In Review: The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

All languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity.

In the afterword to the book, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer who writes in both French and Arabic, speaks about his obsession with “the fact of language”. And this obsession is exactly what we get a great introduction to in his intriguing new book of essays, The Tongue of Adam (New Directions, 2016, tr. Robyn Creswell).

The book is divided into several chapters: “Babblings,” “Babels,” “A Babelian Eden,” “The Oldest Poem in the World,” “Poet or Prophet?” “The Oblivion of Adam,” “Poetic Destiny,” and the afterword entitled “That’s . . . nice.” In these chapters, he takes us on an exploration into our origins of language, multilingualism, poetry, history, religion, myth, translation, and much more, consulting ancient Arabic sources throughout.

In “Babblings”, Kilito writes, “No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam anymore. It’s a naïve question, vaguely embarrassing and irksome, like questions posed by children, which can only be answered rather stupidly. But for the ancients this question was serious and consequential. To answer it meant to take a stand”.  So that is where he begins: he asks about the tongue (the language and the organ) and discusses what the ancients thought about the original human language, approaching these questions with an attitude that is serious and playful at the same time.

The inquiry into humanity’s original language, Kilito informs us, can arise only “when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning”—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages?” These are post-Babelian inquiries, implying a rupture between communities.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Isaí Moreno on Mathematics, Aesthetics and the Novel

I believe a work of initiation cannot exist without ruptures, without a certain violence and access to the blinding light of reality.

Isaí Moreno was born in Mexico City in 1967. He’s the author of the novels Pisot (winner of the Premio Juan Rulfo a Primera Novela in 1999) and Adicción (2004), both of which he wrote while earning his doctorate in mathematics at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. His third novel, El suicidio de una mariposa (2012), was a finalist for the 2008 Premio Rejadorada de Novela Breve in Valladolid, Spain. He leads novel-writing workshops and works as a professor and researcher in the creative writing faculty of the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. He has worked with literary journals, supplements, and blogs including Nexos, Letras Libres, La Tempestad, Lado B, and Nagari Magazine. His short stories have been published in anthologies including Así se acaba el mundo (Ediciones SM, 2012), Tierras insólitas (Almadía, 2013), and Sólo cuento (UNAM, 2015). In 2010, he earned a degree in Hispanic Language and Literatures at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) with the thesis “Hacia una estética de la destrucción en la literatura.” In 2012, he joined Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte. You can follow him on Twitter @isaimoreno.

Asymptote’s Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has been translating Moreno’s short fiction for over a year. He interviewed the author via email, touching on themes of geography, technology, and the aesthetics of destruction through the lens of his literature.

Arthur Dixon (AD): You wrote your novels Pisot and Adicción while you were earning your doctorate in mathematics, and it’s easy to perceive the influence of your mathematical knowledge in Pisot. To what extent has your study of mathematics influenced your literary work? Do mathematicians tend to make good writers?

Isaí Moreno (IM): Mathematics gave me discipline, and at the time when I was studying and practicing in the field, it spurred my obsessive search for beauty. In the world of mathematics, language is what matters most. It’s impossible to practice serious, ambitious mathematics without obsession and a sense of aesthetic perfectionism. The same thing happens in literature, especially in the case of the novel. The French naturalist the Comte de Buffon said that in order to write well, the first step is to think clearly: in my case, mathematical discipline was useful to help me think with greater clarity, not only in the symbolic sense but also in the sense of language. I retired from formally practicing mathematics more than five years ago, after dedicating myself to the field for almost sixteen years. When I was a student, I was so afraid of tests until I realized that it was simply a matter of facing my fears. In the end, this was my inheritance from mathematics: they forged my character, and character is what you need to write novels.

From my perspective, the most exemplary case of a writer who also practiced mathematics is the Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee, a trained mathematician who worked for IBM. When you read his work—even though his subject matter is not mathematical—you can immediately distinguish his capacity for ordered, rigorous, and implacable thought.

AD: You were born in Mexico City, and you continue to live in the former DF.[1] Would you say that the character of Mexico City has influenced your work? Do you always write in a specific place? And do you think your geographical location has an impact on your writing process, or on the finished product?

