The Literary Tourist Interviews Megan McDowell

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews Spanish translator Megan McDowell. Megan has translated novels by a number of South American and Spanish authors and has published shorter works in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, and Vice. Her translation of Fever Dream, an unsettling novel by Samanta Shweblin, is a new release from Riverhead Books.

Andrea Gregovich: What an intriguing book this is! The narrative plops the reader down right in the middle of a fever dream, which has a profoundly disorienting effect as you try to get your bearings in the story. How was it to translate something so necessarily confusing? I find context so important when I’m translating, but the context here is the entire mystery of the book. Did you need to confer with the author to help keep track of what’s going on? Continue reading

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Throwing Out the Commas

Stunning Sentences

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I felt as if she’d scooped me up and placed me in her imagined world. On my second read, I was enveloped again, but this time, I was aware of the plethora of commas, semicolons, dashes and parentheses, and how effectively they not only knit her sentences together, but pinned me to the page, propelling me deeper into the character’s mind.

Punctuation. So easy to neglect, so necessary to create style. Some of our most famous writers have strong opinions about punctuation. Gertrude Stein said of the comma, it’s “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” José Saramago refuses to douse his prose with punctuation: “Punctuation is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.” Continue reading

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Did You Hear? Razom nas Bahato

In 2004, there was a presidential election in Ukraine between between leading candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. A run-off vote won by Yanukovych was widely perceived to be interfered with, which led to the Orange Revolution. Widespread demonstrations, protests, and disobedience led to the vote being annulled, and the Supreme Court ordered a new vote, which showed Yushchenko to be the clear winner (although not before he was poisoned by Agent Orange and scarred for life). Yanukovych is currently exiled in Russia, wanted for treason.

This happened less than a decade ago, and back then it seemed like the plot of Mission: Impossible VII to me. Now it’s a bit more… visceral. This song became the unofficial anthem of the revolution, the title translating to “together we are many, we cannot be defeated.” In this case, orange was the color of the resistance movement, not the Oompa-Troumpa color of an asshat-elect… think what you will of the song and even the movement, but people got behind it and it helped them get up into the actual streets, into the actual cold, and demand something different. Razom nas Bahato.

Brook Reeder

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Considering the Lobster with Dahsan

photo: Alex Schwartzman

Even when I’m not reading him, I hear him. If I’m somewhere that seems peculiar for reasons I can’t immediately pinpoint, like the oilfields of North Dakota or a nightclub or a Home Depot, my first impulse is to wonder, “What would David Foster Wallace think of this place?”

I’m no Wallace expert. I’ve never read any of his fiction and only a handful of his essays. But the few essays I have read I revisit often. Every semester, the first essay I teach to my college writing class is “Consider the Lobster,” in which Wallace reports on the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival and what it was like to “spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster.” Continue reading


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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Eula Biss

Eula Biss is the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2010 and was the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her essays have appeared in The Believer, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. Biss holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives with her family in Evanston, Illinois.

BARTELS: How did you begin writing nonfiction?

BISS: I began writing nonfiction by writing poetry, which is nonfiction in the sense that it’s not fiction. I earned my undergraduate degree in nonfiction under the mentorship of three poets: Martin Espada, Deb Gorlin, and Paul Jenkins. I studied the tradition of prose poetry in college and I was writing what I called prose poetry by the time I graduated. I thought of myself as a poet, and my community was a community of poets—that hasn’t changed. My transition into writing essays was fairly organic. The prose poems I was writing gradually became longer and longer, and heavier on information. There’s a fine line, if there’s a line at all, between a 3,000-word autobiographical prose poem and a short personal essay.

BARTELS: I’ve heard your first book, The Balloonists, described as a book of poetry. But if the line is so fine, do you really see it in that genre? Continue reading

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Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

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In two of her previous historical novels, Sabina Murray used the “I” point of view to examine different eras from a personal vantage, inhabiting a character to assess shifting political attitudes from up close. In Valiant Gentlemen, she drops the “I” in favor of three distinct perspectives: Irish patriot Roger Casement, his close friend Herbert Ward, and Ward’s wife, the heiress Sarita Sanford. Using these three lives, Murray examines the last burning years of the 1800s and how they influenced the First World War, painting a broad picture of gender and sexual politics at the turn of the last century, and leaving us to ponder how we got to now.

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