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Editor’s Picks: Celebrating Women in Translation Month

Our Editor, Sanja Gligoric

In August 2020, we celebrated Women in Translation month with a myriad of literary reviews of novels written by remarkable women. This year we’d also like to remind you of the importance of both translating and reading works written by women in an international scope. The month of August has been regarded as Women in Translation Month since 2014, when the event was established by Meytal Radzinski with the idea of honoring women writers and translators from around the world while focusing on the importance of women in terms of shaping the international exchange of literature. To celebrate this wonderful event, we’re highlighting 10 brilliant women whose writing has shaped the international literary scene.

  • Tove Ditlevsen: Childhood, Youth, Dependency (the Serbian translation was published by Booka)

Ditlevsen’s work has been going through a revival for a while, with the English edition being re-issued, and the books being translated into various other languages including the recent Rados Kosovic’s wonderful translation into the Serbian language. Ditlevsen’s account of her growing up in Copenhagen is a stellar take on the form of autofiction, as well as a dissection of Danish society, a poetics similar to Annie Ernaux’s autosociobiographie, which will be discussed in more detail at the end of the list. Ditlevsen’s work is astonishing and is without doubt one of the best and most important books our editorial team has recommended so far.

  • Anna Seghers: Transit (the Serbian translation was published by Radni sto)

Seghers’s masterful work was written in German and is set in France after the country fell to Nazi Germany. It follows a 27-year-old unnamed narrator as he escapes the Nazi concentration camp and attempts to flee via Marseille. During his journey, the protagonist meets a myriad of characters and these conversations delve into the experiences of refugees drawing heavily on Seghers’s own experience in wartime France. This complex work minutely narrates the havoc characteristic of wartime and implies the vitality of storytelling in face of all obstacles. We also recommend you watch the 2018 film Transit based on the novel and directed by Christian Petzold.

  • Amalie Smith: Marble (the English translation was published by Lolli Editions)

Amalie Smith’s novel represents a remarkable  interplay of two strands of text, one following the protagonist Marble, who leaves her lover Daniel in Copenhagen and travels to Athens to trace a pivotal figure in Denmark’s art scene: the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, and the elaboration on her life and work constitutes the second strand. Carl-Nielsen traveled to Greece 110 years before our protagonist Marble embarks on the same journey, in order to work on reconstruction, and she showed that Archaic sculptures were not white, but were originally painted in bright colors, an act which helped shed a different light on whiteness of surfaces as actually being a construct, and not a fact, and thereby also defied gender roles as they were constituted in the Victorian era.

  • Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (the Serbian translation was published by Darma)

The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first novel, and makes for a very interesting piece of fiction. It was published in 1970, and we could claim that the author has already had a clear vision of her future path, for this novel introduces the readers with topics she was to explore all her life: blackness, standards of whiteness, internalized racism, and identity, just to name a few. The protagonist, Pecola, is depicted by Morrison as a female who fails to develop her own identity in the face of the oppressive society surrounding her confirming the viewpoint of many academics and critics who see in Morrison a writer of astounding grandeur who always strived to create characters who defy the standard orderings of a bildungsroman, for there is no linear growth or maturity to their character, which would be the result of undergoing a certain experience in life; instead, the characters get conquered by the sexist and racist mindsets that make their historic time period. The novel is indeed a pillar of African-American writing, which we highly recommend.

  • Nina Lykke: Natural Causes (the Serbian translation was published by Geopoetika)

Natural Causes was the winner of the Norwegian Book Award (The Brage Prize) and was termed the best book of 2019 by numerous Scandinavian literary magazines. It follows Elin, a doctor stuck in her office, where her patients march in day in day out with their ailments and little infirmities. The daily mundane gets turned upside down when her ex is back in the picture. Natural Causes is an exploration of the curse of self-knowledge and it dissects all the blessings of living in denial, if it can be considered as such. It also explores the multiple facets of Norwegian society and is a portrayal of attempting to find oneself when all else seems to fail.

  • Tove Jansson: The Summer Book (the Serbian translation was published by Odiseja)

Jansson’s novel recounts a summer which an elderly artist spends with her six-year old granddaughter on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. By learning to adjust to each other’s whims and yearnings for independence, the two develop a relationship as strong as the unpredictable seas which surround the island and its mossy rocks. This life-affirming story not only deals with family ties, but is also full of brusque humor and sharp wisdom which captures much of Tove Jansson’s own spirit. We wholeheartedly recommend this literary gem – a fresh, authentic and deeply humane summer classic.

  • On Being Ill (the English translation was published by Uitgeverij HetMoet)

Uitgeverij HetMoet’s outstanding collection titled On Being Ill was published in 2021 taking its name from Virginia Woolf’s essay from 1926. Apart from Woolf and Audre Lorde’s writings, the title includes works by Deryn Rees-Jones, Lieke Marsman, Lucia Osborne-Crowley, Mieke van Zonneveld, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Nadia de Vries, Jameisha Prescod and Sinead Gleeson.The anthology provides stellar insight into what suffering from an illness entails, as well as into what it means to be a writer with an illness, topics which both Woolf and Lorde discuss in their works included in the anthology. Not only does the collection tie past with current elaborations on illness, but it was also published in a time of a global health crisis. Finding ourselves caught up amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, we all came to realize how acutely tuned to one’s own inwardness we get once our health gets threatened from the outside. These authors discuss what having illness entails in the modern world and problematize the way society and health institutions deal with the matter at hand.

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  • Edna O’Brien: Lantern Slides (the Serbian translation was published by Strik)

This remarkable selection from Edna O’Brien’s literary work includes twelve stories that minutely dissect the experiences of women in Ireland. The collection opens with a story that at first glance depicts an idyllic rural scene in Ireland, until it becomes clear to the reader that a variety of claustrophobic events will take place, as is often the case in small communities. All protagonists fight within themselves, because they fail to identify with the expectations that are imposed on them. In an environment that is oriented towards the patriarchal collective and not towards the individual, the rules are initially set in such a way that nothing which differs from the normatively prescribed values is allowed, and anyone who deviates in any way from what’s expected is immediately condemned by the society. O’Brien masterfully examines the institutions that are crucial in Ireland: the family, the church and the state, and points out the dangers of a system that does not create space for the constellation of different experiences which are part and parcel of an individual’s consciousness.

  • Annie Ernaux: A Woman’s Story (the English translation was published by Seven Stores Press)

A Woman’s Story is without doubt one of Ernaux’s pivotal works. In it, the author tries to deal with the loss of her mother who died suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by writing extensively over a period of ten months about their mutual past. Ernaux analyses their relationship by placing her mother’s character in a sociological and historical context. Moreover, she deals with the topics of loss and grief in an unprecedented manner, which might be one of the work’s strongest facets. Ernaux’s poetics has been described as autosociobiographie, being somewhere between biography, literature, sociology, history and autofiction, which is also the case in this book.

  • Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (the Serbian translation was published by Kulturni centar Novog Sada)

The novel’s title takes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and is a remarkable feat of writing by the Nobel-prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. Her protagonist is the eccentric Janina – an aging astrologist who lived in a secluded Polish village and spends her time pontificating in capitalization and translating works by Blake. No wonder she thinks all the dead bodies that turn up around her are acts of revenge performed by animals on local hunters. But is she right? Anything I say would spoil the plot, so it’s on you to grab the book by the horns and see for yourself.

