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Frenzied, Zesty, Voracious: A Writing Exchange Between Caracas and Sarajevo

Frenzied, Zesty, Voracious: A Writing Exchange Between Caracas and Sarajevo

Caracas-Airport-CCS-Venezuela

Narrative Witness: Caracas & Sarajevo

Sarajevo is so far from us. I will never go there, it is so far away. Maybe I should get myself a map and fold it in order to bring Caracas closer to Sarajevo. — Fedosy Santaella, “The Trees of Sarajevo”

Last summer, 22 writers and photographers built a 5,478-mile bridge out of words and images, stretched between Caracas, Venezuela, and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. As part of the International Writing Program (IWP)’s inaugural Narrative Witness collaboration, the participants met for videoconference workshops every week. They wrote in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Spanish, and English, and two translators worked lightning fast so that all the work could be read and discussed in English. In February 2015, IWP created a digital collection of their fiction, essays, poetry, and photographs. It’s available here. 

The collection is beautiful and major. It’s expansive in its range of styles and subjects, and it will expand you. Here is art mattering in the world.

Below is the story of this unprecedented collaboration, told by a handful of the writers, facilitators, and translators who participated. Some parts will sound familiar to anyone who has opened their writing and themselves to critique. The vulnerability of workshop, the joy in other people’s work, and the anxiety and relief of publication are, more or less, the same everywhere. Other parts speak to the idiosyncrasy of personality and place. Altogether, this is a story of two cities far apart, both familiar with unrest, protest, violence, and hope, both home to writers who are ready to witness and to listen from across an ocean.

Writing and Translating in Caracas and Sarajevo

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“Sarajevo Sunset” Photo by M1key.me

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Pisati u Sarajevu pomalo liči na Sizifov posao, pokušaj prolaska kroz zid, ogled o sljepoći (ovdje svjesno i smjelo aludiram na Saramaga), na vakum, pružanje ruke drvetu kojem su odrezane grane, pravljenje peciva od blata i blesavu, naivnu sreću jer su mame rekle kako je to njam-njam i dobro. Prostor u kojem vrisak neće izazvati eho. Ako ga izazove, to je ruganje, taj glas se ne prepoznaje kao svoj. Ali, pisati u Sarajevu i simultano čitati Caracas daje nekakvu nadu da bi se ta Sizifova leđa jednom mogla ispraviti. Da u toj, za mene praznoj materičnoj posteljici Sarajeva koje ljubi samo sebe, bije neki život, rastu neke ruke. U Sarajevu i iz njega je lakše čitati no pisati.
Writing in Sarajevo is a bit of Sisyphean task, like bashing through the wall, like an essay on blindness (I’m boldly and wittingly tipping my hat to Saramago here), like a vacuum, like reaching out your hand to a tree whose limbs have been chopped off, like making mud cakes, like silly, naive happiness because mum said your mud cake is yummy. Like a space in which a scream doesn’t cause echo. And if it does, it’s mocking, you don’t recognise the voice as your own. But, writing in Sarajevo and reading Caracas at the same time gives you some kind of hope that Sisyphus might someday straighten his back. That in the empty (to me) placenta of the city which loves itself and itself only, life may be budding, hands may be growing. It’s easier to read than write in Sarajevo.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Un escritor en Caracas es un ser humano inmerso en una fuerza centrífuga. Mi ciudad tiene una poderosa energía que actúa sobre quienes trabajamos con la creatividad. Ella nos mantiene girando lejos de cualquier centro. Aquí no hay espacios seguros, ideologías estables, sentimientos equilibrados o promesas que se mantengan en el tiempo. Tal vez lo único inmutable es el sol, nuestro clima de eterna primavera y el Ávila: la hermosa montaña que mira con paciencia la vorágine en la que vivimos. Para los escritores de esta ciudad la tensión, la velocidad y las dificultades definen nuestro día a día. La crisis nos alimenta y desde ella nos sumergimos en la literatura.
A writer in Caracas is a human being immersed in a centrifugal force. My city has a powerful energy that acts on those of us who work with creativity. She keeps us revolving away from any kind of center. Here, there are no safe spaces, stable ideologies, balanced feelings, or promises to stay in time. Perhaps the only thing unchanged is the sun, our eternal spring weather, and Ávila: the beautiful mountain that patiently looks at the vortex in which we live. Tension, speed, and difficulties define the day to day for writers in this city. The crisis feeds us and from it we dive into literature.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant:

Let me attempt to illustrate the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) art and culture in general with an example – for two years now, The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo has a massive sign on its entrance, which states in red capital letters: “Muzej je zatvoren / The museum is closed.”

