Today, Ruth Colvin, a pioneer in literacy and a Syracuse resident, celebrates her centennial birthday.
After reading about the 1960 census from an article in the Post-Standard newspaper, Colvin learned that over 11,000 people in her town of Syracuse were functionally illiterate—and she set out to solve this issue. She spoke with local social service agents, community leaders, and church groups to better understand the problem of illiteracy and to recruit help. Colvin worked with literacy experts and specialists to create materials and programs that would be used to train volunteers and tutor adults. A year later, she started Literacy Volunteers of America in her basement.
She has published numerous training manuals and teaching materials, such as Tutor, I Speak English, and English as a Second Language, that are still used today by literacy tutors. In addition, Colvin has not only personally taught thousands of people to read, but also resided as the first president of LVA and a lifetime member of the board of directors.
In 2002, Laubach Literacy International and Literacy Volunteers of America merged to create ProLiteracy. Syracuse is still home to ProLiteracy, where they aim to “promote adult literacy through content development, programs, and advocacy.”
Widely recognized for her efforts, the Syracuse University alumna (’59) received the President’s Volunteer Action Award from President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and then Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2006. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
From South Africa and Madagascar to India and Cambodia, Colvin and her husband have traveled to 62 countries and provided literacy training in 26 developing nations. Colvin documented the global adventures she embarked on, the cultures she discovered, and the individuals she connected with, eventually publishing her journey in Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World (2011) through the Syracuse University Press.
This week, we spoke with poet Sam Hazo on his inspirations behind his new book And the Time Is –
The concept of the book was chronological….i.e., choosing what I considered the poems I wished to be judged by written between 1958 and 2013.
The book is essentially a testimony to your poetic endeavors and your growth as a writer – how have these identities evolved over the years for you?
I often keep returning to the same themes, but my perspective has changed my attitudes toward them over the years.
Is there a poem that you’re especially proud of? If yes, do you mind sharing the story behind it?
I favor one poem called “And the Time Is,” which is also the title of the book. In the poem the time is always the present. The rhythm of the poem and the barely discernible rhymes hold the poem together. I’ve never been able to do that since in a poem.
Are there any poets that you continually go back to for inspirations?
There are poets I do go back to, not so much for inspiration as for the pleasure of reading their words, i.e., Richard Wilbur, Linda Pastan, Robert Frost, Randall Jarrell and a number of foreign poets.
Focusing on something that takes my full attention is what I (or any poet) thrive on.
Where do you usually write and what conditions help you with your writing process?
I write whenever, wherever.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished a book called THE FEAST OF ICARUS, Lyrical Reflections on a Myth.
Joan FitzPatrick Dean is Curators Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is the author of Riot and Great Anger: Stage Censorship in Twentieth-Century Ireland.
How and where did you get the inspiration for All Dressed Up?
My mother-in-law was a city-dweller. She lived all of her life in Newark, New Jersey. In her forties, after the death of her husband, she took up square dancing, an activity closely associated with rural America. On July 4, 1976, she appeared on national television in an elaborate square dancing costume on the deck of an aircraft carrier as part of the festivities that celebrated the bicentennial of the founding of America. Along with millions of others, I watched. I was even able to catch a glimpse of her. She was delighted to perform and her family and friends were thrilled to see her, but the possible irony of an often-chauvinistic urban-dweller appearing as a country girl wasn’t lost on me. When people get all dressed up they can do surprising things.
Like most people, I experienced pageantry from a young age. Like many, I first became aware of pageantry when I participated in it. I participated in First Communion processions, parades, and Christmas pageants. I have home movies of these events where I can see myself in my First Communion dress, my Brownie beanie and uniform, and my Tin Soldier costume. I distinctly recall watching my blond, blue-eyed younger sister as the child selected to place a floral crown on a larger-than-life-sized statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on May 1, 1957 before the assembled parishionners of St. Mary’s Church. That remains my earliest and most vivid memory of envy.
In the broadest sense of the term, pageantry involves a display of an identity or affiliation. Pageantry is typically a public, open-air event, often free or at modest price, in which large numbers of participants hope to attract even larger numbers of viewers. Participants wear special, usually symbolic, clothing on select dates that are connected with holidays, annual observances, or anniversaries.