IM: Tangentially, yes. I was born in Mexico City, and after I moved with my parents to the state of Puebla, I always nursed a desire to go back. When I returned almost twenty years later, I saw the city as a foreigner—without exaggerating—and I didn’t recognize it: the city itself rejected me, as if warning me that once you leave you’ll never be welcomed back. So I have two ways of looking at the Distrito Federal: with the eyes of a child and with the eyes of an outsider. If you look at it the right way, that’s a literary issue par excellence. At some point I’ll have to explore the subject.

I’ve written the majority of my creative work in Mexico City, after reinstalling myself here. I don’t remember if it was Eliot or Pound, his teacher, who exalted the need to be in a place where you’re foreign in order to create. My false foreignness in the DF (or the CDMX, now) puts me in a favorable space for creativity.

For some reason, when I go through moments of writer’s block or I want to finish a novel, I leave Mexico City and go to the smaller cities in the outskirts. It’s essential to breathe different air every now and then.

AD: I know you’ve been hard at work on a new novel recently, but you’re also a prolific writer of short stories with work published in various anthologies. Which do you prefer: the process of writing a novel or the process of writing a short story? Do you think the two experiences can be compared?

IM: If I had to choose between the two, I’d stick with the all-consuming, oppressive process of writing a novel. I love to write short stories in the lapses between writing a novel, not only because telling stories is a reward in itself, but also because as I work on them I feel that I’m betraying the novel a little, only to return to it with greater devotion. It’s like running away from home and making it a few miles away only to come back homesick. I don’t trust in absolute fidelity to anything, at least in artistic terms.

The experiences of writing one genre or another are radically different. Short stories and novels have incompatible genetic codes. Because of that difference, sometimes you have to escape from the novel to taste a different flavor.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Flies in Winter” by Eugenio Baroncelli

Some said he suffocated on a mischievous piece of meat… some said he died of solitude, which is no less mischievous.

Eugenio Baroncelli’s macabre, erudite vignettes of 271 historical and literary deaths won the 2011 Premio Supermondello, one of Italy’s highest literary awards. He catalogues accidental and premeditated deaths, illness, hypothermia, suicide. Each of his sly, epigrammatic sketches of dying is an object lesson in living.

Umberto Boccioni

Sorte, Verona, 17 August 1916. Never end up in a place called Sorte, or Luck. War had thrust him there, only for him to die in a stroke of misfortune. He had enlisted voluntarily, dressed hurriedly in uniform, and now he was dying, aged thirty-four. He had fallen from the horse he was learning to mount, struck his head full of colours, and would never get up again. That was how Maria Malibran died, and she was barely more skillful than he was; Genghis Khan, too, and he was born on a horse. He died with a dream: not of vanquishing his enemy on the battlefield, but of riding with her under the moon that bleached the lake white.

The gods looked down at him from the sky. He had the distinctive hand of a future great artist and the agile body of a seducer. A vexed Margherita Sarfatti, who had been in bed with him, would deplore the sharp escalation of his targets, from seamstresses to the wives of bank managers.

Three weeks beforehand, on the bank of Lake Maggiore, he had met Vittoria Colonna and fallen in love for the last time. Beautiful, married, impulsive, and greedy for life, she fell in love instantly too. They went swimming in a lake filled with water the hue of cobalt blue, the same colour his palette was wandering towards when he painted the master Busoni. Lazy as cats, they sunbathed on the terrace of the villa, that little strip of earth that she had transformed into a Garden of Eden. They dined alone by candlelight. Her last letter was found on him. He had taken it with him from their paradise.

READ MORE…

A Dispatch from European Literature Days 2016: On Colonialism and Literature

Two writers and a publisher from three different places around the world shared the same story: each, at age sixteen, felt their life was changed.

In early November, the picturesque, if rather overcast hills and vineyards along the Danube in Spitz, Austria provided a luscious backdrop to literary discussions ranging from Haiti to Hungary, Brazil to Burkina Faso, Slovenia to South Africa and Brazil to Zimbabwe. Headlined “The Colonists”, the European Literature Days 2016 brought together writers, translators and literary critics to debate cultural appropriation and colonialism in literature in both the literal and metaphorical senses, with literary readings and wine tastings to boot.

