THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

07 January 2019

A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas

The weather is not the only thing that separates English and Caribbean Christmas traditions. Junkanoo is the much-debated name of the syncretic festival that happens in the days following Christmas. The earliest accounts of Junkanoo date back to the eighteenth century. Celebrated by the enslaved, these festivities were performed around the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. A product of African and English cultural traditions, otherwise known as Creolisation, Junkanoo was and continues to be performed in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Whilst most accounts from the days of slavery describe Jamaican performances, it was practised in many places – and, today, remains a vital part of contemporary Bahamian culture. A masked performance with a central figure – John Canoe or Pitchy Patchy – Junkanoo has been characterised as ‘ritual of conflict’ by Michael Craton. Frequently censored or banned in the post-Emancipation period, the planter-class feared the rebellious elements of this festivity, especially during moments of weakened power. Shortly after the abolition of slavery, attempts made to ban Junkanoo in Kingston during the 1840s led to the outbreak of riots.

This blog post explores some of the traces, memories and sounds that Junkanoo has left in the American Collections and beyond. One of most referred to accounts of these festivities comes the diary of Lady Nugent, who recorded her time spent in the Caribbean at the turn of the eighteenth century. 

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Lady Maria Nugent, A Journal of a Voyage to, and residence in, the Island of Jamaica, from 1801 to 1805, and of subsequent events in England from 1805 to 1811 (London, 1839)

In an article for Public Opinion – the literary and politically progressive mouthpiece of the People’s National Party – Archie Lindo went in search nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions, compiling a collection of book excerpts. Lady Nugent’s diary was his first point of call:

“the whole town and house bore the appearance of a masquerade. After church, amuse myself very much with the strange processions, and figures called Johnny Canoes. All dance, leap and play a thousand anticks. Then there were groups of dancing men and women. They had a sort of leader or superior at their head … The instrument to accompany them was a rude sort of drum, made of bark leaves. …What a melange!”[1]

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Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6

Similarly, Philip M. Sherlock, an expert and enthusiast of Jamaican folk culture, wrote an article called ‘John Canoe Dance’ for Public Opinion. Questioning its origins, Sherlock quoted Monk Lewis’s description of John Canoe dancers at Savannah-la-Mar, a coastal town in Jamaica, before explaining the Creolized quality of this performance:

‘Whatever the origin, in its development the dance has undoubtedly been modified and adapted … in these dances we find, as in other forms of our folk-lore, the mingling of African and European influences, and the creation of something distinctive and vital: there is no imitation but rather adaptation, adoption, and creation. Certainly this is what has happened with the John Canoe dance. Of course it varies with each district and with each performer.’[1]

In slight challenge to this traditional creole understanding of Junkanoo, Michael Craton – who has written extensively on cultural resistance and performance in the Caribbean – emphasises the African elements more strongly. Drawing connections between Junkanoo and the ‘secret masked societies of the Sierra Leone Wunde and the Ibo Mmo, and the Yoruba Eguugun and Ga Homowo festivals,’ Craton argues that the central masked figure embodies and facilitates spiritual continuity, roots and pride.[2]

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Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7

Why was Public Opinion so concerned with paying tribute to nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions? The 1930s, which were home to labour rebellions, the centenary of Emancipation and the outbreak of WW2, saw a surge in anti-colonialism and nationalism. Cultural nationalism – the recovery and promotion of folk traditions – was a critical mode of this movement. Folk traditions, like Junkanoo, were a useful tool in this quest for national history, identity and drive. As Elizabeth Cooper argues, masquerade and stilt-dancing, both key elements of Junkanoo, became ‘centrepieces of anti-colonial and nationalist cultural discourse in the twentieth century.’[1] In ‘Tales of Old Jamaica,’ Lindo wrote,

‘Today, after more than one hundred years, it seems a pity that most of these old customs and celebrations have almost been lost to us. In certain parts of Jamaica we still have our John Canoes and ‘Masquerades’ but they make a poor showing compared to those of olden days … Perhaps something can be done before it is too late, to recapture these brilliant and merry festivities so that … we do not lose for all time these quaint and invaluable customs.’[2]

Portrayed as an ‘invaluable’ but dying black folk tradition, the article was promoting a reinvigoration of a Jamaican folk Christmas.