In my research there was another impetus to explore pageantry when I was working through the financial records for the Theatre of Ireland, which ended up in the P. S. O’Hegarty Collection at the University of Kansas. I knew how few people were attending some of these performances and began to ask myself if there wasn’t another way in which ordinary Irish people experienced “theatre.” Was there something like a Cirque du Soliel, a very popular, accessible theatrical genre, early in the twentieth century? And the answer was yes: pageantry.
For readers who might not be familiar with the Irish culture, what can you tell them about the Irish aesthetic standards?
Early in the twentieth century Irish historical pageantry shares with other visual idioms an impulse to draw on an older, sometimes ancient or pre-historic, but most important non-British, aesthetic.
It’s important to appreciate that the vogue of historical pageantry was not confined to Ireland. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York had a pageant, so did St. Louis for its centennial and hundreds of other towns and cities. In the early decades of the twentieth century, not least because of the expansion of the franchise, pageants hope to educate and inspire patriotism in the US and in Britain as well as in Ireland.
If you could tell us something surprisingly interesting about Irish pageantry and its history, what would it be?
The number of visual artists who, especially early in the twentieth century, were deeply involved pageant making and promotion: Austin Molloy, John P. Campbell, Micheál macLíammóir, Jack Morrow, and to a lesser extent people like Paul Henry, Harry Kernoff, Art O’Murnaghan, William Conor, Mabel Annesley, and a score of others. Ireland has produced more than its fair share of writers, but the visual artists are certainly less widely recognized.
In All Dressed Up, the notion of popularity is heavily embedded in your research? How does that concept of popularity compare with our contemporary understanding of it?
The cliché tells us that everyone loves a parade. As a kid I certainly did, particularly drum and bugle corps, although they carry a very different resonance in Ireland than they did in a small town in upstate New York. The operative aesthetic that cuts across time and place can be summarized in one word: epic. Think about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. In 2008, China celebrated four great inventions: paper, movable type, gunpowder, and the compass. Four years later, Danny Boyle (who directed Slumdog Millionaire) developed an extravaganza of British history, Isles of Wonder, in London for the Games; both aspired to stage a nation’s past and remain memorable for their epic scale. Several of the pageants I discuss drew enormous audiences, audiences that dwarf those drawn by many of the plays central to the canon of Irish drama; some were revived and even toured.
Tell us about the images you’ve chosen to use for the book – why did they stand out for you and what do they entail?
These images stood out because I could obtain permission to use them. Many of the images are exquisite, some are hilarious. I have a hundred more. Any chance we could discuss this on the phone? I have free long distance and can call at your convenience. I can’t type fast enough to do this question justice.
Can you tell us about the process of weaving in mythical elements and cultural references into a history book?
I’m not a historian, but All Dressed Up aspires to be theatre history. I hope the book also suggests how the Irish came to create and to understand their history in the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century, the recourse was to mythical figures like Cuchulainn and Fionn. By the 1940s, the time frame of the Irish historical pageants had become a moving wall pressing toward the present: while in 1927 the pageants reached back to an ancient past and proscribed everything after 1800, those in the 1940s began in 1867 and moved right up to the present. By the 1990s, the story of Cuchulainn in the Tain as staged by Macnas is the story of Irish people killing other Irish people that resonates with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Plus, the relationship between myth and history moves in both directions in pageants: In the 1920s, myth could be historicized as when Fionn mac Cumhaill was described as “an undoubtedly historical personage,” but throughout the century, historical events, such as the Easter Rising, were mythologized in pageants.
How did your own Irish heritage contribute to the writing of this book?
Not at all or perhaps barely. I’m fourth generation and grew up in a place without a strong Irish tradition. There is a geographical connection is to SUP through western NY, where I grew up, and coincidentally between Syracuse and Penn Yan both in the Finger Lakes where my ancestors, the Finnegans and FitzPatricks, settled. I’m very conscious that mine is an Irish-American rather than an Irish heritage. My father never denied that an Irishman, Patrick Boyle, was his great-grandfather, but he only identified as German-American rather than Irish-American. My mother, a FitzPatrick from home (as they say), strongly identified as Irish-American. They both picked and chose; we all do. So did these pageants: they were always selective in constructing their sense of the Irish past.
I did see one of the pageants I discuss in detail in 1992 while on a Fulbright in Galway: the Macnas Tain. I went back the next night with my kids; it was the first “dramatic performance” that I took my daughters to see. I have wanted to write about it ever since. It just took me twenty-two years and 248 pages to really get to it.
