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38 posts categorized "Americas"

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

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On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

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I recently discovered that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.  This novel was the final part of Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ – following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark – and it remains one of her best-loved works.

My Antonia

Willa Cather, My Ántonia. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Shelfmark: NN.5641.

Given that we try to keep these blogs somewhat timely, my hope was that it had been written towards the end of 1918! A quick Google search failed to confirm or disprove this, so I turned instead to Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982. This fantastic electronic database cites (and sometimes provides excerpts from) reviews of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 500 English language magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

The earliest contemporary review it lists for My Ántonia appears The New York Times on 6 October 1918. It also cites reviews from The Nation, The New York Call, The Bookman, Booklist, The Dial and The Independent (a weekly magazine published in New York City).  Most of these publications are held at the British Library. Their reviews of My Ántonia are overwhelmingly positive. The Nation calls Cather ‘an artist whose imagination is at home in her own land, among her own people’ and notes the novel is 'among the best of our recent interpretations of American life' . The Bookman declares the story to be ‘true to the Nebraskan soil of [Cather’s] own childhood, and therefore true to America and the world’. And for The Independent, Ántonia's struggle on the frontier is ‘full of human appeal and the fascination of the making of Americans from the foreign born.’

Willa Cather House II

Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, Cather continued to be well-regarded by the majority of critics and authors. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, One of Ours (1922). And in 1930 – while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sinclair Lewis famously declared that Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson were the only contemporary vital forces in American letters. Indeed, Lewis ‘salutes them with joy’ for giving to the United States – a nation ‘which has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins’ – a literature worthy of its enormity. (New York Times, 13 December 1930). 

In spite of Lewis’s enthusiasm, however, Cather’s focus upon these very same endless prairies and lost farm cabins doubtless contributed to her later being periodically marginalised as a regional writer and omitted from discussions about 20th century literature in the decades that followed.

Willa Cather with necklace fom Sarah Orne Jewett

 Willa Cather, ca. 1912. Wearing a necklace given to her by Sarah Orne Jewett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Cather’s own take on the importance of place in My Ántonia is interesting. In an interview in 1924 she acknowledges that the title character is tied to the soil. But she also asserts that she could just as well have written a story of a Czech baker living in Chicago ‘and it would have been the same.’ The story in Chicago would, Cather concedes, have been ‘smearier, joltier, noiser, less sugar and more sand’. But still it would have been a story that expressed the mood and spirit of the people that she knew; the immigrant families from Scandinavia, Russia and Bohemia who were forging a new life in a new land.  (New York Times, 21 Dec. 1924).

24 August 2018

Americas Digital Newspaper Resources

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The British Library subscribes to numerous digital databases that have both historic and more contemporary holdings from across the Americas.  Crucially, a number of these are available remotely, so registered readers can access them from home.  You can access all of the databases discussed below through the 'databases' link on the Newsroom's webpage.  The below are just a selection of what you can access through our digital subscriptions, do dig around for more, and of course there is more to be found from the rest of the world. 

 

REMOTE RESOURCES

These are perhaps the most popular of our newspaper resources, available to registered readers at just a few clicks from the comfort of your own home.  They include the following databases, each of which contains hundreds of historic titles:

African American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1827 - 1998

Providing online access to more than 350 U.S. newspapers chronicling a century and a half of the African American experience. This collection features papers from more than 35 states—including many rare and historically significant 19th century titles.

AfAm Newspapers interface

 

Caribbean Newspapers, 1718 - 1876

The largest online collection of 18th- and 19th-century newspapers published in the Caribbean. Essential for researching colonial history, the Atlantic slave trade, international commerce, New World slavery and U.S. relations with the region as far back as the early 18th century.

Caribbean Newspapers interface

 

Latin American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1805 - 1922

This database includes over forty titles and tens of thousands of digitised issues of Latin American newspapers from across the region – Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Brazil and the Southern Cone.

LatAm Newspapers interface

 

Early American Newspapers, Series 1, 1690 - 1876

Includes reproductions of hundreds of historic newspapers, providing more than one million pages as fully text-searchable facsimile images.

AmHist Newspapers interface

Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which collects the records of the US government operation that translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from international non-English sources.  This is particularly interesting for researchers working on US foreign relations, but also a good record of international resources otherwise not available.

