On Wednesday June 19, Christopher Bram hosted the launch event for the fourth annual queer issue of Words without Borders. We're sharing his comments on the issue, on queer literature, and on translation for those readers who weren't able to join us for the event. —Editors
It's an honor and a pleasure to be invited to speak about Words Without Borders tonight, and to introduce their fourth annual Queer issue.
Let me begin by saying that I love not just the mission of this fine magazine, but its title. I'm a huge admirer of Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization that sends doctors to war-torn regions all over the world. I regret that as a writer I can't do anything similar. However, as the title suggests, maybe, just maybe, we writers can do related work. Our words in translation can cross borders. We can make each other just a little less other.
Like most Americans, I don't read as many books in translation as I should. But like many gay Americans, I regularly turn to foreign work for gay stories. It's a well-known fact that gay people see far more foreign films than most straight Americans, simply because we are so hungry for gay stories we will do anything to get them, even read subtitles.
When I read my first gay books, there weren't many American titles, and so I read quite a few foreign ones: Death in Venice, of course, which I can't say I liked much. The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide, which I loved. Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima, which I found kinky and disturbing, much like Mishima himself. And Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which was a revelation—a Roman emperor falls in love with a young man and doesn’t end badly?
In the 1980s, more American and British gay fiction began to appear, and I no longer needed foreign authors. But I continued to read them out of need and curiosity. This included openly gay work, such as the novels and memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, and Aimee and Jaguar, a remarkable tale of lesbian love in the Third Reich by Erica Fischer.
But I also discovered a remarkable number of straight writers who include gay characters in their books. And why not? We’re wonderful material. Here are a few favorites:
A Late Divorce by A. B. Yehoshua. Yehoshua is an Israeli novelist who can write about anybody: men, women, young, old, Jews, Arabs. A Late Divorce begins in the voice of an eight-year-old and it’s like being eight again. There are two gay men in the novel, one of them really nice, the other a real asshole, not because he's gay but because he's so much like his father.
Last Call by Harry Mulisch. Mulisch is Dutch, author of a wonderful, mad, sprawling novel, The Discovery of Heaven, narrated by an angel. This other novel is smaller-scaled but almost as good. A straight actor is cast in a play where he plays a famous Dutch actor, who was gay. This puts the actor in touch with some confusing memories from his past.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. This saga of an Egyptian family in Cairo from the First World War to the 1950s includes a literary cousin who's gay. But even before he appears, the novel examines gender roles and sexuality so freshly that I can't help but wonder about Mahfouz. Not that I suspect he's gay. He is gay-friendly in a way that has opened his mind.
Which is the wonderful thing about reading work in translation. Like travel in other countries, it opens the mind.
Christopher Bram concluded his talk with a reading, from the issue, of Bill Coyle's translation of Håkan Sandell's poem “To a Young Man Who Arrived at the Party Dressed in a Lady's Fur.”