Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Lola Lafon

November 3rd, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Thursday October 27th, The Pardee School of Global Studies’ Center for the Study of Europe partnered with the Association Francophone de Boston University to bring French author Lola Lafon to Boston University. The conversation with the author was moderated by AFBU Faculty Advisor Liliane Duséwoir, Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in French and Spanish in BU’s Department of Romance Studies.

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Culturally, Lafon’s background is a mélange of French, Russian, and Polish. She was also raised in the diverse cities of Bucharest, Sofia, and Paris. In addition to her multiculturalism, Lafon is also an author with a multidisciplinary skill set. A dancer and musician turned author, Lafon came onto the scene with a natural talent for writing. “I wrote because I needed to write,” says Lafon. “I wrote because I liked to write, because it was my way of talking to people.”

“I think writing is very physical,” explains Lafon. “So, for me with dancing you are in front of yourself, so what you see in the mirror is exactly how you are, it’s not better it’s not worse. It’s the same way with writing. It’s humiliating in a very good way; it keeps you in reality.”

Her most recent novel, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, is the fourth she has published. Combining themes of politics, capitalism, and feminism, this fictionalized account of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci ties together Lafon’s writing prowess with her several social and political collectives, especially feminism. “In France we have this thing called la littérature feminine, or woman’s writing,” details Lafon. “I’m not sure I like this because that would mean that, if you had to add ‘woman’, writing is ‘man’.”

“I wasn’t sure that I was going to do this novel, and then I saw this French newspaper who wrote about [Comaneci] when she was eighteen… [the author] said ‘the little girl became a woman. Verdict? The magic is off.’” The use of the word verdict here strongly impacted Lafon, as she re-imagines Comaneci’s childhood under scrupulous investigation. “When I read this, I knew I had my novel, because for me the subject is this trial, made on women’s bodies.”

In The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, a critique on perfectionism, Lafon skillfully blends together fact and fiction. While the names, dates, and events of The Little Communist may be true, Lafon explains that her writing mixes the historical with the creative. “I don’t write my life,” says Lafon. “I believe in imagination.”

-Toria Rainey ‘18

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Maja Haderlap

October 20th, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Thursday, October 13, the Pardee School of Global Studies at 121 Bay State Road opened its doors to Austrian-Slovenian author Maja Haderlap, accompanied by her translator, Tess Lewis, to talk about her most recent work, Angel of Oblivion. Born in Austria to a rural, Slovenian-speaking family, Haderlap and her family were in the minority; the majority of Southern Austria spoke German. Angel of Oblivion narrates that disparity, centering around a young protagonist who has to traverse the rigid boundaries between both the equally burdened Slovenian and German languages, and their contrasting communities.

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A coming of age story, Angel of Oblivion is not entirely a memoir, but it also is not entirely a novel—critics of Haderlap’s have dismissed its multifaceted nature, but Haderlap sees the label “messy hybrid” in a positive light. It is no wonder that this work intermixes elements of both poetry and prose, memoir and fiction, and history and culture–this work exists in a particularly difficult moment of history, one wrought with contradictions, excellently encapsulated as Haderlap interweaves her own childhood experiences. “You work with shadows as well as the light,” she notes.

The book, written in German, aims to connect the same two communities Haderlap was torn between while growing up. “It is the grounds for connection between the Slovenian speaking minority and their German neighbors,” Tess Lewis translates from Haderlap’s German. “In Europe, you wall yourself up—more than in the US. If you’re this, you are this and you can’t be that. I try to break this pattern.”

Engaging with the complex themes of the vagaries of memory, the confusion of contradictory emotions, and the struggle of formulating an identity within a community, Angel of Oblivion’s heartbreaking narrative unearths values and issues just as poignant today as they were some fifty years ago.

-Toria Rainey ‘18

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Enrique Vila-Matas

October 11th, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Tuesday, October 4th, the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe welcomed renowned literary figure Enrique Vila-Matas for a reading and conversation. Born in Barcelona, Vila-Matas is the recipient of international literary prizes such as the FIL Award in 2015, and has been both long and shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His successes have led to the translation of his works into thirty-seven languages; his most recent publications in English include Because She Never Asked and Illogic of Kassel, with a collection of short fiction called Vampire in Love just gathered for the first time in English in September of 2016.

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Hailed as “arguably Spain’s most significant contemporary literary figure” according to Joanna Kavenna of the New Yorker, Vila-Matas’ works intermix fiction, essay, and biography to redefine his own literary canon of contemporary Spanish literature.