What was the most enjoyable part about writing this book?
The research, especially discovering of connections with the visual arts—Irish Arts and Crafts in particular. I had a Fulbright lectureship Nancy, France in 1982-83 and have been fascinated by Art Nouveau, especially l’école de Nancy, ever since. I confess I didn’t see this connection when I started the project but slowly and very clearly it emerged in the programs, posters, photographs, and costume designs buried in the archives in Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Lawrence, Kansas, and Evanston, Illinois. The other pleasure was in seeing the parallels and analogues that surface in different visual cultures and theatrical idioms in France, Ireland, the US, etc. at about the same time. These pageants offered people the opportunity to perform their identities, the role as citizens. Often it’s the newest citizens who are most eager. I saw two St. Patrick’s Day parades in Galway, first in 1993 and then in 2012. The difference between the two was that in the second, a number of immigrant groups—the Poles, the Slovenians, the Brazilians, and so on—were there in number to display their affiliation with Ireland. It’s that festive, celebratory spirit that infused most of the pageants I discuss.
Beyond that, I thoroughly enjoyed working with archivists and librarians, who were unfailingly generous. I can’t overstated how helpful many of these archivists were in bringing an overlooked item to my attention or just by engaging with the material I was looking at.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Copyright permissions. The final one came from Katy O’Kennedy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina whom I located only because she has a presence (as “Chief Stink Buster” see http://www.linkedin.com/in/silveredgegear) on the web for Silver Edge Gear, the technology she developed that uses silver to prevent odors in athletic gear. In 1945 her father, Niel O’Kennedy, drew a cartoon about the Military Tattoo for the humor magazine Dublin Opinion that appears in the book. I’m delighted I found her and that she so generously gave me permission to include the image.
What are you working on now?
I have co-edited, with Jose Lanters, a collection of essays on non-realistic Irish theatre called Beyond Realism that will be available early in 2015. I have an essay on the performance pieces of Pat Kinevane coming out soon. One longer-range project returns to the Theatre of Ireland, the renegade company that competed with the Abbey between 1906 and 1913, and in particular at Maire nic Shiubhlaigh (Mary Walker).
Book: Reading Joss Whedon
Rhonda Wilcox is a professor of English at Gordon State College in Georgia. Besides Reading Joss Whedon, the author has also worked on titles such as Why Buffy Matters and Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is also known for being the Co-Founder/Editor of Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies Association.
Tell us a little bit about your forthcoming title, Reading Joss Whedon.
For this book, we (coeditors Tanya R. Cochran, Cynthea Masson, David Lavery and I) were fortunate enough to get over two dozen of the scholars who have done the most perceptive and eloquent work on Whedon in recent years. We have about 400 pages of insightful discussion of all the major works. There are essays about the television series, the comics, the films, the internet. In addition to the in-depth essays, there are general introduction essays to Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, so that readers who are mainly familiar with one can follow discussions of the others. The essays cover a great range of topics, from tight focus on a particular episode to thematic discussions across the whole oeuvre (gender, religion, identity, and so forth). The chapters are written with great respect for the work of Whedon and his collaborators—and expressed in a lucid, thoughtful style. Furthermore, the essays are full of references to other good essays on Whedon (and other subjects) too, so that I think it’s fair to say that this book opens up the world of Whedon.
You’ve been called the world’s foremost authority on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what does your current title offer that hasn’t been studied before in the Joss Whedon universe.
I recently saw an internet article that listed the fifteen Whedon episodes that needed more attention. Well, one of those episodes (“Conversations with Dead People,” from Buffy) has a whole chapter on it in our book. The book has work on Whedon’s film of the Shakespeare play Much Ado about Nothing; on his very different film Marvel’s The Avengers (which he wrote and directed); on The Cabin in the Woods; on the Buffy Season 8 comics; on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—as well as material on all the old stand-bys, but from new angles. Have you ever thought about Buffy’s apocalypses from the perspective of serious Disaster Studies research? Have you thought about the mythology of Echo and Narcissus in relation to Dollhouse? How about Whedon’s directing echoing Douglas Sirk in Angel? I could go on and on about these essays. I will also mention that the final chapter is actually a history of the academic work that has been done on Whedon and his collaborators—so it can be a springboard to finding other strong scholarship on Whedon.
Can you tell us a bit about your background with Joss Whedon, when did you first become interested in his work and how have you pursued it over the years.
