There’s a lot that gets read in a week and a lot more that gets lost sliding from one book to another, clicking from one screen to the next. But there are some works that just stick with you. You don’t know why. But they randomly buzz in and out of your thoughts, sometimes months after you’ve really looked at it. For me, one of these comes and goes in the sweet whispers of Algerian poet/writer, Mohommed Dib (1920-2003).
This summer, I ordered Tlemcen or Places of Writing from Otis Books. I had intended on writing a review this fall—but as things happen, it didn’t quite work out. This winter, I re-read it, and with the new blog coming together, I thought it deserved a few words. And maybe this will be the first of a series a micro-reviews on recent works, small presses, “little” buzzing books.
Tlemcen or Places of Writing
By Mohommed Dib
Translated by Guy Bennett
Otis Books / Seismicity Editions, 2012, 120 pages, $12.95, ISBN: 9780984528974
As readers, we are travelers. Or tourists. Our digital age of iphones and trending apps grants us access to sites once blocked off, to venues formerly closed, and offers new meetings, new activities, and new tools for readers (and writers). With just a few clicks of a button, text only available in one language can be almost immediately translated into dozens of new languages and dialects. And for a quick reference tool for tourists in a pinch, this is fine, but some things warrant, no, deserve, more time, more intimacy. (And, arguably, there is something different about the way we read poetry—something that is more touching.) No matter what school of thought the translator belongs to, to the reader, the translator is a tour guide who brings together vast groups of people together. Each brings his or her own sensibilities to the work during the process and, if successful, makes the material appeal beyond the shared interest and allure for the exotic, foreign, and strange. In Tlemcen or Places of Writing by Mohommed Dib, translator Guy Bennett helps dib transform a wandering tourist into a welcome guest. (Readers would also benefit from Bennett’s own recent collection from Otis Self-Evident Poems.)
Housed at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Otis Books / Seismicity Editions have produced a small, but diverse and aesthetically pleasing catalog, and in the case of Dib’s short, hybrid work, they have turned a sweet, pocket-book—worthy of the title of artifact—into a memento for readers. Originally published in French, the memoir/lyrical/travelogue/photography book is divided into short sections, in which Dib returns to moments from youth in his native Algeria and reflects on his lifetime dealing with the evolving, often frustrating nature of the writing process. It is a sometimes sad, yet familiar landscape as Dib himself becomes somewhat of a stranger, a tourist, in his home or at least in his memories of it. In one of the sections entitled “Pathways of Writing,” Dib compares his physical journeys into new countries with writing:
And the more, throughout my peregrinations, I would happen to encounter the Other, and the more I would find myself faced with what I am, a stranger, similar to the other yet different. And that at the end of the road without end, my identity as alterity would be revealed to me. (Dib 47)
He continues to explain how writing is a habit, a “never-ending apprenticeship” filled with disappointment, and, while he “took no pleasure in becoming a writer,” he can’t deny the “wonder-filled discovery” of developing a new project (56).
For Dib, part of this disappointment, may very well come from his new position as tourist. Dib isn’t an escapist, but his “view” of the landscape, of consciousness, and of the relationship between the two (23), creates this feeling of separation. As Geoff Dyer comments on his own travels, “You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view . . . This view is available to everyone—except the people who are employed to maintain it.”[i] This is only augmented by Dib’s photography—forty-four black-and-white images scattered throughout the work. Baudrillard notes that photos are not simply a traveling aid, they are themselves “‘a kind of traveling,’ of being elsewhere, a form of exoticism too.”[ii] This is how the occasional “treat” in accompanying his grandmother to the market and watching her (comically) haggle vendors, one of the most vivid images of the text, is described. He remembers remembering her as teen after she had passed away: “I could almost see her ghost flitting between the stands: a small, slender woman with delicate, water-blue eyes and sharp retorts, her haik hanging from the tip of a conical headdress, open to reveal her pretty face with its tender, roseate skin” (61).
With notable parallels to Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Dib concentrates on his childhood and the starting place of his writing (or perhaps better the space and time of his childhood as cultural sign): the courtyard of his childhood home—“the center of the house”—and the table used for meals, known as the meïda. Teased, talked about, but typically left alone, he remembers sitting like a scribe, blank pages in front of him, like the blankness of desert all around him that simultaneously builds and erases. As Dib reminds us: “Even if we forget it, or don’t know it, it’s there, not only on our doorstep but also within us, in the dark refuge . . . [And so our own setting, or the blank page that stares back at us, becomes] not only something we can write on. It is also something your destiny can appear to you on, write itself on” (79). By the end, the book shapes into a kind-of guidebook to the space that shaped the writer and the man; it illustrates “the grid” or “system of references,” as Dib refers to it, which constructs how he reads the world.