Posts by Janani Ganesan

Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part VI

she will continue her quest / for a world bereft of homes.

We’re thrilled to present the sixth and final installment of our Indian Languages Special Feature here at the blog. This time, Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us an inside look at the life of the featured poet via the following interview. Thanks for sticking with us on our tour of the language-rich Indian subcontinent! 

Images of writer Salma receiving honours and awards from Chief Ministers and Presidents line the living room walls of her Chennai flat. It’s the home of an acclaimed public figure, but she has fought to be able to declare this success as a writer, even to herself. Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and married at nineteen into a conservative family, Salma had to hide her identity as a writer. Her years of struggle as an imprisoned woman are well recorded, including in an award-winning documentary by Kim Longinotto. Her poems, short stories, and novels are deeply melancholic reflections on life as a woman in her culture. “I don’t think I have ever felt happy. Not even when I receive recognition for my work. I always feel a sense of sorrow, having lost a lot,” she said during our interview.

“How did you reach my apartment? Did you take a taxi?” she asks. My scooter gets a nod of approval. “Parava illaye!” [“Not bad!”] A woman must have mobility. She sits down with a newspaper upon which she cleans and removes spinach leaves from their stems to prepare lunch, while we speak about her life and art. Later, she takes a picture with me and the spinach as a rebuke to Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan, who once insulted a bank teller, suggesting she was not capable even of picking spinach leaves.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, translated by the interviewer and Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor, Janani Ganesen, as well as one of Salma’s poems, translated by N Kalyan Raman.

Janani (J): Your life and struggle has been widely recorded. Yet, for the sake of our readers, I hope you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. You grew up in a cloistered environment. How did you access books?

Salma (S): There was a library in my town that I liked going to. It wasn’t big, but I read as much as I could. In those days, New Century Book House used to bring out translations of Russian writers. I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. I read and admired Tamil writers like Balakumaran. But it is from these Russian greats that I got a sense of what literature is about. I also read Periyar and wondered, “Why am I not being allowed to go to school or do the things that my brother is allowed to do? How am I different?” I felt angry.

J: When did you start writing?

S: Although I wrote my first short story when I was in class seven, I wouldn’t look at it as my beginning. It was about a woman, whose husband abandons her and yet she goes back to help him when he is in need. I was influenced by the movies I watched and what older people told me: “Kallanalum Kanavan.” [“A husband remains a husband even when he is hard like a stone.”]

I would say my writing career began with the publication of the poem “Swasam” [“Breath”] in a little magazine called Suttum Vizhi Chuddar, when I was seventeen.  I received a lot of reviews only after that poem.

J: What is “Swasam” about?

S: What is my identity? Things were happening around me without my being aware of it. My breath should be mine. Somebody else can’t breathe on my behalf. But that was how it was. Everybody else was deciding the course of my life. My education, my activities, my movements, my marriage, all of this was decided by someone else. That’s what the poem is about. The poem became controversial in my village. “How could you let a girl who has attained puberty let her name be printed? It’s a disgrace for her to show her face outside. A disgrace to the family. A disgrace to her society,” they said. I didn’t understand this then. Why could you not print my name? A girl’s name is printed in a marriage invitation; is that a disgrace too? But I couldn’t argue with them.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your update from Taiwan, India, and Finland!

This week, put on your walking shoes so we can follow Vivian Szu-Chin Chih, Editor-at-Large for Taiwan, through Taipei, from an international book exhibition to a history museum. Then we’ll zip over to India to meet Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan for discussions about literary translation and, wait for it—bull fighting. And finally in Finland, Assistant Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has some Finnish Publishing Industry gossip for us. Cheers! 

Editor-at-Large Vivian Szu-Chin Chih reports from Taiwan:

As the Chinese Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Rooster, as well as the Ding-You Year (丁酉年) in the Chinese Sexagenary cycle, readers in Taiwan have been anticipating the annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, which is kicking off on February 8 and will last till February 13. The international event for book-lovers will take place at the Taipei World Trade Center, only a few steps away from the landmark 101 building. Among this year’s featured sessions are a forum specifically dedicated to children’s books in Taiwan and a discussion concerning how local bookstores can be redefined and reshaped, featuring several Taiwanese and Japanese speakers and the founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mark Rubbo. The eminent Chinese novelist and poet based in the U.S., Ha Jin, will also deliver two speeches, one on the art of humor writing in fiction, the other to announce his two latest books, “The Boat Rocker” (《折騰到底》) and a poetry collection, “Home on the Road” (《路上的家園》). The female poet and publisher from Paris, Anne-Laure Bondoux, will travel to the island to attend the book exhibition as well, giving several talks including a discussion with the Taiwanese novelist Nathalie Chang.