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“CARACAS” Photo by Julio César Mesa

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Lo que ocurre en Venezuela es tan pero tan terrible, tan insólito, tan absurdo, que a veces uno siente que escribir es absolutamente inútil. En Venezuela, la realidad supera la ficción. O más bien, en Venezuela, la mentira de quienes se pretenden nuestros gobernantes, es superior a la ficción.
What happens in Venezuela is so, so terrible, so unusual, so absurd, that sometimes it can feel like writing is absolutely useless. In Venezuela, truth is stranger than fiction. Or rather, in Venezuela, the lies of those who pretend to be our leaders, are stranger than fiction.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

I lived in Sarajevo for a few years – I’m from Croatia, but moved to Barcelona just before we started the project. Sarajevo is a relatively small, vibrant city with a lot of talented people either living there or passing through. The arty atmosphere and a touch of cosmopolitanism were the reasons I started writing on a more regular basis. I’m not sure I’d be writing right now if I hadn’t lived there. The experience made me more confident and ready to take risks. There are quite a few opportunities for a young writer, I think, although it’s still a smallish ‘underground’ circle. There’s another side of the coin – it’s virtually impossible to publish or get into established circles – if that’s what you care for. Sarajevo has a great potential to become an arts centre, and its time will soon come.

Mirza Puric, Translator, Sarajevo:

As for what it’s like being a translator in this town, I suppose it’s like being a translator anywhere else. Only incomparably worse. It’s got to be a bit like playing in a Rick Astley cover band — nobody cares.

The First Meeting

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor:

Our Caracas-Sarajevo group of writers and photographers started meeting in early summer 2014 in the wake of historic flooding in Bosnia and Herzegovina and protests in both countries. Many people had died in the protests in Venezuela. Early on in our exchange, Ricardo Ramírez Requena submitted a diary of that period; his “Plaza Venezuela: February Days” opens our collection. Photographer Efrén Hernández Arias contributed an image to accompany Ricardo’s piece—that of a fountain in the same plaza on a bright day.

We first met “in person” via an online video session. The Sarajevo group gathered in twos and threes around laptops in apartments. Most of the Caracas folk met together in a classroom. We made introductions in English. I remember jokes, warmth, technical difficulties in Caracas, and at least one cigarette being smoked in Sarajevo.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

The only thing I remember is being really suspicious of how it would work out, and doubting whether it would be of any actual help to my writing. Lack of enthusiasm and scepticism are a part of my charm. They are also very common in our part of the world (the Balkans).

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Pues no sabía muy bien cómo iba a ser el asunto. La expectativa y la incertidumbre fueron sabrosas. Luego, poco a poco, fuimos entendiendo mejor de qué iba el asunto. Pero al principio, había mucha intriga.
Well, I wasn’t sure what it would be like. I enjoyed the expectation and uncertainty. Then, little by little, we started understanding what the deal was. But in the beginning there was a lot of intrigue.

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Isprva je to bila skepsa. Čime povezati Sarajevo i Caracas? I kakav narrative witness? Onda je skepsa porasla u ushit kada sam se skotrljala u priču Fedosya Santaelle „Drveće Sarajeva.“ On se tamo igra Montejovim snovima o Icelandu, i piše o tome kako je Sarajevo isuviše daleko da bi do njega ikada stigao. U jednom je trenutku pitao za neke detalje, kuda protiče Miljacka ili tome slično. Naravno, dobio je odgovor ali njegovo sam pitanje prepoznala kao nevažno u odnosu na ono što je pulsiralo u podtekstu, a to je pokušaj da se Sarajevo sanja, da se za njim čezne, da se mape nekih tamo rtova, nekih portugala, rusija mogu nositi u džepovima, da se svijet sluti i sluša. Njegova priča je možda i najbolje opravdanje i objašnjenje za ovako osmišljen projekat. Sve je već u nekoj sprezi, pa i mjesta za kojima čeznemo, na kojima nikada nismo bili.
I was sceptical at first. How do you connect Sarajevo and Caracas? Narrative Witness? Really? But then my scepticism gave way to rapture when I rolled down into Fedosy Santaella’s “The Trees of Sarajevo”. In the story, he plays with Montejo’s dreams of Iceland, writes about how Sarajevo is much too distant for anyone to ever reach it. At one point he asked about some details, like what parts of the city does the Miljacka run through, and so on. Of course, he got his answer, but I saw his question as unimportant compared to something which pulsated in the subtext of his story, an attempt to dream up a Sarajevo, to long for it, to carry in your pocket the maps of faraway capes, of Portugals and Russias, to listen to the world, feel it in your bones. All things are connected in a way, even the places we long for, though we’ve never been.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

To be honest, I do not remember a lot of what was said on the day of our first meeting because enthusiasm often tends to overwhelm my listening skills. I do remember two types of feelings though. The first is the excitement about finally starting the project and meeting these new people countries away with whom I will be working and creating and who will hopefully become my friends.  The second feeling was a strong desire to create an amazing piece of literature, the best one I have written so far, which I will be proud to share with my colleagues and readers.