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Arlene Nash Ferguson, I Come To Get Me! An Inside Look at the Junkanoo Festival (Nassau: Doongalik Studios, 2000)

Moving into the contemporary period and away from Jamaica, Bahamian Junkanoo has retained its vigour and authenticity. With two parades, one on Boxing Day and another of New Year’s Day, the Bahamian festivities attract local and tourist attention. Very much articulated as a performance of African cultural retention and enslaved resistance, Junkanoo is a generator of popular culture, tourist money and, crucially, national pride.

[1] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

[2] Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6.

[3] Michael Craton, ‘Decoding Pitchy-Patchy: The Roots, Branches and Essence of Junkanoo’, Slavery & Abolition, 16 (1995), 14-44 (p.34).

[5] Elizabeth Cooper, ‘Playing against Empire’, Slavery & Abolition, 39 (2018), 540-557 (p.549).

[6] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

- Naomi Oppenheim

@naomioppenheim


Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student at the British Library and UCL. She is researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain.

With apologies to Naomi for the late posting of this post, which was due to a technical problem we were unable to resolve before the Christmas holidays.

06 December 2018

Hallie Flanagan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

Today marks 80 years since Hallie Flanagan – national director of the Federal Theatre Project – appeared before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about the New Deal programme she had been leading since its inception.

In her now legendary testimony, Flanagan’s allusion to Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe – and Congressman Starnes’s rejoinder: ‘Is he a communist?’ – left the room rocking with laughter. Yet, Flanagan herself did not laugh, recognising as she did that: ‘Eight thousand people might lose their jobs because a Congressional Committee had so pre-judged us that even the classics were “communistic”’. [1]

Flanagan-Federal-Theatre-Radio

Hallie Flanagan speaking on CBS Radio, 1 January 1936. The Federal Theatre of the Air, under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, began weekly programmes on 15 March 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Flanagan had been head-hunted for the Federal Theatre in 1935 by Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Until this point, federal relief during the Great Depression was primarily directed at manual labourers. The Federal Theatre – along with similar projects for writers, artists and musicians – was a game changer, providing federally-funded employment to skilled workers: in this case, playwrights, directors, actors, stage-hands, set-designers and costumiers.

From the outset Flanagan’s stewardship of the Federal Theatre was visionary and far-reaching. This should not have been surprising. In 1926 Flanagan became the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and for 14 months she had travelled throughout Europe studying new theatre. Her meetings with Konstantin Slanislavki and Vsevolod Meyerhold had illuminated radical new ways of working and in Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) Flanagan asserts that Russia, with its workers theatres and innovative methodologies, had the most vital theatre in the world.

Theatre-Studio_on_Povarskaya_Street_1905

Members of Meyerhold’s Theatre-Studio on Povarskaya Street (affiliated to Moscow Art Theatre). Meyerhold is back row, second left. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After returning to Vassar College in upstate New York, Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre and soon gained a national reputation for ground-breaking productions. Notable among these was Can You Hear Their Voices? her co-adaptation of a story published in New Masses by then-communist Whittaker Chambers in which the effects of the devastating drought in Arkansas are seen through the eyes of struggling farmers and their affluent Congressman.  

With a job that she loved, a husband, a child and three step-children it is hardly surprising that Flanagan initially resisted Hopkins’ offer of a job in Washington, DC. But after several months, and with the full support of her husband, she accepted. In October 1935 – doubtless reflecting Flanagan’s passionate belief in the transformative power of theatre – the Project boldly declared that: ‘Its far reaching purpose is the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of the Federal Project is completed.’ [2]

A subsequent blog will explore the Federal Theatre’s accomplishments more fully. Suffice it to say here that nothing like it has been seen in the United States before or since. In its first three years, thousands of workers created 55,000 performances of more than 900 shows in front of 26 million people, many of whom attended at no cost or for less than one dollar.

