In my misspent youth, I read a detective novel set in the later Roman Empire, where the detective solves a crime by discovering a secret means of communication: someone, I forget who, or why, scratches messages into the wooden shells of the wax tablets used for note taking. With the wax melted back into place, the messages are undetectable. A secret hidden in plain sight, so to speak. A message underneath the message. A different form of palimpsest. I loved it.
The idea that we are surrounded by secret undercurrents that shape our interactions is appealing and depressing in an equal fashion. Appealing because there are mysteries to be uncovered, intimacies to be shared. Depressing because there are unspoken forces that can shape and ruin lives. In this issue of PEN Transmissions, four writers look at both types of secrets. Margarita García Robayo remembers the secret and secretive nature of sex when she was growing up in conservative Carribean Colombia. Jaap Robben investigates secrets and boundaries: the unspoken agreements between us, and what happens when we renege on them. Sarvat Hasin reflects on the different types of secrets that texts hold, conscious or unconscious, ‘like teeth hidden in a close-mouthed smile’. And Eley Williams shares a specific secret with us. I won’t spoil it for you.
The Roman wax tablets, by the way, are real, and the messages on them are as well. When I grew older, I realised that, while the detective elements were certainly invented, the scratched remains of messages once hidden underneath layers of wax are really there. They hold a different type of secret, one that is much more precious to me now: a clue to figuring out how people in the past interacted, their ephemeral, throwaway notes made visible.
I hope you enjoy this issue of PEN Transmissions. Is it secret? Is it safe?
– Theodora Danek, Writers in Translation Programme Manager, English PEN