UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

An edited version of this piece was published at The Tyee as “Latest Uproar at UBC May Present an Opportunity: Why the Tussle over Peter Wall Institute is a Teaching Moment for Every University”.

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Backs to the Wall: UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

A few years ago, the then Director of the University of British Columbia’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies asked me to write a Wikipedia article about the Institute. I did, but almost immediately another Wikipedia editor tagged my contribution for deletion on the grounds that its subject was insufficiently notable, because I had not cited independent secondary sources about it: newspaper articles, magazine stories, and so on.

The snag was that almost nothing had been written about the place. I searched (and asked the Director) for sources, but none were to be found. As far as the press or the general public were concerned, it was as though the Peter Wall Institute did not exist.

That is not so much the Institute’s problem any more. Its recent public events, particularly its “Wall Exchange” downtown lecture series, have enjoyed a high local profile. And now it has attracted the attention of the national and international media.

Unfortunately, this follows the spectacular resignation of its Director, and the headlines are not what UBC would have wanted: ”Academic Independence of UBC Research Institute Under Threat”; ”Head of UBC Research Institute Resigns over Academic Freedom Concern”; ”Canadian Institute Loses Boss in Showdown over High-Risk Science”. Light is being shed on the Peter Wall Institute just as it is at the eye of a darkening storm that threatens the university’s highest echelons.

UBC has been plagued by discord for a while: from the departure of its previous president, Arvind Gupta, after only thirteen months in office, followed swiftly by the resignation of the Chair of its Board of Governors, who many felt (and leaked documents seemed to confirm) had pushed Gupta out, and a Faculty Association vote of no confidence in the Board, to the controversial dismissal of novelist and professor Steven Galloway, this has been a difficult time for an institution that claims to be among the world’s top twenty public universities.

Now, once again, UBC is making the news for all the wrong reasons, as very different philosophies of the role and functioning of the university clash.

These disputes are not all simply accidental misfortunes; nor are they mainly petty matters of personality or style. They concern governance and collegiality, transparency and accountability. Above all, what is at issue is the question of what universities are for and who gets to decide. These are large concerns that are under dispute at institutions across the globe. The fact that things have repeatedly come to a head here, perhaps more than elsewhere, may in fact reflect well on UBC. It shows that there are still people who care enough to protest.

Philippe Tortell, Director of the Wall Institute, for instance. In a letter outlining the reasons for his resignation, he argues that the Institute, by bringing together scholars from across the university to meet and discuss their research outside of department and faculty structures, offers “a model for truly creative and unconventional thinking in the increasingly bureaucratic culture that is spreading across universities around the world.”

So when the UBC president, Santa Ono, issued what Tortell describes as “a series of directives” that would “eliminate the majority of PWIAS programs” and appropriate “a large fraction of PWIAS funds” for programs run by central administration, this came across as “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” The bureaucracy was taking over, in the name of a “strategic plan” that elsewhere Tortell calls “a total travesty and a total sham . . . an empty, hollow document of which the administration should be wholeheartedly embarrassed.”

On the one hand, then, you have top-down directives from the university hierarchy. Ono’s Vice-President for “Research and Innovation,” Gail Murphy, helps to oversee the “Research Excellence Clusters” to which Peter Wall funds are now to be tied. The UBC Plan’s primary definition of “research impact” for such clusters cites “spinoffs that take advantage of technological developments.” This model may work in some areas of the Sciences. A Computer Scientist, Murphy’s work is on “improving the productivity of knowledge workers, including software developers,” and in line with the Plan she directs a spin-off company that trumpets its links to firms such as Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman.

On the other hand, you have an Institute that offers scholars some autonomy from administrative or market demands, with a mission to promote “deep and unconstrained research into some of the most profound questions and challenges facing humanity.” Its most visible activity within the university is the Wall Scholars program, whose main requirement is no more and no less than that scholars be in residence at the Institute and meet regularly. In addition to Director Tortell, an oceanographer who studies the concentration of gases such as carbon dioxide in the Antarctic Ocean, it has Distinguished Professors such as Derek Gregory, a geographer dedicated to “a critical study of the techno-cultural and political dimensions of air war.”

It is not hard to see that there are very different visions at work here. There is a widening gulf between what the British critic Stephan Collini calls the “outer bluster and inner defensiveness” of “current HiEdspeak” and the more modest aims of an Institute whose method is to bring people together and see what happens when they work without the constraints of directives from above or the injunction to seek yet more revenue from outside.

Not that the Institute is perfect; far from it. There is some irony to the fact that it is only thanks to a wealthy donor–the eponymous Peter Wall, a Vancouver property developer, who in 1991 gave the then extravagant sum of $15 million in his own corporation’s shares to the university–that the Institute has been able to maintain some distance from a central administration increasingly focused on figures and funding. Members of the Wall family, moreover, make up two of the five seats on the institution’s Board of Trustees, a fact that complicates and compromises its independence. There could have been more in the way of intellectual leadership, and not simply via fiery statements of resignation. At times the atmosphere is too cosy, too much like a somewhat sedate Faculty Club.

