Authors In Conversation

A Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse Story | Co-Hosted by Slice & Words Without Borders at the PEN World Voices LitCrawl

by Filip Springer, Francisco Cantú, Abdourahman Waberi, and Karolina Ramqvist

Translated by Sean Gasper Bye, Francisco Cantú, José Garcia, David and Nicole Ball, and Saskia Vogel


Readers Sean Gasper Bye, Filip Springer, Francisco Cantú, José Garcia, Karolina Ramqvist, Corinna Barsan, Abdourahman Waberi, and Karen Phillips at Lit Crawl 2017. Photo by Savannah Whiting.


For the Lit Crawl portion of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, Slice Literary and Words Without Borders partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story written by four international writers—Filip Springer, Francisco Cantú, Abdourahman Waberi, and Karolina Ramqvist—and translated by Sean Gasper Bye, José Garcia, David and Nicole Ball, and Saskia Vogel.

In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Polish writer Filip Springer, who was given a prompt line from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: “I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself”. The next writer, Francisco Cantú, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in English. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. As this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Abdourahman Waberi’s section, written in French, was translated into English and then into Swedish so that Karolina Ramqvist could complete the story.

Last Friday evening at Court Street Grocers in NYC, the writers and translators shared the story at Lit Crawl, in both original language and English translation (with WWB executive director Karen Phillips and Grove Atlantic editor Corinna Barsan lending their voices for those translators unable to attend). Below is the richly layered narrative—in English translation and original language—that grew out of this multinational, multilingual collaboration. 

Filip Springer and Sean Gasper Bye. Photo by Savannah Whiting.

English Version

“I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself.” -Octavia Butler

1. Filip Springer (Polish original), Sean Gasper Bye (English translation)

“I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself,” he said uncertainly into the receiver.

“What? What are you saying?”
“It’s a sentence,” he explained. “In that notebook you gave me.”
A sigh, silence. He waited.
“A whole sentence?” she asked.
“That’s huge progress! Well done!”
Silence again. He felt like it wasn’t anything huge at all. Of course, he already knew what his name was, more or less knew what his job was, he could recognize his loved ones. He was somehow taking all of this in hand. But he was still incapable of remembering what he’d done the day before. They kept telling him it would pass, that he had to be patient, that he had to practice.
“There’s something else,” he added. “This morning my shoes were covered in sand. But there’s not even a patch of it around here…”
“You’ve never written a whole sentence before,” she said.
“Never,” he thought reproachfully. A black notebook lay before him, and inside it: dates and individual words.
Tuesday—wind, Wednesday—Chopin, Thursday—dinner, Friday—joy, joy, joy.
Saturday—Julia, Sunday—wind.
That’s all he could manage. Writing didn’t come easily to him anyway. And suddenly that sentence—he’d discovered it in the notebook this morning. “I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself.” He was frightened.
“You see! It will only get better,” she said.
Footsteps echoed from the hallway beyond the door.

“I have to go,” he said by way of farewell and hung up the receiver.

Francisco Cantú and José Garcia. Photo by Savannah Whiting.

2. Francisco Cantú (English original and Spanish translation), José Garcia (Spanish translation)

“I have to go,” he said by way of farewell and hung up the receiver.

On the other end of the broken line, the woman sat with the dead sound of the ringtone in her ear. She understood his emotion, the quavering anger in his voice—but the journey was one she had been preparing for many years, one that had nothing to do with him—a journey that, in many ways, she had been preparing for her whole life, ever since her father first left to make the journey himself, long before she had been able to form any memory of him. Her father was followed, of course, by one uncle and then the next, uncles who never came back, uncles who withered away and disappeared in both a physical and relational sense, uncles who would later spur their families to make the same journey, who would go on to find new families altogether, who would seek to build an inheritance far from the place of their birth. Each time these men left, they cast the long shadow of their absence on the ones who stayed behind and it was this shadow, this absence, that often became the only true legacy of men like these, men like her father.

This time, she had decided, she would be the one to do the leaving.

Abdourahman Waberi and Karen Phillips. Photo by Savannah Whiting.

3. Abdourahman Waberi (French original), David and Nicole Ball (English translation)

This time, she had decided, she would be the one to do the leaving.

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why grownups who came to see my father burst into tears whenever they passed me in the courtyard. Their conversations would always end up the same way: in shouts, whispers and sniffles. Sometimes they would start conversing in a language that excluded me. Only when I reached adolescence did I understand that I looked a lot like a great-uncle who had died at a very young age. Once, I heard this relative had followed the same path as his big sister who, if she had been with us today, would be the same age as my grandmother. It was said that their descendants were living like lords in a far-off country. They told other versions of this story: treason, flight, a real mess. But to my eyes, all those fragments never managed to make a coherent narrative. Perhaps if were more curious about all this, my relatives would be delighted to have a granddaughter to whom they could pass on the family history. But they might want to spare me, and pass over the most painful episodes like my great-uncle’s death. I’m sure I’d listen to them. That’s just what they’re waiting for. So am I, in a sense.

