Anna Steegmann

 

 

(Germany – USA)

 

 

 

Out of the Blue and into the Black

 

“Bubble coat. I want a bubble coat », John said.  “Will you get me one?”

John had never looked so terrible. His skin was dry and flaky; there were white spots on his mouth and throat, and rashes all over his arms. A mere shell of his former self, he had lost half of his weight in the past year.

“How are you?”I said.

“Knocking on heaven’s door,” he said.

I swallowed hard. John had lost most of his friends and former lovers to AIDS. He kept an instruction sheet entitled When I die in his desk drawer. He had made arrangements at Provenzano’s Funeral Parlor. At his memorial service I was to play Neil Young’s Hey hey, my my.

“What kind of bubble coat are you looking for?”I asked.

“The kind the black kids wear. You know. You work with teenagers.”

“Triple F.A.T. Goose,” I said.

“Black. Size Large.”

“Okay, I’ll pick one up at Dr. Jays after work tomorrow.”

Bubble coats were all the rage among the Harlem youth. They did not call them bubble coats,  puffy coats or, God forbid, down coats.  A puffy was a fat person that looked like a marshmallow, to be “down with it” was to be respected in the thug community.

John would never wear the coat outside. He had not been outside in months.  Bouts of diarrhea that lasted more than a week, fever, flue-like symptoms kept him chained to his bed. But he must have wanted to look cool and stylish one last time. To move with confidence and sophistication in the street one last time.

As I entered Dr. Jays a wave of panic washed over me. I was afraid to lose John. I was not prepared to live without him. I did not want to be shopping at Dr. Jays for a coat he would never wear. The cool vibe, the prideful, arrogant swagger of black teenagers could not be bought. John was white and middle class, the son of missionaries. But I was his friend and I had made a promise.

Stepping outside into the raw Harlem vibe of 125th St. with my huge Dr. Jays shopping bag,  black boys-gangster wannabes in their Triple F.A.T. coats all around me, I imagined John next to me strutting to the beat of Neil Young.

Out of the blue and into the black
You pay for this, but they give you that
And once you’re gone, you can’t come back
When you’re out of the blue and into the black.

 

I imagined him trying on the coat and admiring himself in the mirror. “How do I look?” He’d ask me.

 

“Awesome, swell, wicked,” I’d say. “Pure Manhattanville.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herr Genazino and I

 

“Choose a text to translate that will make you a better writer,” Prof. Unger advised us.

Translating Wilhelm Genazino, one of Germany’s most renowned writers, the author of twenty-nine books of which I had read twenty-seven, without a doubt would make me a better writer. I felt a special kinship to his melancholic characters, always on the brink of failure. His books prepared me for the hardships of the writer’s life. Wilhelm Genazino struggled to find recognition as a writer. Financial success eluded him for more than two decades. But since 1990, he had won every major literary award in the German-speaking world. His works had been translated into Greek, Slovenian, Latvian, Russian, French, Italian, and Lithuanian.

 

My dream of becoming a writer lay torpid in prolonged hibernation until I revived it to study Creative Writing. In 2006, in my last semester at City College, I signed up for translation class. I knew that literature in translation counted for less than 0.5% of the US market; still I made it my mission to introduce Wilhelm Genazino to the American public. I had never translated a literary text. My sole publishing credits were a poem written twenty-five years ago and two academic texts. No one would let me translate a book. Maybe I could translate an essay from Genazino’s collection Der gedehnte Blick?[i]

I e-mailed his publisher. A week later the Director of Foreign Rights gave me permission to translate his essays. Then I panicked at my audacity of wanting to translate a writer who had been compared to Kafka. I read Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator, cleaned off my desk and placed my thirty year old Langenscheidt’s New College German Dictionary next to my PC. I started with my favorite Genazino essay and typed the title. A Gift That Fails. On the Lack of Literary Success. The first lines were easy. Then I hit a roadblock. Kind (child) was neuter in German, but could I translate the sentence as “it was bored?” Should I make the child male or female? Could I decide on the child’s sex without knowing the author’s intentions?