Faustus-FTP-Poster

Poster for Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. W.P.A. Federal Theatre. 8 January – 9 May 1937. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the purportedly ‘radical’ nature of the Theatre – together with Flanagan’s own background – held the seed of its undoing.

Flanagan was fully aware of the creation in May 1938 of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Part of the committee’s brief – under its chair, Martin Dies – was investigating organisations suspected of having communist ties. Looking back at this time, Flanagan notes in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark: X.900/3282) that while many people within the WPA laughed about the Dies Committee, to Flanagan herself ‘it never seemed funny’. [3]

And with good reason.

In July 1938, a Committee member declared the Federal Theatre to be a branch of the Communist Party, offering plays with communist leanings and limiting jobs to members of the Workers’ Alliance. Flanagan immediately issued a press release denying this and spent the next five months trying to appear before the Committee in order to set the record straight.

Finally, on the morning of 6 December she was called to testify. However, unlike Hazel Huffman – a disgruntled Federal Theatre mail clerk who believed herself qualified to denounce Flanagan for being ‘known as far back as 1927 for her communist sympathy, if not membership’ and who received ample time to air her views on the Theatre’s activities – Flanagan, the Theatre’s national director, was allocated just a few hours.

Yet, what a few hours they were. And this extraordinary testimony can be read in full online at the British Library using Congressional Hearings, Digital Collection, 1824-1979.

Within moments of taking the stand, Flanagan flummoxed the Chair with a declaration of her dedication to combating ‘un-American inactivity’:

Flanagan and Chair dialoge excerpt

Desperate to re-gain control, the Congressmen quizzed Flanagan on her trips to Russia, her communist sympathies, her belief in theatre as ‘a weapon’, the Federal Theatre’s productions, its workforce, their ties to the Workers’ Alliance and more. For much of the time, Flanagan remained on the front foot. And when she asked if she could return after the recess for lunch, Congressman Thomas replied: ‘We don’t want you back; you’re a tough witness and we’re all worn out.’ [4]

Yet in spite of Flanagan’s best efforts, the national mood was changing. A recent Gallup poll had shown that more than half of all voters were aware of the Committee hearings, and of those, 75% wanted the investigations to continue. [5]

On 3 January 1938 the Committee concluded that: ‘A rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist party or a sympathetic with the Communist Party’. [6]  And five months later, on 30 June 1939, an Act of Congress denied the Federal Theatre Project further funding thereby bringing an end to an unprecedented national experiment and ‘the creative energy that it so miraculously generated’. [7]

To be continued…

Footnotes: 

1. Hallie Flanagan. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

2. Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration. October 1935. https://www.loc.gov/item/farbf.00010003/ accessed 5/12/2018.

3. Flanagan, Arena. p. 335.

4. ibid., p. 346.

5. Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988, p. 326.

6. Flanagan, p. 347

7. John Houseman, quoted in John O’Connor. The Federal Theatre Project: ‘Free, Adult, Uncensored’. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. x. Shelfmark: 81/13870.

Further Reading:

Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988. Shelfmark: 88/22242

 

04 December 2018

American Cooking for English Kitchens

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Cover of American Cooking for English Kitchens by Grace Hogarth (1957) 7939.b.47.

In 1928, Edith Fulcher published American Cooking for English Homes, a recipe book 'sent into the world as a home missionary to fill a long-felt want': to modernise British cooking. The cookbook aimed to provide simple and economical recipes, bringing American recipes to English households. Fulcher advises housewives tired of cooking the same thing every day to explore the cookery of other nations for inspiration and for money saving tips. 

In her preface, Fulcher argues that America's cuisine is varied and cosmopolitan thanks to its immigrant population, and describes the growing importance of vegetables in the modern American diet: 'The modern tendency is toward lighter meals and a vegetable diet, substituting salads, eggs and vegetables for meat. It is certainly more economical and a pleasant change from the once ubiquitous hot joint'. Reproduced below is an intriguing recipe for banana salad sandwiches with mayonnaise:

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From Edith Fulcher's American Cooking for English Homes (1928). 7941.df.6.