Above all, the Institute could undoubtedly have been making a better case for itself, and for its alternative vision of the university. This is its responsibility, and it may have led to more press coverage and attention, and not just in the face of the imminent dispossession of its autonomy. It would also have made it easier to write about it for Wikipedia.

Right now, the Institute’s Wikipedia article is basically a puff piece, crafted largely by its own staff, and prefaced with an official Wikipedia warning that it “is written like an advertisement.” The temptations to vacuous self-promotion are many and strong, and few in the contemporary university are immune to them. “Please help improve it,” the warning continues, “by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links.” The university, like a Wikipedia article, is a work in progress that can always be improved, and that task should not be left to the administrators.

The fight is not over. In the face of overwhelming disapproval of his decision, President Ono has taken a qualified step back and promises “a fulsome conversation.” Better late than never, though the sword of Damocles is still poised over what has been an intellectual oasis for many of us.

And perhaps this crisis can become an opportunity. With the spotlight on the Wall Institute, now is the time to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary research dedicated to critique and innovation rather than utility or financial profit. If the university can come together for an open and thoughtful discussion of the very nature of “advanced study,” it would be a move in the right direction. What is at stake is the nature of the institution itself, and the university’s distance from the the logics of state or market. This means that the university needs to be accountable to the Wall Institute, as much as the Institute needs to be accountable to the university.

It would be a positive outcome of the current controversy if UBC emerged with increased powers of resistance, more democratic and more certain of why we need universities in the first place.

See also: excellence, From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise, Warwick University Ltd, From Here, Universities at War

Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

An edited version of this post was published on the CBC.

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”

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With the election of former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, with one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react? A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.

Every economic transaction is always also a political transaction, and this is nowhere more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the nineteenth-century opium wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants, to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand. But at least since the Second World War, a sense of politics as more than simply national self-interest has also been part of the discourse around trade. For instance, US post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat. This Cold War logic framed international trade for forty years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavory regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippinnes…) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “Free World.”

With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. Both Left and Right would sometimes argue that sanctions and embargoes would better effect political transformation (in apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba) and sometimes claim that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services. In the Clinton era, preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) were justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime. Similar arguments have, until very recently, sought to justify economic contracts with middle-eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, sometimes–often, even–such justifications would be denounced as a cover for economic interests. Few, for example, believe that the Gulf War of 1990/91 was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the US and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin they were, those justifications had to be in place. Trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development that went beyond naked self-interest.

The private sector started telling similar tales. Most notably, the tech entrepreneurs and start-ups of Silicon Valley, at the same time as they amassed unheralded fortunes (and showed a marked disinclination to pay corporate taxes), marketed their activites in terms of social change: Apple adverts featured images of figures such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan ‘Think Different”; Google’s slogan was “Don’t be Evil”; and Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In the face of evidence of the effects of their rampant destruction of environments and livelihoods on vulnerable populations and an ever more vulnerable planet, even behemoths of an industry such as resource extraction have followed suit: British Petroleum adopted a green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere spoke of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”

All this is now changing. Countries and corporations increasingly dispense with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless Donald Trump, who more than anyone has reinforced the centrality of trade to politics, whether domestic or international, but no longer in the service of any narrative of liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale necessary is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right can be welcomed as an investment opportunity, and its environmental and political consequences be cast to the wind. The sense that some broader narrative or political justification is required has faded.

In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past thirty years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s should be unthinkable. “Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, and in dedicating his vote in favor of impeaching his elected predecessor, Dilma Roussef, to a colonel convicted of human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact in favour of democracy. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.

The Problem with Silver Linings

An edited version of this post was published in The Tyee.

“The Problem with Silver Linings: The CBC and Jair Bolsonaro”

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How should Canada respond to this week’s election in Brazil? How should our media report it? An article (and tweets) on CBC, seeking good news for Canada on what many agree is a dark day for Brazil, has sparked fierce criticism. And rightly so. It was parochial, insensitive, and cynical, portraying a troubling break in Latin America’s democratic consensus as though it were business as normal.

The election was one of the most momentous in Brazil’s history: a reversal of the previous election (of 2014), which had brought the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, to power at the head of the left-wing Worker’s Party. In her youth, Rousseff had been active in armed resistance to the military dictatorship in place from 1964 to 1985. In 1970, aged 23, she was captured, detained, and repeatedly tortured over a three-year period. Now, four years later, Brazil has a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who openly supports torture, praises the dictatorship, and promises to go back to throwing leftists in jail. Not to mention his racism, sexism, and self-described homophobia. Even the Economist (hardly a journal of the Left) describes Bolsonaro as “a threat to democracy”.

