A Manifesto for the Age of Orange

butterfliesWe need new metaphors. Many of us will feel tempted in the coming years to speak of Our Leader’s ‘black heart’, to call him ‘The Dark Lord,’ or to opine that we have entered a new age of darkness. Yes, I know that speaking of evil in terms of darkness and blackness is rooted in and ancient fear of places that have no light—of the dark forests of Grimm, the Black Forest, of haunted houses, and frozen winter nights—but these fearful darknesses are easily elided with the pernicious racism in our culture that seeps into our language and overtakes our intellect whether we like it or not. I vote for orange to be the new tint of evil. Orange is the new black: it’s already the name of a popular show. I love the color orange as much as the next painter, but it has many associations with evil besides the unnatural tint of The Small-Fingered One’s skin: the color of prison jumpsuits, Agent Orange, ‘nude’ stockings, that crayon that used to be called ‘skin color’ but now is labelled ‘apricot,’ and the sickly orange tinge of night skies in smog-smothered cities.

The morning after the election I woke my seven-year-old daughter to get ready for school. I was shaky, nauseous, trying to not be weepy. As soon as she opened her eyes, she asked me cheerfully, ‘Who will be president?’ I told her the bad news. She sobbed and thrashed in her bed. As I held her, she asked if this meant we would move, as we had often joked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’ll stay and fight. We’ll fight for our country.’ She thought for a bit, and then observed mournfully, ‘Well, at least the butterflies will be able to fly over the wall.’

So here’s a metaphor for our new age, The Age of Orange: where they build walls, our political ideas will be the butterflies that can’t be stopped by hatred, ignorance and violence. For the next four years, I pledge to use whatever means at my disposal, but especially art, to spread the ideals of true leftism and tolerance throughout this land awash in orange bile. Like the free flight butterflies, I will think of ingenious ways to make these messages seen and heard by a wide audience. I will use the internet and social media, which are being accused this week of cocooning us in bubbles of the like-minded, to traverse those barriers. I’ll think of ways to depict climate change that will make people understand the real and present danger of blowing up our planet. I’ll think of new ways to paint about tolerance, to make people question their racism and misogyny and Islamophobia. No, I don’t propose we hug it out and accept those with repugnant views into our lives, but I call upon my fellow artists of all stripes to enlist in a quest to find new metaphors. We must break down words and images and sounds and start anew, so that knowledge, tolerance, and love have a chance of breaking through the coming orange haze.

What is Aleppo?

 

What is Aleppo?
What is Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in Syria. Aleppo is a city near-destroyed by civil war. Aleppo is besieged. Aleppo is a refugee crisis. Aleppo is the site of an international proxy war. When ill-informed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnston asked this question on a cable talk show this fall his hosts didn’t even know where to start. Did he think he was on Jeopardy? Did he answer any other questions in the form of a question? What levels of ignorance would cause a politician running for major political office to ask ‘what’ Aleppo is, rather than ‘where’ it is?

When I was first asked to participate in a group exhibition organized around the theme of the painter Grandma Moses’s artwork at our local museum, I laughed. I couldn’t imagine what I could contribute. Grandma Moses painted ‘primitive’ style landscapes populated by tiny people—usually pastoral Vermont scenes. What could be further from my work? But after some thought, I realized that Moses’s technique for creating in her paintings a totality of a place by ignoring various features of realism such as perspective and proportionality were a perfect way to capture something I’d been thinking about a long time: how to portray life in the war zone of the Syrian city Aleppo.

As an artist who is in fact located in the pastoral and idyllic setting of Vermont, far away from the horrendous civil war in Syria, I have only scattered glimpses of the landscape in Aleppo. The primitive style allows me to piece together these shards, gleaned from photos on the internet from journalists, civilians, and even militants, and construct an imaginary piece of city. The organizing principle of my painting, and the inspiration for this reconstruction is a civilian by the name of Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel, a man who fled the city with his family to Turkey, but returned alone, unable to tolerate the idea that Aleppo would be totally abandoned by civilians. Muhammad then set up a cat shelter, where he feeds cats who have been left behind in the city, either because their owners have died or have fled. He also looks after dogs and even farm animals and works tirelessly to help out orphaned children left in the city.

