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<i>Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry</i>. By Paul Celan. Translated from the German by Pierre Joris.

To Give Saying Its Shadow

December 3, 2020

On June 28, 1942, Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary, “Even if I hated Germany, I would not thereby become un-German, I could not tear what was German out of me.” A Protestant convert of Jewish parentage, Klemperer had been forced out of his position as a professor of Romance languages at the Technical University of Dresden following the Nazi “dejudification” of the civil service. His car had been confiscated; his cat, euthanized; his house, “Aryanized.” He and his wife, Eva, were forced to move into a Jews’ House, where they roomed with a number of other families, all of whom were subject to constant surveillance and harassment by the Gestapo. He performed forced labor in a segregated factory, and lived on the brink of starvation. 

Notes on a Ghost Town

December 3, 2020

 1.I made plans to move to Southern Illinois from Chicago in the summer, when people told me it would be drippingly humid, figuring I’d get the worst season of the year out of the way first. Baptism by summer. In the more temperate fall, I’d [...]

Illustration by Jen Renninger

No End in Sight

March 2, 2020

What happens when immigrant-rights advocates reach a breaking point?

Forward Thinking

Claire Schwartz: According to the poet Marie Howe, who studied with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia, Brodsky said: “You Americans are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” You’ve written about the relationship between language and the social imagination—in particular, about the ways that totalitarian regimes in Russia and, more recently, the current government in the United States, have eroded public speech. Would you describe what you mean by that and how you see language functioning in public space right now?

Masha Gessen: For totalitarian regimes, language is an instrument of subjugation. It’s a way of controlling both behavior and thought. Attempting to ensure that words mean what the regime says they mean is a way of undermining people’s ability to inhabit a shared reality outside of what the regime says reality is. There are all sorts of tricks the regime performs along the way—such as using a word to mean its opposite, or almost its opposite. 

Illustration by Melody Newcomb

Collusion

She had moved to Germany to be a writer but quickly found there wasn’t very much to write about. Germany was calm. The people were friendly and straightforward. If you managed a few words of German they would say, “Your German is very good.” When you gave them exact change they would smile.

Illustration by Anna Sudit

The News From the World of Beauty

In late summer of 2017 I was at an artists’ colony in rural Virginia. A hot topic of conversation among the artists there was how we were reading the news, and how often. Some of the artists at the colony were reading the news obsessively every morning, either because they were addicted to it or because they felt it was their social responsibility to stay informed about the invariably breathtaking choices of our current president and those who surround and respond to him. Some artists were ignoring the news altogether—every headline, every scandal, every tweet—choosing to entirely suppress the outside world during the span of the residency. The rest of the artists stayed lightly informed, but consciously attempted to prevent the news of the world from gaining much purchase on their inner lives.

<i>The City Always Wins</i>. By Omar Robert Hamilton. MCD, 2017. 320p. HB, $26.

Songs From the Revolution

Recently, after a season of heavy protests, a number of my friends vanished from social media. Some went quiet, some quit altogether. The ones who persisted were the ones who’d always been  vocal, who’d already learned how to fold civic engagement—and occasional resistance—into their daily lives without experiencing the whiplash: engage, protest, engage, burnout.

<i>Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life</i>. By Yiyun Li. Random House, 2017. 224p. HB, $27.

Unsettled

In 2011, the writer Yiyun Li and I were both asked to judge a fiction contest for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I panicked, that certain swoon-panic of the fellow author who is a fan, at her name next to mine. I was enamored of all her abilities, from mechanical to aesthetic—a certain gelid elegance, sharpness in syntax and diction, fluidity of theme in dark and light with such self-possessed strokes. And I—in my head and sometimes truly with my pen, an impulsive maximalist-stylist, always straddling rough and rougher—studied her register but found it impossible to emulate. So when we judged that contest together, I tried to calmly and coolly interact with her without a stutter. We both had agreed on the same winner almost instantly. I completely agree with you, Porochista. It’s my favorite too, so let’s go ahead with it? she wrote, words I held on to for months. Eventually I realized we had even more in common than I dared suspect: her East Asian immigrant to my West Asian immigrant, English as a second language, nuclear physicist fathers, and California as home.

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