danube

© Julia Sherwood

“Every country in the world is a hostage of its history from which there is no escape,” German reportage writer Hans Christoph Buch declared in his keynote speech (reproduced in full in the daily Die Presse). Since first visiting Haiti—the country of his father’s birth—in 1968, Buch has traversed the world, concluding that, although he might have written about the Caribbean and Africa, experience is not transferable across continents.  But isn’t a white author writing about Haiti stealing the country’s stories? Do writers have the right to write about countries that are not their own or does it turn them into colonists? Media and cultural scholar Karin Harrasser posed these questions to Zimbabwean lawyer and novelist Petina Gappah and Cuban author and cultural journalist Yania Suárez.

hans-christoph-buch-2-osaka-1

Hans Cristoph Buch © Sascha Osaka

They certainly do, according to Gappah. But with the privilege to tell stories, especially those that are not yours, comes responsibility to tell the truth, she added. She deemed Hans Christoph Buch to have passed this test with flying colours.  She stressed the value of the external gaze but warned about striving for authenticity, which is the death of fiction: “If you go down the rabbit hole of authenticity you end up with memoirs.”  Suárez agreed that people have the right to write about other countries but only if they’ve spent enough time there to get to know their surroundings properly. Those who haven’t immersed themselves in the culture often misrepresent and fetishize Cuba, for example, creating fantasy narratives and appropriating its recent history to support their own romantic ideas (ideas echoed only a few weeks later by the accolades heaped upon the late Fidel Castro).

petina-gappa-osakah-1

Petina Gappah © Sascha Osaka

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Tibet, North America, and South Africa.

Friday, as you well know, is world literature news day here at Asymptote. This week, we delve into news from three continents. In Asia, Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been following the Tibetan literary discussion, while in North America, Blog Editor Nina Sparling is keeping a close eye on post-election developments. Finally, we go to South Africa where Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs has plenty of awards news. 

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sends us this fascinating report on the Tibetan literary scene:

Some very interesting work on Tibetan literature is in the pipelines, as we found out from writer and researcher Shelly Bhoil Sood. Sood is co-editing two anthologies of academic essays (forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2018) on Tibetan narratives in exile with Enrique Galvan Alvarez. These books will offer a comprehensive study of different cultural and socio-political narratives crafted by the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950s, and will cover the literary works of writers such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsewang Pemba, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue as well as look at the cinematographic image of Tibet in the West and the music and dance of exile Tibet.

Speaking to Asymptote, Shelly expressed concern for indigenous Tibetan languages: ‘It is unfortunate that the condition of exile for Tibetans, while enabling secular education in English and Hindi, has been detrimental to the Tibetan language literacy among them.’ She also pointed towards important work being done by young translators of Tibetans like Tenzin Dickie and Riga Shakya and UK-based Dechen Pemba, who is dedicated to making available in English several resistance and banned writings from Tibet, including the blog posts of the Sinophone Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (who is prohibited from travelling outside Tibet), on highpeakspureearth.com.

At Himal magazine, which Asymptote reported in an earlier column will suspend operations from November due to “non-cooperation of regulatory state agencies in Nepal”, writer and scholar Bhuchung D Sonam has pointed to another facet of Tibetan literature, in what could be one of the last issues of the magazine. In his essay, Sonam looks at the trend in Tibetan fiction to often use religion and religious metaphors as somewhat formulaic devices which ‘leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring’. He sees this trend being adopted by several writers as a challenge to locate themselves ‘between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs.’ READ MORE…

Todd Portnowitz on Music, Language, and Italian Literature

Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.

Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.

The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.

Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.

Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.

Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.

AA:  What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?

TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…

November News from the Asymptote team

From erotica in translation to magazine launches, no rest for world literature!

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has helped to found Latin American Literature Today, a new online literary journal, with support from World Literature Today! He will serve as its Managing Editor when it launches on January 31, 2017.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursać will be part of an evening of readings in translation at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop on December 17, 2016, presented by Harlequin Creature. Her translation of Dubravka Ugrešić’s brilliant address on receiving the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2016 has been published on LitHub.

Slovakia Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood‘s co-translation (with Peter Sherwood) of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s short story “Julia” was published in the latest issue of SAND, Berlin’s English literary journal.

Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large, Chris Tanasescu, aka MARGENTO, will be launching an anthology of contemporary Romanian erotic poetry in New York together with past Asymptote contributor Martin Woodside.  Another contributor to the project is Ruxandra Cesereanu, the primary editor of Moods & Women & Men & Once Again Moods.

