Literary Languages

By The Editors
Image: michelE spilleR/Flickr

Image: michelE spilleR/Flickr

Central to our mission statement and at the forefront of our work since founding The Brooklyn Quarterly has been the belief that literature is crucial to public life. Not only is it the expressive fuel for public intellectuals, but it’s also a primary (if undersung) vehicle for citizenship—for the quotidian engagement with ideas that can and will change our world from the ground up. This is not to dismiss literature’s status as an artistic medium in and of itself, or the importance of debates about the industries that cultivate and promote literary fiction (most notably of “MFA vs. NYC” fame). But from the beginning of our work, we have argued that both the definition of “literary” and the discussion of its influence upon the operations of everyday life were crying out for a broader conceptualization and a dedicated, easily accessible space for further exploration and experimentation. At the heart of our endeavors is the assertion that literature and public ideas are inextricable. One need look no further than the proliferating controversies over the future of the humanities, or the use of literature as a diplomatic (and at worst, propagandistic) tool in conflicts past and present to observe evidence of the twin significance of literature and public ideas.

To answer the question of why devote an issue so pointedly to literature when our entire enterprise is fired by it: in some ways, it has always been a part of our plan to do so. In previous issues, we have pursued our editorial mandate thematically by delving into specific elements—from translation to education to urbanism—that amplify the scope of such twinship. Underpinning all our efforts, however, has been a more universal assertion of the power exercised by the exchange of meaning, the giving and receiving of language. As the presidential election approaches in the United States and debates over secularism and isolation rage abroad, the gaps between public language and individual interpretation seems to loom ever larger. As such, an all-literary issue—something we had previously slated as a “someday” project—has taken on a particular urgency; we’ve begun to think deeply about translation in new ways, not just among languages, but within one language. Engaging multiple interpretations within the confines of the written word—whether expressed in print, on screen, or in person—has always been a cornerstone of literary criticism. And, to give new language to a thing can change its public meaning and political status in ways that foster common ground.

Take motherhood as an example. In the 2016 election cycle, paid parental leave has become a national concern for major candidates from both sides of the aisle, and underpinned a grassroots campaign helmed by two mothers of opposite political philosophies brought together by unspeakable tragedy. At the same time, a burgeoning new literary canon of pregnancy and motherhood, including books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, has asserted a vibrant and rigorous position for childbirth and and queer parenthood in the humanistic tradition. These political and literary inroads are not unrelated. Or take the response to Gay Talese’s gaffe that he knew of no women writers of nonfiction who inspired him. Both examples testify to the fundamental reason that canon formation (and reformation) is a political act: any perceived lack of “true literary voices” reinforces a public voicelessness that too often accompanies (or worse, directly subsidizes) more pernicious kinds of disenfranchisement. Simply put, for good or for ill, literary language and political voice occupy overlapping spaces in our public consciousness.

Ideally, through literature, individual experiences and points of view build a public, democratic language that we can use to increase our understanding of and empathy for one another. In the last century, the late feminist poet Adrienne Rich used verse to argue in The Dream of a Common Language that we must redefine ideologies and definitions of power to create a common language. To borrow and improvise a bit upon her argument, one might say that what we’re living through today is the nightmare of the lack of a common language. Because we know that good literature can wake its readers and bring them to life, we invite the reader of this issue to ponder the how of literature—and its impact on that dream, however compromised it may seem in our present day. As Idra Novey, poet, translator, and author of the novel Ways to Disappear explains to Shamar Hill in her interview for this issue:

Reading is a kind of translation. You have to translate the words on a page into meaning in your mind. And good translators are continually thinking of what a reader will “translate” as the meaning of any given sentence. The art of translation is an art of conversation. You have to create and sustain a dialogue between a writer other than yourself and a reader who is not you.

Putting together this issue, we have also begun to consider the possibility that even the basic choice of genre and form is a rhetorical and often political one, even in the most personal of ways. Grace Bonner, whose bravura essay about her sister’s addiction and the prison industrial complex we featured in our issue on cultures of public health, reveals an entirely different window through which to consider those subjects in poems from her shortly forthcoming volume Round Lake. Kim Garcia’s drone poems likewise spotlight ways in which poetry can render the painful or unfamiliar in artistically arresting and politically powerful terms; her verse bridges what may seem like a wide gap in perspective between the drone eye and the poetic eye.

The possibilities literature opens up for public discourse is far from uncomplicated, as Alexia Nader spells out in her nonfiction piece for this issue on the tension between spinning a good narrative and addressing the violence of drug trafficking. “Stories don’t work the same way as policy prescriptions,” she writes.

This seems obvious enough and yet, for journalists committed to social change, navigating the contradictory worlds of narration and prescription often proves to be difficult. Among the many issues that pervade drug trafficking policy, violence seems paramount. Recognizing and showing that cartel leaders are human, like their victims, leaves some room to account for context and circumstance, but it must be complemented by an equally strong sense of human agency and accountability.

Our authors offer herein a new understanding of genre as a public space with its own questions, debates, and points of intersection. We present the finished issue with a renewed sense of urgency, affirming that literature—and a passionate re-engagement with the dream of a common language—is what our public discourse needs now.


In this issue


Kim Garcia, Four Poems
Grace Bonner, Sister Poems
Jennifer Givhan, Childloss and The Empathy Machine
Len Krisak, In Memory and Other Poems
Travis Wright, Exile and Other Poems
Rebecca Gould, 4 Poems by Titsian Tabidze in Translation


Susan Daitch, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir

Reviews and Essays 

Emily Tamkin on Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time
Alexia Nader on new narratives on Latin American drug cartels
Maria Kuznetsova, Teaching to Learn


The Unsung Heroes of Literature: Shamar Hill interviews Idra Novey



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