“His work is a texture of real and invented quotation,” says Christopher Maurer, Professor of Spanish at Boston University. While Vila-Matas’ books cross genres and continents, he does still ascertain that he does not plan to abandon any one form of storytelling in favor of another.

“In March, I am going to come out with a book that is a mix of novel, short story, essay, and diary,” Vila-Matas shares. “In that book, the voice of the narrator has a lot of the characteristics of an essayist voice, an essayist who is influenced by poetry…in that sense, narrative supports essay and all of these different genres buttress each other mutually, but I will never abandon the pure narrative, if there is such a thing—because we can never abandon the narrative.”

“As a reader, I like poetry, but that’s not necessarily something I feel like I have at my disposal as a writer,” Vila-Matas shares. “I prefer to read (and read a lot more of) essays than narrative forms…when it comes to writing, I see something another author has written and notices the author’s tics, habits, quirks, and anything that I like I want to unlock and figure out how the writer accomplishes [their writing].”

Vila-Matas attributes some of this unconventional genre-bending style to his experience living and studying in Europe. “In the 70’s in Spain, there was this movement of experimental fiction that people protested against because they didn’t understand them that well, and in the 80’s, there was a kind of boom in Spanish narrative, which people thought was good,” he explains. “Around this time, I had been in France and was taking in a lot of literary theory, and didn’t necessarily agree that a good narrative had to include that narrative thrust, that it could include other aspects.”

The themes that Vila-Matas tackles include themes of otherness, art, and existential crises, which Vila-Matas attributes to his poetic and literary influences. “I read a lot of the poets of the Generation of ‘27 with a particular focus on Luis Cernuda, Garcia Lorca and Pedro Salinas.”

“I began by wanting to be original,” explains Vila-Matas. “There’s a caravan of anonymous literature, which speaks to that theme of the lack of originality…and to paraphrase Paul Valerie, one of the hardest things to think about is that there will be man after us.”

– Toria Rainey ’18

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Event Highlights: Writing the Limits, the Limits of Writing with Ananda Devi

September 29th, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Thursday, September 22nd, the Pardee School’s Center for the Study of Europe opened its doors to world renowned Mauritanian writer Ananda Devi to discuss the role a writer plays in the world today, and to illuminate both the struggles and beauties that come with such a responsibility. Moderated by Professor Odile Cazenave, a Professor of French and Chair of Romance Studies at Boston University, Devi’s talk wove together pertinent questions of identity, lyricism, and the experience of alterity.

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Devi’s prodigious skill has been recognized since the age of 15, when she won a short story competition, and has given her the international audience to write eleven novels, as well as short stories and poems, all met positively on a global stage.

“She is always surprising you,” says Cazenave. “One of the key features at times that readers or critics have found is the place of violence [in her writing]. I think she wanted to address it from a different standpoint, what it means to be writing violence into the text, doing maybe at times violence to the text, and what it can do to the writer; what the writer may feel when writing something that is violent.”

Devi’s stories all explore and consider a wide range of rather dark topics, including trauma, disability, the struggle for autonomy, and often, graphic violence. One of the questions Devi tackled in her lecture was exactly that—why can writers not seem to turn away from the harsh truth of violence, and how does it effect the writers themselves?

“It is indeed the result of a reflection of many many years and of questioning from my readers about why do i write such dark, violent stories,” remarks Devi. “One of the remarks that people say to me after having read my books when they meet me is, ‘you’re not at all like your books, you don’t look like somebody who is writing such tortured stories.’ There is a french saying, les apparances sont trompeuses, or, don’t trust appearances. What’s under the surface might be completely different.”

Devi explains how, in one of her most viscerally received novels, Le sari vert, she told the story through a first-person narrator who happened to be the perpetrator of violences against women. “The entire book is written in a language of hate, of misogyny and utter contempt for women and the human race in general,” Devi explains. “For two hundred and fifty odd pages, [the readers] had to remain inside the head of this terrible man. They had to follow his own logic and his self justification, which made it painful to read.”

When it comes to the reason behind Devi’s dark choice of subject matter, however, she makes an interesting contrast between the world she belongs to and the worlds she narrates. “However sincere my distress, I was still living in comfortable surroundings, while those i was writing about were dying in the cold and dark outside. If it was the case that we shouldn’t write about anything that disturbs us, and that disrupts our well being and comfort, we writers would have no subjects left.”

Devi’s brutal and lyrical writing style lends itself perfectly to the intimate worlds she creates in her stories. “I’m not writing about big epics,” she notes. Instead, Devi’s works focus on tangible, commonplace social realities expressed through honest poetics. Why, then, combine such passionate, expressive prose with such agonizing themes?