FBIS interface

 

 

Access World News/NewsBank

Another extraordinary database, though not available remotely, is Access World News/Newsbank.  This currently provides access to more than 1800 American news sources and is accessible in all British Library Reading Rooms.

On the United States ‘homepage’ the sources are listed by state but can also be searched by region. Clicking the ‘Source Types’ tab reveals the following categories, as well as the number of sources for each of them: audio, blogs, journals, magazines, newspapers, newswires, transcripts, videos and web-only sources. A summary of each source provides the date range covered, the media type, publishing frequency, circulation, ownership and – where applicable – the URL or ISSN. In addition, the news magazines can also be accessed under ‘Short-Cuts/America’s News Magazines’ on the left-hand side of the home-page. Finally, clicking the ‘Source List’ tab reveals an alphabetical list of all news sources, along with their date range, location and source type.

The database’s many notable highlights include:

Full-text coverage of more than 1300 newspapers, including: Boston Herald (1991 – );  Daily News (NY) (1995 – ); The Dallas Morning News (1984 – ); The Denver Post (1989 – ); The Detroit News (1999 – ); Los Angeles Times (1985 – ); The Miami Herald (1982 – ); New York Post (1999 – ); Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (1990 – ); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1990 – ); and the San Francisco Chronicle (1985 – ).

Transcripts of features on nearly seventy news programmes, including: 60 Minutes (CBS; 2004 – ) ; CBS Evening News (2005 – ); The Charlie Rose Television Show (PBS; 2004 – ); CNN (2004 – ); Face the Nation (CBS; 2010 – ); Fox News Channel (2003 – ); Meet the Press (NBC; 2012 – ); MSNBC (2003 – ); NBC Nightly News (2014 – ); NPR (1990 – ); and PBS NewsHour (2006 – ).

Full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines, including: The Atlantic (1994 – ); Foreign Affairs (1994 – ); The New Republic (1993 – ); The New Yorker (2012 – ); Newsweek (1991 – ); and The Saturday Evening Post (1994 – ). NB: These are all listed under ‘Short Cuts/America’s News Magazines.

Output from more than 270 web-only sources, including Accuracy in Media (1998 – ); The Centre for Investigative Reporting (the oldest non-profit investigative reporting organisation in the US) (2003 – ); The Center for Public Integrity (2007 – ); The Daily Beast (2008 – ); Newsmax.com (2002 – ); and Slate (1996 – ).

 

Access to 64 newswires, including: Associated Press News Service (1997 – );  AP State Wires (from all states, 2010/2011 – ); CNN Wire (2009 – ); and UPI NewsTrack, (2005 – ).

Audio of The Diane Rehm Show (2000 – ), a daily news, arts and discussion show airing on NPR since the 1970s; a transcript is available from 2010.

The newspapers and news magazines in this database are text-only – they do not include the original page-layout, photographs or advertisements.

 

We hope that this provides some insight into just how much material is available through our digital subscriptions.  We continually add to these, and will post any updates on this blog so please do subscribe if you want to keep informed on the latest available resources.

 

- Jean Petrovic and Francisca Fuentes

23 August 2018

Help in finding Americas Newspapers & Magazines at the British Library

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Continuing on from yesterday's post on the opening of the Newspaper Library at Colindale in 1932, it seemed appropriate to revisit historic posts on this topic which give very useful guidance and tips on accessing these vast and rich collections.

Tomorrow we will look at digital resources, including remote access resources that British Library registered readers can access from home.  But first up, a guide to the dailies and weeklies we currently subscribe to.

Newsroom05-s

On microfilm these titles may only be read in the Newsroom and there is usually a three month time-lag in availability; any relevant indexes are held in the Newsroom on open access. In the Reading Rooms, access to the online version of both the dailies and weeklies is variable, so please check the listing below.

DAILIES:

Chicago Tribune, 1849 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark for the Chicago Tribune is MFM.MA207, although our holdings are imperfect for the first decade or so; its Index (1972 – ) is on open access in the Newsroom at shelf-mark NRR071.94. Online access to the Tribune’s business-focused articles is provided via two databases: Gale Cengage Business & Industry (1987 – 2002), which is available in all Reading Rooms, and Factiva (from 2003) which is available in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom.

International New York Times, 2013 –  : This paper was first published as The New York Herald (European edition) on 4 October 1887. Since then it has had numerous titles, including the International Herald Tribune (1966 – 2013). In all its incarnations it has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA1*. Full-text access to the International Herald Tribune (1994 – 98) is available on CD-ROM in the Humanities 2 Reading Room; this may be extended to other Reading Rooms soon.

