Hwang Jungeun on Seoul, noodles, and gentrification

In South Korea, things don't get verbalised properly or are distorted linguistically.

One Hundred Shadows, the debut novel of Hwang Jungeun, is a tilt toward the borderlines of society, where the disconnected and the dispossessed attempt to make a home; it is a ferroconcrete dream version of Seoul with a wistful languor, desperate to prove that even in the murkiest crannies of the city, there are surges of fellow-feeling, or snatches of shared joy, that can suddenly break through the hard-bitten top layers and bloom.

Working as an assistant at a repair shop in a sprawling, cavernous electronics market, Eungyo finds herself drawn into an idiosyncratic community of Seoul’s twilight periphery. There is Mr. Yeo, her boss, who works until the crack of dawn and adores sweet red beans with shaved ice; there is the itinerant and rambling Yugon, who puts his faith in the lottery rather than in other people; and there is Mujae, who, like Eungyo, abandoned his formal education and also works as an assistant. Eungyo and Mujae meet occasionally to eat noodles and drink beer, and as the demolition of the electronics market looms alongside the regeneration of the neighborhood surrounding it, the two come to develop a timid intimacy which leans clumsily into a love formed from the outside looking in, and they discovered themselves synced into one orbit—and on the edges of observing their shadows rise.

Ahead of her UK tour, Hwang Jungeun sat down with Asymptote to discuss One Hundred Shadows, which was translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon and published by Tilted Axis Press on 3 October.

Hwang Jungeun’s replies appear below both in the Korean and in English translation by Deborah Smith.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

Megan Bradshaw (MB): One Hundred Shadows takes place largely in an electronics market in central Seoul—an impoverished area targeted by rapid regeneration efforts. Which specific locations of the city inspired the novel’s settings? The electronics market is so pervasive, its function and internal dynamics so important to the main characters’ lives, that it almost acts as a character itself within the story. Is there a personal anecdote attached to a similar electronics market?

Hwang Jungeun (HJ): There are two locations which form the background to the electronics market which appears in this novel. One is a large electronics market in Yongsan, an area in central Seoul. In the process of this area’s redevelopment, there was an incident in which five evicted residents and one armed policeman were killed. This happened on the morning of January 20, 2009. The conglomerate that was heading the redevelopment construction employed civilians known as ‘construction thugs’. They entered the building earmarked for demolition, whose residents had been protesting their eviction, en masse. While the residents were trapped on the roof, they lit a fire on the ground floor and fired water cannons. Though the police of the South Korean government were there in the hundreds, they protected the ‘thugs’, and actively encouraged the illegal actions committed by them. In the final moments, they implemented something known as the ‘Trojan horse operation’, used to suppress protests. It was an operation which used a crane and container to demolish the lookout tower which the residents had constructed on the roof. The moment armed police swarmed onto the roof, a huge conflagration broke out in the tower. Six people who were unable to escape from the tower died. This was all broadcast on the news and many people witnessed the moment of the fire breaking out in real time. I was one of them.

After the incident, the place became known as Namildang. I wrote this novel from summer to autumn 2009. I wrote before the sun went down, then around sunset I went and held a protest in front of Namildang. After the fire, the bereaved families gathered at the building and almost every day a violent altercation occurred due to the use of police force. That place, and the things that happened there, were so miserable, I wanted to make something warm. I thought that it was the only thing I could do. And so I wrote this.

Secondly, there is a place called Sewoon Electronics Market in Jongno, which is both the old and current centre of Seoul. Its eight long buildings were completed in 1968, and stretch from Jongno to Toegye-ro, and the first of these buildings, which is the modern market, was demolished in 2008. Even when the disaster occurred in Yongsan in 2009, demolition was still going on. My father has been repairing audio equipment for forty years in the second of Sewoon Market’s buildings. The setting around the electronics market which appears in the novel, including Mr Oh’s repair shop, Omusa, and the transformer workshop where Mujae works, are all descriptions of places that were there or still are.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from the Nordic countries, the UK and Israel.