Editor-at-Large for India Poorna Swami‘s poetry reading in Bangalore was featured by The Hindu, Metro Plus. Her poem “River Letters” was published in Prelude, Volume 3. She also wrote a blog piece on the politics of social media friendship for The Huffington Post, India. She has been long-listed for the 2017 Toto Awards for Creative Writing (English).

English Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin‘s ‘five-point guide’ to avant-garde artist Yves Klein was published in AnOther magazine.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek  placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize 2016 for poetry in translation, and his translation of Wong Yoon Wah’s poem, ‘Shadow Puppets’, was featured in The Guardian‘s Translation Tuesday series in collaboration with Asymptote. He was also part of recent poetry readings at the Woodstock Poetry Festival and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao has had two translations and a short story published in BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—a “best of” anthology of short fiction by cult writers from East and Southeast Asia that aims to counter the tokenistic way Asian writing is often curated in the West.

*****

More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Imagine, a future in which we translators get to translate books that someone has actually bothered to edit already!

This week marks the final posting in our ever-captivating series with writer and translator Daniel Hahn. The question for this last column comes from Asymptote Editor-in-Chief, Lee Yew Leong, who also explains how he invited Daniel Hahn to be our columnist, a year ago:

When I asked this very specific favor of him over Michelin-starred dimsum last year, I expected Daniel to say he’d think about it and get back to me. This was our first meeting in person, after all. But he agreed immediately to do it for us—for free (we can’t afford to pay ourselves at Asymptote, let alone others). That’s how he came to field wide-ranging questions about the art of translation, from whether a code of ethics exists, to how a translator can improve—questions that came from Asymptote readers the world over.

Having submitted a column every month without fail since December 2015, Daniel now contributes his final essay, making it one full year as our agony uncle in residence. This time, he takes a question from me. I thought I’d try an ambitious one, make it a bit more difficult for him, you know? So I ask him to peer into the proverbial crystal ball. Scroll down below to read his nuanced, optimistic answer, acknowledging post-Brexit uncertainty. Whatever you make of his thrilling column (not to mention his Oulipian, or shall I say, Hahn-like, attempt to make a connection to all previous eleven essays), the future of translation is certainly a better one for Daniel’s advocacy, and willingness to shine the way ahead, that’s an inspiration to all of us working in world lit. Cheers, Danny, and thanks so much for this past year from all of us at Asymptote!

You’ve just returned from your nth Writers Festival this year—where you no doubt had the chance to observe the ‘state of translation’ (in a different country, on a different continent) up close. In fact, I can’t think of anyone more suitable to pose this question to: What does the future of literary translation hold for editors, translators, and readers, say, ten years from now?

Thanks, Yew Leong—like the other questions weren’t big and challenging enough already! How am I supposed to answer this?

Actually, though… Maybe it’s not so hard as all that? Because I’m not convinced that ten years from now things will be wildly different—not the things that matter, anyway.

For one thing, principles and values shouldn’t change just because context changes. We may well be entering a pretty dark time in political / social / economic terms—from the particular (western, Anglophone) place where I’m sitting, at least; but that doesn’t change the importance of what my colleagues do. On the contrary. Back in March I wrote about the translator’s responsibility and power in today’s too-divided world—and that sure as hell isn’t going away anytime soon; we just need to know that we can keep responding to challenges not with surrender but with defiance. (We will.) READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Look at Winter in a Certain Way” by Chou Meng-tieh

all fallen leaves are destined to return to their branches

Today is #GivingTuesday! If you’ve been enjoying our Translation Tuesday showcases at the Asymptote blog and on The Guardian, consider signing up to be a sustaining member at just $5 a day. We’re still several members short of reaching our target; each additional membership helps us get closer to being able to continue beyond April 2017.

For today’s showcase, we’re thrilled to present poetry by the celebrated poet Chou Meng-tieh, named the first Literature Laureate by Taiwan’s National Culture and Arts Foundation in 1997. But his literary achievement belied a lifetime of monastic poverty, decades of which he spent selling books out of a roadside stall. Two years after Chou’s passing in 2014, without any surviving family, our editor-in-chief presents a new translation of one of Chou’s seminal poems, marked by his characteristically ascetic vision.

look at winter in a certain way

 

look at winter in a certain way

start from sunlight—

clumps of parasites up to no good

puncturing holes in snow’s body

READ MORE…

Meet the Publisher: Coach House Books

It’s just coming across things that look really interesting and that I feel need a home in the English language.

