Roundtable on Jorge Luis Borges and Others

Fabio Fernandes

I think there is a twofold reason why Borges and Marquez (among many others) are so read and respectable worldwide – first, they wrote a lot, so their body of work is big and variegated; second, they are here for a long time now, so their influence had time to spread among readers and writers alike. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen, say, in the next two or three decades with more recent authors (I mean, recently deceased) like Roberto Bolaño, who had distinct Borgesian influences but is his own man – 2666, The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas are all excellent, witty, beautifully written books, full to the brim with Pynchon-like references, and Georges Perec, who also wrote a plethora of books (Things, A Void, Life: A User’s Manual are just some of his better known novels).

But I’m with Charles Tan on wishing we could talk more about writers not translated. I, for one, would like very much to see a few Brazilian writers become globally known. For instance, Guilherme Kujawski, author of Piritas Siderais, and Fausto Fawcett, author of Santa Clara Poltergeist. Both novels were written in the same year (1994) and have loose cyberpunk affiliations, but Kujawski works with electronic art and Fawcett is a famous musician and performance artist. As it happens with most SFF-related writers in Brazil, they’re
not particularly renowned when it comes to their literature.

Charles Tan

Why are Borges and Marquez popular? I’m honestly skeptical when it comes to any definitive reason; like a lot in publishing, I suspect it boils down to luck and several miscellaneous factors coming together. Talent’s definitely there, but a lot of talented writers can get neglected (that’s why we’re having this discussion in the first place). I also wouldn’t peg it down to quantity of work either. For example, one author I’ve come to admire is French writer Sébastien Doubinsky who’s written at least ten novels, but he only has three books in English: The Babylonian Trilogy (PS Publishing), Absinth / The Song of Synth (PS Publishing), and Goodbye Babylon (Black Coffee Press). I don’t think a lot of people in the English-speaking world have heard of him, but his writing has definitely impressed the likes of Michael Moorcock. Or Japanese writer Otsuichi, who has around twenty books out in Japan, but only Zoo (Haikasoru), Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse (Haikasoru), Calling You (Tokyopop), and Goth (Tokyopop) have been translated into English (and of those four, only two are currently in print). While Otsuichi’s writing is considered horror, his style actually reminds me of Borges and has that Weird aspect to it more than anything else. (And Id’ honestly be surprised if genre fans would immediately recognize the names of these two authors.)

Fabio mentioned Roberto Bolaño and he’s currently quite popular, respected, and recognized, although not as a genre writer, but as a literary writer. And I think we genre fans should read more of his work even if it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when we mention SF. Like Theodora, my fiction has been greatly influenced by Borges, and I think Borges is the exception in the sense that he’s an author most people associate with the literary canon, but has also been honored in genre via the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement (Italo Calvino would probably be the other one).

What’s dangerous here though is how we’re mentioning all these Latin-American authors and some readers have stereotyped their work as magic-realism. On one hand, it’s a handy marketing term that’s perhaps given them some credibility that writers from other countries don’t have. On the other hand, the term magic-realism can be problematic (without going into too much detail, unless Fabio wants to elaborate on it, David Mullan has a brief essay on the subject).

Perhaps other writers whose works that have been translated that I want to call attention to is Serbian writer Zoran Živković, whose sensibilities excite me in similar ways as I was stimulated reading Borges for the first time (Twelve Collections and the Teashop by PS Publishing is perhaps what I recommend people would start with), and Yoko Ogawa whose style, while neither outright science fiction or fantasy or horror, evokes that kind of atmosphere. The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (Picador) was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award while The Housekeeper and the Professor (Picador) had that strong sense of science fiction without arguably falling into that category. Oh, and Small Beer Press recently released Three Messages and a Warning edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo & Chris. N. Brown, and I think that was a fantastic anthology (and very important when it comes to the post-colonial narrative).

And yet, despite all these translated works, I think there’s also a rich body of literature written in English that we haven’t yet tapped. We have writers like Lauren Beukes (Zoo City), Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), Karen Lord (Redemption in Indigo), Theodora Goss (In the Forest of Forgetting), Ekaterina Sedia (The Secret History of Moscow), Vera Nazarian (Dreams of the Compass Rose), Lavie Tidhar (Osama), Ken Liu (“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”)…

Personally, from the Philippines, writers that I think people should read include Dean Francis Alfar (“L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)”), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Ian Rosales Casocot, Apol Lejano-Massebieau…

Cat Rambo

Early on in my teens I found the Strugatski brother’s Monday Begins on Saturday, and loved it (much more so than Roadside Picnic, which I didn’t appreciate until later) A few years after that I started reading Calvino, Borges, Rushdie, and Marquez. In college I tried to find classes that went outside the canon because I’d read a lot of the canon and I wanted new things. I found that I appreciate stuff whose assumptions and material differ from those of the usual suspects milling about in my head, because it makes me question things. It makes me a better writer.

There was, I believe in the mid to late 80s, a publisher that was doing a subscription service where you got a translated book a month. I remember the ones I got as high quality – Cristina Peri Rossi’s Ship Of Fools and Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, both of which were well into fantasy territory. Is anyone doing something similar nowadays? Because if so, I’d sure sign up, particularly if I could get the books electronically.

I love importing new reading from outside my usual borders. For me, the problem has often been finding recommendations for it. I’ve been pleased to see blogs spring up like International Speculative Fiction as well as Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent yearly wrap-up in Locus itself.

People I correspond with or talk to often steer my reading. Anil Menon, whose The Beast With Nine Billion Feet I loved, suggested a number of other highly enjoyable Indian writers: Boman Desai, Chitra Devikaruni, Amitav Ghosh, Kuzhali Manickavel, and Raja Rao. I read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s excellent The Wizard of the Crow after seeing a mention of it from someone in this group, so I’m looking forward to adding more names to my to-read list as a result of this discussion.

And there goes Charles, making me go add a dozen items to it. 🙂 Thank you!

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