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August 17: Robert McCloskey, "One Morning in Maine"

Though I was born on Mount Desert Island in Maine, it’s been several millennia since it actually was a desert island. Wabenaki Indians had been living on the island for at least six thousand years by the time the French explorer Samuel de Champlain came through in 1604 and gave the island its present name. Even he wasn’t thinking of desert islands; instead, he was struck by the treeless granite summits of the taller mountains on the island, and accordingly named it the “Île des Monts Déserts” -- the island of bare mountains....

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August 14: Judith Schalansky, "Atlas of Remote Islands"

As we’ve seen this week, island-based writers have often drawn connections with islands elsewhere, imaginatively crossing vast differences of time and space. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (2009) goes so far as literally to draw an entire atlas of islands, each of them given a short description -- really, a prose poem -- on the facing page. Each entry is headed with a selective timeline and a set of distances to other far-away places, together with a thumbnail hemispheric sketch to show the island’s location. Schalansky meticulously drew each island to the same scale...

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August 13: Margaret Atwood, "The Penelopiad"

While James Joyce and Derek Walcott displaced The Odyssey to Dublin and to Saint Lucia, Margaret Atwood went back to Odysseus’s own Ithaca. Like Wide Sargasso Sea, the story is retold in two voices; Penelope’s sardonic, self-justifying account of her life on Ithaca is punctured by songs sung by “The Chorus Line.” These are the ghosts of the twelve serving maids whom Odysseus and Telemachus string together and hang at the climax of the epic after slaughtering Penelope’s unwelcome suitors, with whom the maids have been sleeping. Whereas Jean...

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August 12: Jean Rhys, "Wide Sargasso Sea"

 

While Joyce’s Ulysses provided Derek Walcott’s ultimate inspiration for the novelistic rewriting of a classic work, in Jean Rhys he had a model closer to home. His 1981 poem “Jean Rhys” is a rare tribute to a woman in his mostly male personal pantheon. There he meditates on a family photograph from her early days on the island of Dominica, two islands north of Saint Lucia, where she’d been born in 1890. In the image’s sepia tones, he sees the figures “all looking coloured / from the distance of a century,” with Rhys’s face appearing like “a feverish child’s /...

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August 11: James Joyce, "Ulysses"

Derek Walcott based the romantic conflict of Omeros on the Iliad, but he embodied the Odyssey in his Irish protagonists the Plunketts. Major Plunkett is “that khaki Ulysses,” while his wife, Penelope-like, spends years stitching an immense quilt. She embroiders it with images of birds, “making its blind birds sing” (here Walcott puns on Homer as the blind bard). In a melancholy reversal, Maud’s quilt doesn’t end up covering her father-in-law’s coffin but her own, as a ghostly projection of Walcott discovers. (“I was both there and not there, attending / the funeral...

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August 10: The Antilles: Derek Walcott, "Omeros"

This week we move to the "Antilles, fragments of epic memory,” as Derek Walcott titled his Nobel Prize lecture in 1992, and to islands beyond the Caribbean. Islands often produce a distinctive mode of writing, rooted in the writers’ sense of being at once isolated and insulated from the wider world – two terms that both derive from Latin insula. Particularly for writers such as Walcott, James Joyce, and Jean Rhys, who grew up on colonized islands, there can be a sense of the need to invent a language suited to their islands’ modest material circumstances, intense locality, and...

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August 7: Rosario Castellanos, "The Book of Lamentations"

A pioneer of women’s writing in Mexico, Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) was a prolific poet as well as a novelist, and she published the first feminist essays ever written in Mexico. Raised in Chiapas on the border of Guatemala, where the majority of the population are Maya, like Asturias she developed a deep and abiding interest in indigenous culture. From childhood she was intent on making a career as a writer -- a difficult, even improbable, endeavor in midcentury for a ladino woman of a modest background. Orphaned at age seventeen, she managed to complete university and then found...

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August 6: Miguel Ángel Asturias, "The President"

The living indigenous cultures of Mexico and Guatemala have had a major impact on the literature written by creole writers (those of European descent). In the case of Guatemala’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist, playwright, and diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias, the road to Mayan culture led through Paris. Born in Guatemala City in 1899, as a child he’d been fascinated by myths and legends told to him by his indigenous nanny, and as a high school student he drafted a story that became the germ of his breakthrough novel, El Señor Presidente. His father, a judge, had lost his job...

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August 5: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, "Selected Works"

In our Covid-dominated summer, we’re sensitized to epidemic themes, from the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the metaphors of infection in Tagore and Lu Xun. Sor Juana, though, is the first (and we’ll hope the only one) of our authors actually to die in an epidemic. The plague swept through Mexico in 1695, when she was probably 47 years old; she died after tending her sisters at her convent. By then, she’d had a literary career three decades long. Collections of her poetry had gone through multiple editions both there and in Spain, and soon after her death, a final...

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August 4: The Popol Vuh

Like the Aztecs, the Maya in southern Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, and what is now Guatemala had developed an elaborate hieroglyphic writing system, used for inscriptions and for thousands of books on treated deerskin or bark. In the years following the Conquest, the Spanish seized and burned almost every native book they could find, considering them as portraying demons. Only a handful survive today, such as this historical and astronomical codex now in Dresden.

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