We invite you to join us in celebrating this event pivotal for the international literary scene.

Always celebrating #WomenInTranslation

Literary Travelogue: An Interview With Jelena Vukicevic (Visibaba)

Photo by Milos Petrovic

We open our upcoming series of literary interviews with our conversation with Jelena Vukicevic, a professor of literature and a former bookseller. Jelena holds a BA in world literature and literary theory, and an MA in cultural studies and is part and parcel of our local cultural scene. She lives in Belgrade and is a contributor to numerous local magazines, as well as the founder of Visibaba.

  • Why do you think that it’s important to study literature nowadays?

    Today, as maybe at any other time, it is important to study literature because by doing so you gain insight into so many new worlds, characters, ideas, what you could have imagined and everything you never dreamed you would be able to achieve because one book leads to another, inspires further research, provides us with knowledge, and it seems that there is no end, whether this might be to our joy or to our sorrow.

I’m not entirely sure what we all have in mind when enrolling in studying literarture, whether we want to stay in academia or get out of the box, but there is no doubt that you will gain a broad humanistic education, and in the words of my friend, poet and professor of medieval literature: it is above all else – general knowledge, and general knowledge is most often truth itself.

  • You used to work as a bookseller. What was your role in the bookstore, and what did you enjoy most about it?

On a daily basis, the role of a bookstore, to a certain extent, requires all the odd jobs that you, as customers, do not even see. I look forward mostly to the arrival of book packages, new titles, so I can rummage through them and enjoy myself. There is also the element of meeting people who come to visit, who want your recommendations. Occasionally, the conversation starts with them sharing their mood, or discussing their most recent reads. Such conversations are a gem, and I will be grateful for these (let us call them) exchanges for the rest of my life. You learn a lot about yourself, others, their reading or non-reading habits, patience and above all – of their love of books, because they themselves choose to be in the bookstore,to take the time to browse, and they end up either leaving with a book or just getting inspired by the titles they’ve come across.

  • What was the most unusual book that you sold while working there? 

    I always look forward to being able to sell a book that is close to my own reading sensibility. Firstly, this would mean poetry, theoretical philosophical titles. If I had to choose one book it would be the extensively researched edition published by the  publishing house Akademska knjiga based in Novi Sad, titled: Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the 16th Century to the Present (2016).
  • If you could work at any bookshop in the world, which one would it be? 

My first thought upon reading this question was – Iceland, because about ten years ago I applied for a similar job there, but ended up not going. I would definitely start from Iceland, across Russia, Greece, Italy; I could not single out one city, state or village. Teleport me anywhere! (laughter)

Iceland, I guess, because when I first read Borges’s verse (Nostalgia for the Present):

At that very instant:

Oh, what I would not give for the joy

of being at your side in Iceland

inside the great unmoving daytime

and of sharing this now

the way one shares music

or the taste of fruit.

At that very instant

the man was at her side in Iceland.

– it soaked into my pores for all eternity; I could imagine, touch that “unmoving” daytime, and the title also contains the word “nostalgia”, which has haunted me since childhood – because I tried unsuccessfully to find out from my parents what nostalgia was, and ultimately, this leads me to Svetlana Boym’s brilliant study, The Future of Nostalgia.

Photo by Dunja Djolovic

And yes, digressions, I love them, don’t blame me, but Iceland, and space, infinity, freedom, and the opportunity to experience people growing up in such landscapes, and the the art that they create, write or consume makes me think of a time when I toured Poland, the Czech Republic, and listened to one of Iceland’s much-loved bands, Sigur Rós. A complete out-of-body experience, the band and all of us, under the open sky… I feel that Iceland was the closest thing to my heart then.

And there is always that curiosity about discoveries and new knowledge, because the first fairy tales and picture books I read were from the then USSR, published by the Children’s Newspaper publishing house from Gornji Milanovac, containing The Little Sparrow by Maksim Gorky with illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin, and I remember that for days I would repeat that name, admire it, and also wonder how something could be drawn so beautifully. Or, Forest Floors by Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin, and its circulation of 10 thousand copies – I can’t even imagine that today! I fell hopelessly in love with Russia, which continued later with learning the language and fortunately I had wonderful teachers, both in primary and secondary school; birch trees, Siberia, the snow, poetry, the darkness, and again, as with Iceland, the expanses, melancholy, the effort, the will to live. And how can I not mention the land of Chekhov, beloved Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, I could go on for days…

Greece. I am currently watching the Durrells; because of The Alexandria Quartet, because of the sea, because of Catullus, Ovid, and again the sea, the sea, the sea. Just imagine a library in a Greek village, rocks, music, cheese, wine, and song, and at every point the eyes are filled with the sea – what more could you want than life itself! I will say the same for Italy, which I have been discovering little by little over the years. And this is how we can map the world, even arrive to the drawing of all the non-maps (laughter), as well as of the map of Jelena’s possible and impossible travels to be undertaken throughout her life.

  • If you could meet over coffee with any author, who would it be and why?

    Petar Kočić, my first love, whom I am grateful to – this will sound silly – but, after reading his story “Through the Storm“, I came home and told my parents that I wanted to study literature, immediately, if possible, in the 7th grade! And when I visited his hometown a couple of years ago, while travelling through the area, all that I had read became clearer. I was able to evoke all of the impressions from the first reading, because it was difficult for me to explain to little Jelena, what had made her so sad and upset, for it was only a story written on a piece of paper, in a book as if it was not real, but it somehow became the most realistic thing around you; the cow, the storm, the grandfather and the boy. Grandmother Rosa was my Petar Kočić, and vice versa. She spoke, and I read his works. And again, I was hundreds of miles away from nature, the river Ibar, the mountains and childhood plants, however, it seemed somehow that the expanses where he grew up were the same, or as if I had appropriated them over time. 

Perhaps, I envision us walking together, not talking, just sitting by the river when he was a boy, or approaching the end of life, and the days he spent in “The Doctor’s Tower”, in the street Kneza Miloša 103.

  • Did you ever think about organizing a Bookshop event and which author would be your dream guest?

    As I am currently obsessed with Anne Carson and her poetry, it would definitely be her. However, Ana Akhmatova as well; as key segment of this answer and of this day. I dream of meeting certain contemporaries, so, may these encounters happen.
  • You run a wonderful project which combines the written and the visual. How did you come up with the idea for that?

    The wish to start such a project, the literary and photo editorial “Visibaba” (Snowdrop), happened in high school when I first read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. I was fascinated before reading and choosing both the subtitle and the title; and I thought that one day I would like to “create” photographs based on all the subtitles, the title, and everything I had read, experienced, learned, became aware of, and all the inspirations that were born from reading. I still keep those bullet points: in the form of notes. As we are of limited time and seeing, curiosity and the passion for new knowledge and interpretations were able to confuse me quite thoroughly,whereas studies of literature were a logical consequence. In the case of photography, as well as of my other loves: anthropology, religious studies, biology, film and theatre directing, I would make up along the way for not opting to make them a part of my vocation , I promised myself.

Photo by Dunja Djolovic
  • You read various genres – do you have a favourite?

    Let me say, poetry! It is what brings me most joy. Discovering new poetic voices, going back to the ones I discovered as a girl… What I have read has only really sorted itself and become discernible now, but there is always room for new meanings, communiques, cracks and turns.
  • If you were to edit an anthology, what would be the idea behind the collection?