The week is nearly over, which not only means it’s the weekend but also that it’s time for our literary catch-up! For this edition, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen shares updates on the upcoming awards season, among other news from Scandinavia. Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood then reports on literary happenings from the UK. Rounding it all up is our correspondent for Israel, Alma Beck, currently residing in New Orleans, where she teaches philosophy for children.

Obligatory reminder: After you’ve caught up with all the news, head over to our just-launched Fall 2016 issue here!

First up, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has the latest from the Nordic countries:

Lars Huldén, the Swedish-speaking Finn poet, has passed away at the age of 90. Born in Pietarsaari, Finland, Huldén was a much loved and highly regarded writer, scholar, translator, and recipient of the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize in 2000. He grew up among a tradition of oral storytelling in the local Swedish dialect and worked tirelessly throughout his adult life, publishing a large collection of poetry, prose, plays, and sonnets, among other works. He also produced Swedish translations of Finnish and English classics, such as the Finns’ national epic, Kalevala, and Shakespearean texts.

Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) is accepting applications for grants until November 1. If you are a publisher, translator, author, or event organizer interested in working with Finnish literature, FILI has a handy guide on their site to guide you through the options. FILI, founded in 1977, hands out approximately 700,000€ worth of grants annually, in addition to hosting translator residencies and maintaining a database of translations of Finnish literature.


Highlights from Our Fall 2016 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

This Monday, we launched our Fall 2016 issue featuring many exciting names. If you haven’t had the time to get into Verisimilitude just yet, we suggest a few great places to begin. Enjoy!

Blog Editor Nina Sparling says Stefan Zweig’s To Friends in a Foreign Land, translated by David Kretz, transports her to another time:

Perhaps more than previous issues, the contents of the October 2016 issue of Asymptote, ‘Verisimilitude,’ center on the matter of language itself. This comes as no surprise to me. Nevertheless it is a great pleasure to read so many voices grappling with questions about language, place, and politics—all topics I hold dear. The humor and familiarity of miscomprehension in the opening lines of Maïssa Bey’s Cafés Morts are of particular warmth.

But I keep returning to Stefan Zweig’s To Friends in a Foreign Land. The texture of the language transports me to another time with its tangled words and high political drama.  I can imagine it printed on flimsy yellowed pages, typeset on an analog machine. And I find Zweig’s rendering of how, in times of foundational conflict, the national community overwhelms the intellectual or amicable communities to be tender and tragic. In lament of paused friendships, he writes, “Through this trust our hours became beautiful and the notion of homeland was detached from the borders of empires: our fraternity was strong across languages and pure beyond all reproach. That is over now, dear ones…My love and my hatred belong to me no longer.”

I read this letter and wonder about its publication. I think about Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and his arguments about how the nation is a mere constructed entity, created of fictions and mythologies woven together at a complex loom. I contemplate the meaning of the word nation with much greater reservation and doubt than Zweig does (or more like Vazha Pshavela does in Cosmopolitanism and Patriotism)—but his letter sticks with me.

Blog Editor Madeline Jones was utterly charmed by Lídia Jorge’s The Bird Hypothesis, translated by Sinead Crehan, Christine Fernandes, Margaret Jull Costa, and Hazel Robins:

While it’s impossible for me to choose one favorite piece from the fall issue, I want to highlight Lidia Jorge’s The Bird Hypothesis not least because it’s an incredibly compact and affecting work. The 1997 short story was translated from the Portuguese for Asymptote by a group of four talented women working together—a collaboration that began at City University of London’s Translate in the City 2016 summer course. Acclaimed translator of José Saramago, Javier Marías, and others, Margaret Jull Costa initiated the project with three of the course attendees, all at various stages of their translation educations and careers. This type of collaboration and mentorship is invaluable to young translators trying to get published while not having any publications on their CVs, and to the growing (though still small) market for international literature.


Calling All Translators of Indian Literature

Asymptote celebrates the diversity and dissent within Indian writing

Only two weeks left to submit to Asymptote’s first-ever Special Feature on Contemporary Indian Language Literature in English Translation!