Los Angeles Times, 1881 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA46 and the Index (1972 – ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NRR071.94.  Full-text online access to the LA Times (from 1985) is available in all Reading Rooms via Newsbank/Access World News; my next blog will focus on this extraordinary database.

The New York Times, 1851 –  : The microfilm version has shelf-mark MFM.MA3 and the Index (1851 – present ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NRR071.47. The New York Times, 1851 – 2010, is available as part of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database: this provides full facsimile page and article images and can be accessed in every Reading Room. Beyond 2010, access to business-focused news is offered via Factiva (from 1980), which can be accessed in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom, and Gale Cengage Business & Industry (from 1994), which is accessible in every Reading Room.

The Wall Street Journal, 1889 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark for the American edition is MFM.MA78 and its Index (1967 – ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NNR071.47. Online access (1990 – today’s edition) is available via Factiva in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and on two PCs in the Newsroom.

The Washington Post, 1877 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA370. Full-text online access to the Post’s business articles (from 2007) is available via Factiva in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom.

  

WEEKLIES:

The New Republic, 1914 –  : Now published twice a month, for most of its life The New Republic was published weekly, hence our decision to list it here; it has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA57. Online access (from 1993) is available in every Reading Room via Newsbank/Access World News: once in this database, click on ‘America’s News Magazines’ which is listed in ‘Shortcuts’.

Newsweek, 1933 –  : The American edition  (1933 – 1998) has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA390 and the hard-copy Overseas edition (1948 – 2009) has shelf-mark LOU.A391. Full text online access to Newsweek (from 1991) is available in every Reading Room via Newsbank/Access World News: as above, once in this database, click on ‘America’s News Magazines’ which is listed in ‘Shortcuts’.

Time, 1923 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA397. Online access to Time’s business articles is available in every Reading Room via ESBSCOhost Business Source Complete (from 1990) and ProQuest ABI/Inform (from 2000, excluding the last three months).

The Village Voice (New York), 1955 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA481.

 

- Jean Petrovic

22 August 2018

US & Canadian Newspapers and Magazines at the British Library

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August 23 marks the date on which the British Museum opened the Newspaper Library in Colindale to the public for the first time, in 1932.  This week, in a series of posts, we will look at the Library’s rich newspaper and magazine holdings from the Americas.

British_newspaper_library_colindale_jan_07
Credit: Caroline Ford, Wikimedia Commons

To help celebrate the Colindale anniversary the Eccles Centre for American Studies is delighted to announce that its guide to the Library’s US and Canadian newspapers is finally available in digital format!

Download PDF British Library Newspapers US & Canadian holdings

This guide was first published in hardcopy in 1996. 

US & Canadian newspapers
Shelfmark 2719.k.1795, or Open Access Humanities 2 Reading Room HUR Enquiry Desk 011.350973, or Document Supply m02/16737

At that time the catalogue at Colindale only offered access to these newspapers by title and town: searching for these publications by state or province was completely impossible. To address this, the Eccles guide listed the newspapers by title – the US newspapers first, followed by those from Canada – and then provided an index to these holdings by state/province and town.

In the years since the guide’s publication there have obviously been updates to the Library’s holdings. Some titles are no longer received, while others have been added. All of the titles in the guide, and more recent acquisitions, are included in the Library’s online catalogue Explore.  Yet, in spite of these changes the guide still provides the easiest and most effective way into these collections.  It is constantly used by the curators themselves, who find it invaluable, so please do take a look!  And do remember that you can always ask for help from reading room staff in the Newsroom, and from reference services.

We'll be posting more about newspapers in the Library's collections over the coming days, so be sure to watch this space.

- Jean Petrovic (née Kemble)

17 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 2/2

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Language has inevitably played a significant role in Canada’s immigration patterns. Reflecting the country’s colonial history and occupation by both the French and the English, the two most commonly-spoken languages in Canada remain English (the mother tongue of 56% of Canadians) and French (that of 21% of Canadians). Of course, other factors influence human relocation, but it is easy to see the attraction of such a linguistic context for immigrants from former colonies. The Haitian-Canadian community is an especially good illustration. According to the 2011 Census, 97% of Haitian immigrants live in Quebec – the second most populous region of Canada, but more crucially, home to the largest French-speaking community in the country, and with French as the official language. The attraction is clear for people from Haiti, a former French colony that has retained French as the language of education and bureaucracy. And the Haitian community in Quebec has produced a significant amount of prominent migrant writers, such as Emile Ollivier, Marie-Célie Agnant, Gérard Etienne, Joël des Rosiers, Gary Klang and Anthony Phelps, many of whom are published by Mémoire d’encrier.

