Posts by Theophilus Kwek

Monthly Update from the Asymptote Team

The first month of 2017 has been a big one for the folks here at Asymptote!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado read with fellow poet Kea Wilson at Washington University in St Louis on 26 January. Her recent translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia was reviewed in Europe Now by Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi.

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon launched Latin American Literature Today, a new bilingual journal affiliated to World Literature Today. He serves as Managing Editor and principal translator.

Contributing Editor (Chinese) Francis Li Zhuoxiong’s recent memoir looking back on his 20 illustrious years as a Chinese lyricist was announced as a top ten finalist for the nonfiction category by the organizers of the Taipei International Book Exhibition.

Assistant Managing Editor Lori Feathers is opening Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas. The independent bookstore is expected to open in May. In addition to being a co-owner, Lori will be the store’s book buyer. For more information about the store visit interabangbooks.com.

India Editor-at-Large Poorna Swami spoke at a panel on South Asian books in translation at Jaipur Bookmark, part of the Jaipur Literature Festival. On another panel, she and Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan presented on Asymptote‘s Indian Languages Special Feature. The Indian online news publication The Wire ran a selection of poems from this Feature in a week-long series titled The Republic of Verse.

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has received the inaugural Beverly Series manuscript prize. Her debut poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences will be published by Eyewear Publishing in early 2018. She has also received a Toto Funds the Arts award for her poetry.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek‘s latest chapbook, The First Five Storms, which won the 2016 New Poets’ Prize, was released this month by smith | doorstop press. His also launched ‘Words of Welcome’, a new fortnightly series dedicated to spotlighting the literary voices of refugees in Oxford and writers who work directly with them.

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In Conversation: Yousif M. Qasmiyeh on Language and Liminality

Refugees and gods always compete for the same place.

Born in Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a Palestinian poet and translator who currently teaches Arabic at Oxford University. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Arabic in An-Nahar and Al-Ghawoon, and in English in journals including Critical Quarterly, GeoHumanities, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Much of his recent research, as the Writer in Residence for the Refugee Hosts Project, focuses on ‘writing the camp’ and the dialectics of hospitality in both life and death.

Last year, Qasmiyeh collaborated with the Oxford University Poetry Society, the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford University PEN to translate Arabic-language poems pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis for a small anthology, Flight, subsequently sold to raise funds for the Oxfam Refugee Appeal and an Oxford-based charity, OXPAND. It was in this capacity that I first met Qasmiyeh. The following exchange took place in late January, 2017.

—Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote

 

Theophilus Kwek (TK): You’ve just returned from Oxford to Lebanon for several weeks over the winter, visiting the refugee camps while you were there. Each of these journeys must involve a complex set of changes: not least in your immediate linguistic and cultural context. Was there an aspect of this most recent journey that was most compelling to you as a writer?

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (YMQ): These journeys have become regular since I obtained my British passport in early-2012. Their regularity is largely initiated by a combination of familial and research commitments. I mainly visit Baddawi camp (my place of birth) and the Nahr Al-Bared camp in North Lebanon. We might say that I go to the camps ‘through Lebanon’ and never ‘to Lebanon’. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in my and Elena’s research with new [refugee] arrivals in Baddawi, in so far as refugees’ “arrival in the camp” has become the ultimate dynamic that has punctuated many refugees’ understanding of the occurrence of arrival [in Lebanon].

For me, as a person born in Baddawi, my arrival in that place has always been contingent on the presence of the camp. You may also say these are seasonal pilgrimages to one’s memories and traces, as I have argued in a co-authored piece titled ‘Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation.’

When I am there I try to spend time with my elderly parents, my siblings and their families, but I also try to observe the changes that are occurring in the camps. The camps are no longer the same nor are their residents the same people. In order to acknowledge both the humane and inhumane repercussions of such places we have to see the faces in their absolute gift—the features and cuts that never lie about what is happening around them. These are the faces of those who are unsure about the definition of a place or the tenets that make a place a place. Everything in the camps seems to move both horizontally and vertically at the same time. People enter the place to contribute to the mass or masses therein but also to the verticality that has embodied itself in all these fragile buildings that are being (or in the process of being) built. Other refugees are entering their archetypal place, one might say. The city (at least in Lebanon) is no longer the only destination for all these new refugees.

