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07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

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Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

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Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

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Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

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Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

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Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 April 2019

The New York World's Fair, 1939

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Today marks 80 years since the Official Opening by President Franklin D Roosevelt of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

First conceived by New York City business leaders in the midst of the Great Depression, the Fair was intended to raise the spirits – and economic outlook – of the city and the nation. Located at Flushing Meadows, Queens, on land that had been part salt marsh, part ash dump, the 1,200 acre site was three times the size of the Chicago World’s Fair, held just six years earlier. Indeed, the amusement park alone was larger than the entire Paris Exposition of 1937.

World fair cookbook 3

The New York World's Fair Cook Book: The American Kitchen. By Crosby Gaige. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1939. (Shelfmark: 7944.t.37) 

Although the Official Opening commemorated the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in NYC (then the nation’s capital), this Fair was all about looking forward. With its hugely optimistic, yet commercially minded theme – 'Building the World of Tomorrow' – nearly 45 million visitors were encouraged to see themselves as co-creators of an exciting, progressive and essentially urban future. Yet, unlike previous world expos, which had tended to celebrate technological, scientific and medical innovations in their own right, this fair wholly embraced the vision and output of corporate America.

Perhaps one of the most captivating early exhibits – unveiled in 1938 to help publicise the Fair – was the Westinghouse Time Capsule. With contents ranging from Camel cigarettes to the works of Alfred Einstein, and Life magazine to corn and tobacco seeds, it was plunged 15 meters below ground with instructions not to be opened for 5000 years.

Time capsule 4

The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy. New York: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 20033.d.15) 

The Fair itself was organised across seven vast 'zones', including Communication and Business, Production and Distribution, and Transportation. Huge pavilions were sponsored by the giants of American industry and manufacturing - Ford, Chrysler, National Cash Register, General Electric, Lucky Strike, Kodak and others. Here they showcased current and soon-to-be released consumer products, including television, air conditioning, washing machines and nylon. Yet many also offered imaginative, even breath-taking conceptions of the future, perhaps none more so than Norman Bel Geddes's 'Futurama'; a unique exhibit and ride, it offered a tantalising view of the city in 1960 and was sponsored by General Motors.

In the Government zone, 60 nations – more than at any other US fair – created and curated their own unique pavilions, enthusiastically embracing Andre Maurois’s faith in their being 'excellent publicity albums.' The British Pavilion included Lincoln Cathedral's copy of the Magna Carta, 'an object of interest and indeed of reverence,' which left Britain for the first time in its history.

Magna carta hall

The Magna Carta Hall, British Pavilion. London, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7960.df.12) 

Yet, for all these displays of international friendship and diplomacy, the Fair opened at the most perilous of times. The French Pavilion programme notes: At the time when the present volume leaves the printers, [France], has entered upon war, as a result of Germany’s brutal aggression against Poland. All the more stirring will be its message to America and the world…'

When the Fair opened for its second six-month season in April 1940, its theme had changed to 'For Peace and Freedom' and numerous countries, including the Netherlands, Norway and Poland did not take part.

World fair france

France. Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7745.a.10)

The Fair closed in October 1940 millions of dollars in debt and having failed to attract the visitor numbers that had been hoped for. Yet, it lived on in the imagination of those who attended and its vision and hope still resonates today.

The British Library holds a unique and eclectic collection of materials from this – and all other – US hosted Fairs.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre

 

 

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

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Starting a PhD can be a daunting undertaking; and getting to grips with the vast, often idiosyncratic workings of a major research Library with over 200m items can be even more daunting. This is why, for students who have recently embarked on doctoral study on any aspect of the Americas, we are putting on an Open Day on the British Libraries Americas collections and resources on Monday 18 March.

BL People_112

PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

The day will involve a series of general introductions to the British Library, as well as more regionally focussed presentations on Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Latin America – essentially explaining in broad terms what we have and how to find it. There will also be opportunities to ask questions individually of the curators and research teams, and attendees can tell us their topics in advance so everyone can leave the Library that day having opened up some rather promising avenues of enquiry.

We’re also very excited and grateful to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues from other parts of the Library, who will be able to offer insights into some of the approaches and resources available through the Library (such as digital scholarship or manuscript studies) that students might not be so familiar with. There will also be first-hand insights from current PhD students who are working extensively on our collections, who can (hopefully!) confirm that the British Library is both a pleasant and fantastically useful place to spend at least some of your time over the next 3-4 years.

CDP students 2017

British Library CDP students, including Naomi Oppenheim and Jodie Collins, discuss their work

Finally, as well as introducing the collections, we give students the chance to get to know the Library spatially and architecturally – so we’re offering the chance, during the lunchbreak, for students to take ‘sound tours’ of the main St Pancras building.  Not only are these a wonderful opportunity to explore the main building but they will also showcase the breadth of material contained in the Library’s Sound Archive, a resource that is often over looked by researchers.  As part of last year’s excellent Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project invited volunteers to use the Library’s Sound Archive to curate tours which reflect on black British history within the physical space of the Library.  One of the tour guides has kindly agreed to lead our Americas Doctoral Students through this unique experience.