Three decades later, in 1957, Grace Hogarth embarked on a similar mission with her book American Cooking for English Kitchens, adapting American recipes for English homes, measurements, and ingredients. The book was the result of culture shock. Hogarth opens her book by stating: 'My first sight of the English kitchen that was to be my own filled me with panic'. Having got used to using a larder rather than a refrigerator, Hogarth writes about the art of using leftovers, explains the difference between American cookies and British biscuits, and outlines the many uses of aluminium foil, 'now obtainable in England'.

I have reproduced her recipe for Boston baked beans. As Hogarth puts it 'The result is as different from the product sold in tins as good from evil!'. Let us know if you agree!

3

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                M.Aguirre

31 October 2018

Putting to Ruins the Absence: Jason Moran, James Reese Europe, and Orlando Patterson

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of joining the audience for the first performance of Jason Moran's latest work James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruins at the Barbican.  The project is the third in a 'trilogy' which Moran has described as a 'long portrait of Harlem'.  All three have revisited key figures in the jazz history of the neighbourhood: Thelonius Monk (IN MY MIND), Fats Waller (Fats Waller Dance Party) and now James Reese Europe.  While the first two are familiar names to most people, few will recognise the latter.  This is an oversight that becomes increasingly disquieting the more one learns about Europe's musical, social, and military accomplishments.

At the British Library last week, Moran spoke with fellow jazz musician Soweto Kinch about his motivations for looking closer at James Reese Europe, and the many ideas that emerged in the process. 

DSC_0352
Jason Moran at the British Library. Photo credit: Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

He highlighted how Europe is a pivotal figure in discussions of so-called 'proto-jazz'.  As well as being an exceedingly popular composer and bandleader, he was also an organiser and proponent for African American musicians.  His belief in and support for his professional community, and the nascent form of music that was emerging from it, was unwavering.  In 1910 Europe incorporated the previously informal Clef Club, which functioned as a venue and a society that supported the rights of professional black musicians. 

DSC_0337
h.3825.rr.(37.)

 

Two years later, he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall for the Clef Club Orchestra to raise funds for the Colored Music Settlement School at which solely music by black composers was performed.  By 1918, when he enlisted to serve in WWI, Europe was a well-recognised popular figure, whose musical scores sold in large quantities (the Library holds 70 of these).

 

DSC_0335
h.3825.rr.(28.)

 

During his military service, Europe served as the bandleader for the 369th regiment who were deployed in France.  In a related symposium earlier in the day, Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment 1918-19, we had heard how US generals refused to deploy African Americans for active service, instead segregating personnel into supportive roles such as building camps and retrieving the bodies of fallen soldiers.  By contrast, the French had deployed colonial African soldiers and were prepared to fight alongside African Americans, especially as the casualty rate grew.  Consequently, Europe and the 369th saw action in France, for which many of them received the Croix de Guerre.  The music they performed took the country by storm, and a wave of professional musicians from both the US and the Caribbean (for example, Alexandre Stellio) were able to capitalise on this.

DSC_0331
G.1520.gg.(22.)

Returning home in 1919, the 369th received a hero's welcome with a parade along fifth avenue which saw hundreds of thousands turn out for the occasion.  With clear admiration of their professional ability and tenacity, Moran recounted how for the length of 80 blocks the 369th played as they marched in the New York February cold.  They played popular tunes that would be recognised by the mostly-white crowd, however upon reaching Harlem the music changed and they played in a style familiar to their fellow community members.  Moran highlighted how this encoded double-performance, that uses different styles and carries separate meanings for different audiences, has long been a strategy of black music which was historically used as a covert means of communication.