Coach House Books publishes and prints innovative Canadian fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. The press was founded by Stan Bevington in 1965 and takes its name from the old coach house where he began putting out early works by many Canadian authors, including bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. Since 1975, translations of Québécois literature have been an important part of the press’ catalogue. Poet, translator, and science writer Sarah Moses met with Alana Wilcox, Coach House’s editorial director since 2002, to discuss printing presses, bookish books, and translating French-Canadian authors.

Sarah Moses (SM): Could you begin by talking about the history of Coach House?

Alana Wilcox (AW): Coach House has been around since 1965, so we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary last year—not me personally, but the larger undertaking. It’s always been a press that focuses on innovative work, poetry, more difficult fiction, that kind of thing. It’s a long and convoluted story, like that of many presses: more difficult years, less difficult years, but we’re still at it, still publishing translation.

SM: What do you mean by more difficult fiction?

AW: I would include translation in that. By difficult I don’t necessarily mean fiction that’s hard to read, but that’s hard for people to think that they want to read—even though they might love it when they get into it.

SM: Could you tell me a little about the printing side of Coach House?

AW: We print our books here: we have an old Heidelberg printing press and binding equipment. Printing on location has always been the thing with Coach House. It’s interesting when the means of production is available to the writers and the editors—it just makes publishing a more tangible, real process. We always make the authors come in and glue the first copy of their book, if they can. There’s just something so beautiful about that. READ MORE…

In Review: Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness

Simple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done.

Navid Hamzavi and Asymptote’s long-standing Contributing Editor Aamer Hussein review Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Phoneme Media, 2016).

Nihilism in the Nietzschean sense is “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”

Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali seems to have a nihilistic outlook on life. Kamran Khosravi, the protagonist, wants to get rid of his real life in a fake accident in order to construct a new life in unknown territory. He chooses an Afghan migrant to replace him in a car crash down in the canyon. Spiking his tea, he makes his victim unconscious, puts his own clothes on him, sets his car on fire and pushes it down the canyon to make others believe that Kamran Khosravi is dead. We never know whether he is just imagining doing all this or, as the narrative suggests, actually goes through with it and later regrets it; whether he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, or whether he’s just on his way back to his wife who has left him. Much of the book is taken up with these three lines of interwoven plot, without shaping either a solid character, or identifying a cultural or philosophical issue.

Whether Rituals of Restlessness even comes close to addressing that crisis in Nietzsche’s quote, whether it recovers from its dull narrative to explore this question in greater depth, whether it comes anywhere near reflecting on philosophical or ontological aspects of life is open to debate.  The shallow characters, the superficial reading of folk culture in contrast to urban culture, and the lack of depth of social understanding, render the novel tedious and shut down a critical approach to it. The novel even fails to portray the roots of that restlessness so as to convey a better understanding of the antagonist’s logic for his (attempted) suicide, which in itself could have opened it up for broader interpretation. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Nordic countries.

Friday is once again upon us, dear Asymptoters! This time, our report brings you the latest literature in translation news from Europe. Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has been at the Central European Forum conference and Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen attended the Helsinki Book Fair, while Zsofia Paulikovics has an update from Hungary. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has these stories from Slovakia:

On 20 October, the emerging writer Dominika Madro’s story Svätyňa [Sanctuary] won the annual short story contest Poviedka 2016. Now in its twentieth year, the competition is run by the publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala and all submissions are anonymous. This year’s runner-up was the story Šváby [Cockroaches] by novelist and Elena Ferrante’s Slovak translator and Asymptote contributor Ivana Dobrakovová.

A survey of reading habits, commissioned by the Slovak Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has recently published very depressing findings: 72 percent of the public don’t buy a single book in any year; 40 percent read books only once a month and 28 percent don’t read at all. Nevertheless, judging by the crowds attending a huge variety of literary events taking place across the capital, Bratislava, over the past month, the picture isn’t perhaps quite as bleak as these figures suggest.