    I also like poems about travel, so something along these lines, an imagology-based and travel-based poetry anthology.
  • And our final question for this feature – do you agree with the idea proposed by many authors who claim that the process of reading can enhance empathy?

Definitely! Just open Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet!

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it – but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.

As part of the interview, we’ve also asked Jelena Vukicevic to choose books she considers worthy of praise, which have not been in the public eye. She wholeheartedly recommends the following eight titles:

  1. Nox by Anne Carson

Anne Carson, as inexplicable as always, she is the genius who’s able to make poetry out of anything. What I really admire about her is that she does not perceive a book merely as a text, but as an artefact. Nox is my favourite. She wrote a sort of a mourning account dedicated to her brother in a notebook, while translating and interpreting Catullus’s elegy for his own brother. This notebook was then reproduced in utmost detail, including all of the tea stains. Nox is the Latin word for night; however, it also makes us think of box. And, each of her books is completely different from the previous one.

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Barns’s book is a story in which he plays a postmodernist game with interpretations of world history in his own retelling. For instance, in the first story, he offers his own account of Noah’s ark from the viewpoint of a woodworm in the ark’s board. Hilarious.

  • The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas

This is a story about Freud, his patient Anna, the massacre of the Jews in Babji Yar, is very fluid genre-wise, and is, nevertheless, ingenious.

  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

A story about “Visceral Realists”, poets in Mexico City, who embark on a mad search for their poetic muse, role model, etc. ; but that is completely irrelevant, the book is a 100 miles per hour ride from the first to the last page, introducing countless characters…

  • The Erl-King by Michel Tournier

Tournier is a great love of mine, and The Earl-King is a story about Abel Tiffauges, an ogre who protected children in a Nazi castle, a Nayi boarding-school, and it is filled with repetitive motifs, versions of myths – a true gem.

  • Sonnenschein by Daša Drndič

Daša Drndić is Daša, impossible to re-tell, the voice of pointed documentary reporting on every type of crime, seemingly asexual, but essentially her writing is uncompromising for women. Sonnenschein deals with the abduction of children from their parents in World War II in the area around Gorizia and Trieste, alongside numerous other stories about similar atrocities. It is a blend of Kiš, Bernhard and Zebald all in one.

  • Doba mjedi by Slobodan Šnajder

Šnajder’s novel is one of the best books from the former Yugoslavia that has been published in the last twenty years or so. It is a story about his father, a Volksdeutscher who was recruited from Slavonia to SS units in Poland – Picaresque, Schweik-like, and about his mother who was in the partisans. Emphasis is placed more on the father, but there is no unwelcome sentence in the book concerning the other party.

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Zebald, Austerlitz, a personal favourite, nothing and everything happens to him. He uses photographs, documents, essays, stories about seemingly ordinary things, and beneath everything, there lies something monstrous, the Holocaust, a German’s confrontation with the guilt of his forefathers; The book is pure genius.

Special Feature: Review of ON BEING ILL (Uitgeverij HetMoet)

Uitgeverij HetMoet’s outstanding collection titled On Being Ill was published in 2021 taking its name from Virginia Woolf’s essay from 1926. Apart from Woolf and Audre Lorde’s writings, the anthology includes works by Deryn Rees-Jones, Lieke Marsman, Lucia Osborne-Crowley, Mieke van Zonneveld, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Nadia de Vries, Jameisha Prescod and Sinead Gleeson. The texts which were written in Dutch were wonderfully translated into the English language by Sophie Collins.

While reading Dubravka Ugresic’s newest publication issued by MoMa Zagreb containing a brief preface to an interview conducted with the author in which she discusses one for her most famous female characters, Stefica Cvek, Ugresic mentions the idea of writing a patchwork novel employing the bodies of different genres and forms of writing, which made me think of the temporal aspect of this collection whose strength, I dare say, lies precisely in the success of combining two pivotal writings concerning illness: Woolf’s mentioned essay (with which it opens), and the introduction to Audre Lorde’s cancer journals (which ends the anthology) with contemporary writers’ outlooks on illness and its politics. For those who’ve pondered over the writings found in this collection long after finishing it, like I have, I’d also like to recommend Susan Sontag’s writings in which she elaborates on these matters, as well as Anne Boyer’s The Undying, as two additional non-fiction pinnacles of dissecting illness and its manifold societal facets.

It truly comes as no surprise that the publisher Elte Rauch opted to include these particular texts written by contemporary authors, for they provide stellar insight into what suffering from an illness entails, as well as into what it means to be a writer with an illness, topics which both Woolf and Lorde discuss in their works included in the anthology. Not only does the collection tie past with current elaborations on illness, but it was also published in a time of a global health crisis. Finding ourselves caught up amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, we all came to realize how acutely tuned to one’s own inwardness we get once our health gets threatened from the outside. These authors discuss what having illness entails in the modern world and problematize the way society and health institutions and healthcare centers like NORMUK have dealt with the matter at hand, which we, too, have come to witness during the Covid pandemic. Our attention gets also brought up to the ways in which skin colour can influence the way hospitals and healthcare workers deal with patients, a matter worthy of being given more space in contemporary narratives.

I also loved the inclusion of Silvia Plath’s “The Tulips” in the preface, where Deryn Rees-Jones discusses how flowers become a complex metaphor symbolizing Plath’s body (it being one of the many symbols), for it made me think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, an analogy I simply cannot evade mentioning, because Gilman also employs the use of an object (the wallpaper on the wall) to problematize the protagonist’s illness and the way society deals with it.

It becomes obvious that the collection brings up a myriad of issues, which yet again affirms my somewhat postmodern viewpoint, that there are no final resolutions or answers to be found, and that by discussing and elaborating on matters which should be more publicized and explained, we are at least getting one step closer towards achieving a better understanding of all that’s occurring in our immediate environment, particularly if it has not happened to us directly. Suffering from no chronic illness, I could not say that these facets were familiar to me, but I’ve had a great opportunity to place myself in someone else’s shoes, which, if you may remember Harper Lee’s wise words from To Kill a Mockingbird, might be the only way to get truly acquainted with any matter.

Copyrights pertain to https://www.uitgeverijhetmoet.nl/

On Being Ill is Anglozine’s pick for the best publication of 2021 – let us know what you think.

Published in 2021 by Uitgeverij HetMoet

Book design by Armee de Verre Bookdesign, Ghent, Belgium

Printed in the Netherlands by Patria, Amersfoort

Amsterdam, www.uitgeverijhetmoet.nl

Rediscovering Freedom with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Effia and Esi have never met. Their stories begin in the mid-18th century Ghana, when the British slave trade starts to flourish in the country. One of the two half-sisters marries a British officer and moves to Cape Coast Castle, a British slave fort where much of the colonial history of the country is to be written. The other is brought to the fort as a captive before she is dispatched to the U.S. to work on a planation.

This is how Yaa Gyasi, a Ghana-born American novelist, opens her sequence of stories of slavery, self-discovery, freedom, and family.  Her 2016 debut novel Homegoing follows the lineages of Esi and Effia across centuries, countries, and continents.

In parallel, we rediscover the history of slavery and meanings of freedom on both sides of the Atlantic.

We learn about the struggles between Fante and Asante in the central coastal region of Ghana, as well as their joint fight against British and Dutch colonizers. On the other side of the world, the stories set in the U.S. uncover a long journey to freedom and social justice that Esi’s descendants are bound to undergo. Each chapter is a story of a new generation, giving us a realistic perspective on unique human experiences in the constantly changing society.