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"Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel "Bill" Hayward's famous "Hell Fighters" of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue." Source: Library of Congress

 

This observation sheds some light on the subtitle of Moran's project: An Absence of Ruins.  We were told how this emerged during an early conversation with filmmaker John Akomfrah, while Moran was in Rome with 'ruins everywhere'.  Akomfrah signalled the work of Caribbean-born sociologist, Orlando Patterson who has published widely on the historical and social legacies of slavery and underdevelopment.  Additionally, Patterson has authored three novels which explore these issues from a first person perspective.  His second novel is titled 'An Absence of Ruins' and itself borrows its title from the poem The Royal Palms... an absence of ruins by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, quoted in the epigraph to Patterson's novel:

Here there are no heroic palaces

Nettled in sea-green vines or built

On maize savannahs the cat-thighed, stony faces

Of Egypt's cradle, easily unriddled;

If art is where the greatest ruins are,

Our art is in those ruins we became,

You will not find in these green, desert places

One stone that found us worthy of its name,

Nor how, lacking the skill to beat things over flame

We peopled archipelagoes by one star.

 

For both Walcott and Patterson, the term 'an absence of ruins' becomes a cipher for the Caribbean's colonial legacies of racial violence.  Walcott makes allusions to how this is lived in experience ('Our art is in those ruins we became'), and Patterson takes this further.  Through the character of 'Alexander Blackman', Patterson describes the existential experience of living in a permanent condition of exile in order to ask what does it mean to have a history when that history is characterised by the ruptures of violence, oppression, and temporal and geographical dislocation?

In a central passage in the novel, Blackman experiences a crisis in which he fantasises about a Kingston built on ancient ruins rather than the bodies of slaves and the genocide of indigenous peoples.  This induces him to seek out his mother with the hope that she can perform a 'replanting of roots' by singing him songs.  Indeed, the novel proposes music as a potential solution to this problem of historical rootlessness associated with New World black memory.  The syncopation, improvisation, and encoded messages of jazz in particular are proffered as a language for modern black memory that isn't based on the traditional 'archaelogies' of knowledge and memory.

Weaving together these various concerns - black memory, historical absences, James Reese Europe's overlooked legacy, the black language of jazz in its social context - Moran followed  in Europe's footsteps as bandleader and educator by working with young musicians from London based community music education group Tomorrow's Warriors.  Jointly, they paid tribute through a deeply moving and joyful call and response to this extraordinary man, the musicians of the 369th infantry, and to jazz in an evening of musical evocation, transmission, and evolution.

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Soweto Kinch, Jason Moran, and John Akomfrah at the British Library. Photo credit Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

Jason Moran will be performing James Reese Europe and An Absence of Ruin at Cardiff on the 31 October and Paisley on the 4 November.

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

Wider reading/listening:

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson An Absence of Ruins, BL shelfmark: Nov.9783. 

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson and Andrew Salkey, The Children of Sisyphus, audio recording, BL shelfmark:  C134/470 and C134/71;

R. Reid Badger, "James Reese Europe and the Prehistory of Jazz", American Music, Vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1989), pp.48-67.

Peter N. Nelson, A more unbending battle : the Harlem Hellfighters' struggle for freedom in WWI and equality at home, BL shelfmark: Document Supply m09/.24328 

Stephen L. Harris, Harlem's Hell Fighters : the African-American 369th Infantry in World War I , BL shelfmark YC.2005.a.11047

Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr.,  Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War : the undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American quest for equality, BL shelfmark YD.2015.a.1091 

25 October 2018

Wilson Bueno, Portuñol/Portunhol, and Interlanguages

The OED defines an interlanguage as ‘An artificial auxiliary language’ or ‘A linguistic system typically developed by a student before acquiring fluency in a foreign language, and containing elements of both his or her native tongue and of the target language’. For me, this doesn’t quite cover the geographical and cultural circumstances from which many hybrid languages originate, especially around border areas. For example, the term ‘Spanglish’ could describe: a) the language spoken by an American teenager of Mexican origin, freely mixing English words into Spanish grammatical structures; b) a native English speaker, in the US or elsewhere, attempting to speak incomplete or imperfect Spanish; or c) the common language spoken between a Mexican and an American in a border town such as El Paso or Laredo.