Slovak-Swiss writer and journalist Irena Brežná, Polish novelist Grażyna Plebanek, and recent Neustadt Prize winner Dubravka Ugrešić sought antidotes for despair as part of Bratislava’s annual Central European Forum conference from 11 to 13 November (video recordings here); Dubravka Ugrešić also read from her book of essays, Europe in Sepia, which will be published soon in a Slovak translation by Tomáš Čelovský. Parallel with the conference, some 200 publishers displayed their recent publications at the Bibliotéka Book Fair, held in the somewhat drab Incheba exhibition halls and vying for space with a “World of Minerals” exhibition. At the Centre for the Information of Literature stand two young authors, Peter Balko and Peter Prokopec, along with graphic designer David Koronczi, introduced their new “anti-logy” of Slovak writing. Aimed at schools but very far from being a stuffy textbook, Literatúra bodka sk (Literature.dot.sk) aims to show that contemporary authors inhabit the same world and share the same sensibilities as young readers, and includes samples of fiction and non-fiction as well as a graphic novel, Rudo, by Daniel Majling. Rudo started life as a Facebook cartoon strip and has now been issued in book form by Czech publisher Labyrint (in a Czech translation!).

slovakiaimage_rudo_obalka

On the other side of the Danube, housed inside the Slovak National Gallery and overlooking the river, Café Berlinka is fast establishing itself as a vibrant literary venue, in association with the adjoining Ex Libris bookshop. Since September 2016, the café has been hosting Literárny kvocient [Literature quotient], a series of debates featuring leading literature scholars and critics.  Of the many book launches that took place over the past few weeks, the liveliest must have been the feminist press Aspekt’s presentation of a selection of poems by Hungarian activist poet Virág Erdős, Moja vina [My Fault].  The book was translated into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková (a past Asymptote blog contributor) in cooperation with poet Vlado Janček, who read some of the hilariously outrageous poems to his own guitar accompaniment (you can watch Virág Erdős perform “Van egy ország”/ “There is a Country” in Hungarian with the band Rájátszás here). READ MORE…

Waking Up in David Lynch’s American Dream

He’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by.

In Trump’s America, a Muslim-American filmmaker living in Los Angeles discovers that art meets reality.

The night of the US Presidential Election felt like a moment that could have been stolen from a David Lynch film. At once surreal and subversive, yet strangely fitting, Donald Trump was chosen as the President of the United States. Like Lynch’s own protagonists, an eerie detachment swept over me as I witnessed Trump take the stage to deliver his victory speech.

As a Muslim-American and a son of immigrants, that nightmarish disbelief turned into anger and resentment when I awoke the next day. How could a country built by immigrants on the bedrock of religious freedom elect a candidate who prided himself on xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance? Yes. I’ve heard the many arguments showing that Trump supporters had very real concerns about the economy and individual prosperity that outweighed worries about his racist and misogynistic rants. But in one fell swoop, my perspective on the American electorate and the promises of this country changed dramatically.

In better times, I imagined the American Dream much the same way Francis Ford Coppola envisioned it in The Godfather, Part II:

Thousands of immigrants rise to their feet and stare at the Statue of Liberty with hope in their eyes as they head to Ellis Island. The camera pans to capture individual faces. The Godfather theme crescendos and then fades away. Cut to a young Vito Corleone standing in line at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. He’s interviewed by an immigration official and sent to quarantine. Fast-forward sixteen years. Vito lives safely in New York with his wife and infant son, over 4,000 miles away from the torment of mob-ruled Sicily.

That is a place where hard work, loyalty, and intelligence get rewarded. Sure, Coppola romanticizes the sometimes harsh facts of the early 20th century. Living in New York’s Little Italy during the 1920s, Vito’s meteoric rise from squalor to fortune has a fantastic quality. We don’t see the America with deep racial divides or a country on the verge of economic collapse. But that idyllic portrayal represents an image that immigrant families have clung to for centuries as they arrived in the United States.

It’s been over two weeks since the election, and the reality of a Trump presidency along with a Republican majority in the House and Senate has begun to settle. But a sense of safety, trust in our neighbors, and a greater vision for a pluralistic society have been lost in the face of an increase of reported hate crimes that personify Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky in that regard. Outside of my brown skin and the beard on my face, there aren’t many symbols that make me easily identifiable as a Muslim. Verbal and physical attacks appear to be reserved for Muslim women, who are easily recognized by their headscarves.