The CBC knows all this. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his views. Yet alongside reporting the Canadian government’s clear disdain for this turn of events, our national broadcaster decided to put a positive spin on things: Canadian business might benefit! Senior Writer Chris Arsenault tells us: “A Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” The CBC liked this analysis so much that it highlighted it (repeatedly) on Twitter: “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynist statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities”.

The CBC has since apologized (sort of), for presenting what should have been tagged as “analysis” as “news.” For his part, Arsenault has suggested that his article was a kind of satire: ” The purpose of the report is that markets are amoral”, he tells us. But not many, if any, of his readers saw this. Reaction to his article and (perhaps especially) to the tweets has been outraged: “Have you lost your minds?”; “Wtf”; “a shame”; “a journalism fail”; “irresponsible”; “gross”; “nauseating”; “awful”. A friend of mine said he was “hoping the account has been hacked”.

But let’s take Arsenault’s article at face value. What’s the problem? Doesn’t every cloud have a silver lining? Even the most monstrous regimes have their benefits: trains run on time, and so on. And why not respect the democratic will of the Brazilian people, recognize that Bolsonaro won, and “get over it”? Canada happily trades with plenty of countries (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China…) accused of human rights abuses and/or anti-democratic practices. Isn’t economic engagement better than sanctions or isolationism?

Here’s the problem. First, the article and tweets demonstrate a stunning parochialism. They remind me of the apocryphal headline said to have run in a Scottish newspaper following one of the twentieth century’s most famous disasters: “Titanic Sinks! Dundee Man Feared Lost!” Whatever one thinks of Bolsonaro, this narrow-minded Canadian take on the impending transformation of Latin America’s largest country likewise spectacularly misses the real story, which is not really about us at all. If we want to think in hemispheric terms (and we should), it would be better to consider the broader narrative of the region’s mixed response to a history of state violence and the now imperilled fortunes of its more recent efforts to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

Second, the focus on advantages to be gained by select Canadian businesses (above all, in resource extraction) shows a worrying insensitivity. Brazil has 210 million inhabitants. Arsenault’s parochial preoccupation with Canadian economic profit leads him to disregard the impact the new regime will have on this diverse mass of humanity, not least women, the poor, and the 100 million who have some African ancestry (and make Brazil also the world’s second-largest African country). All these are merely collateral damage, as are, perhaps more worryingly still, the country’s vast and priceless ecological riches, upon which global climate and biodiversity depend. Arsenault signs off breezily that “losses for the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro could spell big gains for Canadian investors.”

Third, the article and the CBC’s Twitter feed indicate breath-taking cynicism (even if Arsenault is now disclaiming it). They make no attempt to defend Bolsonaro from his critics. They take for granted that he is everything they say: “homophobic, racist, and misogynist”; a threat to indigenous people and the environment; a leader who will increase repression as he seeks to “hew closer to Latin America’s past military leaders.” When we trade with other countries whose political vices we claim to denounce, we usually resort to the argument (justified or not) that these are societies that are misunderstood; that they are moving in the right direction; that international engagement encourages moderates and liberalizers, while embargoes embolden hardliners. With Bolsonaro, these claims don’t work, as Brazil is clearly becoming less moderate and less liberal. Scandalously, the CBC doesn’t care.

Fourth, the CBC is here not merely reporting events. This is not even “analysis.” It is actively making the news. Not only because this article has entered public discussion, becoming an object of understandable incredulity. An article like this also normalizes a state of exception. The long-standing consensus in Latin American countries such as Brazil (or Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) that emerged from authoritarian rule in the 1980s and 1990s has been that there is no turning back: left or right, no mainstream politician would countenance breaking that democratic pact. But we now see a president willing to praise dictatorship. That would have been unthinkable just two years ago; no self-respecting news outlet should pretend that it is no big deal. No journalist should encourage us to tolerate cynicism. Doing so makes the CBC complicit in the erosion of democracy.

But is there a silver lining in the mini-catastrophe that is the CBC’s bungling of this story? The mythical Scottish newspaper headline told us more about Scotland than about the Titanic. Similarly, however unhelpful Arsenault’s article is about Brazil, it does give Brazilians (and the world) insight into Canada. We like to think we hold ourselves and our media to higher standards. This can lead others to call us smug. But we are smug no more. Canadian elites expose their brutal cynicism by dispensing with ideology, jettisoning the pretence that our international relations and trade policies stem from any desire to improve the world. This is another nail in the coffin of Canadian exceptionalism. From Toronto to São Paulo, Recife to Winnipeg, we are all in the same boat now, and that’s as good a basis for solidarity as any.

From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.

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Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

Read this as a PDF document.