There are no good guys in the Battle of Aleppo, which has been ongoing since 2012, with over thirty thousand dead. The Syrian government is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and others, and the rebel forces are fragmented, some backed by Al Qaeda-allied militant groups and covertly by the US and NATO. The UN has called the Syrian Government’s relentless shelling of civilians ‘an extermination.’ Similarly, they have expressed horror at the indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets by the rebel groups in the current round of fighting, in which the rebels are attempting to break the government siege of the city which has isolated the eastern part of Aleppo from all supply lines.

Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel’s cat shelter is located in the besieged rebel-held eastern section of the city. Every day, Muhammad posts to Facebook numerous photos of dozens of cats gnawing on bones and eating little scraps of meat. These images are in fact some of the only signs to the outside world that civilian life still exists in eastern Aleppo and that all the residents are not dead, wounded, or long-fled to fates that have been proven to be just as deadly, and welcomes that have been far from warm.

It could be argued that a state of siege and civil war is hardly a time to concern one’s self with cats, but I believe that Muhammad’s shelter is an amazing act of protest against the inhumanity of perpetual war. His refusal to turn his back on living creatures, or choose sides, or take up arms, all this is a powerful demonstration of non-violent resistance to the inhumanity of war.

This painting will be for sale in a silent auction to benefit the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, VT. The auction will be open for bids from November 25th to December 29th, 2016. Half the proceeds will go to the museum, and the other half will be donated to Muhammad Alaa Jaleel’s cat shelter in Aleppo, which is still able to receive funds. Please contact the Bennington Museum with bids after November 25th.

Poetry Management

Shubham Shree[Shubham Shree’s irreverent Hindi poem “Poetry Management” has been awarded the 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize by renowned Hindi author Uday Prakash to howls of rage from the Hindi poetic establishment. Below, I share my translation of the poem, and Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral explains what’s got them so mad. Urdu readers can check out Aftab Ahmad‘s translation by clicking here. Many thanks to Hindi poet Asad Zaidi, editor of Three Essays Collective, for introducing me to Shubham Shree’s work and to Aftab Ahmad for invaluable translation assistance.]

 

Poetry Management
By Shubham Shree

(Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell)

Writing poetry is bogus!
Yeah, and useless!
Totally.

Unprofessional profession!
Part time!
Why didn’t I do some MBA-type thing?
It’d be a blast, man!
I’d write a poem; the SENSEX would fall
The poet Mr. So-and-So has written a poem against capitalism
The SENSEX has fallen
Chatter on the channel
This is an example of the fall of American imperialism
Will America be able to control poets inspired by Venezuela?
Assurance from the Finance Minister:
Have faith, small-time investors!

The RBI will immediately increase the repo rate
Hubbub in the media
A contemporary poetry collection is coming out:
What do you think, how will the common man, the aam aadmi, deal with this collection?
SMS your response to us
But hey, the glory of the CPO (Chief Poetry Officer) will skyrocket!
Ads will show up for every program:
Reliance Digital Poetry
makes life poetic
Tata poetry–
every word just for you
People will hang poetry in their drawing rooms
Ooh, it’s so lovely!
Seems like something by someone from Sahitya Akademi!
No, sir, it’s imported
The original is worth millions of dollars
This one’s a copy
Children will write essays:
When I grow up I want an MPA
LIC Poetry Insurance:
Your dream is ours too
DU, Poetry Honors, cut-off sky-high
The girls have come in first again
in the PAT (Poetry Aptitude Test) exams
Students have burnt the VC in effigy
protesting PAT reservation cheating
Approval granted for eight new poetry institutes
At only three years of age, three thousand poems memorized:
India’s tiny miracle
America, anxious about the situation in Iran–
defeated by the Farsi poetic tradition!

This is All India Radio
Now you’ll hear the news in Hindi from Seema Anand
Namaskar!
Today the Prime Minister departs for a three-day International Poetry Conference
All the country’s poetry groups are participating
The Foreign Minister made it clear that India will not change its poetry policy for any price
The India-Pakistan Poetry Negotiations were again unsuccessful
Pakistan demands India retract its claims on Iqbal, Manto and Faiz
China again tested new poetic adornments
Sources say these adornments will now create the most powerful
poetry collections in the world
India’s foremost poetry producer, Mr. Wandering Lover—Ashiq Awara—died at dawn today
More attacks on Dalit poets in Utter Pradesh today
In the meantime, in games, for the third time running, India
has won the gold medal in Antakshari
India won the match in straight sets, 6-5, 6-4, 7-2
That’s the news for today!