“It is the same question that any writer should ask when addressing the issues of our time, not using the issues but serving them. Not writing about them because they are in the news or in fashion, but because you feel compelled to write about them and you have no choice… perhaps the sanest approach is to be aware of our own limits and to know that we will not be able to change the world, but this has never been the purpose of writing. We can, perhaps, change a few people.”

-Toria Rainey, ‘18

Listen to this event on WBUR’s World of Ideas: http://www.wbur.org/worldofideas/2016/10/30/devi

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Magdalena Platzova

September 22nd, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Thursday, September 15th, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Europe welcomed Czech author Magdaléna Platzova and translator Alex Zucker. The event was moderated by Veronika Tuckerova, Preceptor in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

Platzova is the award-winning author of six books, two of which have since been translated and published in English: Aaron’s Leap and The Attempt, a Lidové Noviny Book of the Year Award finalist and a Czech Book Award finalist respectively. Her other works have also appeared in literary magazines A Public Space and Words Without Borders. She has studied in Washington D.C., England, and ultimately got her MA in Philosophy at Charles University in Prague. She has since taught at the Gallatin School at New York University.

Alex Zucker is an award-winning translator of Czech literature. He has translated many prominent Czech authors into English, and he currently serves as the cochair of the PEN America Translation Committee.

Platzova’s most recent book, The Attempt, is based on the lives of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, a pair of leading political activists and anarchists, and is told through the archival lens of a Czech historian who is convinced he is Berkman’s great-grandson. The novel takes place when this historian travels to Manhattan during the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, tying together themes of personal transformation and radical politics.

A poignant example of historical fiction, The Attempt gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of an anarchist. “The anarchist thing was very interesting to people,” details Platzova. “There are some young anarchists who … were happy someone was finally writing in a positive way about their ideas.”

“Even there [in the Czech Republic], their ideas are mostly interpreted and perceived as something bad, as chaos, or stealing and murdering,” she explains. “There’s this primitive interpretation of anarchist ideas.”

It is no coincidence that the novel took place in New York City, since Platzova was living in New York at the time of the novel’s conception. “It was destructive … in New York, but on the other hand it made me more daring than I would be closed in Central Europe, thematically and for perspective,” reflects Platzova. “It couldn’t have been written anywhere else.”

In addition to being an award-winning author, Platzova is also something of a detective, using her skills in research and journalism to uncover both history and history in the making. “I was reading all this history, thinking, why do people keep silent? Why are they not doing anything? … And then, [Occupy Wall Street] happened.”

“After Occupy Wall Street ended in the way it ended, I realized it was also the frame of my book; that all these ideas are going on. They are living on.”

-Toria Rainey ‘18

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Ilija Trojanow

May 10th, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Tuesday, April 26, the Center for the Study of Europe, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Boston and the literary journal AGNI, hosted a reading and conversation with Bulgarian-German author Ilija Trojanow. Moderating the event was editor, teacher, and translator Aaron Kerner. The topic of discussion was Trojanow’s latest novel, The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso Books, April 2016), a literary fiction about climate disaster and a scientist imploding on a journey to the Antarctic.

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Trojanow, born in Bulgaria in 1965 and brought up in East Africa, established his name as an international writer with the novel Der Weltensammler or The Collector of Worlds (2006), about the cross-cultural Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Since the mid-1990s Trojanow has been prolific in a number of genres, including travel, ethnography and science fiction. He has also become a major public intellectual in Austria and Germany with provocative interventions on topics such as Islam and the West, civil rights in the age of cyber-surveillance and climate change. His imaginative writing sits at the centre of a number of defining contemporary concerns, in particular the relationship between identity, language and culture.

Trojanow is the author of more than 20 books, including Angriff auf die Freiheit (Attack on Freedom), a polemic on surveillance that he co-wrote with fellow writer Juli Zeh and published in 2009. In July, he and Zeh penned an open letter calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to respond to the NSA’s surveillance program. – See more at: http://www.pen.org/press-release/2013/11/08/third-attempt-pen-member-ilija-trojanow-permitted-us#sthash.CGMLZ0lk.dpuf

