91st Merdian is a literary journal produced by the University of Iowa’s legendary International Writing Program, a residency for international authors and poets established in 1967. In our latest Press On! interview with a publisher, we talked to Nataša Ďurovičová, editor-in-chief of the journal and its sister imprint 91st Meridian Books, about this year’s issues, in which authors from all around the world respond to prompts about the coronavirus pandemic.
Can you describe the path that brought you to the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa and your position as editor of 91st Meridian and 91st Meridian Books?
My family and I moved to Iowa from California in the mid-1990s, and for a while, I was a visiting instructor in Cinema Studies at the University of Iowa—which is my academic background. I came to translation through media rather than through literature, and that has colored much of my thinking and my writing.
Skip a few years. In 1999, the IWP was on the verge of being shut down after thirty-some years. The whole campus rose up and defended the program whereupon the UI administration recognized its mistake and recommitted to its functioning. A new director, Christopher Merrill, was hired and some new resources were provided. It was also clear that the program was going to need someone to do web work since the internet was pretty much starting to be ubiquitous at that time, so with my background in translation and interest in media I was hired to be a “house editor.”
91st Meridian was the name we invented for a journal that needed to go with this newly restarted program—named of course for the longitude of Iowa City on the world globe. The imprint 91st Meridian Books came into existence later, when special projects needed to be published in book format. In that sense, 91st Meridian Books is not meant to be an autonomous, stand-alone literary book series, but rather a service book series for the program’s publications.
91st Meridian is mainly a journal in which we want to feature what is best out of the past and present writers’ work that we come across in conjunction with the residency. At the same time, we receive a steady stream of submissions from non-IWP authors and (more often) translators, and we happily accept “outside“ work we love.
What would you say are your primary goals for the journal and imprint as the editor?
The journal started essentially as a marker of this new program, brought back “Phoenix-like” from the ashes, if you will. Before that, however, the IWP actually had a very strong record of publishing volumes of international works—especially poetry—in translation. That was the work of Paul Engle and Hualing Engle in the early seventies through the late eighties. At that time, the IWP aimed to be an important voice in publishing in the United States, particularly for international poetry in translation, which would not have had much hearing otherwise. Hualing and Paul Engle were working in the environment of American publishing which, as we know, has not been very interested in translations until very recently. The cliché is that in the US, translated material makes up about 3% of the book market—against say Germany, with about 50%.
91st Meridian was intended to be an opportunity and a platform for our writers, and it has continued to be that way. That is how I think about it. It’s mainly a journal in which we want to feature what is best out of the past and present writers’ work that we come across in conjunction with the residency. At the same time, we receive a steady stream of submissions from non-IWP authors and (more often) translators, and we happily accept “outside“ work we love.
Generally, we give priority to either translations or texts that are somehow marked, as I said, by this idea of “border-crossing,” of a transnational world.
Some years ago the US State Department—one of our chief funders—became interested in organizing international conferences and one of the important functions of 91st Meridian Books is to edit and publish materials from these conferences. The imprint’s home is the small independent house Autumn Hill Books, where the IWP series is embedded in a nicely-curated environment of prose and poetry from all over the world. Beyond IWP’s essay collections from the conferences, the collaboration with AHB also lets us occasionally produce one-off volumes. For example, after the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in 2011, the Haitian IWP alumna Beaudelaine Pierre and I got in touch and we said, let’s put together a volume of Haitian writers’ responses to the earthquake that we can sell for the benefit of survivors. And thanks to Beaudelaine, we could do so trilingually in English, French and Haitian Creole. That would be an example of [something] that’s not conference-driven, it’s literary but still rooted in the IWP’s mission.
The works included in each of the journal’s volumes are usually loosely connected by a common theme or question. In the latest volume of 91st Meridian, the authors’ works responded directly to a prompt about the coronavirus pandemic—first their initial reactions to the health crisis in No. 2, and then their reactions about what they had learned during their experiences in lockdown in No.
What are you looking for in terms of style, content, or voice when selecting work to include in the journal, or books to publish through the imprint?
If I can just reread from the mission statement of the journal: it “aims to contribute to general reading beyond the national linguistic and cultural borders of the Anglophone sphere and; we will consider submissions of fiction, poetry, essays, nonfiction, and book reviews as long as the material reflects in some way the world as a space for literary transit and translation” —which is a fancy way of saying that, generally speaking, we tend not to publish material that is originally written in English, for an American audience. It’s not impossible, we’re not against it. Sometimes we’ll publish material written in English while a writer was in Iowa, and of course, there is the whole world of Anglophone writers living in multilingual countries—India, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc.
