- Bettina Abarbanell from Germany reading at Marianne Courville Gallery in Hudson on April 12.
Turning onto County Route 22 on the way to Omi International Arts Center, you pass the Ghent Reformed Church, a boxy masterpiece of 19th-century symmetry in plain white clapboard. The road itself has a meandering but smooth quality; the trees are just showing the promise of new leaves. Even the light is soft: not too bright, not too overcast. It's as if everything around here is designed for calm, productive work.
I've driven into these fertile hills to visit Writers Omi at Ledig House, an international writers' and translators' residency. Held each spring and fall, it's the literary component of Omi International, which hosts art, dance, and music residencies in other months. Though it sounds like an acronym with a vaguely Japanese-ish, even meditative feel, Omi (pronounced "oh my") is actually the name of this Columbia County hamlet.
Founded in 1991 by Frances Greenburger, the creative, nonprofit haven spans 300 acres of a former dairy farm, 120 acres of which are planted with a changing array of mammoth sculptures. There's a modernist visitors center with a weekend café, a huge red barn, a host of smaller buildings, and the tidy complex of farmhouse and two dormitory barns that house the visiting talent.
Greenburger, son of renowned literary agent Sanford Greenburger, worked in the agency before moving into real estate; the value of art and literature is, literally, in his DNA. He named the writers program for a family friend, influential German publisher Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, who brought writers like Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Yukio Mishima to German readers. Omi carries on this international mandate. Of the 40 writers and translators who come here each year, two thirds are from other countries: Iceland to Iraq, Turkey to Australia; alumni include Aleksander Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, and Kiran Desai.
Writers Omi Director DW Gibson notes that published writers from anywhere (including the Hudson Valley: poet/translator Anna Moschovakis was a recent guest) are welcome to apply through Omi's open application process. Omi gets between 200 and 300 applications a year, reviewed by a panel of 15, including editors, agents, critics, and writers. Among those accepted this spring were exiled Iraqi film director/writer Hassan Blasim (twice the winner of the English PEN Writers in Translation Award, whose latest book, The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq, comes out this year; and South African-born novelist Anne Landsman, whose 2009 novel Rowing Lessons won South Africa's coveted Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
Other writers and translators come via a network of publishers and cultural organizations, such as Hamad Bin Kalifa University's Institute for Translation and Interpreting in Qatar, which helped bring the Sudanese translator Hadia Hojo to Ghent this month. "We reach out all over the world for help finding good candidates," Gibson says.
This spring's literary residents include Blasim, Landsman, German translator Bettina Abarbanell, Israeli-American writer/translator Yardenne Greenspan, Norwegian journalist Hans-Olaf Thyvold, and American writer Su-Yee Lin. Any given session might include poets, playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, journalists, children's authors, and travel writers. Room and board are provided. The menu is locally sourced, the kitchen fully stocked. Writers prepare their own food by day (there is an innate understanding of the peculiarities of writer's individual clocks here); dinners are provided, often cooked by a Portuguese chef. If anyone feels like venturing off campus, two cars are available.
The day I visited, Landsman, trim and bright, popped into the kitchen of Ledig house carrying a basketful of laundry, her hair freshly washed. She had the air of someone on a working vacation: slightly preoccupied but welcoming. We sat in the airy dining room, where a grand sideboard displayed books penned or translated by current guests, a lovely, discreet way to share one's work without fanfare. Akemi Hiatt, Omi's communications manager (also an artist) brought in big, crumbly croissants, iced coffee (for me), and decaf green tea (for Landsman).
Landsman first encountered Omi as a dinner guest. "The woman who translated my second novel into German was doing a residency here, and invited me to dinner," she says. "I just fell in love with the place." She's now deep into the third draft of a young-adult novel set in an Elizabethan-like world, which she describes as "either a historical fantasy or a fantastical history."
"It's very complicated, and I've got it all laid out in my room: index cards are on my bed, and the chapters themselves on the steps. It's a relief to be able to leave everything there, undisturbed. And I feel very strongly about my index cards," notes the former screenwriter.