The Workshop

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor

IWP built a website for our workshops. Participants considered the theme “narrative witness” and produced the work they felt most important to them. On the writing side, three or four people submitted pieces each week, working in fiction or nonfiction and in the language of their choice. The stories were then sent to our translators, who quickly (heroically) turned around rough drafts in English. We posted both the translations and the original texts for online critique.

We held workshop discussions in English. I’ve recently gone back and reread some of our comment threads, and they show our group to be passionate, rigorous, and committed to literature. My own creative and intellectual life has deepened considerably as a result of my experience with these colleagues. Perhaps due to conditions in both countries, our work seemed to have particular significance.

What was the best moment for you?

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

When I received the critiques for the first version of my “Child of Stone,” I realised that my story was lacking in more aspects than I expected. It took me quite a while (and three versions of the story) to be satisfied with my approach to certain scenes. But then I finally found the right words and it was a fantastic moment.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

El mejor momento siempre es el de la publicación. Fue una gran alegría cuando todo lo que se hizo finalmente quedó registrado en ese hermoso libro. Sin embargo, cada momento fue importante. Siempre hubo una ganancia, todo lo vivimos con intensidad.
The best time is always publication time. It was a great joy when everything that was created was finally was recorded in this beautiful book. However, every moment was important. There was always a gain, we lived everything with intensity.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

When I got my first feedback. I was feeling nervous because I’d only written a couple of stories before and was unsure about my topic – I felt mine was a bit trivial in comparison to others’. However, my fellow writers liked it and it was a big boost to my confidence.

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor

I’m not sure at what point I began to realize the pieces seemed to be speaking to each other. I believe I had a moment of recognition after reading Sonia Chocrón’s short story “Molar,” which deals with a mother, daughter, and street kids in the midst of a water shortage. It ends, in translation, with the poignant, and earned, line, “It was hot. Very hot.” (“Hacía calor. Mucho calor.”) Interestingly, in that same group of stories was Marina Alagić-Bowder’s nonfiction piece “The Cow in the Bathroom,” which knits together fragments of memory from wartime, and recent-day, Sarajevo. In that piece, too, was the specter of water shortage. A dark apartment. Someone filling a toilet tank from a bucket. One of the Caracas writers, Humberto Valdivieso, commented on Marina’s piece, identifying water in Venezuela as “one of the boundaries of…exclusion.”

Other themes that crop up in the body of work include violence, abuse, war, and love of all kinds. The range of artistic approaches to these subjects is wide. Marauding motorcycle gangs make appearances in José Tomás Angola Heredia’s surreal short story “Quiet, Bicho, Quiet” and in Fedosy Santaella’s meditative essay “The Trees of Sarajevo.” Nermana Česko’s “Chair on My Eye” tells the tale of a wife suffering from breast cancer in an abusive relationship; the story is narrated by the floor in their home. Dijala Hasanbegović’s “A Lexicon of Great Historical Moments” deals with abuse in a family and is a lyrical, first-person piece that uses children’s jokes to mark change and the passage of time.                                                                        

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Čitanje. Sumanuto, slasno, proždrljivo. Uranjanje u druge priče. Tuđe priče. Strane i daleke, ali istovremeno prisne i mile. I mogućnost pregovaranja. Činjenica da mogu izroniti šta hoću i baciti drugima pred noge. Onda ih nagovarati na to kako ušiti priču tamo gdje je, iz ugla iz kojeg sam ja čitala, napukla. Kako je dovesti u red, ohrabriti da poleti malo visočije ili prizemljiti, izbrusiti kamen. Od toga je bolji bio samo feedback koji sam ja, sebično je i bahato, dobila zauzvrat. Ali može i sebičnije od toga, moju priču nije spasio prevod, nego prevođenje. Sam proces. Češljanje teksta. Zatezanje plahte. Pregršt dobrih trenutaka.
The reading. Frenzied, zesty, voracious. Delving in other stories. Other people’s stories. Foreign and distant, yet close and captivating at the same time. And the possibility of negotiating. The fact that I could dive in and recover whatever I wanted, and toss it at the feet of the other. Then try to talk them into stitching the story where i thought it had burst. Tell them how to spruce it up, encourage it to soar a bit higher. The only thing that was better than that was the feedback which I got in return. I know I’m being arrogant and selfish. But it gets more selfish than that — my story wasn’t saved by the translation, but by the translating. The process itself. A goodly pile of good moments.