Since we first announced the Feature in August, we have received some very exciting work from all across the Indian map. And we can’t wait to find more voices, because in a country so large, we know there are more out there.

Take advantage of these last two weeks to revise your best translations and send them in!


Translation Tuesday: A selection from “Written in the Dark,” a new anthology of Russian poets from Ugly Duckling Presse

With plaintive, ardent reverie, / We drink these soundless words.

Fresh from launching our Fall 2016 issue yesterday, featuring exclusive writing from 31 countries, by such authors as Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai, and Anita Raja, we present a selection from “Written in the Dark,” a new, groundbreaking anthology out from Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems gathered therein were written in 1942, during the most severe winter of the Nazi Siege of Leningrad, in which one million people perished. Charles Bernstein compares these poems to “the sparks from two sticks of wood, creating a fire that warms even in an apocalypse.”


. . .

The creek sick of speech
Told water it took no side.
The water sick of silence
At once began again to shriek.

—Gennady Gor

translated from the Russian by Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yankelevich


In Conversation with Ferrez, the Father of Literatura Marginal

We don't wait for writers to come to the periphery, we create our own kind of art.

Brazil’s São Paulo is the largest city in Latin America, with a population of around 20 million people. Where Rio de Janeiro, a few hours up the coast, delights tourists with its beautiful scenery and relaxed beach lifestyle, São Paulo often horrifies visitors. Dubbed ‘blade-runner in the tropics’ by the Serbian-born musician DJ Suba, who was one of Brazil’s most important producers, the city can seem, at first, like a dystopic mess of concrete towers and roads which continue endlessly into a shimmering grey horizon.

What makes the city so vast is the miles and miles of densely packed poor neighbourhoods that border the city. Locals call this a peripheria—the periphery—or as margins—the margins. This border was built over the last few decades by immigrants to the city. Finding jobs but nowhere to live they began building their own homes on the outskirts of São Paulo. Poorly constructed houses and unplanned streets with very few amenities, the periphery has been described as medieval by some local commentators. Life here is often characterised by violence, crime and isolation. Locals with low-paid service jobs in the centre of the city often commute four or five hours a day to get to work because of problems with roads, transport, and traffic.

All of this makes the fact that the São Paulo periphery is home to one of the most popular Brazilian literary movements in recent years all the more surprising. Poetry salons, called Saraus, happen all around the periphery every day of the week, where writers and poets recite compositions detailing life in their neighbourhoods. The best of these events are packed with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. There are very few established writers who have not made the pilgrimage to a periphery Sarau. The movement even has its very own bookshop, devoted to all that is marginal, located in the centre of the city.

The author Ferrez is known as the father of the Literatura Marginal movement. His novel, Capão Pecado, published in 2000, was one of the first contemporary accounts of life in the periphery by an author who grew up there. Its descriptions of violence, use of city and hip-hop influenced slang, and characters who often seem to have no future made the book a classic and Ferrez himself a household name. When he coined the phrase Literatura Marginal, he became a symbolic role model for a generation of marginal writers.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Egypt, Bangladesh, the ALTA conference and on the recent Nobel Prize list.

Welcome to this edition of Asymptote’s weekly update, a hop, step, and jump tour de force bringing you the latest from three continents of literature in translation. To kick off, our Egyptian Editor-at-Large Omar El Adi sends us his bulletin, including news on literary prizes and an upcoming event in London. We then zoom in on Bangladesh, where Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel reports on recent festivals and the passing of Bangla authors. Also, US-based Assistant Editor Julia Leverone visited the ALTA conference so you didn’t have to. And finally Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us the round-up from the literary world on the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. 

Editor-at Large Omar El Adi has the latest literary news from Egypt:

The inaugural annual lecture of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will be given by Palestinian author Anton Shammas at the British Library in London on 14 October. The jury for this year’s prize includes last year’s winning translator Paul Starkey, professor of Arabic Zahia Smail Salhi, writer and journalist Lucy Popescu, and literary consultant and publisher Bill Swainson. Paul Starkey’s 2015 win came for his translation of Youssef Rakha’s The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars (2014). An excerpt of Rakha’s third book Paulo (forthcoming in English) was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Asymptote. The winner of the prize will be announced this December.