I had already been publishing television scholarship for a number of years—starting with a little essay called “TV and the Curriculum,” which was actually my way of publishing something on Remington Steele and Moonlighting. I had published on many significant Science Fiction-Fantasy series (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Star Trek, among others). I started watching Buffy when it first aired, and the longer I watched it, the more impressed I was. David Lavery and I published the first U.S. collection of scholarly essays on Buffy in 2002 (Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). There were so many more good essays than we could fit in the book that David suggested we start an online scholarly journal, a peer-reviewed journal—which we did in 2001, before the book was even out. (It is still running today, now under the title Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association, with an international editorial board of scholars.) In 2002 I was invited to be keynote speaker at the Blood, Text, and Fears conference at the University of East Anglia in England—the first academic conference on Whedon, and one of the best experiences of my life. In 2004 David Lavery and I convened the first Slayage conference—again, an academic conference, not a convention (although those have joys of their own). It was the first Whedon conference in the U.S. These Slayage conferences have met biennially since, in the U.S. and Canada. (The next one is to be at California State University – Sacramento, June 19-22, 2014. It is too late to submit a proposal to present, but not too late to register to attend.) In 2005 I published Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I am proud to say was a finalist for the Stoker award and won the WSA’s award for the best book that year (the “Mr. Pointy” award). In 2008, with Tanya R. Cochran, I published a collection of essays on Firefly and Serenity; that was also the year that Tanya, David, and I legally formed the non-profit Whedon Studies Association—an organization that had existed de facto for many years. For the last five years I’ve been working with co-editors Tanya, David, and another outstanding Whedon scholar (and very hard-working person), Cynthea Masson, and two dozen plus wonderful (and patient) contributors, to bring out this collection of essays, Reading Joss Whedon. I make forays into publishing on other good TV as well (I edited a collection of essays on Veronica Mars with Sue Turnbull, for example, and later this year an essay of mine will be coming out in a collection on Fringe), but I do not foresee an end to writing on Joss Whedon and Co.
For those who don’t know much about Joss Whedon or his works, what would you tell a reader picking up Reading Joss Whedon?
Earlier this year, there was a report on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show about Russians who were bravely, publicly protesting against their government’s policies. When asked why, a Russian woman quoted a line from the “Epiphany” episode of Whedon and David Greenwalt’s Angel series. How much more meaningful can you get than that? Whedon helps us think through the big issues—but he doesn’t batter you with them. He gives us characters who develop over time in believable ways, and as they live, they inhabit those issues, those ideas. Furthermore, they do it in some of the wittiest, most memorable language around. Viewers get the pleasure of symbolic depth expanding the meaning beyond the specific plots, too. And the longer you watch, the more striking and meaningful the visuals become—not to mention the music, more and more of which he is writing himself. (In Whedon’s version of Much Ado about Nothing, we get Shakespeare’s lyrics set to Whedon’s melody.) Those of us who’ve written this book think that Joss Whedon is one of the creators whose work is going to last. In Reading Joss Whedon, we hope to show you why.
We love that this is an extensive reader, covering all of Joss Whedon’s work; do you have a specific essay or section that you are particularly excited for?
That is an absolutely unfair question. How can I pick? The answer would depend on my mood, I suppose. There’s a whole section, a batch of essays, on Buffy, shorter sections on the other series—and more. I genuinely am impressed by each essay in the book. I’ve already mentioned some of them (directly or indirectly) above. Perhaps I might note that the “Overarching Topics” section contains some really significant work drawing together new insights and earlier research. (It could be a little book on its own.) There’s an essay that explores the way Joss Whedon displays his mastery of TV as a long-form art through “Character, Narrative, and Time”; there’s a philosophical one on the way narrative embodies and divines ethics; there’s one that discusses the vexed question of Whedon and the soul; and I must say, I was astonished at how much was packed into a relatively short essay on the debated issue of Whedon’s feminism (it’s called “Hot Chicks with Superpowers”). And what the hey, I will add that it was a great happiness to me that I got to write about Much Ado about Nothing.
Why do you think that Joss Whedon’s work is important enough to have a scholarly anthology of essays published?