The event began with Kerner giving a brief introduction of the book, describing how society has accepted the “new normal” of climate change, and how Trojanow’s character Zeno displayed an intimate relationship with glaciers as well as his emotional experience in the face of global warming. Trojanow described how the process of forming his character Zeno started with a bag dream about an elderly gentleman in a landscape devoid of greenery, snow, or ice who was mourning something unknown to Trojanow. The author explained how the figure stood out to him, and how his continual fascination with glaciers as a majestic representation of destruction as a near living being prompted him to determine that the man from the dream could be a glaciologist who lost his glacier. At this time, Trojanow said, he knew nothing about glaciers, and he described the process of beginning research by contacting a Swiss glaciologist who showed him the splendid beauty of a “majestic white entity” slowly graying and disintegrating, and who claimed that he felt exactly like Trojanow’s imagined character. Trojanow outlined the frustrations many scientists face today, understanding the truth of climate change in the face of a society refusing to accept the necessary changes. Kerner questioned whether Trojanow viewed the world as his character Zeno does, with disgust and despair, leading to a loss of faith in humanity. Trojanow said that Zeno is more of a skeptical and sad character, and how, as an author describing a landscape rarely ever discussed, he was challenged to find the language to capture the essence of purity in these few locations untouched by the ravaging of mankind.  areas.

After a brief discussion of the hierarchy of eco-tourism and the hierarchy of cruise ships in the Antarctic, as well as a brief synopsis of the structure of the novel, Kerner asked the author about forming the accurate language to describe the landscapes featured in the story through Zeno’s perspective. Trojanow explained how while scientists generally speak quite formulaically, he wanted Zeno to be a contrarian and accentuate the emotional connection the man feels toward the natural world. Continuing, Trojanow explained how scientists are in love, and how they converse in both sensitive and intimate ways in discussing their specific fields of study because of their deeply rooted passion. Kerner then made a deduction the author had never considered, regarding Zeno’s interpretation of his glacier as a “paradise lost” but being drawn toward to the mortality and inevitable melting of all glaciers.

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of Trojanow’s experience researching and visiting the Antarctic. Initially, his primary trip consisted of overwhelming observation of the raw landscape while the second occurred after the first draft of the book had been finished. The speakers then discussed the relationship between the crew and the passengers, and Trojanow described the primarily Philippino workers enjoying his attention and questions about their lives. The author explained that the workers are generally detached from the impressive landscape, caring more about making money than understanding the bizarre Western fascination with traveling to such an unappealing isolated location to merely take pictures. Kerner then followed up with several questions regarding the environment and extreme weather in Antarctica, and whether Trojanow considered the accounts and experiences shared by early explorers to venture to the final and untouched continent. Trojanow agreed that the last pure exploration was to the Antarctic and then delved into a description of the dichotomy between the North and South, comparing the preservation of the Antarctic by the global community as a demonstration of cooperation and respect, while the Arctic is slowly being divided by the nations driving toward the extrapolation of natural resources. Kerner questioned the authors hope for humanity, and Trojanow gave a deeply meaningful explanation of how “despair is a luxury of privilege,” and that he wishes to contribute something to change the world for the better, similar to Zeno in the novel.

After briefly discussing the importance of Thoreau in emphasizing the preservation and purity of the natural world, Trojanow read several excerpts from his novel, first in English then in German. The event ended with an open questions and answer portion, when members of the audience asked the author the process of research and writing such an in-depth novel, the difference between accurately illustrating either historical and contemporary themes, and the reality of climate activism and ecotourism. Kerner answered a question regarding his opinion of the novel, explaining how he admires Trojanow’s ability to turn the tragic reality of many global issues into a piece of art. The concluding statements by Trojanow addressed the reaction to his book in Germany, reflecting upon the frustration and desperation many readers feel regarding the pressing threat of climate change and how he expects a similar reaction from American readers once the English version is sold across the U.S.

This year’s European Voices events are organized in collaboration with the literary journal AGNI and the Goethe-Institut Boston and are taking place as part of EU Futures, a series of initiatives exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC to the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University.

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Christos Ikonomou

May 3rd, 2016 in Event Highlights

On Tuesday, April 19 with a reading and converation we hosted the Greek writer Greek writer Christos Ikonomou and his translator Karen Emmerich for another European Voices event. Following a short reading by Ikonomou from the Greek text, Emmerich read her translation of “Placard and Broomstick” from the short story collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See. The collection was the most reviewed Greek book of 2010 and the recipient of the prestigious Best Short-Story Collection State Award. It has since been translated into six languages and was published in the U.S. by Archipelago Books in March, 2016.

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Christos Ikonomou was born in Athens in 1970. He has published two earlier collections of short stories, The Woman on the Rails (2003) and Something Will Happen, You’ll See (2010). Described by Italy’s La Repubblica as “the Greek Faulkner,” Ikonomou writes with profound sensibility, deep humanism and astute foresight about the human condition using the Greek economic crisis as a backdrop.