In this process, I think the linguistic and dialectal dimension has become strikingly obvious. The dialects that are heard are now what avows the faces. Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi dialects are now uttered in the same space, in camps that have transcended the “gathering” sign to become the “gatherer”; the active participle, the doer whose main presence is dependent on being occupied and used. We hear the dialect to observe the face. This (dis)order has always attracted me to my camp. It attracts me for it is the dialect that we at times suppress to conceal who we are. It attracts me when such dialects are exaggerated or perhaps elongated to occupy a place that is neither theirs nor ours. The shibboleth has never been clearer.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Singapore, Latin America, and the US

The week is drawing to a close, and it’s time for a quick wrap-up. This time we’re visiting South and North America where Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, and Executive Assistant Nozomi Saito bring us the latest news. Our final pit stop is in Singapore, where Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has been following a new literature campaign, among many other developments. Enjoy!

Our Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn had this to tell:

In collaboration with the Mexican Secretary of Culture, on January 24 in Mexico City’s Fine Arts Palace Pluralia Ediciones presented its latest publication, Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra (Earthen Skin) by Hubert Malina (Guerrero State, 1986). Malina’s volume is the first work of poetry published in the Me’phaa language (known by outsiders as Tlapaneco), a language with roughly 100,000 speakers. According to the press release, Malina’s work stands out for its lovingly realistic portrayal of life and community in the mountains of Guerrero. Zapaotec poets Natalia Toledo, 2004 winner of the Nezahualcóyotl Prize in Indigenous Literatures, and Irma Pineda participated in the event, providing commentary on Malina’s work. In particular, Toledo stated that a voice like Malina’s has been lacking within the contemporary indigenous language scene, while Pineda added that Malina’s work balances themes of traditional stories with current realities, guiding the reader through both the beautiful and the difficult contemporary indigenous life. The unveiling of this new book also precedes this February’s Me’phaa Language Festival, to be held in Paraje Montero, Mexico, on Tuesday, February 21 from 9am until 4pm.

In Guatemala City, Guatemala, on February 1 Gallery esQuisses hosted an event to celebrate the release of Tania Hernández’s latest work, Desvestir santos y otros tiempos [Undressing Saints and Other Epochs]. This latest publication will no doubt be an excellent addition to the author’s existing work that deals with life in contemporary Guatemala from a feminist perspective. The event was hosted by Rodrigo Arenas and the groundbreaking Maya poet, book artist, and performance artist Manuel Tzoc Bucup, among others. The event was streamed in real time via Facebook Live.

Finally, poets from all over the world will descend on Medellín, Colombia from July 8-15, 2017, to participate in the 27th International Medellin Poetry Festival. Updated in mid-January, the list of invited poets is a truly remarkable, international lineup, including authors from Algeria, India, Vietnam, Syria, and the UK, in addition to those from throughout Latin America. This will certainly be an event you can’t miss!

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Highlights from the Asymptote Winter Issue

Our editors recommend their favorite pieces from the latest issue.

First off, we want to thank the five readers who heeded our appeal from our editor-in-chief and signed up to be sustaining members this past week. Welcome to the family, Justin Briggs, Gina Caputo, Monika Cassel, Michaela Jones, and Phillip Kim! For those who are still hesitating, take it from Lloyd Schwartz, who says, “Asymptote is one of the rare cultural enterprises that’s really worth supporting. It’s both a literary and a moral treasure.” If you’ve enjoyed our Winter 2017 issue, why not stand behind our mission by becoming a sustaining member today?

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One week after the launch of our massive Winter 2017 edition, we invited some section editors to talk up their favorite pieces:

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones on her favorite article:

My highlight from the Criticism section this January is Ottilie Mulzet’s review of Evelyn Dueck’s L’étranger intime, the work that gave us the title of this issue: ‘Intimate Strangers’. Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, but (being prolifically multilingual) is also able to offer us a detailed, thoughtful, and well-informed review of a hefty work of French translation scholarship. Dueck’s book is a study of French translations of Paul Celan’s poetry from the 1970s to the present day (focussing on André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre) and is, in Mulzet’s estimation, ‘an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art’. One of this review’s many strengths is the way it positions Dueck’s book in relationship to its counterparts in Anglophone translation scholarship; another is its close reading of passages from individual poems in order to illustrate differences in approach among the translators; a third is the way Mulzet uses Dueck’s work as a springboard to do her own thinking about translational paratexts, and to offer potential areas for further research. The reviewer describes L’étranger intime as ‘stellar in every way’—the same might be said of the review, too.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who stepped in to edit our Writers on Writers section for the current issue, had this to say: 

When asked to pick a highlight from this issue’s Writers on Writers feature, I was torn between Victoria Livingstone’s intimate exploration of Xánath Caraza’s fascinating oeuvre and Philip Holden’s searching essay on Singapore’s multilingual—even multivocal—literary history, but the latter finally won out for its sheer depth and detail. Moving from day-to-day encounters with language to literary landmarks of the page and stage, Holden surveys the city’s shifting tonalities with cinematic ease, achieving what he himself claims is impossible: representing a ‘polylingual lived reality’ to the unfamiliar reader. And as a Singaporean abroad myself, Holden’s conclusion sums it up perfectly: the piece is ‘a return to that language of the body, of the heart’.