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Dany Laferrière. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

 

But the best-known of them worldwide is Dany Laferrière, a political refugee of the Duvalier regime who has lived in North America since the 1970s. Born to a politician and an archivist, Laferrière worked as a journalist before fleeing Haiti soon after a colleague and friend of his was found murdered on a beach – most probably by the government. His autobiographical novel, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous (2000) [The Cry of Mad Birds] narrates this event, its impact on him and the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship in more detail. After moving to Montreal as a 23-year-old, he spent several years scraping a living from insecure jobs, living in cheap flats and reading novels. His first novel, provocatively entitled Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) [How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired] was a resounding international success. The story followed the lives of two Haitians sharing a flat in Montreal, and satirically engaged with racist stereotypes. A film adaptation followed four years after but was censured in the U.S, revealing the country’s continuing discomfort with racial issues. Over thirty years on, and with over thirty books to his name, Laferrière will be honoring the Institut Français of London with a visit on 24/09/2018 as part of the British Library’s French Caribbean Study Day.

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Kim Thúy at the Salon international du livre de Québec 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another important migrant writer from Quebec is Kim Thuy. Born in Vietnam, her family escaped the communist regime in her homeland when she was ten years old and she spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being relocated to Quebec where she had to learn French, the language in which she now writes. First working as a translator and later as a lawyer, Thuy never severed her links with her homeland. As a lawyer for example, she went on an advisory assignment to Vietnam with a group of Canadian experts. Back in Montreal, she also opened a Vietnamese restaurant called Ru de Nam. She then turned to writing and explored themes such as Vietnamese immigrant women, the culture shocks of immigration, the mother-daughter relationship and Vietnamese food. Her latest publication, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes (2017) [Vietnamese Women’s Secret] is actually a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes handed down from mothers to daughters. Her first novel, Ru (2009) was a bestseller in Quebec and France, won prestigious awards worldwide and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It tells the story of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Quebec and their difficult adaptation to Canada. Loosely based on her experiences, it tackles the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis involving dangerous escapes from Vietnam on over-crowded boats to refugee camps. Significantly, more than 50% of the Southeast Asian boat people came to Canada as a result of a government program.

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A small selection of our holdings by French-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Mona Latif-Ghattas (from Egypt), Abla Farhoud (from Lebanon), Hedi Bouraoui (from Tunisia), Ying Chen (from Shanghai), Naim Kattan (from Iraq), Régine Robin (from France), Sergio Kokis (from Bresil), Kim Thuy (from Vietnam), Blaise Ndala (from Congo), Marco Micone (from Italy), Dany Laferriere (from Haiti) and Aki Shimazaki (from Japan).

 

As you can see, Laferrière and Thuy are just two of the many French-language Canadian writers and the British Library holds books many more Canadian multicultural writers than I can even allude to in this post. Now let’s have a quick look at what we hold in terms of English-language migrant writing:

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A small selection of our holdings by English-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Kim Fu (of Chinese descent), Esi Edugyan (of Ghanaian descent), Austin Clarke (from Barbadia), M.G Vassanji (from Kenya, of Asian descent), Shani Mootoo (from Trinidad), Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka), Madeleine Thien (of Chinese descent), Shauna Singh Baldwin (of Indian descent), Dionne Brand (from Trinidad and Tobago), Olive Senior (from Jamaica) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad).

 

Although technically speaking still a newcomer to the international literary scene, Lebanese-born writer and photographer Rawi Hage has been particularly in vogue since the publication of his first novel in 2006.  Hage witnessed the civil war in his homeland and moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he had to work as a security guard and taxi driver to pay his way through university. Hage wasn’t the only person to relocate because of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In fact, as the war dragged on, Canada and Australia were the only Western countries to set up special programs to welcome Lebanese refugees. The 2011 census shows that Lebanese-Canadians still form the largest Arabic-speaking group in Canada. Language certainly had a role in this too, as 45% of Lebanese nationals can speak French. While Hage writes in English – his third language – up to quite recently he lived in Francophone Montreal, like about half of the Lebanese-Canadian population. His award-winning debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), tackles the hard choices that young Lebanese people faced during the civil war. His second novel, Cockroach (2008), charts the trials of an impoverished Middle Eastern immigrant in Montreal through his sessions with his therapist after a failed suicide attempt, leading the reader to question the success of Canada’s multiculturalism ambitions.

