In her acceptance speech for the 2011 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, Virginia Euwer Wolff emphasized an enduring dialectic of human existence. She juxtaposed Homo sapiens and Homo ludens—what she described as “man the thoughtful and man the playful.” Daniel Simon picks up this pairing, in his editorial introduction to the January/February issue of World Literature Today, and uses it to frame to the experience of literature, play, identity, and thought—themes central to the work in this issue of WLT. Somewhere within Zapotec poetry, Burmese poetry, notes about post-Fukushima Japanese literature, interviews and book reviews, the reader is reminded that the shared experience of poetry and literature between and across culture ought to be beautiful and mindful.
As the majority of the collected literature in this issue is translated, Valerie Henitiuk’s piece, “The Single, Shared Text?” is particularly apropos as it articulates the complexities of translation and asks what it means to have a shared text or shared “worlded experience.” Henitiuk suggests that, “Perhaps it is because human beings are translating machines, in addition to being storytelling or metaphor machines, that we find ourselves throughout history seeking new and better ways to describe and explain the interrelations of individuals and of cultures.” She argues that engaging with world literature—in whatever language of the text—forces the reader to decentralize himself or herself in what it means to participate in world literariness. In short, Henitiuk’s question of “The Single, Shared Text?” works well to frame the broader literary collection of WLT.
More than anything else, however, the theme that captures all of the writings, interviews, and excerpts focuses on cultural identity and how that identity is formed, how it changes, and how people make sense of it. Impressively, the theme of culture and identity through its contemporary texts is subtle within WLT as it percolates slowly, carefully, and completely. For example, in exploring the cultural response to post-Fukushima tragedy, the Japanese poet Hideo Furukawa’s point of view narration ought to shift toward a first-person and away from a collective “we.” Author Takeshi Kimoto claims that Furukawa’s shift in voice is the way that one can make sense of the external tragedy. These lines written by Furukawa provide a clear example of this:
We, those who were part of the tragedy in Japan.
What should we do?
We cannot hate anyone.
If some, this is the only hope.
The only thing we can do is to keep walking, without hating someone.
Ania Spyra’s interview with Eva Stachniak, “Like Two Pairs of Glasses: Eva Stachniak on Writing Between Cultures,” explores the same theme of identity through text as Stachniak explores the world of historical fiction through the lenses of her Polish and Canadian experience and identity. In contrast to Furuwaka’s response of cultural identity and internal metaphysical exploration, Stachniak’s writing explores the “in-between” identity or the question of self-determination of identity. Culture, identity, and text are actively shaped, not responded to, as Stachniak’s describes her writing: “The two languages, Polish and English, are always with me, like two pairs of glasses, each offering a different focus. . . . I find that when I think in English I’m more specific, I notice more details that take over the emotional load of what I want to say. But my Polish is also there, always, softening my writing, bringing the lyrical, poetical notes to it.”
Between World Literature Today’s book reviews, interviews, and the excepts of poetry and prose, I found myself with a hefty list of books wanting to be read. WLT included a collection of pieces that inspires its reader to want to read more of the authors—after reading “Tree of Red Leaves, Jaén” and “The Courtyard of Colegiata del Salvador” by Nathalie Handal, for example, I found myself looking forward to reading her forthcoming book Poet in Andalucía.
The issue wraps back around fully, completely, and mindfully to Daniel Simon’s quote of Virginia Euwer Wolff in his editor’s note, “We all keep trying to make sense in language of a world that baffles, amuses, and appalls us.”