Translocal Writing from the City of Kafka

Context N°24

David Vichnar

I am a Czech publisher/translator/Joyce scholar, and also the current editor of the English version of Czech Literature Portal, which is the chief reason why I met John O’Brien of the Dalkey Archive Press at the Slavia Café in Prague in September this year. He’d come to Prague in search of interesting contemporary Czech authors deserving of English translation and it was as a Czech-into-English-into-Czech interpreter that I was to take part in his conversations with the writers. Before the authors themselves arrived on the scene, O’Brien spoke with several Czech critics and literary scholars who were to provide him with their best author recommendations. It was as part of this talk that I ventured to deflect the discussion so as to focus on writers active in Prague yet already writing in English.

What is popularly known as “expat literature” or, in more highbrow terms, “translocal” writing, takes place outside its author’s native language. Its chief difference from exile writing, as practiced by e.g. Joyce—who, although a nomad,   always and only wrote of his native Dublin—is that its narrative emplacement and frame of reference are those of the foreign reality in which it comes into existence.
Translocal writing merits its special category chiefly for two sets of reasons: one external—to do with the literary industry; and the other internal—the “poetics” and “pragmatics” of its creation. For various reasons—linguistic, financial and because of literature’s institutional, pedagogical underpinnings—and despite a globalized economy, literature is still bound by national concerns and interests. Translocal writing undermines these by refusing to fit into national pigeonholes, or at least by attempting to merge two or more into a supranational one. In terms of the poetics, the basic, but interesting, question is that of all literary communication: “Who am I writing for? What kind of reader can I expect to read this and what will their cultural background be? How much of their pre-understanding and knowledge can be take for granted?” In other words, does the translocal writer address the locals—who don’t share his language; or his home community—who don’t share his lived experiences?

The problems the literary and publishing industries see in translocal writing are legion, but, as the example of the post-1990 Prague Anglophone scene suggests, there are also ample benefits to be reaped: interesting work that experiments with crossovers between cultures and languages; unusual instances of influence across national traditions; accumulations of creative momentum and energy. Just how fertile the ground is in Prague is demonstrated by established writers like Tom McCarthy or Joshua Cohen, both of whom spent several formative years there in the mid-to-late-90’s and both of whom, although later relocating back to the Anglo-American world, have drawn on their translocal experiences ever since.
It was to promote exactly this kind of writing, which is informed by the peculiar circumstances of its creation, that a small independent publishing house, Equus Press, was recently founded in Prague and over the last year has already published four titles. Yet Prague Anglophone authors remain—with only a handful of exceptions—unknown to the publishers in the Anglo-American world and the impact of publishers such as Equus or even the better-known Twisted Spoon Press and Mat’a Books, is limited. It is important that these names be introduced to the broader publishing industry.
I have selected ten of the most interesting, innovative and, to my mind, still largely underappreciated writers that have appeared and have actively participated in the Prague literary scene over the past two decades. Most of them are primarily novelists, and two of them are chiefly poets. Most are still Prague-based, even though at least three have relocated, taking their translocal experience with them. Two of them are born-and-bred Czechs who, for various reasons (largely to do with the pre-1989 oppressive regime) found themselves writing in English. One of them has been dead for seventeen years.
It goes without saying that this is a hopelessly personal list, based on my own experience and aesthetic preferences. My only hope is that, despite its limitations, the list may be of service to those keen to navigate this still poorly charted territory.

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Louis Armand is a writer and visual artist who has lived in Prague since 1994. He has worked as an editor and publisher, currently lectures in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, and is an editor of VLAK magazine. He has published seven collections of poetry and a number of volumes of criticism. He is the author, most recently, of Clair Obscur (2011) and Breakfast at Midnight (2012)—both published by Equus Press. He has worked tirelessly to spread awareness of the past and present riches of the Prague Anglophone scene (demonstrated by his monumental anthology from 2010, The Return of Kral Majales, Litteraria Pragensia), with which he’s been involved since 1994. His Breakfast at Midnight has been described as “Mickey Spillane meets Georges Bataille on speed.” He’s currently at work on his largest and most ambitious project, a Prague novel with the working title Combinations.

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Laura Conway is a writer, editor and publisher who has lived in Prague since 1994. Her collections of poetry include To Knock Something Hard in the Dark (Bench, 1981), My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me (Red Flower Ink, 1986), The Cities of Madame Curie (Zeitgeist, 1989), her serial opus magnum The Ministry of Strange Obsessions (2000), and The Alphabet of Trees (with Kateřina Piňosová; Concordia, 2001). She edited Optimism Monthly from 1999–2000 and was the founder of Prague’s “Alchemy” reading series.

