At PEN America’s Lit Crawl Brooklyn 2017, Words Without Borders and Slice Literary partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story authored by four international writers—Na Zhong, Lucrecia Zappi, Georgi Gospodinov, and Claudia Salazar Jiménez—and translated by Na Zhong, Eric M. B. Becker, Angela Rodel, and Elizabeth Bryer.
In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Chinese writer and translator Na Zhong, who was given a prompt line from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: “World going to fall apart?” I kidded). The next writer, Lucrecia Zappi, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in Portuguese. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. As this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Georgi Gospodinov’s section, written in Buglarian, was translated into English and then into Spanish so that Claudia Salazar Jiménez could complete the story.
At the Lit Crawl event, hosted by WWB’s Jessie Chaffee and SLICE’s Randy Brown Winston, the four writers read the story in its original languages, and then audience volunteers, including WWB’s Savannah Whiting, read the translation to the full house at the Greene Grape Annex in Brooklyn. Below is the full story, in both English translation and the original languages.
Writers, hosts, and audience volunteers: Claudia Salazar Jimenéz, Georgi Gospodinov, Randy Brown Winston, Lucrecia Zappi, Na Zhong, Jessie Chaffee, Yahdon Israel, Tasha, Neal, and Savannah Whiting. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.
“World going to fall apart?”
1. Na Zhong (Chinese original and English translation)
“World going to fall apart?” I kidded. From where I was squatting, the wall lamp cast a long shadow on my mother’s face, making her expressions indecipherable. I gazed hard to see if she was angry, and even tried to recall whether I had inadvertently offended her during supper. Nothing came back to me. And she didn’t sound angry anyway.
Just a moment ago, my mother had announced that she would no longer step out of the house. Ever. As she broke the decision, I was crouched down in front of the cabinet, fumbling in the drawers for a charging cable. When I heard her and turned back, she was sitting on the sofa, as she was now, a small TV remote control clutched in her hand. Its surface was covered with scars—every evening as my mother absorbed local and world news, she would unconsciously dent the remote’s plastic surface with her thumbnails. The little holes she dug lay between the lines of red and yellow oval buttons, evenly spaced, as if they were the buttons for her fantasy channels.
I asked, “But can you at least tell me why?” I could hear the humming of the range hood and my father washing dishes, and I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke from the kitchen. The range hood was too old to be of any use.
“Because I am too afraid of it,” she said, her eyes still fixed on the TV screen.
2. Lucrecia Zappi (Portuguese original), Eric M. B. Becker (English translation)
“Because I am too afraid of it,” she said, her eyes still fixed on the TV screen.
The TV was re-running the nine o’clock news and each passing image in the flickering light stoked her haggard expression.
“So turn it off.”
She folded her hands, forming a castle of fingers. “You know I can’t sleep without the television on.”
“But then you come whining to me about the same old nightmare.”
“The man who snatches us from our home.”
“That’s the one.”
My wife’s sandy, grainy sweater left her looking paler than usual as she stared at the images of rubble and shoot-outs. “No one understands anyone anymore,” she sighed, massaging her swollen feet atop the comforter. “Actually, people understand each other all too well, they just act like they don’t. After all, we all need the same things.”
If there were some will to resist there, it was hard to pick out. From what I could tell, she had become a fearful old woman, and this after decades of sacrifices as an undocumented immigrant. I myself struggled to remember the begrudging paradise we’d come from.
I pictured the police ringing the doorbell and her bare feet dragging their way to the door. As she opened it without saying a word, like one of those nameless figures on the television, she would note the woman who lived across the street perched in the window, making the sign of the cross.
Writers Na Zhong, Lucrecia Zappi, Georgi Gospodinov, and Claudia Salazar Jiménez. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.
As she opened it without saying a word, like one of those anonymous figures on the television, she would note the woman who lived across the street perched in the window, making the sign of the cross.
Stop. Her hands froze, stopped opening the door any further. Was the woman crossing herself a sign? At her age, she took everything as a sign. Especially today, on her 50th birthday, after she had just come home alone from that chichi restaurant, still in the dress that skillfully covered up the traitorous skin on her neck. If she truly hated anything, it was surprises, celebrations, and all those pointless rituals. That was surely why she had never married, she imagined marriage as an endless Christmas Eve where the conversation goes in circles, and Santa Claus never quite shows up. And now this thing was waiting for her on the doorstep with an exquisite black bow (why black?) and an unknown sender. Jesus Christ, how carelessly she goes to open the package from a stranger in this day and age! It could be a flat portable explosive device and in just a moment the whole apartment would be blown sky-high . . . She listened to see if it was ticking. But it could just be a stupid joke, a middle finger on a spring or something of the sort would jump out from inside.
In the end, she decided to open it, come what may. First a large, slightly old-fashioned card tumbled out: Happy 50th Birthday, my big girl! Mama is with you. She leaned slightly against the window and crossed herself. That handwriting was painfully familiar to her and she also knew that the hand that used it had left this world precisely thirty years ago.
That handwriting was painfully familiar to her. And she knew the hand that wrote it had left this world exactly thirty years before. She scrunched up the paper with a strength that took her by surprise. The rain driving into the window didn’t distract her from her memories. Her decision had been final and he’d seemed to accept it. Not one letter from him, not one call. Never again. She feared the nostalgia, but it wasn’t as painful as she’d thought.
