Words Without Borders: The world through the eyes of writers is less a collection of short stories and more a marvelous and inspirational entryway into the universe of global literature. The name, however, is somewhat (and I assume unintentionally) ironic as so many of the stories are grounded in nationalism – either with pride or with, as Horacio Castellanos Moya titles his story, revulsion. In fact, the dynamic between nationalism and global literature is touched on by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his introduction to Seno Gumira Ajidarma‘s short story Children of the Sky:
Unlike writers in the more developed countries of the world, third-world writers don’t have the luxury of devoting themselves completely to the development of their personal writing style or technique. They have an extra task, what I would call “nation building.” Perhaps a writer shouldn’t have to have this task, but in the third world, participating in nation building is, I feel, an honor, not a burden.
I have now read four of his books. The first one I read was Revulsion, perhaps his best work, certainly his most arresting, a long declamation against El Salvador for which Castellanos Moya received death threats that obliged him to leave the country for a life in exile.
Revulsion is not only an adaptation of folktales or the expression of a writer’s profound disillusionment in the face of his moral and political circumstances, but also a stylistic experiment that parodies the work of Bernhard; it is a novel that will make you die laughing.
Unfortunately, very few people in El Salvador have read Bernhard and even fewer have maintained a good sense of humor. One doesn’t joke about homeland. This is a popular saying not only in El Salvador, but also in Chile and Cuba, in Peru and Mexico, and even in Austria and some other European countries. If Castellanos Moya were Bosnian or Kosovar he wouldn’t even have ben able to board a plane to leave the country. And therein lies one of the great virtues of this book: nationalists of all stripes can’t stand it. Its sharp humor, not unlike a a Buster Keaton film or a time bomb, have an uncontrollable desire to hang the author in the town square. I can’t think of a higher honor for the writer.
Whether envisioning the pen as an instrument to prop up a particular nation or to lambaste the very notion of nationhood, Words Without Borders reveals that we have still yet to reach the era of what Eliot Weinberger describes as the “The Post-National Writer.” The differing perspectives of whether literature should be rooted firmly in nationhood or should try to transcend it is, of course, nothing new. It is at the very heart of Gary Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island. As I see it, it is also at the heart of the public response to the recent clash of egos between Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul detests nationalism and dislikes his native Trinidad and Tobago. Walcott has become the literary father of the Caribbean.
Nationalism aside, Words Without Borders is one hell of a collection. I recommend it to every English speaker. The format of the book is smart; 28 literary heavyweights like Günter Grass, Ha Jin, and Roberto Calasso, introduce the works of 28 lesser-known writers – works which have never been translated into English before. Among my favorites were The Scripture Read Backward in which Bangladeshi author Parashuram imagines a world in which India colonizes Britain rather than the other way around; The Uses of English by Akinwumi Isola, which makes the reader feel like an observant resident of a rural Nigerian village in just ten pages; Vietnam. Thursday., which would have brought tears to my eyes if I didn’t hold them back in a silly show of manliness; and Juan Forn’s Swimming at Night, a must read for anyone who still thinks that Latin American literature is just multi-generational political stories from the jungle.
Not only is the format of the book very smart, but so is the model of the organization. The foundation of Words Without Borders is its website, which it likes to refer to as an “online magazine.” Then there is an annual print anthology. The 2006 anthology, Axis of Evil, features “short stories and fiction excerpts from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan, and other countries from whom the government would rather we didn’t hear.” I have put it on my “to read” list and I will most certainly do the same with their 2008 anthology, whenever it is announced. Words Without Borders also organizes reading events and is developing an educational curriculum “for use in the high school classroom, including suggested readings, study questions, writing prompts, suggestions for further study and a forum for teachers to discuss materials.”
The model intrigues me because I wonder if it might be the future model of Global Voices. As interest in the global blogosphere continues to grow, our annual Global Voices Summit will attract more and more people from all over. We are also making an educational curriculum. And for a long time now we’ve talked about producing an attractive print book from the thousands and thousands of posts in the Global Voices archive. I would love it if Global Voices could become for bloggers what Words Without Borders is becoming for writers of fiction.