Whatever the definition, the inherently unstable nature of interlanguages (Wikipedia lists hundreds of them, including Camfranglish, Scots Yiddish and Greeklish), makes it hard to think imagine them having clear rules, let alone a literature. The Portuguese/Spanish hybrid predominantly spoken on either side of the borders between Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay or Argentina doesn’t even have a single spelling, as the choice between ‘Portuñol’ and ‘Portunhol’ depends on what you consider to be the ‘default’ language. What’s more, it varies hugely even in this (relatively) small area. Linguists have shown that, as well as a language used for communication between people who speak what are ultimately fairly similar languages, there also exist settled dialects of Portunhol spoken in the home and within communities in Northern Argentina and Uruguay.

This got me thinking how on earth one would translate it into English, which led me to wonder if there was any literature actually composed solely or principally in Portunhol. Thanks to Twitter, I know the answer is yes, and the foundational text of this literature is the Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo (Paraguayan Sea).

Wilson Bueno Mar Paraguayo
Wilson Bueno, Mar paraguayo (São Paulo, Brasil: Iluminuras, 1992) YF.2012.a.10831

 

Bueno’s novella is not exactly an ‘authentic’ depiction of Portunhol, rather an impressionistic idiolect semi-devised by the author, befitting the oxymoronic title (Paraguay is infamously landlocked). In truth, it is a mixture of three languages: Spanish Portuguese and Guaraní, the indigenous language spoken by nearly 5 million Bolivians, Brazilians and especially Paraguayans. It is completely unique to dip into:

‘Si, el infierno, añaretã, añaretãmeguá, existe e, creio, forçando certa honestidad, que el cielo a mi se afigura, acima de todo, el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor – inquieta insaciabilidad que me complete nua llorando en la viuda cama de casal, tan larga, llorando la certeza sin duda de que un dia, un dia, un dia a gente se va a morir: tecové, tecové, tecovepavaerã’

I’d say the grammar and syntax is closer to Spanish, but there is a fairly equal mix of vocabulary, with the Guaraní words relating to death, life and damnation less frequent but of key importance. Interestingly, the phrase ‘el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor’ includes both the Spanish and Portuguese words for ‘always’ and ‘more’.

Guarani glossary from Mar Paraguayo

 

As to how we translate this, well the answer is just as open as the language itself. The translator of Mar Paraguayo into English, Erin Mouré, is Canadian, and rather than creating some convoluted way of mirroring Spanish and Portuguese in English, she has chosen to go with her own local equivalent, a mix of English and French. The Guaraní words (as unfamiliar to the average English speaker as they would be to most Spanish and Portuguese speakers) have been left as they are, which helps maintain a sense of place. The results are fascinating:

‘la ancestral speech of fathers and grands-pères that infinitely vanishes into memory, they entertain all speech et tricot: these Guaraní voices eternalize so simply as they go on weaving: ñandu: there is no better fabric than the web des leaves tissées all together, ñandu, together and between the arabesques that, symphoniques, interweave, in a warp and weft of green and bird et chanson, in the happy amble of a freedom: ñanduti: ñandurenimbó:’

So I ask myself, were I to translate a story or poem from Portunhol/Portuñol what solution would I go for? I suppose the fact that I live in the capital (Cardiff) of a bilingual country could help, and the closest thing I have to an interlanguage is the Welsh-English pidgin I occasionally use with my daughter, her teachers and other patient Cymraeg speakers. If every English translator living geographically close to another language were to do this, a great number of wildly differing translations could be produced, all equally valid. My translation, Paraguayan Môr, coming soon. Watch this space…

 

Rahul  Bery

Translator-in Residence 2018-2019

British Library

 

 

 

15 October 2018

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

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

 

09 October 2018

Closing thoughts on the “North American Migrant Narratives” PhD Placement Scheme

As my three-month placement at the British Library reaches its end, the time has come to reflect on my experience. I truly encourage fellow PhD students to apply to next year’s placements. I had a marvellous time, and despite the alluring prospect of not having to commute to London anymore, I know I will miss working for the Library.  

So what exactly did I do?

My role was to assess the American collections’ holdings in migrant literature published since the 1980s, by writers of African or Caribbean descent, in Canada and the USA.