The truth is, she’d treated life as a heady exploration of her desires, a fragmented existence, intensity bursting forth in every encounter, relationship, friendship, body, one station after another, country after country, city after city.
She’d decided to straighten up the house, where she never spent much time, and that’s how she found the piece of paper. It was a promise of love, overblown, out of reach, eternal. A ray of tenderness wanting to slip between the walls. Memory, that traitor.
Maybe it was time to leave this house once and for all. To look for a clean space, free of physical reminders.
She offered up the ink to the rain. Now the rain was dampening her cheeks, her hands, her clothes, mercifully diluting the dead man’s every trace.
The crowd at the Greene Grape Annex. Photo © PEN America/Jasmina Tomic.
1. Na Zhong (Chinese)
2. Lucrecia Zappi (Portuguese)
“Porque eu estou com muito medo,” ela disse, seus olhos ainda fixados na televisão.
O canal reprisava o noticiário das nove e as imagens alimentavam em clarões seu semblante abatido.
“Então desliga isso.”
Juntou as mãos em um castelo de dedos. “Você sabe que não consigo dormir sem a TV.”
“Mas daí você me vem com o pesadelo de sempre.”
“O homem que arranca a gente de casa.”
O suéter granulado cor de areia deixava minha mulher mais pálida diante das imagens de escombros e tiroteio. “Ninguém entende mais ninguém”, suspirou, massageando os pés inchados sobre o acolchoado. “Na verdade, as pessoas se entendem perfeitamente bem, mas fazem de conta que não. Se todos temos as mesmas necessidades.”
Se havia alguma vontade de resistir, estava difícil de reconhecer. Para mim, tornara-se uma velha apavorada, e isso depois de décadas de sacrifícios sem documentos no estrangeiro. Eu mesmo já nem me lembrava direito do paraíso inóspito de onde vínhamos.
Considerei a polícia tocando a campainha e os passos descalços dela na direção da porta. Ao abri-la em silêncio, como uma imagem anônima da televisão, notaria que a vizinha do outro lado da rua, à janela, fazia o sinal da cruz.
Savannah Whiting reads the translation of Na Zhong’s section of the story. Photo © PEN America/Jasmina Tomic.
3. Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgarian)
Отваряйки го, без да каже и дума, като една от онези анонимни фигури по телевизията, тя щеше да забележи жената, която живееше на отсрещната страна на улицата, подпряна на прозореца, да се кръсти.
Стоп. Ръцете й замръзнаха, спря да отваря по-нататък. Дали прекръстването на жената отсреща не беше знак? На тази възраст вече приемаше всяка нещо за знак. Особено днес, на 50-ия си рожден ден, след като току-що се бе прибрала сама от онзи претенциозен ресторант, все още в роклята, която умело прикриваше предателствата на кожата около шията. Ако наистина мразеше нещо, това бяха изненадите, празненствата и всички тези безсмислени ритуали. Сигурно затова не се ожени, представяше си брака като безкрайна коледна вечер, в която разговорът е зациклил, а Дядо Коледа все не идва. И сега това нещо я чакаше пред вратата с изящна черна панделка (защо черна?) и неизвестен подател. По-дяволите, как лекомислено тръгва да отваря пакет от непознат във времена като днешните. Би могло да е плоско портативно взривно устройство и след малко целият апартамент да е във въздуха… Ослуша се дали не цъка. А можеше просто да е тъпа шега и отвътре да изскочи среден пръст на пружина или нещо подобно.
Накрая реши да го отвори каквото и да става. Първо изпадна голяма, леко старомодна картичка: Честит 50-и рожден ден, голямо момиче! Мама е с теб.
Леко се подпря на прозореца и се прекръсти. Познаваше до болка този почерк и също така знаеше, че ръката, която го ползваше, не беше на този свят точно от 30 години.
4. Claudia Salazar Jiménez (Spanish)
Esa letra era dolorosamente familiar para ella. También sabía que la mano que la escribía dejó este mundo hace exactamente treinta años. Estrujó el papel con una fuerza que no reconoció en sí misma. La lluvia que se estrellaba contra la ventana no la distraía de sus memorias. Su decisión había sido definitiva y él pareció aceptarla. Ni una carta suya, ni una llamada. Nunca más. Temió por la nostalgia pero ésta no fue tan dolorosa como pensó.
Lo cierto es que la vida se le fue en pura exploración de su propio deseo, en una discontinuidad donde la intensidad brotaba en cada encuentro, relación, amistad, cuerpos, una secuencia de estaciones, un desencadenamiento de países y ciudades.
Se le había ocurrido organizar esta casa, en la que no pasaba tanto tiempo, y ahí encontró ese papel. Era una promesa de amor, excesiva, inalcanzable, eterna. Un rayo de ternura quiere colarse entre las paredes. La memoria, esa traidora.
Quizás era tiempo de dejar la casa definitivamente. Buscar un espacio limpio, donde el rastro físico de los recuerdos no se vea más.
Con decisión, entrega la tinta a la lluvia que ahora le moja el rostro, las manos, la ropa, y que diluye piadosamente las huellas del muerto.
Yahdon Israel reads the translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s conclusion to the story. Photo © PEN America/Jasmina Tomic.