Through masterfully depicted historic settings, Gyasi’s stories also give us an insight into the evolution of human cultures and the ways in which rigid social norms often stand in contrast with an individual’s wants and needs.

Despite being born free, Effia’s descendants often face prejudice, poverty, and mistreatment in their own homes and villages. Some of them are figuratively imprisoned just as their cousins across the Atlantic are literally enslaved, jailed or otherwise confined in their surroundings. Esi’s descendants are being tortured, shot, and killed in new ways with every generation. Their stories are of continuous search for freedom and rediscovery of values they feel are innately human.

Regardless of the different surroundings and circumstances, both Effia’s and Esi’s descendants are constantly struggling to adapt to or break free from imposed social norms, family expectations, and the changing worlds. These extraordinary characters remind us of the reality of human struggle and historical injustice, while also showing us how this doesn’t have to result in tragedy.

Instead, most stories are about the journey to freedom which starts with determination. A character named H has saved a total of $5 in ten years of working at a plantation. As soon as he is released after the Civil War, he is thrown into jail for alleged staring at a white woman. Unable to pay a $10 fine, he is rented to work in a mine for additional 10 years shoveling 10 tons of coal a day.

The son of a Fante Big Man and an Asante Princess, James Collins decides to run away from the wife who was chosen for him in his childhood. He starts a new life with a poor girl he only meets once and moves with her far away from his family only to bring wretchedness to the village he settles in.  

Through the total of 14 chapters, Gyasi paints a kaleidoscope of human destinies, evoking a prism of emotions that help us understand the history of Ghana and Ghana-born Americans. Through their struggles and achievements, we rediscover the meaning of freedom, humanity, and happiness. The world that was once our own is reconstructed before our eyes to offer us a new view of the concepts that we often take for granted today and this is what makes Gyasi’s book so strikingly memorable.  

Photo taken from: https://vilcek.org/news/yaa-gyasi-history-is-an-ongoing-story/

Culture Is not Cancelled II : Creatives Share Their Inspiration

The year 2020 left us with a feeling of unease and uncertainty, which has persisted in 2021, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the globe. In a similar vein as our project from August 2020, we’ve gathered four female creatives, who are remarkable forces in their respective fields of work. By sharing with you certain formative aspects of their creativity, as well as discussing people whose work has inspired theirs, we hope to underline the idea that culture is not cancelled, even in difficult times, and help you find inspiration, too.

The second installment in our project titled Culture Is not Cancelled: Creatives Share Their Inspiration brings together Munich, Ohrid, Belgrade and Paris, as Jovana Banović, Radmila Vankoska, Iva Parađanin and Sonja Bajić share parts of their mesmerising creative lives.

Aloha, aloha everyone. I’m Jovana Banović, currently living and working in Munich. I graduated f rom the University o f Belgrade, the department of Archaeology. During the end of my studies, my interests broadened to include my professional point of view broadened to include design and photography. Since then I’ve been creating my own narratives of nature by using plants, and working on herbariums, cyanotypes and analog photography. I’m currently taking part in several projects, designing a new edition for spora and helping people with special needs.

During the past year most of the things and events have been “in the waiting line”, which made us attempt to find a different approach and learn anew how to still be able  to create something from it all.  For me personally, things haven’t changed so much, except that I haven’t been able to see my friends from abroad for a long time. As I am a dreamer my “escapes” are taking place on a daily basis, especially in situations like this where “relocations” are now mostly happening in our thoughts – traveling without moving. In the next few paragraphs I will reveal my secret to you regarding how it’s possible to escape in the worlds that can provide you with so many different levels of consciousness and subconsciousness, which can help you learn more about yourself. All five authors have one string in common that connects them and that  is that they create their own micro worlds for all of us to enjoy. Hopefully at the end some of  you will experience the feeling I felt for the first time when I discovered them.

Moebius (Jean Henri Gaston Giraud)

The story of Moebius (Jean Henri Gaston Giraud) is the story of the enquiries of a man for whom creating comics was not only a job, but the form also represented the intellection of the world, an instrumentality of finding oneself and one’s place in the universe. He identified the manifesto of his work through the use of a pseudonym, which he borrowed from a famous German mathematician. When I saw his work for the first time, something inside of me told me that this is something that I will admire throughout my whole life. And after so many years I still feel the same way about it. Carefully observing the worlds that he shaped during his life journey, you can see clearly that he was someone who absorbed and learned, but who was also a child playing an unusual and unknown game with wonder and curiosity. Being hypnotized by these weightless worlds full of details and strong colours, it’s hard not to wish to  be able to levitate, teleport, or live there for just a few seconds.

Mœbius Cristal Majeur Dessin préliminaire…, 1984

Anna Atkins

Her birthday was a few weeks ago, on March 16. She is someone who truly inspired me when I started learning more about ocean algae and cyanotype technique. Her name is Anna Atkins, the eminent English botanist and the very first female photographer, mostly noted for using photography in her books on various plants . While discovering more about her work during my research a few years ago I immediately wished to make my own one versions. My fascination grew as I got to learn how much effort she put to collect, preserve plants a n d  arrange  her specimens in imaginative and elegant compositions. The power of blue colour variations in her cyanotypes is mind-blowing, and resembles the way the sea changes its shades of blue. Her British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was one of the first publications which made use of light-sensitive materials to illustrate a book.

Anna Atkins – British Algae Cyanotype Impressions 1, 1843-1854, Courtesy of the Spencer Collection and The New York Public Library

Hayao Miyazaki

The creator of many mesmerising anime movies and manga, Hayao Miyazaki, is one of my never-ending sources of inspiration. He puts focus on recurring themes such as the conflict between human progress and natural order and the persistence of the spiritual world in the face of the mundane. Worlds with landscapes that he creates are truly amazing, from the grass, forests and hills of the Valley of the Wind to the sandy dunes of the deserts to the (although poisonous) nature wonderland of the Toxic Jungle displaying a charming amount of detail. All creatures are very strong characters, and my heroine, Nausicaa,  is extremely admirable. Along with everything else, music also plays an important role and it enhances the experience of each film separately. All things considered, every story is a timeless one, every bit as relevant today as it was 37 years ago.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [1984]

Jorge Luis Borges

Reading the books of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like discovering a new universe called the Library. Borges sends us on journeys into mesmerising, bizarre and profoundly resonant realm. While reading his works we enter into the forking path of his seemingly infinite imagination, the surreal and literal labyrinth of books. Ficciones and The Book of Imaginary Beings are my an inexhaustible source of exploration. He tell us that nothing is new, that creation is recreation, that we are all one contradictory mind, connected with each other through time and space, that human beings are not only fiction makers but are fictions themselves.

Ferdinando Scianna, J. L. Borges. Palermo, Archeological Museum [1982]

Stan Brakhage

The remarkably interesting non-narrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage caught my attention while I was searching for inspiration concerning working with film negatives for my herbarium project. With his work ”Mothlight” he opened new portals and perceptions regarding the way of seeing things. Brakhage’s great project was to explore the nature of light and all forms of vision while encompassing a vast range of subject matter. “Visual music” or “moving visual thinking” are terms frequently referred to in his works. His films are often intentionally silent, chaotic canvases of colour which move in a frame that simulates “closed-eyed seeing” and transformation not just of a vision but of the world itself.