In Alexandria, Tara Al-Bahr, an interactive online platform, is launching its second print edition with original essays as well as translations into Arabic on the topics of cultural and artistic practices and urban change in contemporary Alexandria. Tara Al-Bahr launched in May this year, and its second printed edition came out on Thursday, 6 October.

The Facebook group Alexandria Scholars is commencing a series of talks, titled “The City Dialogue Series”, with the support of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, and curated by the sociologist Amro Ali. The first lecture, “Alexandria and the search for meaning”, was on 10 October and explored solutions to the city’s problems “through the terrain of historical, urban, and philosophical analysis”. Future events involving writers, academics, political figures, and researchers have already been planned for November and December.

In publishing news, Mohamed Rabie’s Otared (2016) was released in English translation in September by AUC Press. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize in Arabic Fiction in 2016 and is set in a dystopian post-revolutionary Egypt. An excerpt is available here.

Halal If You Hear Me, a forthcoming anthology of writings by Muslims who are queer, women, gender nonconforming or transgender, is calling for submissions. Editors Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo are looking for submissions of up to five poems or two essays, including a cover letter with contact info and a short bio. Those interested should email halalifyouhearme@gmail.com before 1 December, 2016.

Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel shares some stories from the neighbouring Bangladesh:

Next month sees Bangladesh’s capital revving up for the annual Dhaka Literary Festival, which runs from November 17-19.  The festival has been held at the historic Bangla Academy since 2012, and is directed and produced by Sadaf Saaz, Ahsan Akbar, and K. Anis Ahmed. In the face of numerous recent Freedom of Expression violations in Bangladesh, the festival marks a resurgence of Bangladeshi literary culture, reaching across a number of different disciplines and genres: from fiction and literary non-fiction to history, politics and society; from poetry and translations to science, mathematics, philosophy and religion. The festival has more than 20,000 attendees and past contributors include Vikram Seth, Tariq Ali, Rosie Boycott, William Dalrymple, Ahdaf Soueif, Shashi Tharoor, Jung Chang, and Pankaj Mishra as well famous writers of Bangla literature like Hasan Azizul Huq, Selina Hossain, Debesh Roy, and Nirmalendu Goon.

In August and September Bangladesh mourned the passing of two prominent Bangla poets. Author, poet, and playwright Syed Shamsul Haq died at the age of 81 in Dhaka on September 27, 2016, and renowned Bangladeshi poet Shaheed Quaderi passed away in New York at the age of 74 on August 28, 2016. Haq was given the Bangla Academy Award in 1966 and the Ekushey Padak, the highest national award of Bangladesh, in 1984. He was also honored with a Swadhinata Padak in 2000 for his contribution to Bangla Literature. Payer Awaj Paoa Jay’ [We Hear the Footsteps] and Nuruldiner Sara Jibon [The Entire Life of Nuruldin], his most popular plays, are considered to be cornerstones of Bangladeshi theatre. Shaheed Quaderi received the Ekushey Padak in the category of Language and Literature in 2011 and was previously awarded the Bangla Academy Award in 1973. Prominent Bengali scholars such as Kabir Chowdhury, Kaiser Haq, and Farida Majid have translated his poems into English.


What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.


The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.



A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.


Intuition and Analysis: Interviewing Guest Artist Andrea Popyordanova

Sometimes the texts that impress me the most are the most difficult to work on.

Illustrator Andrea Popyordanova is Asymptote’s guest artist for the July 2016 issue. Her beautiful collages reimagined scenes from thirteen texts in our Fiction, Nonfiction, Drama, Writers on Writers, and Multilingual Writing Feature sections. Guest Artist Liaison Berny Tan interviewed her about contributing to Asymptote and how she develops her unique imagery.