Windrush sound points

Listening points in the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition

These different sessions will all be accompanied by a great deal of tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches, and a lot of very enthusiastic staff who are really passionate about getting PhD students in to work on our Americas collections. The full programme for the day can be found here.  To find out more and to book visit the event page.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Eccles Centre via eccles-centre@bl.uk.

09 January 2019

Cats from the stacks: The Cat in the Hat

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Not that one ever really needs a reason to look at pictures of cats, but with our Cats on the Page exhibition now open here at the Library, it seemed like as good a time as ever to explore some favourite literary felines. Please prowl forward: Dr. Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’…

Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (that’s Massachusetts-born Dr. Seuss to you and me) bolshie yet lovable Cat, was the result of a challenge put to the author to write a children’s book using a vocabulary of no more than 225 words. Giving Seuss a list of words, William Spaulding, director of the education division at publisher Houghton Mifflin, threw the gauntlet (or at least the children’s-book-world-equivalent):

‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!’ (Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, New York: Random House 1995, p 154, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813)    

And accept that challenge Seuss did.

Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

A quick recap for those who don’t know: two children are left home alone one rainy day. Peering through the window and pondering what they’re to do while Mother is out, Cat’s arrival is signalled with a ‘BUMP!’. Ignoring the warnings of their pet fish (who, let’s face it, was probably never going to be a fan of a cat in the house even if he were as inconspicuous as they come), the children let Cat stay and chaos ensues. Elaborate balancing acts fail and a box of kite-flying Things cause disarray while the omniscient fish looks on despairingly.

The title itself came at a point of desperation for Seuss:

‘I was desperate, so I decided to read [the list] once more. The first two words that rhymed would be the title of my book and I’d go from there. I found ‘cat’ and then I found ‘hat’.’ (Theodor Seuss Geisel, author interview as quoted by Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 154)   

It was through the sketching of Cat that things began to fall into place for the storyteller. Cat’s upright posture, slightly protruding tum, trademark headwear and ‘red bow tie tied in three impossible loops’ (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155) are instantly recognisable today. And hands up who else had never noticed that little quirk with the bowtie?

Front cover
‘The best of Dr. Seuss’ by Dr. Seuss, London: HarperCollins, 2003. YK.2003.a.15312

With Cat, it’s been said that Dr. Seuss wanted to create a character that, although was crafty and (slightly) shambolic, was still himself surprised whenever he messed up (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155). It’s this that gives Cat his endearing charm and keeps readers revisiting his capers.

And like all regretful moggies who come back with their tail between their legs, he does make good in the end – pootling in to speedily execute a ‘nothing-to-see-here’ clear up as Mother strolls along the garden path back to the house. Between the appealing rhythm and rhyme young readers are left with that very sagacious takeaway; you may mess up, but you can put things right again. Now there’s some wisdom to bring with you into adulthood. Thanks, Cat.

Cat_inside_pages
‘“Have no fear!” said the cat’ from YK.2003.a.15312

Speaking of that compelling rhythm that flows through the pages of Cat in the Hat, the skill in Seuss’s wordplay is made all-the-more impressive when you observe the lack of adjectives in the poem, something that Spaulding didn’t provide in great abundance when he gave Seuss the list of words to work from. ‘…[T]he limited vocabulary posed excruciating complexities in rhyming’ Morgan explains (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p155) but Seuss’s ability prevailed, leaving us with that unique bounce of page-turning words that continues to entertain over half a century since they were first penned.

Within the first three years of its publication the tale had sold close to one million copies, been translated into other languages, and been produced in Braille (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 156). Over 60 years later it remains a staple on the bookshelves of young children (and big kids) around the world.

Not one to be put off by a slightly tricky experiment, Seuss’s proficiency was pushed even further when it was later put to him to create another children’s book using a vocabulary of just 50- words. But we’ll save Green Eggs and Ham for another time.

See a bold full-colour 1957 edition Cat in the Hat, complete with Seuss’s iconic illustrations at Cats on the Page. Our free Entrance Hall exhibition celebrating cats and their capers from rhymes and stories through history is open until 17 March 2019.     

(Blog by Rachael Williams, currently on an Americas team curatorial placement and feeling rather pleased at managing to sidestep the plethora of puns that could have weaved their way into a cat-related post.)

 

Suggested reading

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan, New York: Random House 1995, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813

Of Sneetches and Whos and the good Dr. Seuss: essays on the writings and life of Theodor Geisel, edited by Thomas Fensch, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Co c. 1997, British Library shelfmark YC.1998.b.617

The political philosophy behind Dr. Seuss's cartoons and poetry: decoding the adult meaning of a children's text, Earnest N. Bracey, Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 2015, British Library shelfmark YC.2017.a.5301

 

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

 

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.

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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.

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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