Karen Emmerich’s translations from the Greek include books by Margarita Karapanou, Amanda Michalopoulou, Sophia Nikolaidou, Ersi Sotiropoulos, and Vassilis Vassilikos. Her translation of Miltos Sachtouris for Archipelago was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and her translation of Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile with Edmund Keeley won the 2014 PEN Literary Award. She teaches at Princeton University.

The event began with an introduction by Kelly Polychroniou, Head of the Modern Greek Language Program at Boston University, who gave a brief background on the two speakers. After thanking the event organizers for the opportunity to share his works, Ikonomou began with the reading of a passage from Something Will Happen. Emmerich followed with a longer reading of the English translation, a story about a tragic accident that brings the characters face to face with the mortality of life.

To begin the conversation, Emmerich asked Ikonomou on the strangeness of an author arbitrarily being told to discuss their writing. He started by saying, “I always feel very awkward, especially in public, about the stories that I write because I have this rather mystical approach to writing. When I write I feel like I am in a state of ecstasy or trance. So afterwards I cannot rationalize what I write.” Ikonomou continued by describing when he writes he hears voices in his head, telling him the stories, and the author emphasized how his goal in writing is to do these stories justice by remaining honest to the voices. Emmerich continued the conversation by asking Ikonomou whether or not he, as a writer, can step back and have the relationship with his stories that a reader experiences, more than beyond just listening to his stories aloud. Ikonomou explained how he tries to not read them too often, as he is so strongly connected to his characters that he is personally and emotionally impacted every reading. Knowingly, he states “we are all stories… we all have our own story, and we connect by sharing our stories and interact with one another, its personal, telling the story is an expression of oneself and defines their relationship with the world..” After claiming that “storytelling is essential,” the author criticized many writers today, pointing out that a major problem in contemporary literature are the result of fiction writers ceasing to have faith in their stories, some he says to be “essential… the most crucial I have to believe what I write. I don’t care about reality. Reality and truth are two different things.”

Emmerich agreed with the dual interpretation of reality and truth, briefly summarizing the title story for the audience in an effort to explain the richness of Ikonomou’s storytelling ability and the fullness of his characters, which combine to produce realistic and emotional responses from readers. Ikonomou then discussed how serious literature is about instilling emotional responses, describing how many critics of his works have cited the heavy, depressing, and sad elements of his stories. However, as Ikonomou explained, he disagrees with this, as he finds it essential for a reader to be deeply impacted by his stories, and for the characters to resonate and stay with the reader even after his book has been put down. Emmerich defended his statements by mentioning the humor in his stories, and the overarching hopefulness, quoting Ikonomou when he once explained how “you can overcome a difficult situation even if it’s not a happy ending.”

The conversation then turned to the audience for a more opened discussion, and the first question was in regards to Ikonomou’s relationship with Christianity. The long response given by Ikonomou was in Greek, as he needed to explain his nuanced and personal relationship with his Orthodox faith in his native tongue. Emmerich provided a summary, describing how the figure of Christ is prominent in Ikonomou’s life, and how the author’s reading of the gospels was his first recognition that truth is greater than reality. The next question asked Ikonomou about his opinion on the translated forms of his texts, and his response was mainly focused on the importance of languages in general. Specifically, in discussion of his books, Ikonomou cited that the cadence of English changes the interpretation of the text, and he is continually amazed at how the subtle shifts between the rhythm of various languages can fundamentally impact the experience of reading or listening to a story. He explained how he occasionally considers English while writing his stories in Greek, and went as far as to say it helps “open his mind,” in capturing a truly unique and honest voice. The theme of language continued into the next question, where Ikonomou’s commentary on the “great challenge” of translation helped him sharpen his sensitivity to language, which transitioned into the author’s examination of writers today. Ikonomou described how overlooking a sensitivity to language has resulted in many young people today seeing language as simply a tool, stating “language is something that every time you write you must reinvent it, make it new. That’s something all writers should do.” He mentioned that other authors across Europe have also commented on their disappointment in young writers failing to value all the elements a language can offer in the process of storytelling. Emmerich echoed his concerns, adding that the evolution of a story and ones interpretation of a story can change due to language, and the emotional response experienced by a reader can be directly linked to the language of the story. Ikonomou carried the conversation further stating, “I have had this experience as a reader… Readers keep the books alive. Without readers there are no books.” He continued with an emotional explanation of how the ambition of his work is to reach out to every reader, breaking through walls such as language, culture, and history, how it’s about “making a permanent mark on the heart of your reader that they will carry with himself forever.”

