many words, she told me that we can’t escape our history. And she was right, frustrating as it is, because one tends to think that literature is pure freedom. And then again, it is. That freedom let me take a story from an old book of Scottish folklore and reinvent it to talk about a Latin American country’s people, history and scars.
She recounted many more examples of friends and acquaintances disappearing 10 or 20 years ago, so history is “very present, it’s not from the past. It’s not that I’m
writing about ghosts and haunted houses, because politics is about ghosts.” The historical parallels with the fiction of her own country only give further depth to Enriquez’s work – especially because translation into English has turned Enriquez (first translated in 2017) and Ocampo (first translated in 2015) into contemporaries, if only for English readers. Borges’s preface still rings true: “The present, we might say in passing, is perhaps no less cruel than the past, or than the various pasts, but its cruelties are clandestine.”
If MacNeil and Enriquez took us on a journey back to the origins of a “literary friendship” between Scotland and Argentina, US travellers Malachy Tallack and Jennifer Haigh were overtaken by current events. Their journey in May took them, at times independently, from North Dakota via Appalachia to Louisiana, through the Rust Belt and Coal Country – Trump’s voter base, as it were. Haigh, who grew up in a coalmining town in Pennsylvania, knows the Rust Belt and its people well:
As a kid, this was a really vibrant place. By the time I finished school, coalmining was all over in Pennsylvania. What was a buzzling economy had come to a halt. My whole generation has left the town.
These stories about the Rust Belt, about Coal Country, we’ve heard a lot since the election. We heard a lot of them have voted Trump. I was back there last week and the Trump signs are still up. Apart from my immediate family, everyone voted for Trump.
At the time of the event, a “free speech” rally was imminent in Boston, following the white nationalist event in Charlottesville just days earlier. Haigh was aching to be home in Boston at such a critical time:
It is odd for me to be in Scotland just now because I feel my country is on fire, and it’s not an accidental fire, it is arson. I’m nervous about going back. There is a free speech demonstration in Boston on Saturday. “Free speech” has become coded for “white supremacist”.
Their conversation and reminiscence of the journey was interspliced with texts they each wrote about the experience, and accompanied by slides (some of them barely visible thanks to rare Scottish sunshine). One of these depicted a tall empty pillar in New Orleans, the former plinth to a statue of Robert E. Lee. Often these empty spaces exist in lieu of a debate around, as Tallack said, “this memory, and how it has changed and is changing publicly.” This becomes apparent in the way it was removed, as Haigh explains, “by order of the mayor removed by city employees, but they did it after midnight and they wore hoods.” She quoted an unnamed writer: “You cannot rewrite history, and the act of removing them is not changing history.”
This underlying discrepancy between two opposing perceptions of the past is not intrinsic to the US alone, though its violent eruption has become more pronounced in North America, a “country with competing histories” (Tallack in Outriders) in recent times. It is also not a debate around the “pros” and “cons” of slavery, or of racial difference, but is linked with nostalgia: “Northerners often see it as about race, and Southerners about place. And it is such an irreconcilable question. We talked about it at length and I still don’t know how I feel about it,” Tallack admitted.
The journey gave both writers a new perspective on their imminent work as well. “What did you expect?”, Jenny Niven asked. While Tallack set out to make journalistic notes of his travels, Haigh wanted to write fiction. By the end, both had rethought the way in which to process the events, “through fiction perhaps”, Tallack hesitated, though he might already have ideas for his next two books as a result of the journey. Haigh ended up writing essays, “which is something I never do,” though she may still write the planned short stories and found the “fourth act to this current novel that I didn’t know until this trip.” While neither writer seemed optimistic about a future “that respects that sense of place but doesn’t lead us into that ghastly reactionary scenario” (audience question), Tallack cautiously replied that “literature can play a small part”.
What made both these Outriders events so memorable for me is that they opened up a world of networks of literary texts and influences, in a way that good books do. “Intertextuality” is too theoretical a word for this experience of “reading” events, partly because it is an entirely personal feeling, different for each reader/audience member. Witnessing the critical and creative impact of these journeys creates a map and populates it with their itineraries, with people, books and thoughts, and brings it to life. I saw connections between Mariana Enriquez and Silvina Ocampo, and also Camilla Grudova’s short stories (which Enriquez knew, to my surprise); between Kevin MacNeil’s journey to Argentina and my own attempt at following Borges’s path through Buenos Aires, but also a rural adventure in the sierras de Córdoba, locally known for its spiritual energies and UFO sightings (I thought our taxi driver back in 2014 took as for a metaphorical ride when he mentioned the UFOs while chauffeuring us into the middle of nowhere, only to be proven wrong through MacNeil’s similar experience now, three years later); between Malachy Tallack and Jennifer Haigh’s photograph of the empty pillar where once stood a monument to Robert E. Lee, reminding me of my mother’s recent question to my brother, who chose to move from Germany to the American Mid West, why people see the need to remove statues, and my brother’s empathy for the Southerners, which I could not understand at the time.
On my last day at the festival, after all the stimuli of previous days’ discussions, I took the time to peruse the EIBF’s expansive on-site bookshop. While browsing the books, I had the urge to read more non-fiction, more essays. I was astounded by the amount of original books (not translations) on Russian history, and the Russian Revolution in particular: Was this simply because of this year’s centenary or have British readers always had an interest in the Great Bear? In the same section, between history, politics and current affairs, I found what I was subconsciously looking for: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in its current re-edition. The final copy on the shelf. It seemed to sum up the discussions about the American Midwest (the book had sold out in the US after Trump’s election), but is also served as a token of what Borges thinks reading can achieve, as MacNeil writes: “For Borges, the act of reading can encourage readers to interrogate the relationship between reality and imagination, between possibility and experience.”
* After Jorge Luis Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos (1975)