Film strips from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, [1963] Courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper

My name is Radmila Vankoska, and I was born and raised by Lake Ohrid; as the years go by I think that is one of the most important facts about me. Although I have been living and working in Belgrade for seven years, I regularly  return to my hometown every spring. I am a photographer and video artist, so this year the Lake and the art itself gave me a shelter and chance for creative introspection. For a whole year I’ve been recording video diaries, trying to understand the chaos that is happening around us, but also the beautiful things that we often forget during difficult times. As for photography, due to the pandemic I do not have that physical freedom, as I had before, to work with other people, but I poured my creative energy into reconstructing old family photographs, and simply looking for meaning in photographing ordinary life, while understanding how close we actually are to extinction. Both as individuals and as a species.

So through these five photographers I will try to explain why I do photography and how it gives my life a meaning.

Vivian Maier

Although her work falls into the sphere of documentary photography and fantastically conveys the life in Chicago, New York, LA, etc., I am obsessed with her self-portraits, especially those with only her shadow present, perfectly glued to other people’s bodies or urban surfaces. She had been documenting life for years without funds to develop those films and without knowing that one day someone will find those negatives and the world will agree that her work is one of the most beautiful photographic archives of the last century.

Often when those terrible creative blockages happen, and the questions like – what is the point, why am I doing this? – are painfully loud, I think of her and I believe that the essence of photography lies in the work of Vivian Mayer. We often feel too small in this world that’s way too big, and we strongly feel the need to leave some evidence of our existence. As photographers, it is not enough for us to be just spectators, it is such a lonely place to be. We need to be part of this world, no matter how big and scary.

Duane Michals

Duane is a poet among photographers. I’m pointing him out as a great inspiration for two reasons – his photo sequences and his amazing approach to photographing contemporary artists of his time. This man has expanded the photographic medium by giving it context through written notes and has enriched it with a specific narrative through the use of those photographic sequences.

Personally, through his work, I stopped looking at photography as a medium that should only document reality. It was his sequences, which look like movie images, that helped me develop a tool for documenting dreams or interpret reality metaphorically like literature can do.

His portrait photography is very specific with the way he photographed his fellow artists. With just one portrait he shows us not only the character of the artist, but also the essence of his work. As an example, I will single out this portrait of Rene Magritte.

Nan Goldin

I consider her to be one of the most interesting representatives of this medium and when we talk about a photo diary, for me she is the most important artist. Studying her practice, I realized how important it is to photograph what you know and that photography does not have to be beautiful to be important. Goldin has documented the difficult but colorful period from the end of the last century. By photographing herself and her friends, she has shown the world what life really looks like for people on the margins, how the HIV virus plagues the LGBT community, what the body of a woman who suffers physical violence looks like, and she has shown us not only the life of the people she lives with, but also their deaths.

Her photographs are neither staged nor completely documentary – they are everyday moments, snapshots, images that no journalist, observer or spectator can make. They can be photographed only by someone who lives them, someone who is part of that community, someone who sincerely loves it and understands it.

Sven Nykvist

I have to mention him, because although he was not a photographer, but a cinematographer (one of the greatest actually), his aesthetics is so important in the domain of portrait photography. Although he collaborated with many big names, he is best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman, and the way he shot the close-ups of the movie Persona is a kind of revolution in the film world. After all, it seems to me that through that picture I learned how to look at the human face and how to search for the hidden in its expressions.

Whenever I do portrait photography, the faces of Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson and the way the light reveals their shapes comes to mind – very soft and brutal at the same time. I hope that one day I will manage to master the field of portrait photography with such ease as he himself did.

Goranka Matić

Last but not least, I think of her work as being one of the most inspiring for me when it comes to what I want to build for myself, and I try to do it, at least thematically. Her entire work is one of the richest contemporary photographic archives in the Balkans. I was lucky enough to have her as a college lecturer and I have always adored her energy but years later I realized how important her practice is to what I want to achieve as a photographer.

I experience her photographs as a wonderful documentation of a time filled with great political upheavals, but even more, a time that springs with rich artistic culture. I myself, photographing the authors and artists of my generation, can only hope that one day I will achieve to create something as important as her work is.

My name is Iva Parađanin and I am currently working as the editor of the Elle Active section within Elle magazine. I am the author of the Tampon Zone podcast, which deals with topics that women are essentially interested in and I try to give voice to women whose stories and experiences are important and are not heard loud enough. During my career, I have also made several documentaries, one of which is the film Unwanted Daughters of Montenegro dealing with the topic of selective abortions, and it has remained to be very noticed and has been shown at several festivals. I am a journalist and a feminist and I believe that the media can be a very powerful tool in the fight for gender equality, and my work is mostly based on that. We live in a digital age when you don’t have to work for the media to tell your story, so one of my missions is to encourage women to speak up and share their experiences.

These days, I’m torn between identities and I try to be good at each of them: as a journalist, as a mom, and as my ordinary self. Living in such circumstances is a real challenge and it has made me think a little deeper about my burden of unpaid housework, which in Serbia mostly falls on women who work three shifts a day. However, if I can say that anything good happened during this pandemic, it is the wave of speech we are witnessing: against sexual violence in the first place. I hope this is just the beginning because I believe that many stories have yet to be told and many women to be liberated.

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Wolf

The entire opus of this writer greatly influenced the fact that today I can read predominantly only female authors. She devoted much of her life to considering the position of women in Victorian society. In her novels, women are members of the middle and upper social strata, who, although living in harmonious relationships / marriage, are actually deeply unfulfilled and lonely because they have been assigned a social role.

However, her feminist essays are something special. Even today, A Room of One’s Own is one of the key works for understanding the discrimination against women in literature that is still present, especially in this area. Its sentences are timeless like some kind of manifesto and that is why I often quote them myself.

Hannah Arendt –The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt is a philosopher mostly known for her thesis on the “banality of evil”, which she prepared in 1963 in the work “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. She expressed the thesis that the great evils of the history of mankind were not committed by fanatics and sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the interpretation of the state, and that the actions in which they participate are normal. In this paper, she writes that totalitarian movements are those that go beyond propaganda and practice violence, quite relevant today, isn’t it?

Periods Gone Public – Jeniffer Weiss Wolf

Women’s reproductive health and their rights in this area are something I will always fight for and talk about. Unfortunately, the stigma around menstruation is still present and woven into society, and it is very important to explain in layers what it all means. The author of this book very clearly and sharply explains why menstruation is a political issue, explaining every layer of this problem from “tampon tax” to menstrual poverty. At the same time, through personal consciousness, she interprets certain phenomena from her environment alongside discussing the movement for menstrual justice, which is becoming more numerous and louder.

Someone Said Feminism (Neko je rekao feminizam) – Adriana Zaharijević

The monograph Someone said feminism? How feminism influenced women in the 21st century consists of texts by 26 female authors, who were young at the time. Quite by accident, it found me on one occasion while I was preparing for an exam at the Faculty of Philosophy and probably significantly influenced my later orientation within the media towards women’s rights topics. The texts deal with rights and freedoms (voice, work, education, divorce and abortion), the intersection of personal and political (marriage and family, religion, women’s health, prostitution), identities and differences (lesbians, Gypsy women, the issue of race and gender), representation of women (language, media and popular culture), art (literature, theatre and visual arts), theory and activism (peace policy, globalization of feminism, anthropology and psychology), and historical intersections (private/public, intersection through the history of feminism).

