from A Parade
PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. For the next few weeks, we’ll feature excerpts from the winning projects introduced by the translators themselves. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.
Today we feature an excerpt from Kaitlin Rees’s grant-winning translation from the Vietnamese of A Parade by Nhã Thuyên, a poetry collection that introduces a compelling new Vietnamese voice.
Rees writes: The central figure of this piece is someone, a man from nowhere, who wakes up with a question, and because there occurs a wind, the question slips from his mind into the void. In the end he survives. The piece is composed with the materials of a narrative: There is something occurring, yet a narrative cannot be easily located, “cannot be detached” enough to be told. Perhaps the central figure then is not the man but the occurring itself, the everything of a moment: its numbers, images, imaginings, undulations, memories, thoughts, stray words, and weather. In carefully attending to one moment, its “ephemeral endlessness,” perhaps we can sense a new possibility for non(sensing) the world.
I choose to translate Nhã Thuyên’s writing. I choose to translate Nhã Thuyên, the living person, because her writing refuses all comforts while continuing to ceaselessly (excessively) care for language, and because her living person is the most actively hopeful expression of nihilism, or nihilistic expression of hope, I have ever encountered. Nhã Thuyên’s writing, like her living, maintains a level of mental independence that is truly rare, and yet it opens to others, to strangers, maybe even to you, with an intimacy of sharing in the dark and very quiet rooms of a self. The writings, the person, embody a resistance that is not satisfied with the language of resistance, maybe as “I love you” is never really enough. I chose to translate the writing and the person simply because I cannot imagine a more meaningful way to waste my life.
he rises from bed and begins to count his steps, the first question of this early morning when opening the eyes on his mind at once is dropped into oblivion because an abrupt shiver of sea breeze occurs and he begins to count his steps, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, a total of fifteen steps plus a half-foot to reach the red chair of a cat beneath a dry weeping tree, the heavy-eyed country cat an undulating cloud of ash in the sea of gathering waves over there on a red chair emerging from the deep vegetal green early morning backdrop, she’s in a skirt of black says it’s her color this summer nimble she is like the cat, they the cat and she make friends, make a couple, make perfectly beautiful partners for a picture he can take from behind, her hair gently levitating in the breeze, the background a scenic deep green ocean spitting white foam, plus this luck, this piece of evidence that can nurture the happy couple’s romance and the good fortune of a memory remembered with digital technology, the eternity of a moment or the meaninglessness of more of less similar moments easily multiplied and edited, that one essential or that one not, we can remember simply through vision and a few neural firings, with respect to science, our eyes seize all these images and transfer signals up to the brain, and provided the brain is not yet dead, we can remember, she says, she doesn’t say, but like that so much is erratic and the fate of these images is completely dependent on the erraticism of memory and the ability of data processing, you know this, but snapped photos are also erratic in the matter of being seen again or not and seen again when and with whom, you know this, she’s fervidly aroused and strangely beautiful and freely excellent in all the photos she posts on Facebook to receive nothing but admiration and passion and very occasionally someone’s envious simply from how an excellent freedom can result in envy, she stoops to inhale the smell of cat, and the smell of cat, although faint, maybe with a couple strands of its hair can linger with her with her hair with her hand and if he could capture each such smell infusing the sea breeze smell and saltiness in the air and always she is salty like that, a perfect picture and fervid arousal and strange beauty and free excellence, and the cat is the perfect serendipity of a moment, ashy undulation, heavy sluggish eyes, a couple of idle legs and illusory smell, all of it strangely seductive like strange seduction itself cannot be detached from what’s occurring now as he counts the steps back, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, plus a half-foot to reach his chair, book opened to page 47, by chance his same age, the age, he mumbles to himself, to have been shattered enough by now, ached for the memory enough by now, steeped bitterly enough by now, raged enough by now, been hopeless enough by now, emptied enough by now, depleted enough by now, having tenderly returned enough by now, having chaotically begun to return enough by now, though the first chaos arrived with this morning’s eye opening, after his days absorbed in the bliss of being submerged in water from dawn till this whole time, the time he gives himself to solitary undulation in the unfamiliar sea, a place flooded with signs but for him they’re always signaling things impossible to name and though he’s fluent in the national language its regional tones continue to baffle him undone and most bewildering are the times he is absentminding everyday conversation and someone says “pity” he will hear it as “pain,” or someone says “destitute ones” and he hears it to be “the scars” “jealousy” he hears “bright eyes,” “manufacturing” is “a pair of hands,” “dedication” is “the heart” and “on the road” is “a failure,” these snaps of linguistic projection can be the symptoms or fruits of a disorder that occurs when a brain must process a new language it has yet to thoroughly penetrate which leads to a synchrony of fleeting and wandering moments, he has never had such an experience, personally, of “pain” as anything more than the silence within nothingness, of “the scars” as something other than practices in oblivion, “bright eyes” being merely a bit of fire lit on something hopeless, “a pair of hands” only as witness to a dead body’s immobility, “the heart” as endless hunger and “a failure” as the inspiration to linger on an indefinite journey, he has never known with such clarity, as now, of his body being anything more than a hopeless hiding place of identifiers signaling unnameable things and flooded bewilderment and automatic expressions that come whenever he does not open up the words while speaking with someone, after this bout of love, perhaps the last blistering passion of life, and he didn’t know he could still love in that way, that way is what kind of way, and now, all of it strangely seductive like how strange seduction itself cannot be detached from what’s occurring now as he counts the steps back, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, plus a half-foot to reach his chair, book opened to page 47, by chance his same age, the age, he mumbles to himself, to have been shattered enough by now, ached for the memory enough by now, steeped bitterly enough by now, raged enough by now, been hopeless enough by now, emptied enough by now, depleted enough by now, having tenderly returned enough by now, having chaotically begun to return enough by now, though the first chaos arrived with this morning’s eye opening, his unusual undulation with a sense of still living and surviving within or with this strange land, not entirely immigrant and certainly never indigenous and certainly not entirely a foreigner and certainly never completely a domestic, and now, lucidly aware of the cat having made itself familiar for how many days now this morning not coming back, 15 steps plus a half-foot distance between his chair and the cat’s, entirely nothing at all occurring, not even the cat’s shadow or some strands of hair, the rickety red chair rocks to the sound of ocean waves, nothing at all occurring, can it be that everything had occurred, can it be that with a picture he is more at peace with a memory, but all is still occurring and all is gradually erased like waves that relentlessly gather on the sandy beach and recede and he again is dropped into oblivion because an abrupt quiver of sea breeze occurs, ah, that’s it, the sea breeze is what is occurring, all of what is still occurring, the wind shifts and the sea chops, the tide rises higher, distant clouds meet and move, the sea herds the sand, that’s it, that is absolutely the precise choice, or the choice that could not be any other, a choice he did not intend to choose, completely unsuited for this day’s struggle and bizarre shifts, right exactly now, the first question of this early morning when opening the eyes comes returning back to his mind, the first chaos, that’s it, he’s remembered, that first question, to struggle or not to struggle in the sea, to swim or not to swim, and a second of wavering becomes an ephemeral endlessness and a moment dropped into oblivion because a sea breeze, what is occurring at that time, only that is what he believes, for the shiver of his body at that time, as this time, what is occurring at this time, was the perfect solution for a question he could not answer in that moment and forgot it through stepping, the counted numbers, the wind, the waves, the marvel of examining a piece memory he cannot be sure is true and he is having lived through one more of his mornings on this shore and now as that question comes snap returning back it is with the look of its own meaninglessness and nothing more, bobbing a plastic bag on the sea