Another question regarding the future of Europe and the question of democracy in Greece led to a more politically charged conversation between the speakers, addressing societal trends such as the rise of the Right in EU politics, as well as the challenges facing Greece given the current migration crisis, as Ikonomou realistically stated the Greek hope for a ‘Messiah’ “is never going to happen.” The discussion concluded with a discussion of which Greek writers most greatly influenced Ikonomou’s prose, as he briefly tried to convey the importance of several authors in particular who truly capture the beauty of Greek writing.

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This year’s European Voices events are organized in collaboration with the literary journal AGNI and the Goethe-Institut Boston and are taking place as part of EU Futures, a series of conversations exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC to the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University. Christos Ikonomou’s visit was co-sponsored by the Modern Greek Program at Boston University.

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Event Highlights: Lusophone Voices: A Reading & Conversation with José Eduardo Agualusa

April 26th, 2016 in Event Highlights

Our popular European Voices series has given rise to a number of related initiatives, notably, Irish Voices, Russian Voices, and beginning last year—with the visit of Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares in April 2015 and with support from the Saab-Pedroso Center for Portuguese Culture and Research at UMASS—Lusophone Voices.

For the second event in that series, which took place on Tuesday, April 12, we invited the Portuguese-Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa’s visit was co-sponsored by the African Studies Center at Boston University and UMASS Lowell, where he spoke during the afternoon of April 13. His readings at Boston University and UMass Lowell took place as part of the 2016 Boston Portuguese Festival.

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José Eduardo Agualusa [Alves da Cunha] was born 1960 in Huambo and is considered one of Angola’s most important writers. He studied agronomy and forestry in Lisbon before starting his writing career as a poet. His novel Creole was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature, and he recently received the U.K.’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the U.K. for The Book of Chameleons. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.

At Boston University, Agualusa read from most recent novel to be translated into English, A General Theory of Oblivion. The book tells the story of Angola through Ludo, a woman who bricks herself into her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence. Published by Archipelago Books last year, it is one of thirteen finalists for the Man Booker International Prize (awarded annually on the basis of the single book) and one of twenty-five finalists for the Best Translated Book Award (by Three Percent) of 2015.

The event began with an introduction by the Portuguese Consul General of Boston, who both praised the works of Agualusa and thanked the BU Center for the Study of Europe for hosting such an esteemed Lusophone event. Heywood continued with a more specific introduction on herself and a brief biography of Agualusa’s life and career. After giving a summary of the book, Agualusa read several excerpts from Oblivion, which captivated those present, both individuals fluent in Portuguese or those who followed along  with the projected English translation of the text.

Heywood began the conversation by briefly discussing her personal experiences in both Lisbon and Luanda, specifically her interactions with both native Portuguese and Angolan emigres. Agualusa responded by explaining how his book is about colonialism, specifically how his protagonist is “an orphan of the Portuguese Empire,” leading to her 30 years of isolation. He continues, however, by explaining she saves herself at the end of the novel by she discovering that “the other” is equal to herself – Agualusa emphasized the importance in recognizing xenophobia and the fear of others, particularly in the contemporary world. Heywood added to his commentary, explaining how the emigres from Angola to the heartland of Portugal were the wealthy who left in threat of survival after having exploited many Africans and Angolans. But she also mentioned how the integration of these emigres, once reestablished in Lisbon, publicly displayed mixed race families. Agualusa explained how the real story of colonization is mixed race families, and, more importantly, mixed identities.

Heywood shifted the discussion toward more personal stories of her experience in Luanda during the late 1970s. Agualusa described the ‘magical realism’ surrounding Angola, but attempted to explain how “that’s just the reality… Angola is very unique.” Heywood echoed his statements, adding how her time in Luanda felt almost like an alternate universe. The conversation continued with various stories from the two speakers, as Heywood and Agualusa shared a friendly and intimate dialogue about specific areas of Angola, purposefully delving into personal experiences in the distinctly diverse nation, while maintaining a humorous conversation. On the ‘rural nature’ of Angola, Agualusa jokingly said, “I could hear lions from my house.. it was from the zoo, yes, but I could hear lions!”

The floor opened to questions from the audience, and the first question was in regards to the influence of Agualusa’s experience living and traveling in many Lusophone nations. His emotional response explained clearly how he is “at home when I am with those who I love,” and continued with an explanation of how, as a Lusophone writer, he uses what he referred to as ‘global Portuguese’. Rather than use regional dialects, Agualusa’s goal in his literary projects is to unite the reach of Portuguese language and culture, and emphasize the various influences and sharing from centuries of integration and colonization.