Pic 5
Rawi Hage at Quebec Writers Federation, 2012. Vimeo.

 

Hage’s colleague writer and common-law partner Madeleine Thien has rightly argued that the Canadian literary prize-awarding establishment generally prioritizes white writers over nonwhite ones). And when “multicultural”/minority writers are included, they generally tend to be men. Evoking the prestigious Giller Prize, she remarks that only 12 nonwhite writers were shortlisted over a ten-year period, and that “this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje”. Thien’s point is all the more significant considering the extent of nonwhite and multicultural women’s writing in Canada’s literary history. The Caribbean feminist and/or queer women writers Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Shani Mootoo, Makeda Silvera and Nalo Hopkinson are only a few examples.

Pic 5.jpg
Esi Edugyan. A portrait by Johann Wall, reproduced with his kind permission.

 

But in 2011, Esi Edugyan made history by being the first black woman to win the Giller Prize. Her novel, Half-Blood Blues, followed the lives of Afro-German and African-American jazz musicians fleeing the Gestapo in 1930s Berlin and Nazi-occupied Paris. Edugyan’s parents left Ghana in the 1970s, during a period of drastic change and political unrest following independence. Like many of their compatriots, they moved to Canada, where Ghanaians became the second-largest African immigrant group. Her family’s first-hand experiences of racism and difficulties adapting to life in Canada has inspired much of her writing. Her first novel for example, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), shows the disillusionment of a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alberta in the late 20th century, a character loosely based on her father. In the past few weeks, Edugyan has made the news again, by being long-listed (for the second time!) alongside Ondaatje for the Man Booker Prize. Her competing novel, Washington Black (2018), is an unconventional slave narrative which charts the life of a twelve-year-old slave working in a Barbados sugar plantation before fleeing an unjust execution in the 1830s, travelling to America, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Good luck to her!

Laura Gallon.


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


27 July 2018

Reporting from the reading rooms: Brazilian writers and translation

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3 weeks into my stint as Translator in Residence at the British Library, I’ve finally made it into one of the reading rooms and actually looked at some books, which I’ll admit is a rather unorthodox thing to do in a library. While the desks of my companions in the European collections department, where I’m based for the year, tend to be overloaded with books from the collections, administrative issues left me temporarily unable to do this, and so I was forced to join the masses and access my materials the way the vast majority of BL visitors do, in one of the many reading rooms. Besides, I am meant to be resident here, so it would be remiss of me not to actually visit one. Thus I found myself, on a hot Wednesday afternoon, collecting my reservations from Asian and African Studies  (not quite the nearest to my desk, but more exciting-sounding than ‘Science 3’)  and sitting down with other members of the public to get stuck in.

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In the weeks prior to this, I’d been randomly typing names into the catalogue whenever they sprang to mind, and I was excited to finally have a look at some of these books in the flesh. I started by looking at books by or about two 20th Century Brazilian  authors I’m currently reading, before going back in time to the early days of modern Brazil.

The first book I looked at was Cartas de viagem e outras cronicas (Travel letters and other chronicles), the collected non-fiction of Walter Campos de Carvalho, who occupies a strange role in Brazilian letters. As yet untranslated into English (I’m trying to change that, publishers take note!), he has never been a canonical writer in Brazil either, and until recently his books have been largely unattainable over there too. The four novels he published between 1956 and 1964 before ceasing to write anything substantial for the 34 years between then and his death, were  more indebted to European surrealism than to Brazilian literary trends, and certainly do not fit in with the outsider’s view of Brazil better represented by the writing of someone like Jorge Amado. To give one example, his last novel, O Púcaro Búlgaro (The Bulgarian Jug) describes the ill-fated attempt by a band of explorers to find out whether or not Bulgaria actually exists. In light of that, this collection is worth reading for the introduction alone, which contains the following excerpt from an interview with the great man who, like his work. was difficult, distant but also hilarious:

Interviewer: Today, with all the technological process that’s been made, is it now possible to say for certain whether or not Bulgaria exists?