But for now, let’s just give it time.

Karolina Ramqvist and Corinna Barsan. Photo by Savannah Whiting.

4. Karolina Ramqvist (Swedish original), Saskia Vogel (English translation)

But for now, let’s just give it time.

Nothing will be as it was, but how reasonable was it of us to believe that what we had would last forever? Now that I think of it, I don’t know how we could imagine we’d be let off, that our existence wouldn’t end along with everyone else’s. Our existence was just as fragile as theirs, the people for whom what we had never existed, not even in dreams, not in words, in language. We’re no different, but luck let us believe we were.
We were so sure of everything, so safe and strong together, but strength isn’t truth. Not one of our armaments is the truth, and now all my fears are coming at us like a landslide. There’s nowhere to run. It knocks us down and drags us along, crushing and crumbling us into what we used to be, what we no longer remember being before this invincibility, before what we wanted everyone else to admire and strive for, but not rob us of. We’ll be like them.

And we’ll become human again.

Multilingual Version

“Uczę się latać, lewitować.” -Octavia Butler, Polish translation

1. Filip Springer (Polish)

– Uczę się latać, lewitować – powiedział niepewnie do słuchawki.

– Co? Co mówisz?
– Takie zdanie – wyjaśnił – W tym notesie, który mi dałaś.
Westchnienie, cisza. Czekał.
– Całe zdanie?
– Tak.
– To wielki postęp! Brawo!
Znów cisza. Czuł, że to wcale nie jest nic wielkiego. Owszem, wiedział już, jak się nazywa, mniej więcej wiedział, kim jest, rozpoznawał bliskich. Jakoś ogarniał te sprawy z nożem i widelcem. Ale ciągle nie udawało mu się zapamiętać, co robił poprzedniego dnia. Mówili mu, że to minie, że musi być cierpliwy, że trzeba ćwiczyć.
– Jest jeszcze coś – dodał – dziś rano miałem buty całe w piasku. A tu wokół nie ma nawet skrawka . . .
– Jeszcze nigdy nie napisałeś całego zdania – usłyszał.
„Nigdy” – pomyślał z wyrzutem. Przed nim leżał czarny notes, a w nim daty i pojedyncze słowa.
Wtorek – wiatr, środa – Chopin, czwartek – obiad, piątek – radość, radość, radość,
sobota – Julia, niedziala – wiatr.
To wszystko, na co go było stać. Pisanie i tak przychodziło mu z trudem. I nagle to zdanie, odkrył je w notesie dziś rano. „Uczę się latać, lewitować”.  Przestraszył się.
– Widzisz! Będzie już tylko lepiej – powiedziała.
Na korytarzu za drzwiami rozległy się kroki.

– Muszę kończyć – rzucił na pożegnanie i odłożył słuchawkę.

2. Francisco Cantú and José Garcia (Spanish)

Despidiéndola, le dijo “me tengo que ir” y colgó el auricular.

Al otro lado de la línea la mujer se quedó escuchando el tono muerto de la llamada. Ella entendió lo que él estaba sintiendo, reconoció la ira en su voz temblorosa—pero el viaje era algo que ella había estado planeando por muchos años, algo que no tenía nada que ver con él. Era un viaje que, de muchas maneras, ella había estado preparando durante toda su vida, desde el momento en que su padre la dejó para emprender un viaje idéntico, mucho antes de que ella pudiera crear cualquier memoria de él. A su padre lo siguió un tío y luego otro. Fueron tíos que nunca regresaron, tíos que se esfumaron física y espiritualmente, tíos que después inspiraron a otros familiares a hacer el mismo viaje. Fueron tíos que después formaron nuevas familias y buscaban construir un legado lejos de su lugar de origen. Cada vez que estos hombres salían proyectaban la larga sombra de su ausencia sobre aquellos que dejaban atrás. Y fue esta sombra, esta ausencia, la que a menudo terminó siendo en el único legado de estos hombres, hombres como su padre.

Esta vez, decidió, yo seré la que salga.

3. Abdourahman Waberi (French)

Cette fois, avait-elle décidé, ce serait elle qui partirait.

Enfant je ne comprenais pas pourquoi les adultes qui venaient voir mon père éclataient en sanglots quand je les croisais dans la cour. Les discussions finissaient toujours de la manière: en cris, chuchotements et reniflements. Parfois ils se mettaient à converser dans une langue de laquelle j’étais exclue. Ce n’est qu’à l’adolescence que j’ai compris que je ressemblais beaucoup trop à un grand-oncle disparu très jeune. Une fois, j’ai entendu que ce parent avait suivi le même chemin que sa grande sœur qui aurait aujourd’hui l’âge de ma grand-mère si elle était toutefois de ce monde. On disait que leurs descendants menaient une vie de pacha dans un pays lointain. On racontait d’autres versions de cette histoire où il était question de trahison, de fuite, de gâchis. Mais à mes yeux tous ses fragments n’arrivaient pas à former un récit cohérent. Peut-être quand je serais plus curieuse la parentèle serait ravie d’avoir un petite-fille à qui léguer l’histoire familiale, à moins qu’ils ne m’épargnent et passent sous silence les épisodes les plus douloureux comme la disparition du grand-oncle. C’est sûr, je les écouterais. Ils n’attendent que ça. Et moi aussi d’une certaine manière.

