Gen by Agnès Agboton (tr. Lawrence Schimel)

from Agboton’s collection Canciones del Poblado y del Exilio (Songs of Village and of Exile), this poem is translated by Lawrence Schimel in Poems from the Edge of Extinction

a nutshell: in just 17 short lines, Agboton conjures a powerful sense of strength in suffering – a glimpse of life in an environment dominated by death, seemingly in conflict

a line: “I’ve listened to the words of a stiffened tongue”

an image: set in a cemetery, this poem bring forth a steely stillness – distilled in the moment at which the poet writes of having found the steady gaze of crushed eyes

a thought: with the exception of the last line, each sentence begins with ‘Here’; I got the impression that the repetition signalled the important of place and it made me want to know more about the village & exile from her poetry collection

a fact: Gen is a tonal language spoken in Benin & Togo – there are about 55 languages in Benin, 50 of which are indigenous, but studies estimate that Benin will be completely Francophone by 2060

want to read Gen? visit here

p.s. hear Agboton reading her poetry

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

a nutshell: a desolate piece of Lithuanian survival literature in which Dalia recounts her deportation, aged 14, to a Siberian gulag and the years of gruelling manual labour that followed in the Arctic tundra

a line“Images from the past can be more painful than a branding iron. They tear me apart. But they’ve also done me a favour. They’ve ignited a furious desire to live, to persevere…”

an image: Dalia’s appalling descriptions of gangrenous, immobile deportees disintegrating on their pallets or freezing to death with hallucinations of hot coffee in tortuous blizzards sear themselves onto the memory

a thought: reading her memories of such brutal suffering, it’s sad to note that Dalia never saw these pages come out into the open; fearful of the KGB, she buried the scraps of paper in a garden and it was only in 1991 – four years after her death – that they were found

a factmost of the fellow deportees depicted by Dalia are women and children, reflecting how 70% of the 130,000+ people among the Soviet mass deportations from Lithuania were women and children


want to read Shadows on the Tundra? visit here

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić (tr. Michael Henry Heim)

a nutshell: taking on two semesters of teaching ‘Yugoslav literature’ at the University of Amsterdam and very much grieving the loss of her country of origin, Yugoslavia-born Tanja coaxes her fragile students towards ‘Yugonostalgia‘ – and there begins Ugrešić’s stimulating exploration of exclusion, memory, language, identity…

a line: “Retouching is our favourite artistic device. Each of us is a curator in his own museum.”

an image: breaking down after admitting she got lost in her old Zagreb neighbourhood, Tanja tries to express to an unmoved passenger on a plane how the trauma of exile hit her where she had least expected it 

a thought: I picked this book up from my local library and thought it sounded interesting – but now, since Ugrešić seems to have taken a vehemently anti-nationalist stand after war broke out in 1991 in her native former Yugoslavia, I’m a little uneasy about putting it out there as my ‘Croatia’ book for the project (esp. given the author in fact holds Dutch citizenship); in time perhaps I’ll come to swap in another

a fact: Ugrešić worked for many years at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for Theory of Literature, which explains the many literary references interweaved into the pages


want to read The Ministry of Pain? visit here