What was the most difficult moment for you?

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Acompasar el trabajo del día a día, la agitación de la vida urbana, con la constante lectura y realización de comentarios a los textos de los compañeros resultó complicado, pero se hizo con gusto.
Pacing the work day to day, while dealing with the agitation of urban life and the constant reading and commenting the texts of my fellow peers was complicated, but I was happy to do it.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

As always, polishing. And publishing. I go back and forth between not seeing anything wrong with it (‘this is exactly as it should be’) and wanting to change everything. The latter normally occurs after it’s been published and nothing can be done anymore. So, after the initial excitement about the Narrative Witness publication, I just stared at my story on the screen feeling completely and utterly horrified.  

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

No hubo un momento especialmente difícil. Tal vez el mayor reto era comentar el trabajo de los compañeros. Eso tenía mucha importancia y por lo tanto tenía la dificultad del compromiso. Había que estar a la altura de los escritos porque todos eran excelentes.
There wasn’t a particularly difficult time. Perhaps the greatest challenge was commenting on the work of colleagues. That was very important and therefore had the difficulty of commitment. One had to be up to the challenge, since all of the writing was excellent.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

I think the most difficult moment during this workshop is the one I always go through. At some point during the writing process, a decision has to be made – to change / erase something most of my colleagues find lacking or week, or to keep it because I find it purposeful and necessary.

How did the workshop help you develop as a writer?

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Me ayudó a confrontarme con mis ideas y mi estilo. Los comentarios de mis compañeros fueron muy útiles en ese sentido. Un escrito debe estar siempre a prueba. Lo mejor que le puede pasar a uno es ser leído y recibir críticas o análisis que lo hagan reflexionar sobre lo que está haciendo. Eso es muy importante. También, leer el trabajo de otros, pensar sobre lo que escribieron, confrontarlo con lo que uno hizo y dar respuesta es algo que nos permite crecer como escritor.
It helped me face my ideas and my style. The comments of my colleagues were very helpful in this regard. A piece of writing should always be tested. The best thing that can happen is to be read and receive critiques or an analysis that makes one reflect on what is being created. That is very important. Also, reading the work of others, thinking about what they wrote, comparing it to what one did and giving answers is something that allows us to grow as writers.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

We’re all well aware reading is an important tool of a writer, but there is something special in having an opportunity to read work of contemporary, not fully established writers from the other side of the world. To get to observe how a story evolves. It’s raw. It’s real. More importantly, you begin to understand your own process better. It also makes it easier for you to change perspectives.

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Me gusto leer cómo los poetas hacen narrativa. Esa es una gran lección.
I liked reading how the poets make narratives. That’s a great lesson.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

Feedback is priceless. I can safely say that SWW made me the writer I am today and will help me grow in the future as well. Through the NW project, I had an opportunity to get feedback from people who were born and raised in a different set of circumstances and who might not read the same sentence the way I do. Comments given from a different perspective are invaluable to me in my wish to write about universal topics to which people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can relate.

Tell me about another participant’s writing that resonated with you.

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Humberto Valdivieso je napisao odličnu priču o tome kako balansirati pad ili, preciznije, kako dovesti u balans zagrljaj i oslonio ju na slike, na grafite. Ja sam u svojoj primijenila sličnu tehniku, slikovna jedinica je postala integralan dio priče. No, ne mogu sebi pomoći a da taj postupak balansiranja ne prepoznam i na razini teksta, u književnom tkivu; u njegovom me se narativu najviše dojmio balans koji je pokušao napraviti između slike i teksta, balans u kojem tekst grli nešto njemu strano, ali upotpunjujuće, nešto što ga istovremeno komentira, tekst je dobio štake iako, možda, zna plesati i sam.
Humberto Valdivieso wrote an excellent story on how to balance a fall, or to be more precise, how to bring a hug in equilibrium, and he based it on images, on graffitti. I used a similiar technique in my own story, a visual item became an integral part of the story. But I can’t help seeing this balancing act on the text level, in the literary fabric; in his narrative I was impressed the most by the balance he tried to strike between the image and the text, where the text tried to embrace a foreign object, but one which made it complete, commented on it. The text got a pair of crutches, though it may have been able to dance without them.

