Teaching Myself How to Write, by Teaching Myself How to Translate

Things I’m learning while trying to translate Horacio Quiroga.

I have two more Horacio Quiroga translations up on the Ephemera blog:

That’s four stories so far, and I hope to put up more as time allows.

Girl with a Book - Jose Ferraz de Almeida Jr.
Girl with A Book, Jose Ferraz de Almeida Junior (1850). Source: WikiArt

Though my translations are amateur attempts, I’m really enjoying the challenge. Other than The Feather Pillow, these are the first literary stories that I’ve attempted without a previous translation to reference. I’ve translated other things without reference, like this and this, but in those cases I was concerned mostly with meaning. With a literary work, one wants to convey not just meaning, but something of the work’s voice and tone.

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Reading Horacio Quiroga

Exploring the dark tales of this Uruguayan author.

I recently found Horacio Quiroga’s short story “The Dead Man” in Clifton Fadiman’s 1986 collection The World of the Short Story, and it’s given me a new hobby: tracking down all of his short stories that I can find.

Horacio Quiroga 1897
Horacio Quiroga, 1897.
Source: Wikimedia

I’ve seen Quiroga’s stories compared variously to Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, William Faulkner, and Rudyard Kipling; he himself acknowledged the influences of Poe, Kipling and de Maupassant on his work. Like Poe, he had a theory of the perfect short story (one he often contradicted in his own work). Also like Poe, and he was incredibly obsessed with death, and fascinated with madness as well.

This morbid viewpoint is not surprising, given Quiroga’s own life history. His father accidentally shot himself on a hunting trip and later his stepfather deliberately shot himself (apparently, Quiroga witnessed it). In 1900, when Quiroga would have been about twenty-one, his two brothers died of typhoid fever. The following year, one of Quiroga’s best friends, Federico Ferrando, was challenged to a duel. Since Ferrando knew nothing about guns, Quiroga offered to check Ferrando’s gun for him — and accidentally shot and killed Ferrando in the process. Though Quiroga was found innocent of any crime, his own feelings of guilt led him to leave his native Uruguay for Argentina.

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The Ghosts of Byland Abbey

Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories

Near Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, ghosts walked. If only someone would pray for their sins.

I

A traveller, carrying a load of beans, encountered a whirling haystack on the road. Inside the haystack, a strange light glowed. The traveller invoked the haystack; it became a man. This man insisted on carrying the traveller’s beans. When they reached the river, the man disappeared, leaving the traveller with the beans on his own back. The traveller had masses sung for the soul of the revenant, and the ghost was laid.

II

It looked like an injured crow; the tailor tried to help. The crow shot sparks from his sides; in fear, the tailor crossed himself. With a terrible screech, the crow attacked; injured, the tailor prayed for protection. The crow turned into a dog; the tailor invoked the creature to speak. In life, the dog had been a man; he had been excommunicated for a terrible crime (What crime? No one says). Now his ghost wanted absolution, and one hundred and eighty masses to be said for his soul. If the tailor helped him, the ghost would tell him how to heal his wounds; otherwise, the tailor’s flesh would rot, and his skin would waste away.

The tailor went to the priest who had excommunicated the man; the priest refused to give absolution. The tailor begged—who wants their own flesh to rot, or their skin to waste away? Finally the priest agreed. The tailor went to all the monasteries in York, and got one hundred and eighty masses for the man’s soul. The tailor went to meet the ghost; the ghost arrived as a goat, then turned into a flame. Satisfied, the ghost told the tailor to bathe in the river and scrub his body with a certain rock; then the tailor’s wounds would heal. The ghost then left on his journey to heaven; the tailor returned home, and fell ill.

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On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

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Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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New Article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog: Bars of Flaming Swords

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I have a new series of three articles going up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! The series is called Stories my Parents Tell Me, and the first piece, “Bars of Flaming Swords,” is up now.