Today’s Hindu, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagaran, Prabhat Khabar
The kids are going crazy for the latest poetic hairstyles
Poetesses share their short and long vowel secrets
30-year-old MPA boy—seeks homely, convent-educated, traditional bride
25-year-old MPA girl: fair, slim, tall—seeks suitable groom

Dude, this is fun
Keep talking
I’m gonna be a hero
Handing out autographs everywhere I go
It’s gonna be awesome, dude
Shut up, man
Third Division MA
Who’s gonna pay for an MPA?
Enough of your bullshit!
Sit down and proofread

Continue reading “Poetry Management”

There is a One-Eyed Man in the House

Ghar Men Kana Hai(Recently, I was asked to write something about translation for The Byword, a new journal of arts, literature and culture based in New Delhi. I wrote this essay, which appears in the latest edition, available only in hard copy for the moment. The illustration is pen and ink, by me. Cross-posted from shreedaisy.tumblr.com)

There are many ways in which translation is unfulfilling. It’s a solitary pursuit, and one for which the translator receives scant praise. If the translation is really good, the praise goes to the author of the original text. If it’s unsuccessful, the translator may be blamed, but readers might just assume the original author is not worth reading. The translator is invisible even in her badness. On top of invisibility, financial compensation is meager, translations are not widely read in English, and often one’s name doesn’t even appear anywhere on the cover of the book. Oh yes, and it takes a very long time, and one is never satisfied with the final outcome.

So why translate? Even though it’s not technically a compulsion for me, I can’t really stop myself from being a translator. When I read something in a language other than English, I constantly imagine how the writing would be rendered in English, word-by-word, sentence by sentence. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of French literature for example, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. I imagine myself translating everything I read. I have to constantly remind myself as I read that I’m not a translator of French, and that there are many other translators more capable of translating from French into English than me. But then, of course, there are many people who would be more capable of translating from Hindi into English than me, but they don’t choose to do it, and I do.

The (non) compulsion of translation for me is rooted in an orientation toward linguistic detail so extreme that I am liable to have numerous thoughts on every single word in a sentence even when I’m just reading for pleasure. When an editor questions my word choice in a translation, I am likely to respond with a paragraph or two defending my choice. It’s a headache for them, but most likely they will breeze past it, make a determination and move on. But I won’t. Years later, I’m still thinking about that particular word and what my editor said about it.

For example: the Hindi word kānā—which is usually translated into English as ‘one-eyed man’. I remember learning this word in introductory Hindi, not because it was a terribly important basic vocabulary item, but because it’s a useful tool for language teachers giving out dictation exercises. The distinction between kānā and khānā is a small puff of breath, or what linguists call ‘aspiration.’ The ‘k’ in ‘one-eyed man’ is not aspirated; the ‘kh’ in food, or khānā, is. For non-Indian English speakers the puff of breath is not the problem; it’s the absence of the puff that’s extremely difficult to hear, and even harder to pronounce. The classic dictation exercise is to read out the following two sentences and ask the students to write them down on a piece of paper: ghar m kānā hai and ghar m khānā hai. Students who have no grasp of Indic phonetics are flummoxed by the exercise and hear no distinction at all. The teacher then reveals that one means ‘there is a one-eyed man in the house’ and the other means ‘there is food in the house.’ The room dissolves in laughter, and the lesson is learned.

Or is it? After years of using this exercise as a teacher myself, I began to realize that what kānā meant to me as a non-South Asian English speaker was something akin to a Cyclops. A one-eyed man was a man with only one eye, and only one eye socket. As I began to read more deeply into Hindi literature, I realized that of course a kānā was not a mythical sort of creature with a single eye above his nose, but instead, an individual with only one good, or functioning eye, someone like Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban. To speakers of English in South Asia, this fact is already known, and assumed, when hearing the phrase ‘one-eyed man,’ because the concept exists in many Subcontinental languages. But in American and British English, such a state is described as ‘blind in one eye,’ and other such phrases.