Concretely, that meant doing a lot of research online, in literary anthologies and academic publications to find books by migrant writers and check each title against the Library’s main catalogue, Explore.

If a copy wasn’t held, then I would add it to my acquisition list spreadsheet. By the time I had finished, there were over 600 titles on this list.

Laura's acquisition list
Laura's acquisitions list

 

 

The usual selection process for the North American Collections is quite simple to understand: they have a very large list of publishers from which selection is made based on reader and subject categories that are relevant to the collections. This is determined by curators who follow the Library’s Content Strategy.

My job was to check the most recurring publishers on my acquisition list against the North American list of publishers to ensure these were received in future. As you can see from my spreadsheet, some patterns emerged very clearly: the BL wasn’t receiving books by publishers like Akashic Books and Arte Publico Press, both notable publishers of migrant literature.

Alongside this, I did some archival research. My readings led me to investigate Canadian cultural magazines that had promoted migrant literature at its early stages. I didn’t have much hope in finding La Parole Meteque as Worldcat  (an international bibliographic database) suggested that only three libraries worldwide held copies of it, and even they didn’t own all its issues. But after emailing several second-hand bookshops, members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada, I managed to get hold of 16 issues which will be added to the collections.

I also got in touch with collectives that organize creative writing workshops for immigrants and refugees, in order to collect the community-published items which emerged from these collectives. In Toronto for example, the Sick Muse Art Projects runs a workshop for women immigrants which produces an annual zine.  A similar workshop was launched in 2017 across Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor to address domestic and sexual violence among immigrant populations. A graphic novel was born from this multicultural collaboration.

 

What did I get from this placement?

Apart from working on my project, I was given the opportunity to gain insight into the Library’s practices and to gain new professional skills. Here are a few of the things I did:

  • I met with and shadowed several members of staff, including a cataloguer, a bibliographic editor, curators, a web archiving manager, a conservationist and digitisation staff.
  • I attended departmental staff meetings, event organisation meetings, and a new curatorial and librarianship reading group that addressed contemporary issues libraries are faced with.
  • I sat on meetings with book dealers and observed the acquisition process.
  • I learnt about copyright and intellectual property clearance.
  • I developed my writing and presentation skills for non-academic audiences by communicating my research on the American Collections’ blog, attending a training course on blogging, and presenting my research and findings in front of BL staff.

I also gained better insight into the contemporary publishing industry in the US and Canada (which benefits my PhD thesis too) and found, from the data I had collected, that:

  • Literature by migrant writers still tends to be published by independent or small presses rather than by big publishers.
  • Only a minority of migrant writers become part of the mainstream literary scene.
  • Many migrant writers turn to non-traditional modes of publication such as self-publishing and social media.

To a certain extent, the American Collections’ holdings mirrored these publishing trends. Before I arrived, the BL already had most migrant narratives published by major publishers, but what was missing from its collection were the ones published by small presses.

Kings Library
The British Library, creative commons licence

 

 

Now more importantly, how did my work contribute to the British Library?

The acquisition of books, archival material and the subscription to literary magazines I recommended will, hopefully, make the British Library’s holdings more representative of the North American multicultural literary scene.

The research I conducted identified areas of concern with the BL’s present holdings and collection practices in terms of migrant literature. One of my major findings was the gap in the Francophone Canadian literary holdings: established writers and publications by major publishers were absent for the catalogue. Another was the issue of web-based literature which we are not legally equipped to collect (I wrote about this here).

Because I have identified these gaps, the American Collections team are now aware of them and can strive to prevent them from widening even more. The report I have written, which presents my findings and offers practical suggestions for more inclusive holdings, will inform future collection practices and strengthen curatorial knowledge in this area.

 

On a final note, I would like to thank the Eccles Centre and the Americas Collections team for supporting my project and for their warmth, the Research and Development team for setting up these placements in the first place and organizing extra activities for us newcomers, and the European Collections team for welcoming me on their floor. I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Francisca Fuentes, for having given me such a fantastic opportunity and for her invaluable help and guidance throughout this project.

- Laura Gallon


Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked 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 was supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

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).