Campos de Carvalho: It doesn’t.

Interviewer: Do any other countries not exist?

CDC: Argentina. I was there two years ago, but still I wasn’t convinced. I went to Mar del Plata…to a casino… The casino did exist though, I left all my money there.

His travel diaries are no less wry. Here he is on London: ‘A city where, when it’s not raining, a huge storm is always brewing…P.S. – in London there’s a newspaper called The Sun; it only comes out twice a year.’

I then looked at a transcription of an interview with another novelist, José J. Veiga, called Atrás do Mágico Relance (A Glimpse behind the magic). Unlike Campos de Carvalho, two of Veiga’s books did make it into English in the early 70s, though sadly they have never been reprinted. Associated at the time with the ‘boom’ generation of Latin American ‘magic realist’ authors such as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Veiga’s work is rather different, though it certainly deals with the fantastic in an equally effective way. The interview was fully of interesting insights, but I was particularly struck by Veiga’s reply when asked if he was influenced by (Spanish language) magic realism:

Veiga: No…I only read Garcia Márquez and Borges after having published two or three of my own books, so I wasn’t influenced by them…we (ie Brazilian writers) are unknown to…Spanish-Americans, but they’re also ignored by us, that is, there’s no exchange between us…there never was.

The novel of Veiga’s I’m keen to translate, Sombras de reis barbudos (Shadows of bearded kings) a wonderful blend of bildungsroman, political allegory and fantasy, has been translated into Spanish, but like other Brazilian prose masterpieces such as Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma and João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas, it’s very much out of print in its sister tongue. Things aren’t so different here; most informed readers could name one or two Spanish-American authors, maybe Gabriel García Marquez or Jorge Luís Borges, but might find it harder to name their Lusophone peers.

 

Finally, I went back a few centuries to Pero de Magalhaes Gandavo’s History of the Province Sancta Cruz, which we commonly call Brazil. The translation, by John B. Stetson Jr, is accompanied by a facsimile of the 1576 original, which the translator first encountered in the BL’s predecessor, the reading room at the British Museum. I came across this account via some recent work I did translating a piece on Brazil for a history magazine, which discussed Gandavo’s descriptions of ‘the Natives of the province’. The fact that he does not discuss them until the tenth chapter, after first addressing the country’s geography, colonial government, plans, animals and, intriguingly, ‘a marine monster that was killed in the captaincy of São Vicente in 1564’, is telling enough. Like Bernal Diaz, who documented the conquest of Mexico some years before, Gandavo just cannot see the ‘natives’ as properly human. They are at once a homogenous mass—‘Although these natives are much divided and have many different names for their tribes, still they are one in their appearance, their condition, their customs and their rites’—and uniquely barbaric, lacking any sense of morality—‘They live at their ease, without any preoccupation save eating, drinking and killing people; and so they grow very fat, but with any vexation they immediately grow thin again’. Undeniably ridiculous as the latter part sounds, such attitudes had appalling consequences: the deaths of up to 95% of the pre-colonial population. And these encounters bring up a fascinating insight into the difficulties of translation in a wider sense: how might someone like Gandavo, a well-off, Portuguese Catholic, have accurately conveyed the complex, and yet totally alien societies he witnessed. 

Gandavo

2 hours, 450 years traversed, one hemisphere crossed. Not bad for a first attempt!

By Rahul Bery

British Library Translator in Residence

 

17 July 2018

Seeing Blindness: The Danish West Indies

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When you enter the British Library exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’, you are met by a fragment of Derek Walcott’s Nobel lecture. This fragment is about fragments: ‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.’  Walcott evoked these postcolonial ‘African and Asiatic fragments’ in Stockholm, delivering a riven Caribbean memory that may at first glance be thought unthreatening, perhaps exotic, to a modern literary society devoted to rewarding work of ‘greatest benefit to mankind’, and to a region that has ‘successfully maintained positions as champions of minority rights and mediators in global politics’ (Fur, 18). Look a little closer and you’ll find a long and complicated history of Scandinavian-Caribbean relations. We might stay with Walcott for another moment and his epic poetic biography of Camille Pissarro, Tiepolo’s Hound (YC.2001.a.13434), which begins:

They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,

Passing the bank and the small island shops

quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat

through Danish arches until the street stops

at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas

in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.

