Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Versal Magazine and the Concept of the Translocal

Pictured Above:

Michelle Noteboom introducing the K. Lorraine Graham and Mark Wallace reading at Le Next, Paris, July 7, 2009

Megan Garr, Sarah Ream, and myself at Cafe de Balie, Amsterdam, July 15, 2009

The concept of the translocal calls into question a few of the assumptions often made about the split between what is commonly called the local and the global. “Think locally, act globally,” a worthwhile political slogan that points out that political activity needs to develop in specific places while keeping in mind world scale issues, tends to accept the normal division between a smaller, clearly defined locality (and the activity found there) and an all encompassing world condition that is both real and yet difficult to picture specifically in its “totality,” as those inclined towards Marxist and Situationist terminology often put it.

The concept of the “translocal,” both in terms of translocal writing and other kinds of social and political activity, might be described as the work of people who live not just in one local and not in some global “everywhere” either. People who have lived, significantly, in more than one place. People who are not from the place that they are nonetheless now in, or, having grown up or lived in multiple places, for whom the idea that one is necessarily “from” a place can grate uncomfortably.

The notion of “translocal” raises a few worthwhile questions about what turns out to be in some ways an overly schematic separation. Certainly the “local” exists (after all, places are where they are), but it’s obvious enough that local environments are also hardly separate from larger resource and population flows moving through them from elsewhere. There’s no static, untouched local, although I sometimes suspect that some nostalgic cultural studies leftists wish there was. Even those people who have never lived anywhere other than where they currently do are hardly immune from the outside conditions that move through and alter localities. Similarly, no matter how wide one’s travels have been, no one ever lives in some global “everywhere” and experiences some totality of global effects free of the specific differences of local places. No matter how many places you go, you’re always specifically somewhere.

As a concept, the “translocal” isn’t just a 21st century version of the expatriate, although it certainly shares features with that. Nor do I think it’s the same as the kind of life discussed in Pico Iyer’s fascinating, insightful, if ultimately tedious and frustrating book The Global Soul, about those individuals, multicultural and not, who fly from place to place on wings of capital, living in airports and airport hotels and the fanciest neighborhoods of the cities they move through and whose delights they sample but who sometimes feel more isolated than they like. Translocals aren’t necessarily rich. Poet Michelle Noteboom, for instance, who hosted the Ivy Writers Paris reading that K. Lorraine Graham and I gave in Paris, and whose books Edging (scroll down linked page) and Uncaged I’ve been reading with pleasure, told me that she originally came to Paris to work as a nanny.

Many translocals live in circumstances between Iyer’s capitalist Global Souls and their mirror opposites, displaced borderless subcitizen refugees and migrant workers. Translocals have moved for work or family or love or just because they wanted out of something and into something else. They’ve moved from wealthier places to poorer ones or vice versa. Some of them stay in new locations because, like earlier expatriates, they just think life is better in Paris or Amsterdam or wherever they’ve come to live. Having just returned to my translocal life in North County San Diego, where health care and education are in danger of collapsing, I see their point. But others are also still living temporarily in places from which they will move on soon enough.

Versal is an English-language literary magazine published in Amsterdam (and here are links to the Versal website and Versal blog). While in Amsterdam Lorraine and I met Megan Garr, the editor of Versal, Sarah Ream, the managing editor, and on a different occasion a former editor of Versal’s poetry, Cralan Kelder. All of them had their own fascinating stories to tell which it’s not really my business to repeat here, but Megan has lived in Montana, Sarah came from England, and Cralan was for a time first a student and then later a teacher at University of California at Davis.

Megan Garr’s brief editorial at the beginning of Versal 7, the most recent issue, raises some intriguing concerns around the idea of translocal writing:

Up to now, most of the monologue I’ve seen about translocal literature is restricted to the relationship between the author and his (yes, his) narrative text: observations of a street scene in Prague by a long-time former resident (the author)—the locality itself becoming protagonist to the poem. This either reduces the self-sufficiency of a piece alone on the page—i.e. it is the author’s biography that makes a piece translocal or not—or it limits it to narrative surveillance. Certainly not all poetry is traceable to a particular mise en scĂ©ne, nor is all prose a story. The very pivot of translocality would indicate that there are many, many kinds of localities, and we need not focus solely on where our (or the author’s) feet are standing.

Among other points, Garr goes on to ask a few questions about consciously translocal writers and writing:

How do they invite (or force) interdependence between a string of vocabularies from two (or more) languages within a single stanza? How is the distance in the line of poetry crossed in a translocal sensibility? How is this distance ever crossed?

Garr answers some of these questions, at least for herself, concluding, as just one for instance, that “I’ve come to see the translocal line as bearer of the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time.”

There are some essays and short fiction in Versal 7, and also some striking visual art. In contrast to the more aesthetically extreme work I encountered in some other contexts while in Europe, the poetry in Versal 7 is mainly lyric, ranging from poems with a more fragmented, elliptical line to more straightforwardly narrative poems. Many of the poems are overtly or implicitly feminist. Versal 7 looks a bit like certain U.S. poetry magazines that highlight more aesthetically challenging notions of what lyric might be, while the topics and themes are more consistently international and translocal than would be the case if it really was a U.S. magazine.

Having lived for several years now in a place which I like well enough (in some ways, on some days) but am unlikely ever to consider home or to define myself as local in relation to it, it was helpful to talk with people for whom that kind of displacement is a feature of life that they’re aware of sharing with others.


rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Great post. "Expat" seems so modernist, the Iyer globalistas you touch on very "post"-modernist; the translocal--with its acknowledgment that the local in its old-school sense can get scooped out of wherever you are, even if you're one of the few who stay in one place--is much truer to my own experience.

Dannielle and Thomas said...

Thanks for the interesting read.

Paula Callus said...

this post is a great exploration of the concept translocal... it would be great if there were any suggested readings that you could recommend to follow on in more detail from this.