Zapatos en las piedras

Zapatos en las piedras poster

Raúl Gatica (ed.), Zapatos en las piedras: Seis narradoras(es) latinos en Canadá / Shoes on the Rocks: Six Latin American Storytellers in Canada (Oaxaca: 1450, 2013)

Reading a bilingual book can make for an odd experience. There is something both excessive and strangely tantalizing about it, depending in part on your own linguistic expertise. If, after all, you can read both languages, the doubled text can seem surplus to requirements, leaving you with a slight conundrum: which version to read? But if you are able to read only one of the two, some frustration or doubt may ensue: does the translation match the “original”? Are you really reading the same text as others are? By trying to be inclusive, to appeal to as many potential readers as possible, bilingualism also necessarily introduces divisions and questions about the limits of inclusiveness, the price to be paid for any such gesture.

It is appropriate, then, that such issues arise in a book by migrant writers: in this instance, Latin Americans in Canada. For migration and exile also always give rise to queries about limits and boundaries, dilemmas and choices, translation and inclusion. There is something unsettling about an acknowledgement that borders are not fixed, and that the same object, the same text, can look very different depending on where we are coming from. And though it is true that none of the stories in this thought-provoking collection are directly about the “Latino-Canadian experience” (whatever that may be), it is interesting that they are often concerned with the paradoxes of excess and insufficiency, too much and too little, and with the problem of (mis)matches.

For instance, the collection’s opening story, an excellent little parable by Dafne Blanco, traces the disconcerting effects of what is at first a very slight disturbance: somehow, people’s “socks were disappearing, that is, only one from each pair” (25). Everyone, then, is forced to go about with unmatched footwear. Reactions vary: the Justice of the Peace avoids the topic; others “walk around unabashed as in a ridiculous parade” (26); the narrator forces his children to wear boots; a black market in matching socks provides the rich with a “symbol of social status” (27); the pharmacist creates an illusion of symmetry with paint and adhesive tape; and the beggars on the church steps wear “plastic bags of matching hues covering their lower extremities” (29). Ultimately, the mystery is perhaps resolved in the person of Doña Jacinta, the local coffee vendor who is seen wandering off with “an enormous sack, seemingly full of little rags, which never leaves her sight.” Doña Jacinta is also known for serving watered-down coffee that gives the story its title: “Agua de Calcetín”; “Sock Extract.” Is a diluted drink too much (water) or too little (coffee)? It is both at the same time. But rather than complaining, the narrator praises the variety and unpredictability that results: it “tastes a little different every day, it is always so flavourful; what is your secret?” (29).

Other stories contain other tales of mismatch: unrequited or excessive love or desire, for instance, in Mónica Paz’s “La catadora” (“The Taster”) or Raúl Gatica’s “Al revés” (“Upside Down”). Heinz Avendaño’s “Donde hay cenizas, fuego queda” (“Where There is Ash, Fire Remains”) features a lover who literally ingests his beloved, as though to thereby eliminate the drastic distance that has come between them. Two tales revolve around surprises thrown up by gender ambiguity or transsexuality: in Avendaño’s “Alejandra e Ignacio” (“Alejandro and Ignacio”), a dinner date brings a twist to the friendship between old schoolmates; in Rosas Rojas’s “Mujeres” (“Women”), a couple fight when a secret is revealed. Indeed, consistently these stories of disparity and difference (too much or too little, or both) revolve around secrets of some kind. The collection is permeated with a vague sense of uncertainty and unsettlement, with an ever-present feeling of potential transformation or dislocation. What becomes important is how people react to and live with such uncertainty, how they become open to difference or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is nothing wrong with a little uncertainty. Indeed, many of the contributions to this collection encourage the notion that any event can and should have a multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations. One of my favourite stories is also perhaps the darkest: Dafne Blanco’s “Juicio sumario” (“Summary Trial”) revolves around two deaths. A mother has died, and her demise brings her now grown-up children together–but also sets them apart–as they are prompted to think back to their father’s death from suicide, some eighteen years previously. He had killed himself in peculiarly unnecessary (“corny” [80]) and spectacular fashion: hanging in his bathrobe from the chandelier in the library. He had left a note, “peeking out of his pocket,” not fully contained by his clothing, but by contrast this was too little: it said “Yes, I did it,” without explaining what “it” may have been (77). Each child therefore imagines his or her own take on the mystery, the source of their father’s guilt, none of which quite matches. And though ultimately we seem to be given the “right” answer, this is not to say that the others are wrong, because each is an insight to some aspect of the patriarch’s character. Their excessiveness is somehow appropriate, though even so they are all somehow insufficient, for we can never know exactly what someone else feels or thinks. The best we can manage is one attempt after another to interpret and understand, in as many languages as we can.

In sum, this is a fine and well-written (and well-translated) collection of stories. It is varied and inclusive enough to satisfy different moods or allow diverse approaches to similar themes and preoccupations. But it is short enough to leave us wanting more.