The world at large is finally catching up to the idea that TV can be art. Joss Whedon is one of a handful of really exemplary TV auteurs, a person who thoroughly uses his medium—and he somehow managed to do it on network television, not HBO. He has the gift of true collaboration, drawing to him wonderful collaborators (other writers such as Jane Espenson, musicians such as Christophe Beck, art designers such as Carey Meyer, editors such as Lisa Lassek, directors of photography such as Michael Gershman, and many more.) Furthermore, his work (as writer, director, producer, musician) is expanding, with the internet Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the comics such as Buffy Seasons 8-9, and films ranging from the mighty Marvel’s The Avengers to the black-and-white intimacy of his screwball noir version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Like most creators who are worth paying attention to, Whedon helps us deal with the difficult issues of life through the joy and solace of art.
Dave Dyer is an independent investor and freelance writer. He is also the author of Steel’s, “a fascinating and thoroughly engaging story of Buffalo-based Steel’s department store told by a master storyteller” as described by Field Horne. Dyer’s Spring 2013 title was published by the Syracuse University Press in March.
Could you provide the audience with a brief description of Steel’s?
“My grandmother’s brother, Clayton Pickard, vanished in 1923 and I set out to find what happened to him. Through a long string of lucky breaks and coincidences, I learned about him even though he had changed his name. I also learned that he worked for the L. R. Steel Company, and I was again lucky enough to acquire about 20 lbs. of original documents from that company. The box contained newsletters from the early 1920s with thousands of photographs and other documents. It was like finding an unopened time capsule.
The documents gave an inside view of a chain store business run by a very creative and visionary entrepreneur named Leonard Rambler Steel. The business consisted of 75 retail stores, but the real money maker was his scheme to sell stock in the business. He promoted stock sales by making a silent film about his business…probably one of the first infomercials. The film helped him sell stock to 60,000 people, and they all lost their money when the company went bankrupt in 1923. Steel had other big ideas, like developing Niagara Falls into a permanent World’s Fair that would be dedicated to the glory of electricity and international commerce, but he never got around to implementing that one.
There were fraud indictments for some of the executives in 1923, but Leonard Rambler Steel died suddenly, at only 44, while he was on a train to seek a loan from Henry Ford to resurrect his company. Clayton Pickard was not charged, but I expect his disappearance was related to the scandal. Eventually, all the indictments were dropped and the story was no longer as newsworthy since the charismatic founder was dead. There is no other account of this story in print and it might have been lost forever if I had not been lucky enough to find that box of documents.”
What went through your mind when you began to discover the stock market scandal?
“I started reading the documents to find out about my grandmother’s brother, but I soon found Leonard Rambler Steel to be more interesting. At first, I assumed that there must be a book or some historical article on this amazing story, but I could find none. I visited Buffalo a couple of times and found newspaper articles from the 1920s, but nothing recent.
The documents revealed an unusual company; women in management and some employees in their eighties. When I started reading about the movie, I was hooked. The movie was released in 1922 and it was 3 hours long. It was shown for free all over North America to generate leads for his stock selling scheme. He made 50 copies of the 10-reel film, and each one had a different ending; each ended with views of his store in the locality where it was shown. He anticipated the value of localization in advertising and this amazing insight was what convinced me that the story needed to be researched and documented.”
When did you decide to research your great uncle, Clayton Pickard?
“My grandmother had always wondered about her vanished brother and I thought it would be easy to resolve the mystery since so many old records are now digitized and searchable. I did not anticipate that he would change his name!
Also, my grandmother always told me that I was a lot like Clayton. When you grow up hearing something like that, you remember it. Finally, when I was digitizing some old family photos, my wife commented that I really do look a bit like him.”
“Yes, I would love to know what happened to all 50 copies of the film. When the company went bankrupt, they were scattered all over the country in small town movie houses. Some were probably not returned because there was no company to return them to. Is there a much deteriorated copy still in some attic?
The last showing was in the Erie County prosecutor’s office looking for evidence of fraud, but they have not been able to locate it now. I offered to spend a couple of days just opening boxes in their long-term storage area, but they were prudent enough not to take me up on that.”
As an independent investor, how did writing Steel’s influence you in relation to your work?
“I have been fascinated with the stock market for over 30 years and I specialize in analyzing small growth companies with unique technology for some niche market. I love to find a creative company with an idea that actually works. I was the ideal person to appreciate the documents that I found.”
What do you hope the audience takes from your story?
“Sometimes failure is more interesting than success, especially when the person who failed had the talent needed to succeed. And, to quote Leonard Rambler Steel,
“The line between success and failure is so finely drawn that often all that is required is one step forward to land on the winning side.” L. R. Steel, December 24, 1920′”
What can we expect next from you?