I wrote the Director of Foreign Rights saying that I needed to consult with the author. She answered promptly. “Herr Genazino doesn’t have a fax or an e-mail account, but you may write to him.” I tried to picture Beethovenstraße in Frankfurt. Was it a sad, tired neighborhood so often described in his books, the place where underemployed flaneurs stroll to escape the insanity of everyday life? Or did Herr Genazino live in quiet affluent Westend? After winning Germany’s highest literary honor, the Georg-Büchner-Preis with its 40,000 Euro award, he should be able to afford a grand art nouveau apartment.

 

I wrote him how much I loved his books, how much they taught me about life. I told him that, after a long hiatus, I was giving writing another try and that I wrote in English now. Ten days later I received a reply. I stared at the envelope for a long time, the Luftpost sticker, the German castles on the stamps, the font type, and his address. One of Germany’s most renowned writers had written to me, a literary nobody. Herr Genazino was delighted by my letter; delighted that I wanted to translate his essays. I could make the child a boy. Most important, Herr Genazino wished me success.

… I like that you didn’t give up on writing. Do you know Beckett’s wonderful line       about not being able to go on, not being able to stop? I have been plowing through my Beckett collection for more than an hour now, but I cannot find the quote, at least not at this moment. Again, the ordinary demons of everyday life defeat the smallest moments of happiness.

 

P.S. Please note that my name is Genazino, not Genanzino.

 

I died 10,000 deaths and berated myself for having made such an unforgivable mistake. In my canon of Western Literature, next to Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett was the greatest writer of the last century. Did Genazino refer to Fail. Fail again. Fail better? I had taped that quote to my bookshelf three years ago when I started to study Creative Writing.

The more I read Genazino, the more I fell in love with his writing. I brought his letter to translation class. My classmates were in awe. A real letter from a famous writer, a typewritten letter. I caught the translation bug. Professor Unger had warned us that it might happen. I never worked so hard on any text as I did translating his essays. I had to ponder every word. Genazino makes up words not found in any dictionary. He uses obsolete words from Bach motets and the writings of Martin Luther. Back then Liebesblödigkeit meant love’s frailty, weakness of the flesh. If I substituted it with the modern Liebesblödheit would it be love’s bashfulness, imbecility, oafishness, or silliness?

Thinking of Herr Genazino, who waited more than twenty years for literary success, I was no longer afraid of literary failure, slush piles and competing with thousands of other aspiring writers. His letter was all the encouragement I needed. I submitted A Gift That Fails to Ingo Stoer, editor at Dimension 2. Two weeks later he accepted my translation for publication. I sent out a chapter of my memoir to a new literary journal. It was accepted. Well aware that a beginner should never submit her work to The New York Times I sent an essay to The New York Times. “This might work for us,” the editor responded.

I begged my friend Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief at New Directions to publish one of Genazino’s novels. She chose Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag and hired Philip Boehm as a translator. I was glad. Philip Boehm had done a marvelous job with Kafka’s Letters to Milena.

 

Wilhelm Genazino needed to know about my good luck. I sent him the essays I had translated. I told him I was going to be published in The New York Times. In his next letter he thanked me for sparking New Directions’ interest in Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag (An umbrella for this day). But he hated the American title “The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt”, ein Allerweltstitel, an unremarkable, garden-variety title.

 

I cannot judge your translations. My English is not sufficient… I trust the sound of   your language, the cadences in your voice, your choice of complicated words. I     admire that you were able to place an essay in the New York Times. I assume, it’s          difficult to get your foot in the door. I just finished a new novel….As usual when I           conclude a larger body of work, I feel as if there’s nothing left to write, a sort of           catastrophic scenario you might be familiar with too.

 

I was surprised that a writer of his caliber and talent experienced such anguish. Writing, I felt fortunate, at ease, as if everything was possible. A year ago I had left my work as a school counselor to have more time to write. None of this might have happened if I had not written a letter to Wilhelm Genazino.

