Red Leaves: an Interview with Kirk Marshall

Red Leaves / 紅葉 is about to break new ground by becoming the first English-language / Japanese, bi-lingual literary journal. The inaugural issue of this international publication, will be published and distributed between September and December, 2009: the term of Japanese fall. Recently I spoke with chief editor, Kirk Marshall about the inception of Red Leaves and the challenges of publishing a bi-lingual literary journal.

 

Graham Nunn: The first issue of “Red Leaves” is due for publication late 2009. What was the motivation/inspiration behind starting a new literary journal?

Kirk Marshall: Now, I’m probably pre-inclined to answer this by citing my long-standing, deeply-harboured passion for the contemporary, Australian (and world) publishing industries and the way by which such a discipline extends to encompass the form of the oft-neglected, intrinsically-contested literary journal – such that it does – but, after nary a moment’s contemplation, I’d have to concede that a response of this stripe constitutes the cunning and emotionally-remote way out. In truth, being an “emerging” writer, myself (which, if I’m afforded a momentary digression, signifies to me an unashamedly aberrant way in which to characterise either young or newly-recognised authors, as though we’d best taxonomise them by their subterranean habits, and not by an evaluation of the quality of their respective work), I was submitting my fiction, creative non-fiction and sordid (read: bad) poetry to a lot of places, but I quickly identified an absence in the market. This isn’t to claim that I wasn’t being readily accepted for publication, – I didn’t ever conceive, as appears the commonplace self-rationalisation amongst frustrated and barren-bellied writers, that the most effective method by which I might see my words in popular print was to pursue that vanity-publishing fandom, – but a sizeable portion of the material I felt was my best, especially with the fiction, was largely being disregarded by most happy-gutted editors. 

What I came to discern was that – especially in Australia – work which is swiftly surmised as “difficult”, work which functions to challenge and disconcert the prospective reader, be that either through formal innovation or in theme and content, was often immediately relegated to the slushpile not because it wasn’t good, but because it didn’t satisfy the “pro forma”. Modern Australian literary journals – and I certainly don’t intend to be scurrilous and cavalier about the way in which I’m choosing to generalise, here – just don’t seem to locate a writerly stimulation from subversive, adventurous, unconventional or unclassifiable work. This may, of course, be contingent upon or symptomatic of the shifting morphology and tastes of the contemporary publishing machine as a whole (need it be remarked that Man Booker-shortlisted author Tibor Fischer garnered himself a gratuitous fifty-six manuscript rejections before securing a publisher?), but I’d extol my own little hunch that it has more to do with an identifiably Australian disinclination towards grappling with forms of textuality that shy away from easy reading. (This has more to do, I think, with a mass-consensus “paradise syndrome” inherent of Australia than any real dispassion with excursive or innovative literature: our country, sociologically, still remains an undoubtable yardstick for Western democratic societies and a testament to the advances of a globalised culture, but how and to what extent the creative industries operate within such a societal climate is a question which I believe is peripheral to most Australians.) 

This brings me, then, to the literary journal! What I was noticing was that not only were there no specifically Australian literary publications which might accept a certain specie of unsolicited work of mine for publication, but people I knew – writers who were my age, and who produced similarly, genuinely exciting, stylistically-deconstructivist or challenging work – were also experiencing the same nonchalant response: not that there was no theoretical readership for this type of writing – I can state unequivocally that there is – but that there was no market-demand within the recognised Australian literary journals for work of such unproven merit because no supply has ever existed to justify it. I soon began having publishing offers extended me by American and international publications (throughout 2008, whilst conducting full-time Honours study in Professional Writing at Deakin University, I wrote for seventeen magazines) and decided, not especially epiphanically, that one of the only pragmatic strategies by which I might find an Australian home for this new-burgeoning form of writing being produced by myself and my peers was to establish one. 

Independently of this very organic, slow-burning conviction, my partner (the artist / designer Liberty Browne) and I had just returned from a five-week teaching stint in Tokyo, Japan towards the conclusion of 2007, and rather thrillingly, I came to appreciate that Japan, too, was subject to the over-presiding ideology within their publishing industry that the “best” writing constituted the work emanating from established authors and academics, just as it was in Australia, – irrespective of how rigorously-disciplined and proliferating the “emerging” scriveners were, the market was tailored to accommodate those already with a foot firmly placed within the threshold. A friend of mine, the Tokyoite Japanese screenwriter Yasuhiro Horiuchi, confirmed this to me through a haphazard exchange of English-to-Japanese correspondences: Japanese writers such as Kenzaburō Ōe, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishigo, Banana Yoshimoto and Mitsyo Kakuta are decorated “big names” in Japan, and so correspondingly, they dominate the press. Those who are neither recognised nor well-known but who nonetheless are consistently producing unprecedented, inventive and original writing in Japan, departing from the conventional structure and traditional aesthetic of Japanese literature, are doing so (as an example) in the izakayas and jazz-dens of Tokyo, where the writers are designated more respect and a likeminded readership. 