“First, I would love to see Steel’s made into a movie or TV show. The characters are so vivid and a film based in Buffalo when it was a boom town in the 1920s just might work. If anyone knows an agent who could make this happen, I’m available. Also, if the publication of the book happens to turn up a copy of the lost silent film (hey, I’ve been lucky on everything else) that would be a nice ending.
Although Steel’s is my first book, I have several hundred other shorter publications, mostly magazine articles, newspaper editorials, and lots of stock market newsletters and commentary. I am about half way through a second book called, I Knew a Guy Who Worked Once. It is a guide for people who want to reach escape velocity from corporate life by using aggressive investing techniques. It is based on some investment courses that I taught and I hope it will be one of the few humorous investment books.
I have two other projects in the planning stage. One is a history book about the influence of weather on history. There has been lots of recent discussion about mankind’s potential effect on the weather, but less about the effect of weather on human events. I am interested in things like the sudden hurricane that saved Washington, DC, from being burned by the British in August, 1814 or the tornado that helped General “Mad” Anthony Wayne win the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Also, my wife and I are planning a book about how to turn underutilized urban land into public parks. We have done this once and created a 22-acre urban nature preserve. We are now in the process of repeating this with a smaller parcel that will be used as a dog park. We hope to document the lessons we have learned.”
For more information on Dave Dyer’s Steel’s, visit the Syracuse University Press website. It is available for sale now!
Book: Allegiance and Betrayal: Stories
Peter Makuck is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University. He is the author of Long Lens: New and Selected Poems and two collections of short stories, Breaking and Entering and Costly Habits. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review, the Nation, and Gettysburg Review.
Tell us about Allegiance and Betrayal.
“Like writing itself, putting together a collection of stories is yet another process of discovery. You become aware of unifying themes in your work, as well as certain obsessions. I discovered that fiction not included in my two previous collections, plus more recent stories, have in common family matters and friendships, as well as themes of allegiance and betrayal. Some of these stories also have coastal settings in common.”
What made you choose to write your book in a post-World War II setting? Has this time period always interested you?
“I came of age in post-World War II America. I was about five when the war ended. I can remember my grandfather spreading the news, yelling, neighbors cheering, singing, drinking, and dancing in the street in front of our house when victory was declared.”
Do you think your theme of family is strengthened by the World War II setting?
“Well, it’s almost a cliché but nonetheless true that post-war America in the 1950s is a setting dominated by two-parent families, stay-at-home mothers, and safe neighborhoods where kids played ball in the streets, rode bikes, and climbed trees together. For me, it was also a time of parochial education reinforced by the family’s traditional Roman Catholicism.”
Do you have a personal connection to any of the stories in Allegiance and Betrayal?
“Most my stories are triggered by what I’ve experienced, witnessed, or know. Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish film director, says that everything not autobiography is plagiarism. But I doubt he means literal autobiography. An incident in your life might just be a starting point. You develop, add characters, expand, and lie (Picasso said that art is the lie that make you see the truth). If you have promising raw material in front of you, why bother to invent? The odds are that you will have a more compelling connection with what you have actually seen or experienced, an enthusiasm that might well be contagious to a reader. A friend once told me he knew where one of my stories came from and proceeded to describe the event. I told him he was right, but wasn’t my version a lot more interesting than what actually happened? On the other hand, my mother was hurt by my first published story where I hadn’t invented enough to disguise real events and people. In graduate school, hungry to get into print, I expanded on an incident in the extended family. I had already published a poem about my grandfather’s death that my parents and the rest of the family were quite happy about. But I had no intention of showing them the story. An old high school friend, however, noticed my name on the cover of a journal just shelved in the Yale bookstore, bought two copies, and dropped one at my father’s gas station. Big mistake. A learning experience, as they say. The story made a splash and got me letters of interest from a few agents, but I never reprinted it and I promised myself never to let something like that happen again.”
“Very recently I did some research about tarot cards and fortune telling—something I needed for a scene in a story still not quite finished. But normally, I write about what I know. In this new collection, there are several stories about deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. I’ve done that a lot. No research necessary. At an AWP conference some years ago, I was talking to two poets about scuba diving. A few weeks later I got a phone call from one of them who wanted to write a poem about the subject and asked me a lot of questions, especially about what you heard while underwater. The residual prankster in me was tempted to lie, say something about the plucking of harp strings and that once I heard Paul McCartney and the Wings singing “Band on the Run,” likely coming from a boat anchored nearby. But I didn’t. All to say, you risk losing an authoritative voice if you flub the details. The old workshop wisdom: Write about what you know.”