Berny Tan (BT): The illustrations you created for Asymptote have this wonderful effortlessness about them, even when they’re composed of so many elements within a single frame. Could you take us through your process of conceiving and executing each piece?

Andrea Popyordanova (AP): I usually look at the most powerful descriptions in each text. I trust my intuition—if I vividly remember a particular expression or moment in a text, I visualize that. I start by composing the image in color, and then lay down the details that complete the whole. It’s all very quick, all about recreating a feeling or a striking image in my head. There isn’t really a process; it’s more of trying things until there is an image that works.


BT: You have a great way of visually setting a scene that feels almost like a memory of the narrative itself. In your editorial work, what are the challenges of balancing image and text, especially when you have to capture the text in a static image?

AP: I try to be slightly more analytical. I focus on the point of the text, and emphasize or extend it with my piece. An illustration in a magazine functions as a highlight of what the illustrator thinks is important in the text. I also try to figure out what’s appropriate for the readers of the article, and to match the style of my work to the publication.


Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “The Midwife” by Katja Kettu

To this day I can’t say what spurred me into action the first time I helped bring a life into this world.

Today we’re thrilled to present an extract of Katja Kettu’s breakthrough novel, The Midwife—also Kettu’s debut in English, available from Amazon Crossing today. This Runeberg Prize–winning work depicts a passionate love story set against the severe backdrop of World War II’s Arctic front and the desolate beauty of a protective fjord. For a taste of this epic romance, and to discover the book that went on to become 2011’s most widely read title in Finland, read on.

We could hear Lisbet’s screams from the yard. I’d spent the journey sit­ting on the back of a green Tatra truck, my thighs caressed by the wind. Initially I tried to force my way into the cab beside you, Johannes, but Jouni forbade me. I didn’t protest. There’s no arguing with the greatest rumrunner in Lapland.

I didn’t wait for Jouni to haul his stout body down from the pas­senger seat. I barged through a sea of head scarves into Näkkälä’s rose-patterned bedroom. The air smelled of incense and blood. A candle flickered on the altar, and next to an icon, Greta Garbo gave a divine, papery smile. I gripped the white lintel decorated with lace, because the sight of Lisbet shocked me. She was still beautiful, but distress and pain were pushing forth from beneath the beauty. Her milky-white thighs were caked in blood and mucus, her hair stuck across her eyes, now wide with the fear of death. Without ceremony I slid my hand between Lisbet’s thighs. I recalled my very first delivery, at the Alakunnas house­hold, just as I did every time I midwifed.


“The Fable of God’s Servant, the Unemployed Mr. Fistulka,” by Lidia Amejko

When Fistulka had a job, no one on our housing block contemplated the meaning of life.

The unemployed Mr. Fistulka came by our housing bloc, and leaning against the buzzer he pressed all the call buttons at once.

And all at once all went to the buzzer

And all at once all answered

And at once all in different voices, each in their own intonation, melody and pitch, in their own way bellowed loudly into the buzzer:


“Who is it?”


“Who’s there?”

“You little fucker, what do you want in the middle of the night?”

As the symphony of voices echoed though the housing block, Fistulka asked in a hushed voice:

“Why am I here?”

I mean to say Fistulka asked about the meaning of his life. Night after night, sounding that same sentence in our heads.

Even Mr. Bolczyk, who survived all the occupations and somehow got a good night’s rest each night, would now only lay in bed staring at the ceiling, then get up nervously and lighting a cigarette, he would bounce around the apartment like a moth beating its wings against a glass lampshade.

And Lalek, the sheet metal worker stopped going to work. He closed down his car repair shop and now sits on the bench under the Osieka Epiphany, fixing his gaze on the periwinkle blue ceiling.

Fistulka infected our housing block with his question. Each of us walked around pale like vampires, tripping from a lack of sleep on the holes in the sidewalk; unemployed because it’s understood that before a person can really start living they have to answer that fundamental, “why?”

Only two places got busier, the church and the supermarket, Jericho. A few even started hanging themselves.