Rumena Bužarovska, Lana Bastašić, Ana Vučković, Radmila Petrović

And finally, I can’t help but mention the fiction that is my infusion both during the pandemic and under normal conditions. I can’t decide on one title, but I have to mention a whole wave of new and young female authors from the region, thanks to whom we can read great novels, short stories and cutting poetry today. Authors such as Rumena Bužarovska, Lana Bastašić, Ana Vučković, and Radmila Petrović have conquered the literary scene, and I am infinitely grateful to them for every letter, thanks to which we can learn about authentic women’s experiences from the proper, uncensored angle. Raw, sharp, angry and strong, just like women are.

Hello and bonjour! I am Sonja Bajić – an illustrator, artist and a mapmaker. I like to call myself, as well, a visual storyteller as that’s how I pass a lot of my time – I see and hear things around me and then I capture them on paper. I live in Paris and I have been on the Eiffel tower over 800 times. In the last three years, three of my books came out – I authored one of them and co-authored the other two. What My Girlfriends Told Me came out in London in 2018, Kakva ženska came in Belgrade the same year and Vežbanka za strah came out in 2019. I had big plans for 2020 but things happened, ya know, so I had to move them for this year. I am hoping another two books will come out this year. I am very excited about those. I also draw for magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Paula of Chile, Albert….and I make a lot of personalized maps. Maps are my big passion and I often think about how we walk on a map each day! Creation is the way I live, so I also embroider and make things out of different materials like clay or porcelain. My art is connected through themes of femininity, enchanting colors as well as the sense of serendipity. Besides showing new and old worlds, art should promote equality and love and I am proud to have participated in projects that support underrepresented minority groups and people in need as well as cancer fighting campaigns. I love people and the opportunities to share my experience – I educate adults and kids through regular school programs and personal workshops.

This last year has been awkward and intense and I did a lot of soul searching. I love to work and sometimes I push too far but that has proven out to be good in this current pandemic situation as it keeps my mind away from the insanity around us. Most of the time, I work from home anyway but I miss doing live workshops (now I do them online). I also miss small talks that do not contain words like virus, vaccine or hospital. But this will pass, we just need to find inspiration in local places and people. When impossible, these are some of the people I go back to over and over again:

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman is my go-to person for life inspiration. She is an illustrator from New York and somebody who manages to explain how life is both good and bad at the same time and how we need to search for the beauty in it all. I like how serious yet light her interviews are – I love listening to and watching them. I am a passionate collector of her books, too. Everytime I start or finish a big project I buy one of them. I feel like while reading and just looking at them I get the opportunity to visit New York again and again. I get the same feeling when I look at her painted illustrations. She tells complicated life stories in a very simple way. She and her son opened the tiniest museum in an elevator hole called Mmuseum with a bunch of things that belonged to her mum.

Illustrated by Sonja Bajić for the purposes of this project, 2021

David Hockney

There is a book on David Hockney I bought in Pompidou Center years ago. It was just after his exhibition, which I got to see there three times. It’s the only exhibition ever that I saw 3 times. The book is called “A Bigger Message” and as soon as I noticed the title, I bought it. I mean, I always search for big messages. In my opinion, David Hockney is the greatest living artist and the way he does EVERYTHING is pretty magical. I’ve started reading that book at least 15 times so far. It’s so inspiring that when I reach the middle of a chapter, I stop and feel the urge to create. His paintings are full of happiness – in all the ways it comes.

Illustrated by Sonja Bajić for the purposes of this project, 2021

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is not an artist but the way he does journalism is pretty artistic! Everything he writes about he has experienced himself – be it housebuilding, gardening or yes, psychedelics. I like public figures who inspire me to experience my life further and with more open eyes and who make me read more about a certain topic. That’s what he does. At the moment, since it’s spring and I love city gardening (read: planting plants on balconies and inside of the apartment) I am reading his book Second Nature. He inspires me too look at plants and think about them in deeper ways and paint them the way I really see them.

Illustrated by Sonja Bajić for the purposes of this project, 2021

Lisa Congdon

Lisa is awe-inspiring! The way she creates her art, the way she lives her life and the way she generously shares all her ups and downs makes me feel less lonely. I like quotes and she paints them often and I really like the fact that she celebrates all our beautiful differences through her art. I love listening to her interviews as well.

Illustrated by Sonja Bajić for the purposes of this project, 2021

Oliver Jeffers

There is something about Oliver Jeffers’ art that always – and for years and years – makes me stop scrolling down the rabbit hole and just stare for a moment at the immense beauty I found on my screen (on Oliver Jeffers’ profile). Be it a painting dipped in sun-yellow paint, be it a globe (and I love globes), be it a kids illustration, be it a map…He not only captures my attention every time but I also like the number of techniques he works in and the freedom when it comes to searching for the next inspiration that I allow myself to see in his work.

Illustrated by Sonja Bajić for the purposes of this project, 2021

Review: Amalie Smith’s MARBLE

Amalie Smith photographed by David Stjernholm

Amalie Smith is a Danish visual artist and writer, who has received numerous accolades in both fields of her work. Her novel Marble came out in Denmark in 2014 and was translated into the English language by Jennifer Russell and published by Lolli Editions in November 2020.

The novel represents a remarkable  interplay of two strands of text, one following the protagonist Marble, who leaves her lover Daniel in Copenhagen and travels to Athens to trace a pivotal figure in Denmark’s art scene: the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, and the elaboration on her life and work constitutes the second strand. Carl-Nielsen travelled to Greece 110 years before our protagonist Marble embarks on the same journey, in order to work on reconstruction, and she showed that Archaic sculptures were not white, but were originally painted in bright colours, an act which helped shed a different light on whiteness of surfaces as actually being a construct, and not a fact, and thereby also defied gender roles as they were constituted in the Victorian era. It is precisely the investigation of Anne Marie’s life and work which makes for the second text, which is braided with the first into “a network”, as Smith has described her mesmerizing novel. By focusing on the output of her art-historical research, as well as on the correspondence between Anne Marie, and her husband Carl Nielsen, an eminent Danish composer, Smith attempts to bring into life a pivotal female figure who paved the way for women artists by being the first woman in the world both to undertake an equestrian statue of a king and the bronze doors for a cathedral. She also helped establish the Danish Women’s Art Association and was an advocate for the admission of women to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, as is pointed out in an insightful interview with Amalie Smith, which is available on Lolli’s website.

Besides blending two narrative strands, one fictive, and the other focused on a real-life figure, the book itself is also a stunning investigation into the bending of form and structure, evading binarisms of any kind, and moving away from dichotomies, what Smith also does with the story of marble, for she rewrites it by pointing out that a split between body and idea exists; when we look at a structure or monument made out of marble, what we see is the idea, and not the material, marble becomes a surface-less and flawless shape, and it is precisely the split between the physical and the metaphysical, which represents a construction, that she attempts to deconstruct.

Not only does the text constitute a novel of an unusual form, but it also has a wonderful quality of gliding as during a sea voyage, with stunning phrasings gleaming like water bathed in sunlight. Both lovers of art history and practice of art will be at home while reading Marble, a novel adorned with data stemming from in-depth research into Carl-Nielsen’s life and work, as well as due to the fact that it sheds light on many other sides which have been part and parcel of making sculptural art since the times of the Danish sculptor. It is a remarkable feat of writing, which will surely continue to draw accolades from all over the world.