You have written significantly more poetry than stories. Do you ever wish you wrote more stories, or do you prefer poetry?
“That’s a good question. I’m really addicted to both even though I’ve written more poetry, perhaps because I edited a poetry journal for thirty years or so. I also write essays and a lot of reviews. The plus is that if you are working in a number of genres, you don’t get blocked. If you get stuck on a poem or a story, say, put it on the back burner, and turn to a review. When working on something else, I find the problem with the poem or story will often solve itself. I also like to write stories because it gives my sense of humor a chance to exercise. I like to laugh, but I don’t have the talent to write funny poems. The short story allows me to have characters interact in humorous ways.”
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
“I came to reading and writing late. I was an action junkie in high school, an average student at best, and faked my way through. I thought nothing could be more boring than quietly hunkering down to read a book. And I didn’t. In college freshman English, one of our first assignments was to read a short story by William Faulkner, “Barn Burning,” then write an essay. I loved Faulkner’s vocabulary and use of language. I said to myself, “Man, what have I been missing!” A week later, our teacher told the class he was going to read two of the best essays, examples of quality writing he expected from everyone. To my great surprise, one of the essays was mine. I’d never been praised for anything in high school, nor did I deserve to be. Now I had a new identity. My teacher urged me to join the staff of the literary magazine, and I did. I suppose you could draw a fairly straight line from that short story in freshman comp to my doctoral dissertation on Faulkner. All along the way I was writing poetry, reviews, and fiction as well.”
Has your writing career affected your style of teaching English at East Carolina University in any way? If so, how?
“I never had the benefit of a creative writing course. Few colleges and universities offered them when I was a student. So my writing career certainly had an influence on the way I taught fiction and poetry writing courses. I would talk about what I had slowly learned the hard way, through trial and error, talk about clichés, revision, narrative structure, round and flat characters, sound, rhythm, imagery, scene, dialogue etc. On the other hand, when teaching a course on Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, or a course on Modern or Contemporary poetry, I’d revert to my academic training as a literary critic but still try to make the lectures lively as possible in order to interest students in these great writers.”
Peter Makuck’s Allegiance and Betrayal was published this April. For more information or to purchase a copy (at our 30% SPRING SALE discount), visit the Syracuse University Press website.
Roger Allen is the winner of the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of A Muslim Suicide by Bensalem Himmich, published by SU Press. Allen retired from his position as the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. He is the author and translator of numerous books and articles on modern Arabic fiction, novels, and stories. Roger Allen is also a contributing editor of Banipal and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.
Congratulations on winning the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Can you tell us about your general translation philosophy and how you prepare for the work of translation?
“In the case of the novels of Salim Himmich, I am not only well acquainted with the author and his works, but have previous translated two of his other novels. In fact, the author told me that he was already writing this new novel while I was in the process of finishing the translation of his previous one (published as THE POLYMATH). In the case of each novel, the preparatory phase has involved firstly reading the novel in its entirety, and, in the case of these historical novels, conducting research on the period in question (in this case, the history of Spain in the 13th century and the many dynasties scattered across the northern part of the African continent). What is most important in assessing “translation strategy” is the level of language used by the author and the most appropriate level of English style to use in the translation process–that being something that involves a number of phases before the eventual product is ready. I might suggest, in fact, that nothing has ever been translated that could not be adjusted or revised in some way after its publication.”
What did you find was the most challenging when translating A Muslim Suicide into English?
“In this case, the most difficult part of the process was the transfer of the hero’s mystical visions and thought into English, not to mention his extensive “classes” for his students in which he responds to questions about philosophy and the bases of faith. This became yet more complicated when, in Bougie, a city in North Africa, the hero comes into contact with one of Sufism’s greatest poets, Al-Shushtari, who is to become a devotee of the hero and composes and performs many odes in the hero’s honor. Sufi discourse is maximally allegorical and multi-layered, and the translation of the poetry in particular was extremely difficult.”
Do you think you successfully met those challenges? If so, what is one of your favorite moments in the translation?