Heywood broke into the conversation, poignantly asking “who are the Portuguese?” Agualusa thought briefly before responding, while difficult for Americans to understand given their focus on ethnicity and race, the Portuguese are a mix of all the Lusophone nations, all carrying a unique interpretation of Portuguese identity. This led to the final question, when Heywood asked Agualusa “who are the Angolans? Are they Lusophone, European, or African? And what is going to happen going forward?” The event ended with Agualusa attempting to answer these challenging questions, as he explained the bizarre reality of African nations in a post colonial world. While the EU is becoming increasingly homogenous, Agualusa pointed to the fact that everyone has a right to be Angolan, emphasizing the concept that “there is not just one way,” and highlighting the differences between the colonization of the Americas and that of African nations such as Angola.

Watch the event on BUniverse:

This year’s European Voices events are organized in collaboration with the literary journal AGNI and the Goethe-Institut Boston and are taking place as part of EU Futures, a series of conversations exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC to the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University.

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Event Highlights: European Voices: A Reading & Conversation with Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki

April 14th, 2016 in Event Highlights

On March 31, we kicked off a new round of “European Voices” with Polish émigré author Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki and his translator, Julia Sherwood. Klimko-Dobrzaniecki read from his novella Lullaby for a Hanged Man, published this year by Calypso Editions, a story of three East Europeans trying to build new lives for themselves far from home in Iceland. A lively conversation followed, moderated by the editor, poet, and translator Alissa Valles.

03.31.16

Watch the event on BUniverse:

Klimko-Dobrzaniecki is a novelist and poet who has lived outside Poland for many years (formerly in Iceland, and now in Austria). His first publication was a set of short stories called Bielawa West Station (2003). He has also published: two collections of stories, Roza’s House. Krysuvik (2006), and The Lunatic (2007, a reworked version of his first book); the novella Lullaby for a Hanged Man (2007); the novels One Two Three (2007), First Things (2009) and Bornholm, Bornholm (2011); and two volumes of poetry written in Icelandic.

Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, then Czechoslovakia. After studying English and Slavonic languages and literature at universities in Cologne, London she settled in the UK, where she spent over twenty years working for Amnesty International. She travelled widely in Eastern and Central Europe and the former USSR following the changes in 1989, deepening her knowledge of the languages and literatures of the region.

The event began with an introduction by Alissa Valles, who briefly discussed the works of Klimko-Dobrzaniecki  and who explained the difficult process of translating his writings. Klimko-Dobrzaniecki then began reading excerpts from Lullaby in its original Polish, followed by Sherwood’s reading of her English translation. The back and forth reading from Polish to English gave the audience an idea of the purity of Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s native language, as well as a deeper appreciation for his poetic prose, masterfully translated and depicting the beauty of the natural world.

The stylistic elements of the Lullaby readings prompted Valles’ first question, asking Klimko-Dobrzaniecki about the importance of language and his transition from poetry to novels. He responded by explaining how he exclusively writes in Polish, laughingly saying “I even dream in Polish,” but then explaining how he would never write in his non-native tongue. He continued by describing how he relies on translation into other languages to spread his works, and emphasized the importance of poetry in his life, even comparing the process of writing and reading poetry to the cathartic experience of prayer. Valles commented on Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s ability to keep connected to his Polish roots while living abroad, asking whether or not the author had raised his children to be bilingual. Underscoring the influence of culture on children, Klimko-Dobrzaniecki explained how his decision to write a children’s book was inspired by his children, and his lack of proficiencies in languages other than Polish led him to continue writing in Polish and raise his children in a multilingual household.

Given the dissolution of the communist regime governing Poland, as well as the broader collapse of the USSR and the subsequent changes in the global order, Valles questioned Klimko-Dobrzaniecki on whether he had experienced major language and cultural shifts following the democratization and consequent Europeanization of his homeland. Klimko-Dobrzaniecki described how, while living abroad, he maintained a connection with Poland through literature and his annual visits. Stating he does not consider himself a “conservative”, Klimko-Dobrzaniecki briefly explained how he enjoys seeing the evolution of his native language resulting from various external influences, such as the global proliferation of English. He added later that he considers himself independent from a specific Polish generation, instead preferring to maintain his own definition and identity as a Polish citizen through his 12 books. Asking about a specific joke made by many Polish literary critiques regarding Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s inclusion of humor in his writing, the author defended himself, stating: “I like to add humor to books, life is sweet and bitter… and I want to put a smile on people’s faces.”

Valles next turned the conversation toward Sherwood, questioning the difficult process of translating Polish to both Icelandic and English. Sherwood explained the problems she faced, particularly the challenge of capturing the voice of  Klimko-Dobrzaniecki. Sherwood additionally discussed her use of what she called “Transatlantic English” as a combination of both her traditional British English education with the more globalized and Americanized form of English. Valles prompted Sherwood to talk about the process of translation, and Sherwood pointedly noted the importance of an intimate relationship between the author and the translator in order to capture to true essence of the writing by maintaining an open conversation and dialogue between the two parties.