It’s only been a recent advantage of such formative, post-counterculture Japanese factions that some of these “emerging” authors have made the seamless transition from the sake bars and high-schools to  multi-million dollar publishing and the popular underground (Ko Machida, Masaya Nakahara, Mieko Kawakami and Risa Wataya, are evident examples) , and it’s this extremely-prolific, adventurous, unaffected and fertile realm of literature on both sides of the Eastern and Western cultural divide that I’ve sought to promote with the formation of “Red Leaves”, Australia’s first (and only) English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal.

 

GN: What have been the challenges in putting together a bi-lingual publication?

KM: In some small but hopefully not disdainfully uninformative way, I’ll be reiterating some of what I’ve expressed above. I’ve travelled through, lived and worked in Japan, and albeit I’m wont to exchange a reactionary response over the newly-attributed “genki” designation – it means, I believe, a gaijin who is “imitating” (rather than emulating) the Japanese – I still warmly invite the allegation, most of the time, that I’m subjectively more at home with the Japanese than I am with Westerners. My partner, Liberty, who is the designer for “The Lifted Brow” literary magazine – Melbourne’s own, ever-evolving, exhaustively ambitious, independent reconfiguration of the “McSweeney’s” franchise – is as responsible for “Red Leaves”’s inception, as much as any other catalysing variable. First off, it was she who agreed to live in Japan with me, and by so doing, I was afforded both the time and the space – the forum – to discuss writerly, cross-cultural projects at length with Yasuhiro. (We still trade jokes that one day we’ll collaborate on producing our own “monster pornography  film”, but I’m sufficiently canny now to know that too much refined, Okinawan drinking spirits were probably responsible). 

After making landfall again in Australia, and embarking on the requisite exodus from Brisbane to Melbourne – I think, if the Sydneysiders will demonstrate forgiveness, our country’s increasingly undisputed cultural capital – I composed an email to Yasuhiro. He soon consolidated my initiative to establish a new literary journal by confirming for me that neither Australia nor Japan had a bi-lingual publication showcasing the transliterated work of  “emerging” (there’s that appellation, again) writers. In retrospect, I can’t conceive of attempting to anchor such a personal enterprise as this one in Brisbane, – in 2007, prior to relocating to Melbourne, I released the Japanese-flavoured, full-colour illustrated graphic novelette, “A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953”, a collaboration between myself and select Brisbane artists, – and Tokyo, which is where Liberty and I lived for a time, is such an overwhelming, potentially inaccessible, and just plain big place that to afford myself the personal motivation to contemplate a project like “Red Leaves” necessitated a space where I could feel simultaneously less-anonymous and consequently better-equipped to solicit interest in the project. 

This, for me, always meant Australia, and Melbourne’s proven a stimulating, responsive and creatively beneficial base from which to hunker away in silence, and forge forth in administering the first real push towards completing the inaugural issue of “Red Leaves”. I’d espouse that the thing with bi-lingual literary journals within the context of contemporary publishing is that, though they cater for two cultures, they’re often subsequently rendered to a young, prospective reader’s mind as divisive or unfocused and therefore less valuable because they compromise in not promoting the eclectic (and perhaps more “post-modern”) material which is common or associable with American and international publications. I immediately didn’t want this to be the case with “Red Leaves”. I looked to the likes of “Meena: A Bi-lingual Journal of Arts & Letters”, the English-Arabic publication, – whose most recent issue secured an international, bi-lingual contribution from author-editor Dave Eggers, – for inspiration, rather than Australia’s own English-Arabic envisioning of the formula, the two-year old and now-defunct bi-lingual literary journal “Kalimāt”, which suffered (if I’m permitted due external speculation) not only because the readership of Australia’s literary publications number less than 1,000 but because the editor, Raghid Nahas, was intent on invoking an austere breed of scholarship with each issue, rather than motioning towards soliciting interest from writers which the contemporary culture now embraces. 

Not for no reason are publications such as the Vignette Press anthologies, “The Lifted Brow” and Chris Flynn’s “Torpedo” (of micro-publishing company Falcon Vs. Monkey fame) fast becoming – and constituting – some of Australia’s best, independent and most innovatively-receptive literary forays. Readers – okay: the collective of readers that I identify with – by and large, and especially in Japan, are those most reactive towards the “big names”. A robust, bi-lingual magazine such as “Meena” seeks to capitalise upon this: in turn, I hope that “Red Leaves” works to perpetuate and sustain this tradition by contemporaneously incorporating the work of “emerging” local writers (from Australia and Japan) and that of beloved, but ideologically-allied writers (from abroad). Moreover, in this present ethos of candour, I’ll concede that “Red Leaves” also finally privileges me (somewhat selfishly) the opportunity to read my friend Yasuhiro’s non-fiction (composed in Japanese “kanji” text), whilst he’s enabled the capacity to read my fiction without straining from the considerable effort of performing a mental transliteration. So in a way, the journal’s now also become, to my mind, a swap-meet between likeminded (but culturally-disparate) writers.