“I think my favorite part comes in Book Three, where he meets al-Shushtari, the Sufi poet; chapter 4 is particularly difficult–with its quotations of the poet’s mystical verses, but I think I captured the essence of it.”
Were there phrases or concepts that simply could not be translated, either because of the language, the cultural nuance, or the style? How did you deal with that kind of material?
“In translation there will always be segments of the original text that resist translation. That is where the interpretive skills of the translator are maximally employed, and a good knowledge of both literary traditions–the source and the target–are essential if the translation process is to succeed. This is particularly so in the case of this novel. My solution to such issues in most cases was to resort to the preparation of a lengthy and elaborate glossary, so that, if they so wished, readers could enjoy (?) the experience of being mystified, or else find some kind of response to their curiosity by consulting the back of the book.”
I’ve heard people often speak of Arabic as an exceptionally poetic language. Did you find yourself thinking about the poetry of Himmich’s prose as you translated?
“I think that every language can be “poetic” if the codes of the language used raise such feelings in the mind of the reader; I don’t think that Arabic is particularly so. What I will say is that the morphological structures of Arabic are certainly conducive to rhyming, which is a part of the process of becoming :poetic.” Himmich is a master of style and of the imitation of other writers’ and eras’ styles, and I have certainly made an effort to replicate that feature of his writing genius.”
This is third time translating one of Himmich’s novels. To what extent do you think there is a consistent voice (for English-language readers) between the works? How do you stay faithful to both your own writing style and Himmich’s?
“And…as I’ll note below, there’s a fourth novel of his in translation still seeking a publisher. The novels that I have translated thus far have all been “historical” in the sense that they are about particularly prominent Muslim figures from the pre-modern era (although the latest one breaks with that pattern). Since I know him personally so well and he leaves the translation process entirely in my hands, I don’t feel that there are any residual problems of style.”
“Well, I’m glad you asked !!! I have so many projects at different stages with Syracuse UP–this Himmich that has now come out, the al-Koni aphorisms, the Zifzaf short-story collection, and the translation of Kilito’s essays (as second translator)– that I don’t think I have sent you my translation of his highly controversial novel, which I have translated as MY TORTURESS. It is about the awful process of “extraordinary rendition.” A Moroccan Muslim is arrested on suspicion of being related to a terrorist and spends six years in an unidentified prison-camp (obviously run under the aegis of the Americans). Frankly, I don’t know if people are scared of such an emotive topic, but I have been having a great deal of difficulty placing this translation. If you want to see it (in spite of the number of things I already have with you), I’ll be glad to send it up. In addition to all that, I already have from Himmich his very latest novel–not yet published. It’s going to be called A BUSINESSWOMAN. I have decided not to start translating it until I have placed MY TORTURESS somewhere…”
What are some great English translations of Arabic literature that we might pick up in the meantime?
“If you’re really interested in translations of modern Arabic literature, I’d warmly suggest subscribing to the London-based journal, BANIPAL (they have an excellent website)–the one through which the Ghobash Prize is offered. They are continually publishing extracts from longer works that might be of interest to your series. The problem that I have in identifying particular authors and works is a happy one: there’s so much being written and translated now that I have a very difficult time keeping up with it all, not least because I have officially retired!
As part of truth in advertising about BANIPAL, I have been on the prize’s jury and am a member of the boards of both the trust that runs it and of the journal itself. You might be interested in the fact that they (mostly in the person of Margaret O’Bank) now run an Arab Cultural Center in London where I gave a “master-class” on translation at the time of the Prize ceremony in February; the Center is the home to an increasingly large library of Arabic literature in translation. [www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/.”
Given your expertise in Arabic literature, do you have any advice for first-time readers of Arabic?
“I think the best advice I can give incipient readers of works of literature translated from Arabic is to approach the process with an open mind–a mind open to difference(s), and to relish the opportunity of engaging with those differences. As I have written in more than one of my essays on translation (such as my Presidential Address to the Middle East Studies Association –now published as “A Translator’s Tale,’ Presidential Address, MESA Conference [San Diego] 2010, Review of Middle East Studies Vol. 45 no. 1 (Summer 2011): 3-18), you do not read translated works of literature in order to encounter the familiar.
Obviously, any kind of familiarity with the Arabic literary tradition will be helpful as an introduction to the literary tradition in Arabic. My INTRODUCTION TO ARABIC LITERATURE [Cambridge UP, 2000] is intended to offer such access (and it’s in paperback!).”