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Me gustaron mucho los textos narrativos que produjeron los poetas bosnios. La narrativa escrita por los poetas es muy particular, tiene un ritmo único, fluye de otra manera.
I really enjoyed the narrative texts that the Bosnian poets produced. Narrative written by poets is very particular, it has a unique rhythm, it flows differently.

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor

An essay that may be emblematic of our exchange is Fedosy Santaella’s “The Trees of Sarajevo.” The piece is an effort by the writer to connect the unraveling of his own city with the past unraveling of another. It opens,

“Sarajevo is so far from us. I will never go there, it is so far away. Maybe I should get myself a map and fold it in order to bring Caracas closer to Sarajevo. A poem by Montejo dreams of Iceland. I have taken to dreaming of Sarajevo.”

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Es difícil decirlo porque todos los escritos eran muy buenos. Los escritores de Caracas nos conocemos de una u otra forma. Descubrir a los de Sarajevo fue muy interesante. Sus historias me impactaron mucho y su forma de lidiar con la violencia me estremeció.
It’s hard to say because all the writing was so good. The writers from Caracas, we know each other one way or another. Discovering the Sarajevo writers was very interesting. I was very struck by their stories and I was also shaken by the way they dealt with violence.

Translation

IWP:

The participants wrote in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Spanish, and English; in order to provide as inclusive a workshop experience as possible, translators in Caracas and Sarajevo worked to translate the workshop contributions week by week.

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor:

As we were a multilingual group, at least half of us at any given time were commenting on an English translation of an author’s original story (unless that author chose to write in English). Because the original version was also posted, the other half of the group could provide critiques of the author’s actual text, shedding more light on it for the rest of us. We could also discuss issues related to translation in general. Hensli Rahn Solórzano’s short story “La Guaira 1989,” for example, contains quite a bit of Venezuelan slang. Our hope for the authors was that, even in receiving feedback on English translations of their work, they would be able to find the responses constructive and trace issues we spotted back to their original texts.

Mirza Puric, Translator, Sarajevo

Working with a group of authors of different levels of proficiency, each with her own style, poetics, interests, etc. is not something you do every day — in fact, most translators never get such an opportunity — and I feel quite privileged to have done it twice thanks to SWW [The Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop]. Translators are creatures of carefully honed habit. What I do when I get something substantial to work on is I read it a few times, make tons of notes, identify potential problem spots, then read everything I can get my hands on about the author, the place and time the plot is set in, any actual persons and events the text mentions, cultural practices, flora and fauna, etc. It takes me weeks, sometimes months, to actually translate a single line. The way this project was designed meant I had to abandon my usual modus operandi. Draft translations had to be produced literally overnight, and instead of extensive research I had to rely on the authors’ comments (hardly ever directed at me, which made everything all the more interesting) and Stacy Mattingly’s perspicacious, sharp-eyed editing to tart them up and produce the finals. It was great breaking the mould; that’s how you grow professionally.

What was it like knowing that your work would be read in translation?

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

No sé, oigo como la voz de otra persona leyendo mi texto, correctamente en otro idioma. Lo imagino leyendo en voz alta, pero sin gritar, al lado de una ventana con el atardecer al fondo. Es como si tu texto fuese una semilla que se llevó el viento, para otra parte, y creció bajo un sol cálido, en otras tierras.
I don’t know, I kind of hear the voice of someone else reading my text correctly in another language. I imagine them reading loudly, but without shouting, next to a window with the sunset in the background. It’s as if the text was a seed blown away by the wind to somewhere else, and it grew under a warm sun in a different land.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

My two stories are originally written in English. I just write them down in the language I hear them. I tried switching languages a few times, but the flow of words would stop and the characters would disappear. However, I did originally want to write a story in Bosnian, since I am a BiH writer after all and the exchange itself is rich with multilingualism.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

My story was actually written in English. I started writing in my mother tongue quite late. It was poetry that was quite personal, so it helped that I was writing in a foreign language. That way the emotions in a poem would be mine, but not completely. It provided me with a detachment. I still write in both English and Croatian, and often go back and forth between them until I decide which language suits a certain piece best.