The 90-year-old Taiwanese poet Luo Men passed away this January in Taipei. His poems are rich in imagery, with an emphasis on the spiritual search of the human mind. The TSMC Literature Award will see its fourteenth iteration this year, presented by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to encourage emerging young Sinophone writers in Taiwan and overseas. For 2017, all writers under the age of 40 composing in Chinese, traditional or simplified, are welcome to submit a piece of a novel. The deadline will be at the end of August. Since its establishment, the award has provided young Sinophone writers with a platform to debut their literary works. For example, the 2013 first-prize winner from Nanjing, Fei Ying’s novel, was published in Taiwan by INK this past week. One of the previous winners, Liou Dan-Chiou’s latest book on a couple surviving in the wild, is forthcoming, as well.

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the 1947 228 Incident followed by one of the longest martial law periods in the world, imposed upon the island by the Kuomingtang government. To help the society further comprehend this historical trauma and to commemorate the victims of the incident, the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan is holding an exhibition and a series of talks on the event. The exhibition will last until late May.

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Dispatch from Diggi Palace: The Politics of International Publishing

But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men serve rotis.

“Voice of Rajasthan,” exclaims Zee News, a right-wing national news channel and the official sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), over and over again from big, bright roadside billboards. As I ride from the Jaipur airport to Diggi Palace, I am reminded of the commercial scale of this event. Formerly a royal palace, the venue now services a different kind of royalty as a heritage hotel and the site of the tenth JLF in the capital city of Rajasthan. Paradoxically, it is this corporate sponsor, which recently made headlines for telecasting fake news, that enables the participation of a panel of Rajasthani Dalit writers, among other lesser known writers such as Kashmiri poet Naseem Shafaie, Rajasthani writer and critic Geeta Samaur, and Odia translator Jatindra K Nayak. It also renders JLF the world’s largest free event of its kind, according to the official website. But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men (Rajasthan is notorious for its discrimination against women) unaware of such a panel, serve rotis, providing the silk-clad speakers and delegates with an “authentic” and exotic Rajasthani-Indian experience. These servers aren’t invited to attend the panel on “Cultural Appropriation” either. I eat rotis off their tongs all five days. In a hurry to catch a beloved writer or a publisher “contact” at the lunch table and pushed by the impatient hungry guests, I don’t stop to ask what the turbaned roti-makers think of all this. I collude as well, to appropriate their stories and voices.

Jaipur BookMark (JBM) is a B2B event that focuses solely on translation. In this glitzy literature festival, translation finds a spot for the third-year running and Asymptote Editor-at-Large for India, Poorna Swami, and I, are at JBM to represent the journal. The B2B format asks that the speakers pay for their travel and accommodation, as opposed to the main JLF event. We camp with a generous family friend in the suburbs, but are still of a class that can afford flight tickets. Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books would later rue this lack of funds in one of the panels, but not without asserting that some voices simply must be recorded and made available to the wider audience, even if it means waiting a long while before some of these books see the dingy light of a printing press.

Far from the madding crowd dressed in their winter festival best, right at the entrance to Diggi palace but unnoticeable, and covered by at least three security guards at all times, is the JBM venue. On a quaint terrace, it’s exclusive to invitees—translators, publishers, and writers. As one eager member of the audience fights to be let in, the Festival Producer Sanjoy Roy, who happens to be passing by, waves her in with a welcoming hand. The tame audience, hovering between ten and thirty, reveals that not many others have come upon such serendipitous generosity. The recurring few participate in enriching discussions over five days—on the politics of translation; the difficulty and the joy of it; and the omniscient complaint of abysmal funds and supporters, despite the obvious necessity for literary translations in an ever divided world.

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The editors of our Indian Languages Special Feature share how they curated the incredible poetry lineup

We begin the week again with an update on a new initiative that will help us continue beyond April 2017: This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Shelley Schanfield and Fiona Le Brun as our new sustaining members! Our most updated tally, as reflected on the right-hand column, is now 37! If you’re considering becoming a part of the family too, why not let lighthouse keeper (and hit author) Reif Larsen take you on a tour, before you sign up here!

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This body didn’t burn itself:
It was burnt down.
These bones didn’t scatter themselves:
They were scattered around.
The fire didn’t combust on its own:
It was lit and spread around.
The fight didn’t initiate on its own:
It was started somehow.
And the poem didn’t compose itself:
It was written down.

—from “Mohenjodaro” by Vidrohi, translated from the Hindi by Somrita Ganguly

India, according to its constitution, has twenty-two ‘scheduled’ languages, with hundreds more spoken across its twenty-nine states and seven union territories. While it is impossible to capture the full swath of India’s languages in a single Special Feature, Asymptote’s Winter 2017 issue offers a glimpse into the political and aesthetic possibilities of Indian languages. The Feature’s nine poets, covering seven languages, were chosen with the aim of celebrating the diversity and dissent within contemporary Indian language poetry.