Generally, we give priority to either translations or texts that are somehow marked, as I said, by this idea of “border-crossing,” of a transnational world. The works included in each of the journal’s volumes are usually loosely connected by a common theme or question. In the latest volume of 91st Meridian, the authors’ works responded directly to a prompt about the coronavirus pandemic—first their initial reactions to the health crisis in No. 2, and then their reactions about what they had learned during their experiences in lockdown in No.
The pandemic is a global problem, and yet, paradoxically, the solutions are more and more local, in a kind of defensive stance. That was the purpose of this volume. I really tried to have the map of the world in front of me and pick a writer who I thought would give me the most far-reaching response from that particular region.
Was there anything that surprised you about the responses you received following this most recent prompt, or themes that emerged in the final collection that you found particularly significant?
In the first issue, what I was most surprised by—what really prompted me to then come up with the second topic—was how many of the writers turned towards the private to describe the situation. And how many of them, instead of saying ‘oh, this is a disaster!’ said, ‘oh, this is a great opportunity—I get to be by myself, which I always am anyhow, and then have this extra time to write.’ And of course they all qualified it somewhat, but it was really surprising to me to see how much of a comfort zone isolation created for them. I found that a little shocking, I have to say.
Of course, these were early days so by the time we rolled around to the second issue in early May, people had had two months or so to see the consequences of all this. The answers in the second issue were sharper and more directed. And the thing that most interested me was how many of the writers explicitly, and in some cases implicitly, addressed the question of the standing of the United States in the world. Peter Kimani from Kenya says, ‘we have our own way to go, we have had experiences with epidemics before like Ebola, we know what to do, we are not asking for your help’. And Minae Mizumura, a Japanese writer who has long lived in the United States and is a great connoisseur of the American culture writes that Japan’s democratic constitution (imposed on the country by the Allies after Japan lost in World War II) is in a way too democratic in the face of this pandemic, tying the government’s hands in a situation where collective measures must be taken, and in this sense ‘cleaves our relationship to the United States’. So the journal’s second COVID issue has some unexpected ideas that could use more prominence. In Vol. 10 No. 3, the second COVID issue, the authors approach the prompt in a variety of ways, from Alice S. Yousef’s poem documenting the passage of time in lockdown, to Jacqueline Goldberg’s short essay about the dire situation in Venezuela.
Is there a piece or excerpt from this most recent volume that you would like to highlight?
Perhaps the piece that I am most enthusiastic about is by Beaudelaine Pierre, the Haitian writer who came to the IWP [in 2007]. She received a fellowship to the University of Minnesota and [then] ended up staying in Minneapolis. In 2019 she won a prize for a collection of lovely essays called You May Have the Suitcase Now forthcoming November 2020 from New Rivers Press. She is somebody who is split between her life in the US and her strong ties to Haiti, intellectually, culturally, linguistically, personally—in every possible way—and perhaps for that reason is keenly observational. Most of her work is borderline nonfiction, or has instantly visible roots in the immediate environment in which she lives or has lived. She also has a linguistic genius that releases her imagination into formally sophisticated literary texts.
What do you hope that readers and other writers will take away from the variety of works and responses included in this volume?
That, too, is a good question because the answer seems to me to be that on one hand, the responses to the pandemic that we are seeing are about more and more nationalism and closed borders, even now erecting borders inside our countries—hotspots, quarantine zones, pods, etc. We are closing down, creating social and physical spaces that are smaller and smaller in order to contain this pandemic. And yet it’s a kind of comparative disease, one where we are constantly looking at how they are handling it in Argentina, how are they doing in Sweden, how are they tackling it in Russia—we are constantly looking at the map of the world and thinking globally, because pandemic means just that. It’s a global problem, and yet, paradoxically, the solutions are more and more local, in a kind of defensive stance. That was the purpose of this volume. I really tried to have the map of the world in front of me and pick a writer who I thought would give me the most far-reaching response from that particular region.
Do you usually work with the author(s) on translating their work for the journal? If so, could you describe that experience and process?
Sometimes I do. It totally depends. A special issue, the last issue of 91st Meridian before we took a hiatus, was edited by Daisy Rockwell and Shabnam Nadiya, two distinguished translators who work from the Hindi and the Bengali respectively, so there I would not have presumed.