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Kada je riječ o samom procesu pisanja, saznanje da će priče biti prevedene ličilo je na iščekivanje velike, duge i teške kiše i istovremeno radovanje i spremnost da se na nju istrči i bude mokrim do kože. Sigurna sam u to da nikada više neću biti spremna objavljivati prije no se uvjerim da su ruke drugog jezika dovoljno čvrste da pridrže priču, ali tako da ukažu na greške u držanju u maternjem jeziku. Prevoditi znači čitati. Prevođenje i jeste čitanjem. Dubinsko provlačanje kroz sve razine teksta. Prevodioci su zapravo čitatelji i čitateljice o kakvima sanjamo. Oni nam i napišu priču.
Knowing that the stories would be translated was like awaiting a long, heavy rain, and looking forward to running out to get soaked. I’m sure I’ll never publish anything again before I make sure that the hands of another language are strong enough to hold the story, so as to reveal the inadequacies in the way the mother tongue holds it.  To translate is to read. To crawl through the depths of the text. Translators are actually the readers we dream we had. They write our story for us.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

El trabajo de los traductores fue excelente. Ellos se involucraron con nuestros textos a niveles muy profundos. No hay duda de que supieron llevarnos a lengua distinta sin traumas.Leerse en otro idioma no es común para nosotros, al menos para mí. Haber podido hacerlo fue un gran logro del programa. Yo sentí una gran satisfacción.
The work of the translators was excellent. They became involved with our texts at very deep levels. There is no doubt that they were able to take us to another language without troubles.Being able to read our work in another language is not common for us, at least not for me. Being able to do it was a great achievement of the program. I felt great satisfaction.

What was it like getting feedback on your work in English?

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

Ako mislite na to kako smo uspijevali čitati jedni druge u tom grču od tri jezika, između tri vatre, mislim da nismo mogli imati bolju prepreku. Ona, zahvaljujući našem prevodiocu Mirzi Puriću i prevoditeljici Mary Matos Smith uopće i nije bila preprekom. Tekstovi kolega i kolegica iz Caracasa su, a trudila sam se čitati ih i na izvornom jeziku, prosto oticali u drugom jeziku. Bujali su. Izrastali. Ne mogu vam objasniti to da sam, čitajući narativ Isabelle Saturno, „Todo es empezar“ na engleskom jeziku, imala dojam da sam skalpelom zarezala u samu komoru Venezuele, došla do žile kucavice, na trenutak zaista bila u Caracasu. To ne mogu objasniti ni sebi. Ne mogu objasniti ni to da mi se vlastita priča dopada više u prevodu. One se, u to sam sigurna, samo tako i mogu napisati. Samo se još čitati može samim. Za pisanje su potrebne neke tuđe oči, tuđe ruke.
If you mean how we managed to read each other in that trilingual spasm, we couldn’t have wished for a better obstacle. Thanks to our translators, it wasn’t actually an obstacle at all. The texts of our Caracas colleagues (and I tried to read them in the original language) simply swelled in English, they heaved, overflowed. I can’t explain that. Nor can I explain the fact that I liked my own story much better in translation. Stories, I’m sure, can only be written like that. You can only read alone. Writing takes somebody else’s eyes, somebody else’s hands.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

El inglés era el idioma correcto para los intercambios, sobre todo porque estábamos participando tres países con lenguas distintas. Fue el idioma que nos permitió entendernos. Creo que para nadie fue una dificultad.
English was the right language for the exchange, especially because three countries with different languages were participating. It was the language that allowed us to understand each other. I don’t think it was difficult for anyone.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant:

Given that most of our workshops in Sarajevo are held in English, critiques are given in English and many of us write in English as well, I did not feel any difference in that respect. I am so grateful though that we all have a common language we can express our thoughts in and assist our colleagues’ creative processes.

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

I’ve been a part of Sarajevo Writers Workshop since 2012. The workshop functions in both English and B/C/S languages, so I’m used to it. When you think about it, it’s a bit funny because almost none of the writers or photographers speak English as their mother tongue. I especially loved our email threads, there was a lot of mixing languages.

What did you learn about Sarajevo/Caracas?

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

Simply said, I learned how awesome my colleagues in Venezuela are. I was able to feel and see their strong spirits, talent and passion transformed into words and photography. What amazed me are not so much the similarities or differences when it comes to historical and political contexts, but those connections on a purely artistic level. Even though continents and cultures apart, we all wanted to create pieces of art which transcend all our previous works and which are the closest things to perfection a human can achieve – without ever reaching it.

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Que en todas partes hay gente especial capaz de ver el mundo con tristeza y poesía, que es más o menos lo mismo que la tristeza.
That in every place there are special people able to see the world with sadness and poetry, which is kind of the same as sadness.