Laissons pour l’instant du temps au temps.

4. Karolina Ramqvist (Swedish)

Vi måste bara ge det tid.

Ingenting kommer att bli som förut, men det var heller aldrig rimligt av oss att tro att det vi hade skulle vara för alltid. När jag tänker på det nu förstår jag inte hur vi kunde inbilla oss att vi skulle slippa undan, att inte också vår verklighet skulle rasa när alla andras rasade. Vår tillvaro var lika ömtålig som deras, de för vilka det vi hade aldrig existerat ens i drömmar, ens i ord, i språk. Vi är inte annorlunda, vi var bara så lottade att det fick oss att tro det.

Vi var så säkra på allt, så trygga och starka tillsammans, men styrka är inte sanning. Inte en enda av våra rustningar är sanningen, och nu kommer allt det jag varit rädd för emot oss som ett jordskred. Det finns ingenstans att fly till. Det slår ner oss och drar oss med och vi krossas och smulas till det vi var förut, något vi inte minns som fanns före det oövervinnerliga, före det vi ville att alla andra skulle beundra och fås att eftersträva men inte vilja ta ifrån oss. Vi blir som dem.

Och vi blir människor igen.


Filip Springer is a photojournalist and reportage writer, based in Warsaw, Poland. He has published seven collections of reportage on Polish landscape, architects and small Polish towns. Springer’s photographic works have been exhibited widely throughout Poland. His book of reportage, MiedziankaThe History of a Disappearance (Czarne 2011/Restless Books 2017), was shortlisted for all leading literary awards in Poland. Springer currently works with the Reportage Institute in Warsaw.

Francisco Cantú served as a border patrol agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012. He is a former Fulbright fellow and the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays and translations appear frequently in Guernica, and his work can also be found in The Best American Essays 2016PloughsharesOrion, and This American Life. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. His debut memoir, The Line Becomes a River, will be published by Riverhead Books in February 2018.

An acclaimed author from Djibouti, Abdourahman A. Waberi has published several books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His work, originally published in French, has been translated into a multitude of languages. He has received many awards and fellowships, including a Villa Médicis—Académie de France Rome fellowship and a DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogram. He teaches literature at The George Washington University in Washington DC.

Karolina Ramqvist is one of the most influential feminists and writers of her generation in Sweden. She has published several novels, most recently, The White City (Grove Press), short stories, essays, and criticism; has contributed widely to a range of leading political and literary journals; and is the former editor in chief of Arena magazine. She lives in Stockholm with her husband and children.


Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish, French, and Russian literature. His translation of Watercolours by Lidia Ostałowska is forthcoming from Zubaan Books, and his translation of History of a Disappearance by Filip Springer was published in April by Restless Books. His translations of fiction, reportage, and drama have appeared in Words without BordersCatapultContinents, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Prize. Since 2014, he has been literature and humanities curator at the Polish Cultural Institute New York.

Francisco Cantú served as a border patrol agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012. He is a former Fulbright fellow and the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays and translations appear frequently in Guernica, and his work can also be found in The Best American Essays 2016PloughsharesOrion, and This American Life. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. His debut memoir, The Line Becomes a River, will be published by Riverhead Books in February 2018.

José Garcia is a second-year fiction student at the creative writing program at The New School. His writing and interviews have appeared in GuernicaLit Hub, and The Millions. He’s a Fulbright scholar from Guatemala.

David Ball and Nicole Ball have signed three book-length translations together, most recently Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Passage of Tears (Seagull Books, 2011) and In the United States of Africa (University of Nebraska Press, 2009). They have also cotranslated half a dozen shorter pieces by Waberi for journals such as Words without Borders, the Literary ReviewAGNI, and Calaloo. David’s own booklength translations include Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King in The Norton Anthology of Drama (2009) and Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984, which won the Modern Language Association’s prize for outstanding literary translation in 1996. David translated three stories in Haiti Noir (Akashic Books, 2011).

Saskia Vogel is from Los Angeles and lives in Berlin, where she works as a writer and Swedish-to-English literary translator. She has written on the themes of gender, power, and sexuality for publications such as GrantaThe White ReviewThe Offing, and The Quietus. Her translations include work by leading female authors, such as Katrine Marcal, Karolina Ramqvist and the modernist eroticist Rut Hillarp. Previously, she worked in London as Granta magazine’s global publicist and in Los Angeles as an editor at the AVN Media Network, where she reported on the business of pornography and adult pleasure products.