- Writers Omi Spring Residents with Director DW Gibson, 2013
- Writers Omi relaxing on the Ledig House Residence Porch, spring 2013.
Free of the usual daily grind, including the time-consuming need to "hunt and forage" for food, time here is deliciously one's own, and she's been able to work at a fast, concentrated pace. Having attended other residencies, Landsman says Omi has something more: "Especially if you come yourself from another place, the international nature really adds another layer. We're all here because we love language, we love words. But you also get a chance to step into someone else's shoes and look at the experience of being a writer differently." She cites a recent conversation with Blasim about his childhood—his mother was 14 when he was born and is younger than Landsman, the mother of two teenagers, is now. And, curious about their perspective, Landsman invited Abarbanell and Austrian playwright Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker to watch The Sound of Music one night. "They were clearly not as impressed with this version of the story as I've always been," she says.
Ledig House's monochrome decor and harmonious, Federal proportions add to its muted, almost judiciously recessive atmosphere, in which the sparks of intelligence and inspiration among its guests are all the more visible. We're joined by Abarbanell, clad in a similar uniform to Landsman's: sweater, jeans, and boots. Abarbanell is known for luminous, meticulous translations of writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Denis Johnson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; her recent translation of The Great Gatsby sits on the sideboard.
To get a sense of life at Omi, we head to the dormitory barn. Their rooms are rustic duplexes, the walls softly whitewashed conglomerations of beams and planks: very Hudson Valley vernacular. Each room has a sleeping loft; its most prominent feature is a sturdy, solid workhorse of a wooden desk. Landsman's chapters cover the steps; a pair of running shoes are tucked in the closet. Abarbanell's desk is laden with a thick, open dictionary and the book she's currently translating, Rachel Kushner's The Flame Throwers; her computer screen seems poised on its stand, mid-thought. Abarbanell, who lives in Potsdam, Germany, was thrilled to get the chance to come to Omi, as much for the dip back into American English as the creative retreat. "I can read and read," she says, "but for me as a translator, it's really important to talk to people and hear them talk. It's so much about music, and rhythm: How do people talk nowadays? This is just a fantastic chance to do it."
Despite their short stays (Abarbanell is spending four weeks; Landsman, three), both are happy to talk a bit more. There's an easy conviviality, a shared sense of delight at this novel, lucky situation. We sit on the broad porch of Ledig House overlooking the sculpture fields. Across the river, the distant panorama of the Catskills is a hazy blue. There's talk of a hiking expedition, but mostly we stick to writing, and how being away from friends and family and life is an entirely different kind of work. Then, clearly, it's time to get back to it. On the way out, I pick up Abarbanell's translation of Der Grosse Gatsby and find the last line. "Ah," she says. "That last line. Really, it's all about that last line. I had to get it just right."
In the behemoth that is publishing, only 3 percent of all books in the American market are translated from another language; less than 1 percent of those are literary works. To introduce American readers to international writers—one of Omi's mandates—takes more than a quiet room and a good desk. "We have it in our budget to get a small portion of a writer's work translated so they can show it around," Gibson says. Frequently, he brings editors and agents up from New York City for dinner with the residents. "I work as a kind of matchmaker in a sense, trying to find good fits," he says. Such an evening led to an American book deal for Icelandic writer Kristen Omasdottir for an English-language version of Children in Reindeer Woods.
Gibson's well aware that fostering this remarkable cultural exchange can be slow and painstaking, not unlike the process of writing, or translating, a book. But person by person, book by book, dinner by dinner, event by event, Omi is having an impact. Its last public reading on April 12 brought some 80 people in contact with writers they'd otherwise never have known. On May 10 at 5 pm, Hudson Valley residents will get another chance, when Omi hosts a barbecue and reading: locally sourced food, internationally sourced writers. A delicious combination.
For more information, Omiartscenter.org