Zerina Zahirović, Sarajevo participant:

O Caracasu sam naučila da trenutno mnogo liči na Sarajevo. I da, istovremeno, ne liči nimalo. Isuviše su različiti da ne bi bili malo sličnim. Iscrtavajući, zapravo, tu sliku o Carcasu, sloj po sloj, skupljajući fragmente, praveći kolaž od fotografija, Efrén Hernández Arias  je napravio čudo, samo sam potvrdila da tromo, uspavano, samodovoljno Sarajevo plazi jezik samom sebi. I da za njim očajni, prazan, ali živ, buntovan Caracas čezne. Naučila sam i to da on trenutno ima pisce i spisateljice u kojima prepoznajem svoje uzore, od njih učim, prijatelji su. Sugrađani. Bliski su. Može ih se držati za ruku. Mislim da je cjelokupan ovaj projekat ličio pomalo na ono što su Dunja i Azra u istoimenoj priči Dijale Hasanbegović dodale u leksikon velikih povijesnih trenutaka. Poistovjećujem se i slutim kako priče iz sjena izrastaju u divove.
I learnt that Caracas is very much like Sarajevo. And, at the same time, nothing like it. The two cities are too dissimilar to not be alike. As I drew my own picture of Caracas, layer by layer, collecting fragments and making a collage from the photos (Efrén Hernández Arias  made a small miracle), my suspicion was confirmed: languid, dormant, smug Sarajevo puts its tongue out at itself. And that desperate, empty, but live and rebellious Caracas longs for it. Caracas has writers who I look up to, learn from them. They are friends. Fellow citizens. They are close. You can take them by the hand. I think this whole project was like the bit Dunja and Azra wrote into the Lexicon of Great Historical Moments, in Dijala Hasanbegović’s story. I identify with this, and I feel in my bones that stories grow into giants out of silhouettes.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Aprendí que culturalmente estamos más cerca de lo que pensamos. Que tenemos más parecidos que diferencias. Si me hubiesen preguntado antes de hacer esta experiencia sobre Sarajevo o Iowa hubiese dicho que eran lugares lejanos y con importantes diferencias culturales con respecto a Latinoamérica. Hoy sé que no es así, es todo lo contrario. Tenemos mucho en común. Sobre todo nos une una sensibilidad donde podemos intercambiar y suprimir cualquier diferencia.
I learned that we are closer than we think, culturally. We have more similarities than differences. If you had asked me about Sarajevo or Iowa before this experience I would have said that they are distant places with important cultural differences when compared to Latin America. Today I know this isn’t true, it’s the opposite. We have a lot in common. Above all, we share a sensibility where we can make exchanges, as well as remove any differences.

Impact

IWP:

At the project’s conclusion, Mattingly and Herman worked with the participants and with the translators to finalize each piece. Mattingly edited and led the curation of an online showcase of the collected work; IWP Distance Learning intern Skylar Alexander designed a new IWP website to house the showcase and supported the curation process. The new site, Collections from the IWP, proudly presents Narrative Witness: A Caracas-Sarajevo Collaboration as our inaugural showcase and will host future collections of work generated through IWP programming.

Stacy Mattingly, Narrative Witness writing workshop facilitator, collection editor

Following the workshop, the writers revised their drafts, and once again, we submitted these to the translators. The translation process was a long and careful one. We are hugely indebted to Mirza Purić, Mariela Matos Smith, Daniel Narváez, and Beverly Pérez Rego. They worked with meticulous attention. All the translators are tied to the communities in their respective cities; we hope this gave them a unique stake in the project and a sense of belonging.

In fact, one of the most meaningful aspects of the exchange has been the felt respect, appreciation, and relationship at the heart of our work together. I knew the Sarajevo participants beforehand, as I’d founded the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop in 2012; but seeing the way the two communities built a substantive, artistic dialogue and relationships across borders—and that via translation and a third, common language—has been transformative for me. Recently, Fedosy Santaella posted this comment for us online: “Translation is the esence [sic] of peace.”

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

There are two (related) things I can safely say I experienced during this exchange: I grew as a writer and I gained knowledge of these tiny, but immensely important details which bring a piece of writing to a whole new level. This is something, I believe, that will always serve me well and help me improve my writing skills. On a more personal note, I am lucky and honoured to have many friends now in Caracas and Iowa as well.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

El impacto global en el caso de los participantes está dado con el intercambio. Ahora estamos todos unidos en las redes sociales. En ese sentido es un éxito. Con respecto a los lectores habrá que esperar las reacciones. Creo que todos tenemos grandes expectativas. Lo hemos enviado por las redes sociales y ya ha salido en prensa. Estoy seguro de que tendrá resonancia.
In the case of the participants, the overall impact is seen in the exchange. Now we are all connected through social media. In that sense it is a success. As for readers—we will have to wait for their reactions. I think we all have great expectations. We have sent it through social networks and it has already gone to press. I’m sure it will resonate.