Interestingly, many other languages contain a term equivalent to kānā, though what the valence of each term is, I am not sure. In Spanish, there is the popular saying ‘en la tierra de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey’—‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ This, in turn, is derived from the Latin saying ‘in regione caecorum rex est luscus,’ which means, literally, ‘in the region of the blind, the king is a one-eyed man.’ More research into luscus indicates that it is defined in Latin as ‘one-eyed man,’ but also as ‘with one eye closed; half-blind.’ The same is true for the Spanish tuerto.

In an online forum devoted to translating proverbs such as this, a commenter asks, in a discussion of the Spanish version, “Does anyone else find it really weird how Spanish has a word for ‘one eyed person’. Surely this word would be almost never be used.” This random online remark echoes my initial reaction to what I perceived as the absurdity of the sentence ghar m kānā hai when I first started to learn Hindi. What made me remember the example, and learn how to de-aspirate the ‘k,’ was the preposterous notion of a Cyclops-like figure sitting in a house. What was he doing there? Was this example drawn from mythology or a fairy tale? It never occurred to me until many years later that the correct contemporary American English translation would be, ‘There is a person with an ocular disability in the house.’

Despite decades of thought on the subject of one-eyed men, I was never confronted with the need to render the word kānā in English translation until recently. That opportunity arrived in the form of the first chapter of Premchand’s famous novel Godan, which my editor at Penguin asked me to re-translate, as the two previous versions were considered poor, or, as he put it more kindly, ‘dated.’ I decided to try out translating the opening passages of the book, where I found I would at long last be afforded the occasion to translate the word kānā. The sentence in question was this, “kānā kahne se kāne ko jo dukh hotā hai, voh kyā do ānkhonvāle ādmī ko ho saktā hai?” In the 1956 translation by Jai Ratan and P. Lal, this sentence is translated as follows: “Can a two-eyed ever feel the hurt that a one-eyed feels at the taunt of being called a one-eyed man?”

Besides being an inelegant rendering of a pithy Hindi proverb, this translation embraces the notion of the one-eyed man, and goes one step further, creating a new category in English, the ‘two-eyed’. I then turned to Gordon Roadarmel’s 1968 translation to see what an American English speaker would do with kānā. Roadarmel’s rendering breaks the sentence up in an attempt to capture the jauntiness of the original phrasing: “The taunt ‘Hey, one-eye!’ hurts a one-eyed man more than a two-eyed one.” Roadarmel does not attempt to engage with the notion of one-eyed-ness in English, but does artfully try to instruct the non-Indian reader in the notion that in Hindi there exists a class of taunts for the condition. In Ratan and Lal’s translation, this idea is left opaque.

In my own first attempt, I struggled mightily to find a phrase which captured the actual condition that a kānā suffers from. My version was even less elegant: “If you taunt a man with two good eyes and call him one-eyed, will he feel the same sorrow as a man with only one good eye?” To this rendering, my editor rightly wrote that there might be a crisper way of expressing this, perhaps by simply calling him a one-eyed man? To this I responded with a lengthy treatise on the nuances of kānā and the state of one-eyed-ness, no doubt eliciting in him some qualms as to my own fitness for the task of creating a more up-to-date version of Godan.

I’m still working on this. I’ve only just begun the translation of the book, and I’m confident I’ll have dozens more versions of this one sentence. A man with only one good eye is much more wounded by taunts of his condition than a man with two eyes would ever be. Because this is the nature of translation. If you’re blind in one eye, won’t you feel more hurt by being called ‘the one-eyed guy’ than if you have two good eyes? A translation is just never finished. If people shout ‘Hey, one-eye!’ after a man with two good eyes, will he feel half the pain that he would if he were half-blind? Even when you see your work in print. He who is blind in one eye feels keenly hurt by taunts of his condition; not so the man with two good eyes. It’s never perfect. He who is half blind feels the greater injury from taunts of blindness than the man with perfect vision.  There’s always some way to improve it. Taunts like, ‘What’s the matter, lost an eye?’ hurt the half-blind man more than the one with perfect vision. And it’s always possible I’ll change my mind about one-eyed men and stop thinking of them as Cyclopses. The half-blind man is pained by taunts of blindness; not so the man with two good eyes. But probably not.