“Classical art from the Renaissance and onwards did not wish to be ephemeral. Rather than attempting to imitate reality, it sought to get at the ideas behind it. Like the sciences, art

began to define itself through separate disciplines. Painting became that which is without form and sculpture became that which is without colour.

Form and colour were separated. White sculpture was invented.

I think of the separation of form and colour as a compression tool intended to make possible the transportation of materials into immortal, into the world of ideas, into eternity.”

Translated from the Danish by Jennifer Russell

Published by Lolli Editions, UK

Winner of the Danish Crown Prince Couple’s Rising Star Award

Winner of a Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen Grant

Publication: 12 November 2020

Tormented dreams of Poe and H.P. Lovecraft


“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in the future existence, we shall look upon what we think of our present existence, as a dream”
            Edgar Allan Poe

There is a subtle but undeniable parallel between the workings of two men, separated by a wall of time, spanning half a century. Both masters of their own craft, these two talented writers were  outcasts for the world around them and trapped in the realms of their own dreams.

The two men are Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Inevitably, those who enjoy the writings of Mr. Poe, tend to be drawn into the lore of Lovecraftian horror, and vice versa. Now, why is that? What is the unseen bond that ties these two literary minds together?

The answer we seek may look elusive and undecipherable, hidden in the rich legacy both men left behind. But, looking close enough, a much deeper sense of connection can be found, the one buried beneath the piles of words that speak of desperation, suffering, and above all – the unbearable horrors lurking in the deepest corners of the human mind.

The Macabre of Poe

The senior of the two, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, who is better known to the general public, is the man with quite a somber biography. Much of what is known about Mr. Poe is certainly something that a reader can expect upon reading his works.

In his earliest childhood, Poe was sentenced to a hard life. His father abandoned the family in 1810, one year after Poe was born, while his mother passed away only a year afterward, branding him an orphan. He was adopted by wealthy merchant John Allan from Richmond, Virginia., and here is where he gets the name, Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks to his foster father, Poe got into the University of Virginia, a prestigious school where he could pursue his passion for ancient and modern languages. But it is also the place where the young Poe was exposed to vices such as gambling and drinking. These will lead to great gambling debts, a quarrel with John Allan, and Poe’s eventual abandonment of the university after only one year. This opened the door to the world of suffering and struggling.

When he was 26, he married his first cousin, a 13-year-old Virginia Eliza Clamm, whom he was in love with. Around this time, Poe had decided to try his luck writing.

Poe was not an exceptional writer and he worked various jobs to make a living. At the beginning of his career, he was an experimental writer, and he wrote poems, satires, dramas, literary critiques, mystery stories, and even adventure novels. And, let’s not forget, Poe is considered to be the man who introduced the world to detective fiction, decades before Agatha Cristy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But it might be safe to say none of these bore such a great value, as did the writings he created in the last years of his life.

To understand what it is that makes Poe’s work so special, appealing, and timeless, one needs to look no further than the last decade of his life. That sad and bleak period led to his untimely death, filled with tragedy and grief, but also with prolific writing.


In 1842 Poe’s wife, Virginia Eliza Clamm, started to show signs of tuberculosis, the same disease Poe’s mother had succumbed to years before. This leads Poe down the path of increased depression, excessive drinking, and slow but graduate isolation from the world and other writers. It is during this dark period of his life, ironically that the best of his prose and poetry was conceived, molding Poe into the legend we know today. During this time, his themes clearly revolve around death, bizarre incidents, decomposing corpses, ghosts of deceased women, and premature burial.

In 1843 Poe published “The Tell-Tale Heart”, a story about a gruesome murder, told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator – a murderer. A few years later, in 1846, in “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe follows a similar disturbing concept. There are many indications, critics believe, that these stories were partially based on Poe’s real-life encounters and experiences during this period of isolation. In 1845, he publishes “The Raven”, a poem that is an instant success. The poem was praised for its musicality, structured language, and its style, pleasing at the same time both critics and audiences. Two years after his wife passed, in the year of Poe’s death, one of his final, and most acclaimed, poems – “Annabel Lee” was published. This one speaks of the narrator hunted by grief and mourning for his diseased young wife, and it is partially based on Poe’s own life. Both of these poems explore a man’s descent into madness, and it is easy to recognize Poe’s own suffering bleeding through these verses. The sadness of his loss, suppressed with an excessive substance and alcohol abuse, led Poe down the path of inevitable doom. And indeed, his death was a mystery much like the ones he wrote about in his tales. He died alone, in the hospital, after being found on a street lying unconscious and in need of help, in clothes that were not his own. Of horror he was living through in the last days of his life, we may never know.

But, while his macabre tales and ghostly poems speak of hopelessness and unbearable torments of the human mind, we need to turn to his, often overlooked, dream-related poetry to find some kind of solace or even hidden optimism.

It would be rewarding to know more about the dreams of Edgar Allan Poe, as we don’t have much to start with. He did not write extensively on the subject matter, so we have to work with what we have.

His first dream-related poem was published as early as 1827, named simply “A Dream”. In it we are introduced to an atypical, dark, and joyless place that exists inside of Poe’s dream. It reveals the dreamer’s inner sensations inevitably leading him to believe that even the waking world is some kind of a dream, an idea that will later grow on Poe. It will even pass on to another great dreamer, born four decades after Poe’s death, but we’ll get to that.

Two years after his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in 1844, Poe publishes another important poem named “Dream-Land.” This one offers us a deeper look into the world of Poe’s dreams, describing it as a dangerous place ruled by a nightly phantom, while, at the same time, the region around the dreamer is soothing and peaceful…

Poe’s final, and perhaps most important dream-related poem will be published in the year of his death in 1849. Titled “Dream Within a Dream,” it speaks of a narrator who, much like in a Dream-Land, wonders if all life is a dream. Knowing what we do now of Poe’s life, it is only soothing to think these were some of the few peaceful thoughts Poe had in his mind, to comfort him, help him with the grief, and above all, help him understand the hardship of life he had endured in those years of suffering. Verses he left behind are as eternal as the dreamer narrator exploring the limits between waking life and a dream, and between life and death. Words of salvation, and inspiration for those who read them, as they were for the one who wrote them. In a way, these poems were a vessel in which Poe had stored his dreams to preserve them, protect them, and pass them on to those who were to follow.

Now let’s skip a century, and see where this vessel might have ended up.

Lovecraft’s nightmares

Sometime after Poe, another man discovered the importance of human dreams and dedicated his life to writing about it. This man’s name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Lovecraft never hid the fact that Poe was one of his influences, if not the biggest one. In fact, Lovecraft respected Poe so much he described him as “The God of Fiction”! Upon closer examination, we can see how these two writers have had not just a similar creative output, but also similar lives.

Lovecraft grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was just a boy, Lovecraft’s father Winfield was committed to a hospital for a psychotic episode, where he died after five years. This left Lovecraft growing up with his mother Sarah Susan, a caring but mentally unstable woman, as will be seen later, during Lovecraft’s teen years. At the time, Susan and the young Lovecraft lived with Susan’s parents and her two sisters.

From a very young age, Lovecraft was very keen on reading and writing, drafting his first literary works around the age of 7. One of his earliest influences was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrated by Gustave Doré. Those familiar with Dor’és work, especially his black and white wood engravings and calico wood signs, can notice how morbid and menacing these illustrations can appear. These images, combined with grief and gloom inside the Lovecraft’s house, were the seed for what is later to become Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle”.

