An ex-Yugoslav's memoir, bad English, and the power of translation
|vesna jaksic lowe||Mar 12|| 2|
I read Sofija Stefanovic’s Miss Ex-Yugoslavia as soon as it came out in 2018, and I’m glad to finally feature it in this newsletter. (Yes, my fellow ex-Yugoslavs, of course I ate that whole bag of Smoki right after I took the picture). We were both born in Yugoslavia, emigrated across the world as children (Australia for her, Canada for me), then eventually settled in New York (though I never feel settled anywhere). I’ve had a chance to hear Sofija read at a couple of events and would recommend you also check out This Alien Nation, a show she hosts four times a year in New York to celebrate immigration. (The next one is May 13!)
Essays and Interviews
I enjoyed E.J. Koh’s beautiful memoir, The Magical Language of Others, in which she uses a poet’s mastery of language to write about her upbringing, family, and intergenerational trauma. It was great to come across this interview with her by Hannah Bae. Here is one great line from Bae:
“When you live between cultures, between languages, there’s this constant sensation of rifling through the disorganized filing cabinet of your mind, where lingering sounds and their meanings get shuffled together.”
I look forward to reading Cathy Park Hong’s latest book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Here is an excerpt to give you a taste, "Bad" English Is Part Of My Korean American Heritage, in Buzzfeed.
“Once a source of shame, but I now say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.”
“We dreaded the feeling of that foreign language in our mouths; those native speakers watching us, their expert ears listening for mistakes; the possibility of a mispronunciation; the possibility that the host might ask a question that required an answer.”
It seems Sharon Choi, who worked as Bong Joon Ho’s interpreter during Parasite’s spectacular awards season, also has a knack for writing. In this essay for Variety, she reflects on bridging Eastern and Western cultures, and bilingualism.
“It was moving to see a film about my home country touch people from so many different cultures. The two years I spent in the U.S. as a kid had turned me into a strange hybrid — too Korean to be American, too American to be Korean, and not even Korean American.”
Here is an important Electric Lit piece by Eva Recinos, I Want to Speak for Myself, Not the Whole Latinx Community.
“Through the process of writing these essays, I reflect a lot on my position in relation to my first-generation, Guatemalan-American roots, but also my place in America. Because Latinx people are talked about by the media and pundits so often, but we rarely get to tell our own narratives.”
Recinos discusses the need for representation in publishing and this next piece also focuses on the importance of immigrant narratives. Here is Carving Out a Vietnamese Identity in the New South, the latest essay in Finding Little Saigon, a Catapult column by Kim O’Connell.
“For Asians in the South and everywhere, there is still narrative scarcity. For the Vietnamese in particular, the stories told about them are so often about the war, a narrative of losing and loss. But there is so much more to say.”
Here is a Gay magazine essay, On Roots and Research, by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. (I recently read her collection of stories, Sabrina & Corina, which was—among other prizes—a National Book Awards finalist).
“Due to racist policies of the past and forced assimilation, my family are monolingual English speakers, besides the few siblings who have reclaimed Spanish. I’ve spent much of my life being embarrassed by the fact that I cannot speak Spanish while many of my ancestors were shamed because of their language.”
“My father had hoped that going to a private American university would empower me to take on the world. Instead, it made me painfully aware of my place in American society, far from this country’s elite.”
I’ll wrap up this section with recommendations from The Rumpus on works by immigrant authors, What to read when you are searching for community.
“While their stories are different, a truth they share is that immigration is not, ultimately, the story of laws or borders, but of people—of individuals, families, and communities.”
Thanks for reading—and stay safe,
All of the events I was going to include have been cancelled due to the coronavirus so I’ll include links to a couple of them in case you want to check back about rescheduling:
Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which would be the the first major festival dedicated to Palestinian literature in the United States.
About this newsletter: Writing about immigrant and refugee life—the struggles, triumphs and quirks—by immigrants and refugees, and children of immigrants and refugees. Photo in the logo: Miguel Bruna/Unsplash.
About me: I grew up in the former Yugoslavia, then moved to Canada, and now live in New York, where I work as a writer and communications consultant for nonprofits focusing on human rights. I have written about my immigrant experience for The New York Times, Catapult, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News. Find me on twitter, @vesnajaksic, or on my website, www.vesnajaksic.com.