The Future

What’s next for you?

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Seguir escribiendo. En este momento estoy trabajando en dos libros de ensayo y tengo uno de ficción listo. En mi país no es tan fácil publicar, al menos literatura y menos si tiene corte experimental. Me concentraré para tratar de lograrlo.
To keep writing. Right now I’m working on two books of essays and I have a fiction one ready. It’s not very easy to publish in my country, at least not literature, and it’s even harder if it’s experimental. I will focus on trying to achieve this.

Matea Simic:

Last November, I started an online magazine for literature and culture, called nema (ne-ma.net). There aren’t many similar projects in the Balkans and its goal is to become a platform for new voices; to give an opportunity to young aspiring writers to be read. Right now, nema is gathering momentum and I’m excited to see how it will develop. In the next month or so, I plan to add an English language section to it and make it more open and, hopefully, widely read.

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Este año publicaré una novela en España, en uno de las editoriales españolas más importantes del país y del habla castellana, publicaré en Pre-Textos. Creo que tener un libro hermoso publicado por ellos en para mí un gran paso. La novela se títula El dedo de David Lynch. Con respecto al proyecto Narrative Witness, espero presentar el proyecto, con mis amigos escritores, en la universidad Católica Andrés Bello, con participación y ayuda de la Escuela de Letras.
This year I will publish a novel in Spain with of the most important Spanish publishers in the country and of the Spanish language: Pre-Textos. I think having a beautiful book published by them is a big step for me. The novel is titled El dedo de David Lynch (David Lynch’s Finger). I hope to present the Narrative Witness project with my writer friends at the Catholic University Andres Bello, with participation and support of the Escuela de Letras.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

The next thing for me is finishing my first novel. It is quite a project for me, both frustrating and exuberant, especially when I find myself ‘arguing’ with my characters because they do not want to live the way I planned for them. But I do get to laugh with them a lot too.

IWP:

The IWP plans to coordinate three exchanges between writers and artists in 2015 and 2016. Our next Narrative Witness exchange will bring photographers and writers together in two international cities in late spring of 2015. We hope their experiences of creative community and cultural exchange will inspire new collaborations, and new friendships.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to participate in the next Narrative Witness exchange?

Matea Simic, Sarajevo participant:

Read all of the first drafts of all the stories. Then read the second and the third and so on. Comment on all of them. It will help your colleagues, but, equally important, it will help you. Don’t fear criticism. Always remember that it’s your story in the end – but be ready to take risks.

Fedosy Santaella, Caracas participant:

Que escriba un texto totalmente nuevo y exclusivo para el proyecto. Es más interesante, más retador y más vigoroso.
I’d tell them to write a completely new and unique text for the project. It’s more interesting, more challenging, and more vigorous.

Kulović Selma, Sarajevo Participant

My advice would be to listen well to everything others have to say about your work and read all comments several times – the feedback given is going to be one of your best tools for creating an amazing piece of art. Save the comments if you wish and read them again when you are writing something new. As I have previously mentioned, you will get comments from your colleagues who do not necessarily share your perspective on things and those are the best comments of them all.

Humberto Valdivieso, Caracas participant:

Que se involucre lo más que pueda. Que participe al máximo.
To get involved as much as they can. To participate to the fullest.

 

Translations of Fedosy Santaella and Humberto Valdivieso are by Natalia Castells-Esquivel. Translations of Zerina Zahirović are by Mirza Puric. Responses from IWP are by Susannah Shive, IWP Distance Learning Coordinator. Narrative Witness is under the auspices of IWP’s Distance Learning Program.

Amy McDaniel

Amy McDaniel teaches high school and runs 421 Atlanta, a very small press that publishes poetry and short prose. She is the author of two chapbooks, both with the words "Adult Lessons" in the title, and her writing has been published widely online and in print. She is the editor of Real Pants.

About The Author

Amy McDaniel

Amy McDaniel teaches high school and runs 421 Atlanta, a very small press that publishes poetry and short prose. She is the author of two chapbooks, both with the words "Adult Lessons" in the title, and her writing has been published widely online and in print. She is the editor of Real Pants.

Real Pants

Posi but not teenage

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