Vidrohi’s “Mohenjodaro” emerges directly from a site of protest, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the revolutionary spirit of which has recently come under attack from various political factions. Vidrohi spent most of his life as the unofficial, resident poet-activist of JNU, reciting but never writing down his poems—as a mark of resistance. But his words have been preserved in differing transcriptions by various students. “Mohenjodaro,” like many of Vidrohi’s works, has no definitive text—it carries on the centuries-old tradition of oral poetry in the Indian subcontinent. Aggressive and unabashed, the poem, with each line, builds its indictment of patriarchy, colonialism, and of the nation itself. To honor the poem’s orality and to observe how literature can exist in multiple lives, the Special Feature includes two translations of “Mohenjodaro.” Each translation stems from a different ‘original,’ and so is markedly different, reminding us that language resides beyond the page, in telling, listening, and remembering.

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What’s New in Translation? December 2016

Asymptote reviews the latest translated books from Spanish, German, and Konkani

peter

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke, tr. Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review: Laura Garmeson, Assistant Copyeditor

Not long after midnight, with wintry constellations etched across the Serbian sky, a group of six or seven men make their way through the darkness from various nearby villages to approach the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube. They have been summoned by the owner of a houseboat moored by the riverbank, guided by its neon sign blazing the boat’s name: “Moravian Night”. Once on board, they are greeted by a man who was formerly a well-known writer. He extinguishes the glowing sign, calls for silence, and begins to tell the listeners his story.

So begins The Moravian Night, the latest shimmering, introspective novel to appear in English from the renowned Austrian author Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is no stranger to controversy, with his support for Serbia’s Milošević in the 1990s provoking widespread outrage, and the alchemy of this work seems to draw from the political life and writing life of its author. Employing cameo appearances of characters from previous Handke novels and plot points about the fallout of Central European projects and failed Balkan states, Handke toys with reality, as he sees it, through the cracked lens of fiction.

The resulting book, which on the surface is the story of the nameless writer’s journey across Europe from east to west, is really a travelogue of the mind. This obscured narrator travels through the Balkans, Spain, and Germany, retraces his own steps from previous decades, and reencounters figures who were once figments of memory: “the longer he walked the more he fell into his previous footsteps, footsteps of air”. The parallels to One Thousand and One Nights are established in the book’s first scene, and continue with the same undercurrent of danger and threat of death that forced Scheherazade’s stories into being. The narrator seems impelled by the same threat in the dark on board the Moravian Night. Storytelling here is the antithesis of death – the recreation of a life – and a disrupter of time.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in reports on arts and culture from Spain, India, and Bangladesh

This week, as ever, we are eager to share stories from around the globe. Today we’re checking in with Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James in Spain, Editor-at-Large Naheed Patel in Bangladesh, and Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan in India. 

And don’t forget to check out our Fall 2016 issue here!

First, we drop in on Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, with the scoop on Spain:

2016 marked the 400th Anniversary of Cervantes’s Death, but much of the Spanish public felt more time was moving in between their two rounds of inconclusive elections, so much so that they decided to avoid a third one, projected over Christmas, and are able now to focus on their budding literary scene. In Madrid, the Prado Museum is making history in the visual arts with a show dedicated to the art of painter Clara Peeters. She will be the first female artist with her own show in the museum’s two-hundred-year history.

In another surprise turn, Spain’s major poetry festival in the city of Córdoba, Cosmopoética, celebrated its lucky thirteenth iteration from September 25 through October 8. The theme this year was Dada and the festival welcomed international and homegrown writers alike, such as Julieta Valero, Fani Papageorgiou, and  Chantal Maillard.

While Spain harbors many fans of Bob Dylan, a good deal of the Spanish literary community was puzzled by the Nobel Prize news. Some, however, took the announcement with great humor, imagining the messages between the silent winner and an increasingly desperate Swedish Academy. READ MORE…

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.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Pakistan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Argentina

The Asymptote world tour this time begins in Pakistan, with an update on the Punjabi literary scene from Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor. Then, we fly north, where Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large in Slovakia, shares the latest publications and literary events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Our last stop takes us southwest to Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida talks poetry festivals, feminism, and politics. Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, with news from Pakistan:

It’s been 250 years since one of the most famous renderings of the Punjabi tragic romance came into being—Heer by Waris Shah, which remains an influence on Punjabi literature and folk traditions. But Punjabi has suffered as a consequence of marginalization during the colonial rule (when Urdu was patronized) as well as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, when (Punjabi-speaking) Sikhs were forced to leave their homeland in Pakistani Punjab (while Urdu and Muslims were expunged from India).

Amidst a growing Punjabi literary movement to correct this historical wrong, Asymptote encountered a reading club in Lahore dedicated to and named after this legendary text—the Heer Study Circle.

Ghulam Ali Sher, co-founder of the group, shares its purpose with Asymptote: “to inculcate an interest for Punjabi reading among university youth; to do away with the religiously-oriented sufistic reading of such Punjabi folktales for a more pluralistic and people-oriented interpretation; and to trace the socio-economic patterns of pre-colonial Punjab through popular historical sources, like this folktale, against the biases of mainstream historiography.”

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