Sea-light on the cod barrels writes: St. Thomas,

the salt breeze brings the sound of Mission slaves

chanting deliverance from all their sins

in tidal couplets of lament and answer,

the horizon underlines their origins—

Pissarros from the ghetto Braganza

who fled the white hoods of the Inquisition

for the bay’s whitecaps, for the folding cross

of a white herring gull over the Mission

droning its passages from Exodus.

Pissarro - St Thomas
Camille Pissarro, Deux femmes causant au bord de la mer, Saint Thomas, 1856. Wikimedia Commons

We are on St Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea, but at the same time we are not. Compressed into this dense image of island life are centuries of history and people—Danish, African, Creole, Sephardic Jew—so drenched in a rare sea-light that with each fresh and present vision history appears anew.  Indeed, Beatriz Llenín-Figueroa calls the poem a ‘sustained study of Caribbean light against History’ (p. 181), where History is a fixed discourse of the West wrought with uneven power dynamics. In contrast, Walcott’s focus on vision and a ‘blinding’ Caribbean light—hence the focus on painting—shows the ‘possibility for experiencing the Caribbean as if for the first time […] able to see otherwise, to find utter beauty, always in the present, in environments ravaged by “History”’ (p. 182).

Oldendorp view
A view on the Island of St. Thomas from the East, in C. G. A. Oldendorp’s Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (1777, BL 4745.c.10.)

It is perhaps no coincidence then that the Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen also chose to frame their 2017 exhibition on the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. in the language of light and vision. Blinde vinkler. Billeder af kolonien Dansk Vestindien (Blind Spots: Images of the Danish West Indies Colony) questions the neutrality of any Danish exhibition on its colonial past as the images produced and preserved in their collections ‘were [generally speaking] created by and for those in power’. A timely attempt to stage the partiality of colonial history, Blind Spots was accompanied by an online exhibition and a host of new digitized maps , images and newspapers.

Andersen sketch St Thomas
A 20th century view of colonial architecture on the island of St. Thomas, in Ib Andersen, Tegninger fra St. Thomas, St. Croix og St. Jan, LR.430.a.16

Denmark had a sustained presence in the Caribbean from the early 17th century and eventually the islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix were colonised, the last island becoming part of the Danish realm in 1733.  A familiar story across the Caribbean, Danish profit was ‘extracted from fertile West Indian plantations of cotton and cane by the sweat of the negro’s brow’, in the words of an early 20th century historian (Westergaard, p.156). Hans West’s 1793 survey of the islands, Bidrag til beskrivelse over Ste. Croix, med en kort udsigt over St. Thomas, St. Jean, Tortola, Spanishtown og Crabeneiland (BL 979.g.28.), can be viewed online but perhaps of more interest is the report by Moravian missionary Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp originally published in 1770, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (1777). The Moravians —otherwise known as the Evangelical Brethren amongst other names—did not view their task in the West Indies as one of enlightenment, the Black population being too “primitive” for understanding Christianity, and rather simply tried to get the Danish subjects to accept the grace of God. In this they were successful. In spite of such condescension, Oldendorp’s account contains significant “field work” including discussions with African-born slaves in order to understand the customs and traditions of the potentially convertible population.  [See A Map of the Danish Island St. Croix in the West Indies, Maps K.Top.123.74]

While Denmark passed a law to end the slave trade in 1792, it did not come into effect until 1803, and even then the end of the trade did not stop slavery itself, which continued on the islands until all unfree were emancipated in 1848. So in 1833, we still find in the Dansk vestindisk regierings avis newspaper [BL MFM.MMISC419] advertisements for the sale of slaves. A curious publication that summarised European news in English and Danish while printing the everyday activities of the island administration, the Dansk vestindisk regierings avis could for example juxtapose, as we see in our 1833 issue, the sale of ‘Mulatto Man Johannes, a good House Servant and Coachman’ and the story of a Parisian man found dead in the Canal St Martin after having been outwitted by a cat he had indeed to drown in the same canal. The full issue can be read online courtesy of the above-mentioned digitisations.