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Vincent Farnsworth moved to the Czech Republic in 1994. With Gwendolyn Albert he founded the magazine Jejune: amerika eats its young in 1993. His poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, RealPoetik, Prague Literary Review, Room Temperature, and Big Bridge. His books include Little Twirly Things (Norton Coker, 1992) and Immortal Whistleblower (Lavender Ink, 2001). His selected poems were published in 2011 by Litteraria Pragensia Books under the title Theremin.

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Thor Garcia has been on the scene since 1992, working at Radio Free Europe. He is the author of several short-story collections and the monumental novel The News Clown (2012, Equus Press), which has been praised as a “tapestry of a post-apocalyptic society whose debt-bound, clueless denizens are so anaesthetized by noise, shopping and drugs, prescription or otherwise, they are unaware that the calamity they fear as bogeyman has already overtaken them” (Jim Chaffee, nthposition).

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Holly Tavel moved to Prague in September 2009 as the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship. Her work has appeared in Torpedo, Elimae, McSweeney’s, and Diagram. She is formerly editor of Neuroscape Journal, and a co-curator of Psy.Geo.CONFLUX, an annual New York-based psycho-geographic project. Her visual and conceptual art has featured in group shows at the Participant Gallery in New York, and at Art Interactive in Cambridge, MA.

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Travis Jeppesen lived in Prague between 2002 and 2006, where he co-edited Prague Pill (2002–2003), Prague Literary Review (2005), and BLATT (2006–2007). His first novel, Victims, was selected by Dennis Cooper as the first in his “Little House on the Bowery” series for Akashic Books in 2003. His second novel, Wolf at the Door, was published in 2007 by Twisted Spoon. A contributing editor to the online literary journal 3ammagazine.com, Jeppesen currently lives and works in Berlin.

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Ewald Murrer was born in 1964, the son of poet Ivan Wernisch and painter Helena Wernischová. He published his first works in the samizdat magazine Garáž in the early 80’s. His work has appeared in the anthologies Child of Europe (Penguin, 1991), This Side of Reality (Serpent’s Tail, 1996) and Daylight in Nightclub Inferno (Catbird, 1997). Since the Velvet Revolution he has been active in a number of literary journals, and was founding editor of Iniciály. His first book-length poetry collection appeared in 1992 as Fog Behind the Wall (Mlada Fronta). The Diary of Mr Pinke (1995) and Dreams at the End of the Night (1999) were both published in English by Twisted Spoon Press. Nouzové zastavení času (Emergency Halt of Time) was published in 2007 by Host.

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Phil Shoenfelt is an English musician, poet and novelist who has lived in Prague since 1995. To date he has had a total of 15 CDs released on various independent record labels, and has also authored three books: Junkie Love (a fictionalised autobiography), The Green Hotel (poetry and song lyrics) and Magdalena—Book One, a collaboration with the Czech poet and visual artist Kateřina Piňosová. Junkie Love was first published in Czech translation in 1997 as “Feťácká Láska” by Maťa Books, and has become something of a cult classic for young Czech readers. The book was published for the first time in English in 2001 by Twisted Spoon Press, and went on to win the Firecracker Alternative Book Award (2002) for best book in the Drugs Books section. Phil has a forthcoming novel, Stripped (Part One), which will be published in Czech translation, again by Mat’a Books, later this year. Stripped is a trilogy about the downtown NYC music/drug scene in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

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Ken Nash is a freelance illustrator, animator, cartoonist, graphic designer, musician and songwriter. He lived in Prague from 1992–94, and again since 2001. Since 2002 he has organized the Alchemy Reading & Performance Series. He is the author of The Brain Harvest (2012, Equus Press), which has been described by Clare Wigfall as “taut, intelligent, eccentric, and wholly engaging, a wonderful debut from a very talented new writer.” Local Prague media have praised it as “the crystallization of one of Prague’s most resourceful and imaginative English-language writers” (Prague Post). Prague Art Review has likened the functioning of his short story to that of the joke: a Ken Nash story “does things to you physically, pulls half-voiced inadvertent sounds from your body, little snorts. And when it ends, but refuses to close, it leaves you in a sort of breathless shock, waiting to see what will happen.”

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Lukáš Tomin was born in Prague in 1963. Denied access to secondary education at age fifteen, his first works were published in samizdat. In 1980 his family emigrated to England. From 1985 to 1987 Tomin alternated between living in London, Montreal and Paris, where he wrote his first novel The Doll (Twisted Spoon, 1992). In 1991 he returned to Prague, where he resided until his death in 1995. His work appeared in Poetry Magazine, The New Statesman, Literární Noviny, Iniciály, and Host. Two further novels were published by Twisted Spoon: Ashtrays (1995) and Kye (1997). His work presents a unique blend of avant-garde technique and hardboiled anti-moralist allegory.

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