If you’ve been reading Multo for a while, the articles may seem familiar: I’ve based them on several posts from my Stories my Parents Tell Me category. I’m excited to be sharing my parents’ stories with the larger #FolkloreThursday audience.

“Mom, what do you know about the aswang?”

My parents never told me much about Filipino folklore when I was growing up. As professionals with advanced degrees, maybe they felt that old folktales and superstitions weren’t the kind of thing to share with their American-born daughters. Or maybe they just never thought about it. It wasn’t until much later that I got curious. So on a sunny Boxing Day morning a few years ago, I decided to ask.

Read “Bars of Flaming Swords” here.


Image: Mt. Isarog at the ricefields of Kinalansan, San Jose, Camarines Sur, Philippines. Photo by Geopoet. Source: Wikimedia

The Saga of Pele and Hiiaka: New article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog

1891 kilauea

I have another article on the #FolkloreThursday blog! This one tells the saga of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka.

This one especially struck me because I started the research soon after Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie came out. That movie was a big sensation among (especially) female action movie and comic fans: finally, we have a movie of our own! Everyone loved the strong portrayals of woman by Gal Godot, Robin Wright, and even (in a minor, but not completely fluff, role) Lucy Davis as Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy.

And then I started reading about Pele and Hiiaka and I realized — Hawaiian mythology has had this all along! The women in this saga — both major and minor characters — rule their own lives, with all the good and bad that this entails. It was a pleasure to discover it, and a joy to share it with other folklore aficionados.

A fiery-tempered, jealous deity; passionate friendship and love; brave warriors on a quest. These are elements of great myths and sagas from all over the world, but the saga of the volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka is special: it is a saga of powerful, self-actuated women. As John Charlot wrote, the Pele saga is “among the fullest, most interesting characterizations [of women] in world literature.”

In addition to the fascinating story, one of the best parts for me was discovering the hula and chant, Ke Ha`a Ala Puna, which commemorates one episode of the saga. I included a performance of the hula in the post.

Read about the saga here.

Enjoy!

The Pishtaco: New article on #FolkloreThursday Blog

640px Peru Altiplano2

I have an article up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! I write about the Pishtaco, a fat-stealing ghoul whose legend circulates among indigenous communities in the Andean highlands. I first heard about this legend on a visit to Peru — and it hit the news internationally as recently as 2009 (as you’ll read in the article)!

Known by many names, this legendary fat-stealer stalks indigenous communities in the rural Andean highlands.

In the Peruvian Andes, they say he wanders the roads at night. He may look like a gringo (someone not Hispanic or Latino): hairy and bearded, wearing boots, a hat, and leather jacket. He may be on horseback, or in more modern times, in a car. He may look like a priest, walking along the side of the road. With his long knife, he attacks solitary travelers and dismembers them for food and for their fat.

In the Bolivian Andes, he might be the stranger next to you on the bus; don’t fall asleep! And don’t walk alone on the roads, either. If you meet him on the path, he will put you into a deep sleep with his prayers, or with powdered human bones. As you sleep he extracts the brown, hard fat around your organs (cebo: tallow or suet) with his knife, or with a special machine. You awaken, feeling weak. You fall sick. In a few days, you die.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you enjoy it.


Image: The Andes, Ayacucho Region, Peru. Source: Wikimedia

Buildings and Dreams

Bancroft Hotel

I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

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Two More Literary Excavations

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I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

A Darkish Little Fairy Tale, or An Anecdote on Writing

The last rays of the sun aspen forest 1897 jpg Large

A cool fact about aspens (from Wikipedia):

All of the aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers; new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (98–131 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando”, is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3.3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares.

In other words, a stand of aspens is really one organism. It’s like planting a piece of ginger root: eventually, these narrow, green, bamboo-like stalks will sprout from the rhizome. If you’ve buried the ginger, then each stalk looks like an individual plant, but they’re really all sprouts from the same root. Aspens are kind of the same way.

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