And it’s all because of unemployment: when Fistulka had a job, no one on our housing block contemplated the meaning of life.

In an emergency meeting, our housing block community convened. All heads agreed and a decree was reached to occupy Fistulka with “something.”

But I have to confess that nothing came of it. A strong fraction rose up against the decree. The owner of the supermarket claimed that what differentiates a man from an animal is that a man can search for his own meaning. The priest agreed in collusion like never before, and the one from the Galaxy funeral home chimed in, too.

So Fistulka continued walking around the housing blocks, tormenting people with his stupid question. He probably would have continued for a long time and I don’t know what would have happened to our housing block if the rabbit didn’t finish him off with his ears.

It was like this: Mr. Krasik the hunter that lived on the 20th floor—right next to Ms. Janina, Mr. Obrabek’s and the blunt smoker’s servant— killed a rabbit and hung it out in the freezing cold to get him ready for Christmas eve. The rabbit hung head down, stiff as an icicle, and just as Fistulka walked up under Krasik’s house about to pronounce his, “Why am I here,” the rabbit slipped out from between the rope and speared his ears like two blades into Fistulka’s head.

Then the question became irrelevant because Fistulka was no more.

That’s how the matter resolved happily and on its own. The priest said in a sermon that it was the housing block that we all carry inside us that killed Fistulka along with his question and he declared Fistulka a saint who died a martyr’s death in the hands of the rabbit, a symbol of our housing block’s wickedness (or something like this). And now we live peacefully, without questioning anything.

Only sometimes, when the buzzer rings in the middle of the night do we jump to our feet and wonder about the meaning of life.

Translated from the Polish by Beatrice Smigasiewicz

Lidia Amejko is a playwright and a short story writer. Her publications include When the Mind is Asleep–the Answering Machine Turns On, The Passion in the Bottle, and Stories Out Loud, among others.  She has been nominated multiple times for the prestigious literary NIKE award and translated into German, French and Bulgarian. She often adapts her stories for stage and radio production, and it’s this practice that seems to inform her use of language. Her fabulist style has been compared to Olga Tokarczuk’s. This story is taken from her second book, The Lives of Housing Block Saints, (2008), which was a winner of the Polish Book Editors Prize.  

Beatrice Smigasiewicz is a Fulbright scholar living in Warsaw and an editor-at-large for Asymptote. Her work has appeared in Denver QuarterlyArt PapersWords Without Borders, and BODY, an international online literary journal, among others. She holds an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing program at the University of Iowa, where she also studied literary translation. 


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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Zambia, South Africa, Czechia, Singapore and the 82nd PEN International Congress

All aboard the Asymptote Express, first stop: Zambia! Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports on the latest literary events, and then takes us to the PEN International Congress in Spain and to South Africa, where the defense of freedom of expression is the issue of the hour. From Czechia, Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood notes the most recent publications and endeavors to widen the readership of Czech literature, and from Singapore, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek gives us the rundown on awards, festivals, and funding concerns. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports from Zambia, South Africa, and the 82nd PEN International Congress:

Zambia’s inaugural Tilembe Literary Festival took place over three days last week in the country’s capital, Lusaka. The festival theme was “Celebrating the Art of the Liberation Struggle”, inspired by a quote from South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.” The festival’s headline guest, Malawian Shadreck Chikoti, explores this theme in his work in both English and Chichewa.

The theme of protest writing and writing in protest was also on the agenda at the 82nd PEN International Congress, which began on September 29 in Ourense, Spain and brought together over 200 writers and PEN members from around the world. PEN South Africa and PEN Mexico proposed a change to the PEN Charter that would build on the initial mandate to help dispel race, class, and national prejudices. The amendment calls to dispel discrimination based on religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. PEN South Africa also submitted a resolution, seconded by PEN Uganda, for Egyptian government to free writers and activists detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, guarantee the independence of the Egyptian Writers Union and Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate, and repeal certain restrictive laws. Speaking about this year’s congress, PEN International President Jennifer Clement quoted former President Arthur Miller: “When political people have finished with repression and violence, PEN can indeed be forgotten.”