 

 

 

Winter in Manhattan

 

I was sick of winter, sick of bubble coats, sick of wool hats and mittens. Sick of hot oatmeal for breakfast and, most of all, sick of life without sex.  I imagined Claire sprawled on a king-sized bed in a tacky pink motel in St. Petersburg Beach. I imagined her and her new fling banging their brains out.

If I want to get laid I have to be more like Claire, I said to myself as I passed the Ethiopian restaurant, devoid of customers at this time of the afternoon. Claire was fortynine like me, a fiery voluptuous Clairol redhead, not a washed out dirty blonde beanpole like me.

At the Manhattanville Post Office the familiar smell of stale air, bad body odor and cheap floor wax greeted me.  My glasses had steamed up and I couldn’t see a thing for a minute or two.  Then I made out five ridiculously long lines, most of them full of seniors. It was February 1. Seniors always flooded the post office at the beginning of each month. I cursed under my breath that I had not noticed the date.

The line for passports was short. Only three people were waiting. But I didn’t need a passport to go to Florida.  I needed chutzpah, the nerve to pick up a traveling companion. Ever since Claire told me about her trip to Florida, I had been assailed by fantasies of rolling around on a king-sized bed with an Antonio Banderas look-alike.

The clerks at the Manhattanville Post Office were famous for their rudeness. They rolled their eyes if you asked them for anything.  All of them were corpulent and didn’t like to get out of their seats. If I’d have to endure this place for at least half an hour, I might as well scrutinize the lines for possible candidates. Maybe I’d find my Antonio Banderas look-alike  here at the post office among the geriatric set. A retired schoolteacher, a sanitation worker, a corrections officer, anyone with a pension and enough jungle fever to entertain the idea of sex with a 49-year-old white beanpole, would do.

The man on my right had front gold teeth the size of gravestones. He smelled of cigarettes. The man on my left smelled of marijuana. An Asian man in a triple fat goose jacket was two heads shorter than me.  A young man with colossal gold chains around his neck jumped the line in his wheelchair infuriating an old lady.  A well-dressed man in a navy coat carried an enormous box. He weighed 200 pounds without the box. Having sex with him, I’d be crushed  to death.  “You are too critical, dearest,” Claire used to say. “You’ll end up alone in your old age. “

“Close your eyes, let him do his business while you memorize your shopping list for tomorrow,” Claire had told me. A strategy that worked for her. “You have to talk to people,” Claire said.  “Say anything, talk about the weather.”  One of my friends found her soul mate on the D train; another met her future spouse at the cheese counter of Fairways supermarket. The post office might hold just as much romantic potential.

I rehearsed my opening line while the people around me got agitated. The old lady threatened to “wax the ass” of the man in the wheelchair. Someone yelled for the supervisor. “Nasty weather, isn’t it?” I’d say in a fake British accent to make myself more desirable. “Yes, it’s miserable,” he would answer. “Makes you want to get on a plane and head out to Florida,” I’d say. “Oh Florida,“ he’d sigh. “Sun, sand and frozen margaritas.”  I’d stare deeply into his eyes. He wouldn’t be able to size up my body for it was safely buried under my huge lime green bubble coat. I’d keep my wool hat on so my hair wouldn’t be flattened like a pancake.  After fifteen minutes I settled on Mr. Wright. From the back he looked tall and slim. He wore a brown leather bomber jacket and jeans. His behind was well-formed.

“Nasty weather, isn’t it?” I said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anna Steegmann, a  bilingual writer and translator and a native of Germany, has lived in New York City since 1980.  Her English texts have been published in The New York Times, Promethean, Epiphany, sic, Dimension, 138 journal.com, The Wising Up Press, universaltable.org, Absinthe, guernicamag.com, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and ezratranslation.comHer German texts have appeared in Salbader, Rheinische Post, TextArt, Sächsische Zeitung,Trans-Lit2 and Taz. She has collaborated on the the screenplay “New York Memories », directed by Rosa von Praunheim and written the radio feature « A Letter from Harlem » for German Public Radio.  Her essay Mein Harlem was selected Notable Essay of 2007 for The Best American Essays 2008.

 

Anna lives in New York City and teaches Writing at The City College of New York .

 

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