On the other hand, I can be very dissatisfied with some] translations. For instance, in the January 2020 issue, we published two fox-themed stories. I like to publish things in pairs, that’s one of my editorial strategies: if you have two texts that have something in common and resonate off one another, that gives each text extra depth. So we had these two great stories—I’m thrilled to have published them. One is a hilarious story by the Japanese writer Kaori Fujno about a pack of kitsune—these magic foxes in Japanese folklore. In this story they devise an all-girls high school as a front to train and then transform themselves into these model Japanese girls and women, basically to mock the human species, and in general just to have reckless fun.
After all, re-translation is always the hallmark of a text’s resilience. You may have noticed that a requirement for publication in 91st Meridian is that, when a text originates in another language, the translator is asked to provide a brief introduction to their translation process in order to draw attention to the transformative process. That, I would say, is one of the journal’s main strengths.
And then the second one is also a kitsune story but it’s by the Venezuelan writer, Enza Garcia, who said she was sick of writing about Venezuelan disasters, that she just wanted to imagine herself somewhere else—and she has also had a fox as a personal talisman of sorts. So Enza writes a kitsune story about a young South American boy who finds himself living in Japan, and here the kitsune magic is melancholy and distant. The first translation of Enza’s story from the Spanish was done by a non-native speaker and really wasn’t terrific; so the journal’s associate editor Kathleen Archer took it on as a retranslation, and did a fantastic job. Now reading the two stories back to back doubles the pleasure.
Then again, it should be said that even that not-so-excellent first translation brought Enza to our attention in the first place, and thus served as a pathway to a better one. After all, re-translation is always the hallmark of a text’s resilience. You may have noticed that a requirement for publication in 91st Meridian is that, when a text originates in another language, the translator is asked to provide a brief introduction to their translation process in order to draw attention to the transformative process. That, I would say, is one of the journal’s main strengths. I am sure that there is still a degree of uncertainty for the IWP in the coming year and beyond in terms of “regular” programming. The program already offers online courses, and readings with writers and translators.
Do you think that the journal or imprint will need to adapt in any way to these new circumstances? If so, how?
Well, the journal is what it is, and that doesn’t need much adjusting. At the same time, one is always thinking about this question of how best to position a publication in light of the incredible amount of reading material cascading everywhere, especially now that everybody is online. The publications I personally gravitate toward are those that are more traditionally curated, where, in this avalanche of online material, I can count on an editorial and curatorial presence that will have sorted through and kept an eye on what’s new, but also shaped the selection. Journals like World Literature Today, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Guernica, or N+1, or journals that have an established online presence are those that one holds onto even as one skids around in the torrent of new material elsewhere. In that sense, I think that we will simply continue doing what we’re doing, the journal coming out with some regularity, hopefully. As an editor, one is so aware of how much is out there, always worried about originality and quality. One ponders all the time what is necessary, what is useful, what is worth a reader’s time when our eyeballs are now on a screen all the time anyway.
Is there a new volume or issue in the works? What is next for 91st Meridian and 91st Meridian Books?
Since the book series mostly reflects our conferences—and those are for obvious reasons on hold—we don’t have another volume in the pipeline right now. However, the IWP continues to solicit and put out new material. We are, for instance, running a two-year project called the Women’s Creative Mentorship, built on the idea that we’ve had very successful alumni women authors, and thus solicited applications from young, promising, but not-yet-published women writers from Africa and Latin America. The successful applicants were then assigned regional mentors from among these more established and well-published alums. After a year of collaboration online and one in-person meeting, the IWP assembled an anthology of their writings which just debuted this summer. The second installment of the WCM project is that the writers are now working with professional editors who teach them how to prepare a manuscript for publication in national and international literary journals. The process of going from an idea to a draft through revisions and editing to a published piece is the assignment of that two year project.
In fact, the latest issue of 91st Meridian has a fascinating story, “My Father, the Scafista,” by one of the mentees, Djarah Kan, an Italo-Ghanian writer. Her story found its way to us in Italian and we then commissioned it to be translated into English. It is written from the vantage point of one of the thousands of African refugees making their way across the Mediterranean, a voice we don’t usually hear.
So even if work comes out of the IWP that does not necessarily fit under the 91st Meridian header, we nonetheless steer its way to publication somewhere. The WCM project aims to strengthen young women’s confidence and give them the tools to craft internationally viable literary prose in their original language and/or in translation, wherever they end up publishing it.
Interview by Cassandra Bertolini