In South Africa, student protests over the right to free tertiary education and a decolonialized academic programme continue. A list of books inspiring the various student movements has been circulated online. Prominent authors include Steve Biko, Franz Fanon, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Meanwhile, the launch of Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid will take place next week in Johannesburg. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism, and extracts from novels and memoirs, the book features writers like Nat Nakasa and RRR Dhlomo and aims to highlight local literature as a way to engage with South Africa’s past. In the foreword, author Zakes Mda offers the adage, “you will not know where you are going unless you know where you come from”, and urges the reader to keep a record of the present since “[t]here is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us”.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has literary updates from Czechia:

In December 2014, Prague joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities network as one of eleven “Cities of Literature.” The city’s Municipal Library, which also offers residencies for translators and writers, has since organised several street projects as part of the initiative. One of the first beneficiaries, English author Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), is currently working on a modern gothic novel set in Prague. Not everyone is convinced of the program’s merits, however. Writer Ivana Myšková, who resigned after a year on the project team, explained in the literary journal Host that without proper planning and coordination, it may “remain an end in itself, an empty political gesture”.


What’s New With the Asymptote Team

We've been keeping busy!

Contributing Editor Anthony Shugaar has been shortlisted for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)’s Italian Prose in Translation Award 2016. The winner will be announced at ALTA’s annual conference in Oakland from October 6 to October 9.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac’s new co-translation of Noemi Jaffe’s novel from the Portuguese, What Are The Blind Men Dreaming?, was published on September 20 by Deep Vellum and featured in Words Without Borders’ watch list for the month.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones spoke at the British Library’s annual International Translation Day event. She and fellow panellists Simon Coffey, Elin Jones, and Fiona Sampson responded to the question, ‘What does multilingual creativity mean for translators?’ and Ellen discussed her experiences editing Asymptote’s Special Features on Multilingual Writing in 2015 and 2016, as well as her own research.

Commissioning Editor J.S. Tennant was interviewed for The Guardian’s recent feature on Fiction in Translation, on the state of world literature and translated book sales in the UK.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood’s new co-translation of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s novel The Equestrienne will be launched on October 6 at Waterstones Piccadilly in London.

Editor-at-Large for the UK Megan Bradshaw, who organized Asymptote’s International Translation Day celebration in London last week, will be chairing a conversation with the prolific Japanese author and translator Mitsuyo Kakuta on October 26 at the Japan Foundation in London.

Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter’s new translation of the Spanish poet Benito del Pliego’s collection Fábula/Fable (bilingual edition, Díaz Grey Editores) launched at a McNally Jackson event in New York on September 16.

Finally, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek’s essay on writing about history and difference in poetry was published by The Lonely Crowd on September 25. Some of his poems were published in the latest issues of The London Magazine and The North.


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Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

I’d much rather they stuck J.K. Rowling’s name on my book than insisting on mine. We might even sell a few copies.

Our resident translation expert Daniel Hahn is back with a response to the hotly debated issue of how and where to credit translators’ work. This question comes from Michelle Loh in Singapore.  

Why aren’t translators’ names on most book covers? Are you for or against this practice of keeping translators’ names hidden?

Some people believe that readers are scared of translations. They assume—whether rightly or wrongly—that a reader is more likely to pick up a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!



than a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!


Name-Of-Awesome-Novelist, but actually not really because I’m afraid it’s been translated by Unrecognisable-Translator-Person so it’s probably quite obscure and kind of foreign and anyway you know what translations are like (LOL!) and tbqh you can’t even really be sure of what you’re getting…

(I paraphrase, slightly.)

Their argument, then, is that translations are hard enough to sell as it is without your having to remind people that the book is a translation before they’ve even picked it up. There are plenty of publishers I like very much who make this argument, and I do understand. I do think it underestimates our readers, but where most publishers are concerned I really don’t see this as a lack of respect for the translator’s work.