Turning back toward Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, Valles questioned the author on whether or not he writes his stories with the assumption that they will eventually be translated, but he vehemently denied such an expectation. Claiming he writes only in fluent Polish, Klimko-Dobrzaniecki stated he does not allow the external pressures of translation to influence his prose. Commenting on the purgatorial elements of Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s Lullaby, Valles asked the author about his fascination with the mysticism and darkness of the North. His response was a laughing inexplicability, as he claimed “I’m not sure why… I just like it.”

The conversation between the three panelists ended with a brief discussion about the musician Klimko-Dobrzaniecki dedicated Lullaby to, and the author explained his desire to popularize the music of his deceased friend across many countries by including him as a character in his novel. The event concluded with questions posed by the audience, mainly focusing on the strength of Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s writing and his unique and emotionally authentic characters.

This year’s European Voices events are organized in collaboration with the literary journal AGNI and the Goethe-Institut Boston and are taking place as part of EU Futures, a series of conversations exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC to the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University.

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Event Highlights: European Voices – A Reading and Conversation with Author and Translator Tim Parks

April 16th, 2015 in Event Highlights

On Thursday, April 16th, the Center for the Study of Europe in coordination with the BU Center for Humanities, the BU Translation Seminar, the Interdisciplinary Center in Italian Studies, and the College of General Studies hosted Tim Parks to speak on the topic of Italian character.

Tim Parks is an author and translator, and has lived in Italy for twenty-one years. His works of fiction have enthralled many, with subject matter spanning from violent art enthusiasts to political thrillers. His non-fiction work has focused especially on Italy and Verona, where he resides, and include Italian Neighbors, A Season with Verona, and most recently Italian Ways. He has studied Italian history and language in depth, and has also worked as a translator for twentieth century fiction and poetry.

His full speech, including readings from some of his novels and a question and answer period, can be found here:

Parks proclaimed his goal of the talk as to “try and talk about Italian national character as a sort of existential condition”, and to try and understand that condition. Throughout his speech, and indeed throughout all of his works, he referenced heavily the works of various modern Italian poets.

Using his own personal experience as a foreigner living in Italy, Parks opened his speech with a series of anecdotes on the relationship between foreigners and ‘guests’ in Italy. He supported the commonly referenced maxim regarding Italian culture, wherein “Italians are endlessly criticizing one another, but cannot abide with external criticism” with humorous accounts of personal experience. Underlying this, he argued, is a strict sense of belonging and not belonging within Italy, that hearkens back to familial ties. This mentality had lead him, even after decades in Italy, to feel still a guest. He argued that this stems from a lack of “real society” in Italy- and to explain these phenomena, Parks turned to nihilism.

Italian thinkers had conceptualized nihilism before its rise with Nietzsche, and Parks argued that this can explain much of Italian society. Italians, like nihilists, place little value in formal society and collective standards. Each Italian creates their own “cult of behavior”. One symptom of this is the relationship with honor and dishonor in Italian culture- if there is no societal standard that is enforced for judgement, can anyone be truly honored or dishonored? Looking at examples of historical figures, politicians, and public figures, it is easy to see in Italy the lack of a common condemnation or judgement. Figures like Mussolini and Francesco Schettino both face very mixed reactions even today.

Another trend Parks noted is Italian conversation, where insult are “the only form”. He referenced the comparison made between Italians and French. The French and it British, as it says, laugh at individuals behind their backs, but respect them to their face, while Italians laugh to their face and know no respect. Sociologists studying this topic have hypothesized that this lack of respect, and lack of illusion, have severe impacts on Italian self-esteem.

The ultimate expression of this ‘nihilism’ is expressed in the quote referenced by Parks, that “life doesn’t have truth or substance, and in Italy it does not even have the appearance of it. You cannot fool yourself into thinking that life might be serious.” And with political scandals that go nowhere, deeply embedded crime rings, and economic disparity, modern Italian life can seem to lend credence to this view.

Parks sees Italy as “a nation in search of a collective illusion” to escape this cynicism, and traces its historical development along this same search. In his explanation, he uses deep historical trends, specific examples, arts, international relations, and more to back to his case. He read from his book Italian Ways on the sense of Italy presented by its train stations, and entertained audience questions on prospects for the future, historical causation, and more.

-Kaitlyn Perreault, ’18

 

 

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