The country also faces an enormous political divide as protesters march in the streets in over a dozen cities to let their disaffection be known. President-elect Trump continues to vilify his opposition through Twitter and criticize the mainstream media. The events since the election are a far cry from the American Dream Coppola portrayed in The Godfather, and even David Lynch’s peculiar world no longer serves as an adequate metaphor for the current state of affairs. Instead, I find myself thinking of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and its depiction of the violent, nativist reaction to Irish-Catholic immigration in the 1860s.

But succumbing to that kind of negativity is a trap that leads to cynicism. Throughout the week I’ve witnessed glimmers of hope and courage from my own community. Three days after Trump’s win, the Islamic Society of Southern California’s interfaith allies from the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with local synagogues, stood in front the mosque’s doors with signs of solidarity. Later that week, I joined a group of protesters in downtown Los Angeles, where we chanted “No Hate! No Fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

Donald Trump started his campaign on the vague promise of making America great again. By the looks of it, he’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by in this new America. Let’s just hope he meets us halfway.

Jawad Qadir is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

*****

Read More Essays:

“They Cannot Be Pigeonholed”: Julie Koh on Racial Nepotism and Asian Writing

I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center.

This month sees the launch of BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—the first edition of a new annual anthology comprising what indie Singaporean bookstore BooksActually considers to be the best short fiction from cult writers of East and Southeast Asia, and the diaspora. Most significantly, the anthology is overtly political: a protest against how Asian writing is curated in the West and an effort to establish a new center for Asian writing within Asia.    

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Julie Koh, the inaugural editor and co-founder of the Gold Standard. I’ve long been troubled by the problems that arise from editors and publishers outside Asia curating Asian writing (a topic I explored at length here). I was naturally excited when Koh invited me both to translate for and contribute to the anthology, but it was only through our conversations that I got a fuller sense of the passion fueling the anthology’s creation and goals.

                    Tiffany Tsao, Indonesia Editor-at-Large, Asymptote

Tiffany Tsao (TT): In its promotional matter, the BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology describes an attempt at a literary reformation: an effort to “redefine how Asian voices are promoted—providing a counterweight to the often tokenistic way in which Asian writing is curated in the West.” In your opinion, what is wrong with how Asia is currently promoted and curated in the West, and how exactly does the anthology counter it? 

Julie Koh (JK): The best way to begin to explain the rationale behind BooksActually’s Gold Standard is with reference to the controversy surrounding The Best American Poetry 2015, where the editor Sherman Alexie discovered that one of the poems picked for publication, by a “Yi-Fen Chou,” was in fact by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting his work under a pseudonym—more specifically, a name he had stolen from a former high school classmate. Hudson was trying to make a point about how the political correctness of contemporary literary culture unfairly favors Asian writers. Alexie ultimately decided to retain the poem, along with the pseudonym, admitting “racial nepotism” as a major reason for his choice.

As an Australian writer of Chinese-Malaysian descent, my reaction to this controversy was one of shame. It cast a different light on the curation of work by writers of East and Southeast Asian descent across the West. To me, the decision suggested that achievements by such writers were attributable to some external agenda, not to the quality of our writing.

There was also the egregiousness of Hudson’s claim—that Asian-Americans get ahead of white male writers because of their race. This is patently untrue. Any writer of color in the West knows the difficulties inherent in trying to ascend the literary ladder. In the Australian context, for people of East and Southeast Asian descent, the “bamboo ceiling” exists across many sectors—the literary industry being no exception. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many good experiences with Australian publishers, the fact remains that there are generally few people of color in positions of power in the literary game, and this has a direct impact on the type and quantity of work by writers of color that makes it to publication, how writers of color are promoted, and how their work is understood. This in turn can influence what writers of color believe they must write to get published.

In considering the logic of Alexie’s decision, I came to the conclusion that “racial nepotism” was a jolly good idea, and that it should be taken even further—that there was a clear gap in the market for an edgy “best of” collection originating in Asia and transparently curated by “nepotists.”

I decided it was important to question whether we, as writers of Asia and the diaspora, should always to look to the West for cues on how literature should be read, what kinds of literature should be valued, and what our place is within it.

And I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center which doesn’t rely on others to curate us—and the BooksActually’s Gold Standard is an effort to contribute to the work already being done in Southeast Asia to create this new center.

READ MORE…