“We are living in a world and we don’t have a fiction to catch up to it.” –Richard Rodriguez
Last June, Universidad Loyola Andalucía and Loyola University Chicago hosted Andalusia in Andalucía: An International Conference on Flannery O’Connor in Seville, Spain. Over 60 speakers, scholars and guests from the United States, Spain, Italy, and the UK explored Seville with a series of remarkable excursions: A private tour of the Seville Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. A visit to the baroque 17th century Hospital de los Venerables, which houses an intimate collection of Velazquez art. A walk beneath Metrapol Parasol (commonly called Las Setas) on our way to endless, all-night tapas at La Santa. A voyage to Cordoba to tour the world-famous Mosque and Cathedral.
The main exploration of the conference, however, was the question: Does Flannery O’Connor “translate” to an international audience?
The answer is, in many ways, no. That said, the challenge to understand O’Connor through an international lens made the conference an unusually compelling and worthwhile journey.
Seville seemed honored to host the O’Connor community; more than one Spanish attendee commented on how unusual it was to have a conference devoted to an American woman writer. The Mayor of Seville, Juan Espadas Cejas, graciously welcomed guests to the city before an opening panel held in Ayuntamiento, Seville’s City Hall. An innocuous opening (“How did you come to read O’Connor?”) revealed how three Spanish authors understood—or, more appropriately, failed to understand—O’Connor. Spanish poet and novelist Antionio Rivero Taravillo credited O’Connor’s humor as “her universal language,” but noted that he (as a writer who had first read O’Connor in preparation for the conference) felt O’Connor hadn’t had any influence on his work. Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki (fiction, essays, criticism) found that O’Connor alienated him immediately: “There is no space in my work for cruelty, violence—it would need a purpose.” Eduardo Jorda, Spanish poet, novelist, and teacher of creative writing, said that over the two or three decades he’d been reading O’Connor, “She has grown funnier, more terrible, more beautiful, more frightening.” Jorda, however, pronounced that he did not understand the characterization of O’Connor as “grotesque.” These three Spanish authors, who were presenting in a panel titled “Fans of Flannery O’Connor: Contemporary Spanish Writers,” seemed unable—or unprepared—to articulate their own disconnect with O’Connor. Audience member (and one of the conference’s chief organizers) Mark Bosco, S.J., commented insightfully that a Spanish Catholic audience, in particular, wouldn’t grasp the context of a subversive O’Connor in a protestant South. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it,” O’Connor wrote, “when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout.” To oversimplify: a Flannery O’Connor would not likely exist in Catholic Spain, where no one was “hard of hearing.”
The next morning of the conference opened with a dazzling Richard Rodriguez who declared (gleefully) that at 73 years old, his work was “wildly uncontrolled in the pleasure of ideas.” This introduction prepared us for Rodriguez’s impressionistic plenary, “St. Flannery of Dixie: Born Again,” a seemingly freeform recital of personal reminisces alongside insights about O’Connor. But Rodriguez’s evocative stories were fully considered and artfully crafted. To consider O’Connor is to see that today, “We are living in a world and we don’t have a fiction to catch up to it,” Rodriguez said. The grotesque, he insisted, is no longer a literary contrivance.
The afternoon brought more satisfying answers to our consideration of how O’Connor may or may not “translate” to an international readership in a panel titled “Flannery O’Connor Across Borders: From English to Spanish.” Four women translators discussed the joy and difficulty of translating O’Connor to Spanish. In her substantive (and occasionally hilarious) presentation, Gretchen Dobrott described how O’Connor’s work presented specific difficulties to the translator: O’Connor “favors coordination to subordination”; she uses “simple preterite verbs” and “locative adverbials”; she relies heavily on vernacular speech and dialectical features (geographical, temporal, and social) alongside a “culturally bound lexicon”; she revels in “puns, play on words”—forget about the symbolic names (Manley Pointer) or her odd similes and metaphors. For the translator, the vernacular becomes standardized; or the dialogue, said Dobrott, which is “essential to character development, is not always accurately represented.” Ten years after Dobrott’s 2006 translation of O’Connor stories to Spanish, she said, O’Connor continues not to be read in Spain. But the panel communicated quite effectively why another kind of writer—one whose work relies less on the conventions that O’Connor utilizes so artfully—would be understood more easily by a foreign audience.
One final conference highlight—and there are too many to describe in this short space—was a screening of a near-final edit of the documentary, Flannery O’Connor: Acts of Redemption. Filmmakers Mark Bosco, S.J., Elizabeth Coffman, and Chris O’Hare artfully uncover lesser-known elements of O’Connor’s biography and present the material alongside interviews with O’Connor editors and friends (like Robert Giroux and Sally Fitzgerald) as well as her admirers (like Hilton Als, Alice Walker, Mary Gordon, and Tobias Wolff). “You have a wolf dressed up as a grandma,” Tommy Lee Jones drawls in deadpan, “something’s gonna happen.” Perhaps more than any other documentary of O’Connor, Acts of Redemption places heavy emphasis on the racial and social context surrounding O’Connor’s work, neither condemning nor crediting the (arguably) apolitical O’Connor. This documentary reminds us that O’Connor is a tough translation for even her most ardent admirers. And this is what makes her such an engaging artist, whether we are searching to understand her fiction in the context of her time, or our own.