 

Dansk Vestindisk Regerings Avis 1833 selections page 4
Selections from Dansk vestindisk regierings avis, 4 November 1833, downloaded from the Royal Danish Library Mediestream service

 Peter von Scholten, Governor General of the Danish West Indies from 1827, was sympathetic to the cause of the Black population and strove for emancipation in his years in charge, although his actions were somewhat motivated by keeping the peace, caught between a ferment of slave unrest and, equally, an agitated planter class concerned for future profits in a slave-free society. The Library has an English copy of von Scholten’s ‘Orders for the regulation of labour conditions’ from 7 May 1838 [1850.d.26.(58.)], which exemplifies this balancing act on the path towards universal freedom. It contains an order to regulate the length of the working day and a reduction of discretionary punishment, although its severity hardly amounts to a reduction at all.

Scholten Order
Orders for the regulation of labour conditions, 1838

The 19th century saw the sugar trade diversify while the yield from the Caribbean suffered at various points due to adverse conditions. The benefits of the colonies were gradually outweighed and Denmark sought to sell them on, which it eventually—after many decades of trying—did in 1917 to the U.S.A for 25 million dollars. In 1917 Waldemar Westergaard also published The Danish West Indies under Company Rule [9773.ee.1.], a historical survey of the colonies before they were absorbed by the Danish state in 1755. In it he describes the slave trade as ‘loathsome to the modern mind’ (p. 137) and African slaves as ‘the chief agency that furnished the wealth, for the control of which European nations were willing to throw down the gage of conflict and usher in titanic wars’ (p. 156).

Album_worker's home
A worker’s home on St. Croix around 1900. Photo from an album digitized by the Kongelige Bibliotek [http://www.kb.dk/images/billed/2010/okt/billeder/object300088/da/], CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0

With that description in mind, we find a notable absence of such requisite condemnation in the introduction to The Danish West Indies in Old Pictures / Dansk Vestindien I gamle billeder [W55/9366], published 50 years later for the anniversary of the sale. The curator of the exhibition of the same name, which took place on the U.S. Virgin Islands in Spring 1967, writes instead:

‘It is a fact that most Danes still have a very soft spot in their hearts for the West Indies. Perhaps it is the dream, of heat and sunshine, palm trees and exotic flowers, white coral beaches, wealthy planters and a picturesque black population which appeals to our imagination. But for the most of us it will remain a dream. Very few have the chance of making their wishes come true and visiting the paradise on earth, as it seems to use dwellers in the frozen north.’

Slaves, later in the introduction, become simply part of the mechanics of island society without much lip service being paid to the idea of exploitation. Fifty years later, with last year’s Blind Spots exhibition at the KB, it might still be the same idealized vision on show but its inherent blindness and problematic perspectival gaps are simultaneously on the pedestal, to be interrogated, complicated and decimated by alternative visions in flux.

But, let’s finish where Walcott does, returning home from literal and figurative European and painterly explorations,

‘I shall finish in a place whose only power

is the exploding spray along its coast,

its rotting asphalt and cantankerous poor

numb beyond resignation and its cost,

[…]’

And,

‘Let this last page catch the last light of Becune Point,

lengthen the arched shadows of Charlotte Amalie,

[…]’

  • - Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading

Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (Barby: 1777)

Id., A Caribbean Mission (ed. Johann Jakob Bossard) (Ann Arbor: 1987) – translation of above.

Hans West, Bidrag til beskrivelse over Ste. Croix, med en kort udsigt over St. Thomas, St. Jean, Tortola, Spanishtown og Crabeneiland (Copenhagen: 1793)

Dansk Vestindisk Regerings Avis (Christiansted: 1833), BL MFM.MMISC419

[Peter v. Scholten], [Orders for the regulation of labour conditions] (St. Croix: 1838)

Waldemar Westergaard, The Danish West Indies under Company Rule (New York: 1917)

The Danish West Indies in Old Pictures / Dansk Vestindien I gamle billeder (U. S. Virgin Islands: 1967)

Isaac Dookhan, A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States (St. Thomas: 1974), BL X.800/25025

Ib Andersen, Tegninger fra St. Thomas, St. Croix og St. Jan (Copenhagen: 1976)

Neville A. T. Hall, Slave Society in the Danish West Indies (Mona; Cave Hill; St. Augustine: 1992/1994), 96/16886

Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound (London: 2000)

Beatriz Llenín-Figueroa, ‘“The Island Blazed”: A Blinding Light and Tiepolo's Hound’, Journal of Latin American cultural studies, vol. 23:2, pp. 173-191, 2014