 

GN: The art of translation is something that has created much debate over the years. Two schools of thought seem to have emerged, the Eastern method of searching for “affective equivalents” and the Western method of seeking to recreate in one language only the words of the original poem. How have you approached translating the work in “Red Leaves”?

KM: That’s a surprising question, which works to facilitate my deigning it a reply of some depth. What we’ve envisioned for “Red Leaves” is, I feel, a reasonably industrious attempt to designate the “three milieu” – that is, the troika of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, respectively – a mostly equitable genre-to-page ratio. In turn, our freelance English-Japanese translators have the obligation to best apply their skills specifically to the sort of work that they’re currently translating for the issue: for example, we’ve separated the fiction accepted for publication from the poetry, and each form is approached in its own respective way. I feel very much that the poetry should be kept as close to its original inception – be that either written in English or composed in Japanese “kanji” text – as can be rendered possible, because the traditional Eastern aesthetic of poetry, I believe, is to perceive the poem as an architectural construct, an exactingly-developed artifice of engineering which upholds the conventions and parameters of the form as specified by traditional teaching. To compromise the verse of a Japanese poem in the translation process is, by this standard, to remodel the architecture, to invent upon rather than to relay its original manifestation. The translators are maintaining a much closer reading of the poetry, therefore, than they are with the fiction, especially because some of the fiction extends to 5,000 words per piece. 

As editor, I can risk being brazen by reifying that, for me, this is okay: fiction transliterated from a language to another, particularly English to Japanese (and vice-versa), very often suffers from a “verbatim” interpretation, becoming either obtuse and distorted in its meaning or uncompromisingly region-specific and consequently inaccessible. This for me has always constituted a problem; a work of Murakami’s proves to be a successful, subtle, and generous English-language translation because we, as Westerners, aren’t privileged immediate accessibility: it would be unwise of publishers to champion an epical, bloated and serendipitously excursive novel like Murakami’s 700-paged “Kafka On the Shore” without taking three years to do its translation justice. In this case, an “affective equivalent” is always more beneficial to the translation process than by sustaining an unnegotiably, almost narratologically word-by-word reconfiguration: I’ve read translations of Japanese short-stories which, not possessing the publishing mettle or marketability of a new (correspondingly, direct-bestseller) Murakami novel, have forged forth in the effort to retain – excuse the jargon – as much of its self-contained nipponophilia, as much of its “Japanese-ness” as possible, to a state where it hypostatises, where it atrophies, allowing a curious Western reader no real access. 

I’m no linguist, and I certainly won’t claim to be, but by staying too loyal to the language, I’d conceive that you can risk communicating or instantiating a guardedness within the prose which can read as either offensive or clumsy, and that’s not what I want people to experience from “Red Leaves”. Fortuitously enough for me, Yasuhiro is acting as our Tokyo-based co-editor, which means he’s ordained “final say” on specific translations, and for those words or phrases which are so anachronistic, colloquial or of their time and place as to be indecipherable to an international audience, we try very hard to excise them from the body of the text in the translation and furnish what we feel is an appropriate substitute.

 

GN: What can readers expect from the first issue of “Red Leaves”?

KM: In my dogged pursuit to incorporate thematically-synchronous work by both new and lauded writers, the first issue of “Red Leaves” contains fiction by Toby Litt (one of “Granta” magazine’s 20 Best Young British Novelists), Nathaniel Rich (fiction editor for “The Paris Review”), Travis Jeppesen (contributing editor to the underground, experimentalist online British literary magazine, “3:AM”), Nicholas Hogg (New Writing Ventures-award winning debut novelist of “Show Me the Sky”) and Patrick Holland (first-prize recipient of the 2005 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author), whilst showcasing the work of some no-less-talented local talent, such as the graphic novelist and comic artist Mandy Ord, celebrated poet and editor Ivy Alvarez, and the prolific Brisbane-based young man-of-letters, Christopher Currie, who maintains the “Furious Horses” online weblog. Right now, we’re commissioning pieces from Japanese authors and those fluent in writing “kanji” until the 1st of June; Yasuhiro is working fastidiously on his personal contribution; and Liberty and I are discussing editorial and design. We’re striving for an equilibrium between aesthetically minimalist and textually-provocative, which basically means we’re being insufferably indulgent with the white space. Contributing writer-artist Anne M. Carson and photographer Christina McCallum have provided us with a gorgeous cover shot. If we do our job right, it should manifest itself as the tactile type of handsome. For further musings and news, go to: http://www.myspace.com/redleaveskoyo.

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4 Comments

Filed under interviews/artist profiles, poetry & publishing

4 responses to “Red Leaves: an Interview with Kirk Marshall

  1. can’t wait to see this one, thanks for the great interview guys

  2. Ivy

    How wonderful to be bringing attention to this new literary venture. Very exciting!

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