Much like Poe, Lovecraft faced tragedy on more than one occasion during his childhood. It is said that when his grandmother passed away, the family was trapped in gloom and despair. During that time, Susan and her sisters wore black mourning dresses that frightened Lovecraft so much – he developed nightmares that will stay with him for the greatest part of his life. However, in these nightmares, Lovecraft soon begins to recognize the inspiration for his writing.

A call of cosmic horror

In terms of dreams, dream poetry or even dream worlds, we might say Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle is the largest, most ambitious, and most devoted project Lovecraft has worked on. Some critics even go as far as saying that Lovecraft was so afflicted by his nightmares and dreams, he transcribed them onto a paper.

In any case, the end result is a borderless place, filled with abstract remains of Lovecraft’s memories and thoughts, a place of unimaginable distances between continents and even planets. The word is filled with waypoints, named and unnamed cities, mountains, lakes and seas, but also portals that lead to the uncharted regions, too wild to be explored, and too terrifying to be remembered for those who try.

It is easy to realise Lovecraft was indeed an outcast most of his life, an individual who was forced to live in fear, secluded and isolated from the rest of the world. It is no wonder that he sought refuge in the world of dreams, just as his predecessor Edgar Allan Poe did in his time.

From the very young age, Lovecraft claimed he was hunted by creatures he later came to name the “night-gaunts”, winged creatures who come to him in nightmare worlds. This might be one of the causes for Lovecraft’s mental weakness, as he is known to have suffered more than one nervous breakdown in his childhood. He had only one weapon he could use against these nightmares and it was a pen. Naturally, he started writing about the world of dreams, seen through the eyes of made up characters.

Early 1920’s see Lovecraft slowly emerging from his isolation and starting to get back into the society. Under the heavy influence of Lord Dunsany, a visionary fantasy writer, Lovecraft enters what can be called his golden era, and starts writing stories from the Dream Cycle.  Among the first published stories dealing with this phenomenon is “Polaris” a short story describing lucid dreaming of an unnamed protagonist while he is observing Pole star in the night sky. A similar concept can be found in the “White Ship”. These two stories, albeit short, offer a great insight into Lovecraft’s notions of space and dream, as well as the ways in which these two are interconnected and traversable. “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “Cats of Ulthar,” and “”The Statement of Randolph Carter” are soon to follow. The last one introduces us to Randolph Carter, a recurring character in Dream Cycle stories, Lovecraft’s alter-ego, a man who travels dreamlands. Around this time, Lovecraft starts writing a draft of what will later be named “Ctulhu Mythos”.

Among the titles that need to be mentioned here are: “Celephaïs,” “Nyarlathotep,” “The Other Gods,” “Azatoth,” and, above all, one of his most important novellas, the centerpiece of his Dream Cycle – “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In the latter, we can find the most detailed account of the so-called Dreamlands, narrated by no other than the dream-traveler Randolph Carter.

The shared dream-quest

It is important to note the degree of care Lovecraft has put into his writing to help his readersexplore, in great depth, the potential of humankind to dream. During his short life, Lovecraft was in the centre of the body known as “Lovecraft Circle”, an affiliation of fellow writers joined in a mutual venture of creating and sharing a universe Lovecraft dreamed about. Many of these friends earned respective names for themselves such as Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei, August Derleth, and Clark Ashton Smith. It is thanks to these people and their writings that Lovecraft’s name, and his lore continued to live. All of these writers would occasionally, while building their own stories and universes, freely borrow from Lovecraft’s opus, joining him in his eternal dream quest. It is only in the early 1990s that Lovecraft’s work started to be acknowledged in modern literature, and became so influential and unique that the term Lovecraftian was coined for it.

But what if the power of Lovecraft Circle was not as narrow as we might initially think? What if, in his own infinite universe of dreams, Lovecraft found a way to summon not just the present dreamer, but also those who dwell in the past, and are long passed away? What if a simple reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s dream poetry would be enough to establish a connection with the long deceased genius?

Looking at the works done by both of these men, while knowing the struggle they had to go trough their, otherwise ordinary lives, one can’t help but notice the common traits emerging from their writing.  Through their words, we see into their dreams. And while Poe was more of a mystery to us, a man who died just as he lived – in obscurity and suffering,  Lovecraft is the one who was more revealing, speaking more clearly of darkness and terrors that lurk behind the waking worlds – the terrors hidden in the deepest corners of our subconsciousness.

Lovecraft pointed out how fragile is our own reality, and how potent are our dreams. He believed that universe is so vast and filled with forbidden knowledge that it would be destructive for the human mind to even ponder about it. It is the essence of Lovecraft ideology, after all, that humanity as a whole is just a tiny speck of dust compared to the infinite chaos that is universe; so insignificant and utterly unimportant that it can be erased from existence in a second. Such a realisation scared him beyond measure, and was perhaps the main reason why he turned to dreams to seek solution. He believed that  a dream state supersedes the potential of the weak human body and can allow us to wonder in cosmic wastelands. And so he did. Much of his writing tells us about this quest.

This is where Lovecraft’s dreams collide with the dreams of  Edgar Allan Poe.

To understand the connection between Poe and Lovecraft we can look at it as one man passing the seed of inspiration to another, through time and space. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course.

In a similar fashion, the famous writer Dan Simmons was touched by verses of a long deceased poet, named John Keats. He dedicated entire sections of his novels to portraying Keats’s thoughts and character, and even borrowing titles of Keats’s poems for the titles of his novels. And let’s not forget one of the most important works in the history of literature – Dante Aligihieri’s “The Divine Comedy.” Here, we see a poet’s fascination with a fellow poet who lived in ancient Rome (about 13 centuries before Dante was even born), the famed Virgil, whom Dante portrays as one of the main characters in his masterpiece.

We can only speculate about the exact moment when Poe’s word was heard by Lovecraft and the bond between these two men was created. It might just be a single passage or a verse from one of Poe’s collections that did the job. But what secret revelation was hidden in that sacred bond? Was it fear of the realisation that the whole universe might be just a dream, and all lives in it are equally meaningless, as Poe came to feel? Or was it the encouraging opportunity to travel beyond the borders of reality and freely explore, like Lovecraft did, the vast spaces of the unconquered cosmos?

While it is easy to assume these two were unified in the notion that the whole existence is futile and all sense of destiny is lost, the legacy these men left behind can tell us otherwise.

It was perhaps the realisation of such a harsh truth (truth these two men believed, at least) that sentenced them both to life revolving around a long, painful pursuit. Both men died in agony; sick, alone, and broken spirited, thinking about their ruined lives, and wishfully hoping there are more worlds to explore upon their passing. The irony here is – they died not knowing they had already finished their quest. In fact, they did more than that! They proved to us that a single man with a pen and dreams can, indeed, have a significant role in the world! Both men died never finding out about their true purpose. They died as martyrs but became immortal legends, living now, in the worlds created in their dreams, admired and praised by many – a destiny none of them could foresee even in their most daring dreams.

And who knows what was the exact moment or the exact words Lovecraft came upon while reading Poe, that sparked his imagination, and encouraged him to embark upon a never-ending pursuit of dreams. Yet,we may very well assume, in the interest of the suiting conclusion, that it was this passage of Poe’s poem that offered the revelation, as it applies for both writers equally:

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone? 

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Edgar Allan Poe: “Dream Within a Dream”