Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

A Faithful Existence, reviewed by Susan Smith for Talisman

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Forrest Gander’s prose writings, now collected in
A Faithful Existence (2005), reveal a preoccupation with origins and the language through which competing ways to understand the world are framed.  Gander is willing to seek what is normally overlooked, and he is willing to take the time necessary to pay close attention to the subtle, the hidden, the deliberately concealed.

Gander’s writing ranges from essays on overlooked Southern poets, essays on translating poetry, prose poems, science and literature, and a lengthy discussion of literary hoaxes.  Gander, who was trained as a geologist, discusses the relationship of scientific thought to other discourses of explanation, such as literary criticism.  Gander has the careful gas and manner of inquiry of a paleontologist or mineralogist.  He looks closely at the details even as he seeks to explain the depositional environment and the provenance and history of the item.

An example of this intellectual endeavor is in uncovering and mapping cross-cutting relationships.  For example, Thomas Traherne’s Commentaries of Heaven, first written in the seventeenth century in England, and discovered centuries later, in very bad condition, reveals, in Gander’s estimation, a kinship with the “spiritually desolate” 20th-century phenomenologists, specifically Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, and Husserl.  For Gander, their focus on consciousness, self-awareness, and phenomena contain traces of the past that act as predictors of the future.  Intellectually, this reveals a deep kinship with historical geology.

Gander is challenged by the project of rediscovering and revisiting the poets that history has ignored.  He also is drawn to poets and writers who have traveled the “via negativa” in a process of “dark night of the soul” of the mystic’s path to enlightenment.  This is a way of knowing the world that requires mortification of the flesh and an obsession with what lies beneath the surface.  Buried knowledge is more interesting than the easily grasped concepts or emotions that lie on the surface.

One of the poets that Gander investigates is one whom he has translated.  Jaime Saenz, a Bolivian who lives in La Paz, creates a poetics of death-obsession and Aymaran tradition, within a context of hechiceros (wizards) and alternative ways of seeing reality.  One must shift one’s shape.  If that is not possible, one must shift consciousness.  In many ways, it means going into the identity of something, undergoing extreme consubstantiability, to borrow Kenneth Burke’s term.

Because Gander is a translator, it is important to examine his theories of translation.  For Gander, the non-fluent translation offers the most promise of exposing the reader to the emotional realities, as well as a plunge into the heart of the beingness of a state, or phenomenological stance.

Gander defends the “deep translation” notion by turning to Walter Benjamin for support.  He points out that Benjamin viewed fluent translation as simple appropriation.  The translator imposes his or her own sense of meaning and teleology which is, for Gander, if not wrong, simply uninteresting.

Gander applauds Benjamin’s approach by pointing out that to create “non-fluent” translations is a way to refrain from “colonizing” a translation, or (to use Lawrence Venuti’s term, “domesticating” the translation).  To create a “bestranging” and non-fluent version of a  text is away to preserve the Otherness of the textual authority.  It is also a way to avoid the tyranny of the target  language syntax, which has a way of stripping the original poem of the embedded knowledge structures of the original language.  Gander discusses the dilemma the translator has: does he/she create a “faithful” version?  Is it “dependable” and straight forward?  Or, does it “bestrange” and preserve the rough magic of the original?

Perhaps most intriguing and/or troubling is Gander’s discussion of the Yasusada hoax (detailed at  As you may recall, Yasusada was claimed to be a Hiroshima survivor who wrote poetry about experiencing nuclear bombing and its aftermath.  It turned out to be a hoax.

A benign justification of the Yasusada hoax can be made using Benjamin’s argument.  Araki Yasusada, the supposed Japanese Hiroshima survivor was claimed to have written a long poem as a response to nuclear carnage.  Gander seems to suggest that Yasusada is a “translation” of the Hiroshima experience.  According to Gander, the reality of his existence is not as important as the possibility of creating a way for a reader to enter into the experience of the bombing.

However, one could argue that an American creating Yasusada represents the ugliest form of appropriation.  Not only did Americans drop the bombs, they are also controlling and appropriating an artistic response to it.  Where are the legitimate Japanese artistic reactions to Hiroshima?  In Godzilla?  Is Godzilla the only authentically Japanese response?  I ask, only half tongue-in-cheek.

Some may claim that Yasusada is the ultimate postmodern experiment.  I would argue that this is not the case.  I would argue that the poems constitute fraudulent postmodernism because they revert to teleology in the logical structure.  The American bomb is a god.  It destroys not only the city and its inhabitants, but also the possibility of an authentic response.

The Yasusada hoax occurred almost ten years ago, and it is fascinating that Gander chose to include it.  However, there might be an argument for reexamining hoaxes in a time of blogs.  For example, numerous bloggers accused the person writing as Riverbend (Riverbend: A Girl Blog from Iraq) of being a hoax, and a politically motivated one at that.  Fabricated evidences, forgeries and hoaxes abound in our current situation.  Perhaps a thoughtful reconsideration of the nature and purposes of literary hoaxes might be in order.