Visual Editor Eva Heisler’s recommendation:

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta addresses issues of nationhood, cultural identity, diaspora, and globalization in complex inquiry-based and site-specific installations.  The experience of Gupta’s work is explored by Poorna Swami in her essay ‘Possessing Skies’, the title of which alludes to a work in which large LED light structures, installed across Bombay beaches, announce, in both English and Hindi, ‘I live under your sky too.’  Gupta’s work, Swami writes, ‘positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities’.

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Monthly Update from the Asymptote Team

New year, same busy Asymptote members! Check out what we've been up to, from the page to the stage.

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado‘s translation project, ‘Sentences / Sententiae’, has been published in its current form in the latest issue of Almost Island. Her work also appears in Folder Magazine‘s latest print collection, and you can read a section of her recently-published translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia in The Guardian. 

‘After Orlando’, a theatre action piece co-led by Drama Editor Caridad Svich, was performed in New York and London, and featured in Exeunt Magazine. Her review of Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field: Changing Theatre in a Changing World, was also published in the Contemporary Theatre Review. 

India Editor-at-Large, Poorna Swami, has a poem in the third issue of Prelude Magazine. Her interview with art critic and photographer Sadanand Menon on ‘Nationalism and Dance’ has also been featured in Ligament. 

A new short story by English Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been published in the latest issue of Out of Print, and another was published earlier in December in 3:AM Magazine. 

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek‘s New Year’s Eve round-up on ‘2016: A Year in Translation’ was published in The Oxford Culture Review. He also has a new poem in the current issue of The London Magazine. 

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao appeared on a segment of ABC iview’s ‘Bookish’ programme to discuss the question, “What is ‘Asian’ Literature?” Her novel, The Oddfits, appears on 2016’s ‘Top 5’ list of Superhero Novels 

Chile Editor-at-Large, Tomás Cohen, helped to present ‘Hafen Lesung #9‘, a multilingual literary evening in Hamburg. His poem, ‘Andarivel’ (from his collection, Redoble del ronroneo), was featured on Vallejo and Co., while a Greek translation of the same poem was also published this month in Vakxicon. 

Finally, if you missed it in December, check out Asymptote‘s lovely feature in The Hindu, and read the full version of our Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong’s interview on our blog!

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My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

From today through Saturday, select Asymptote staff will be continuing our annual tradition of looking back on the year—specifically through the lens of literary discovery. First to go is Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who recently placed Second in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. 

It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago: on the brink of a nuclear deal in Iran, standing firmly in Europe, and with a cluster of literary titans—including Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Max Ritvo and Leonard Cohen—to light the road ahead. The intervening months have taken us around blind corners that will, undoubtedly, take many more months to comprehend.

For many, however, that tumultuous journey has been more than metaphorical. From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.

Or can we? My 2016 has brought—along with border-crossing award-winners like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation—a selection of powerful work bearing witness to the refugee experience, both by refugees themselves, and those involved first-hand in the asylum process. More than before, I am convinced that there are ways that we, as readers and writers, can know and share in these journeys. And in a publishing climate that remains overwhelmingly first-world, settled, and white, the least we can do (with our wealth and our words) is choose to look outside those brackets. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Argentina, France, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The end of the year is nearly upon us, and we can hardly believe it here at the Asymptote blog. 2016 has been difficult the world over, but that hasn’t stopped a flourishing of creative energy in literature and the arts—which may be of more importance now than ever. This week, we check in with Asymptote team members on the latest literary happenings in places they call (or have once called) home.

Our world tour begins in Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida brings us the latest:

As the year comes to an end, there has been a steady stream of literary festivals in Buenos Aires. Most recently, the sixth annual Fanzine Festi took place at the Convoi Gallery, which featured zines and underground presses like Tren en Movimiento, alcohol y fotocopias, Fábrica de Estampas, Ediciones de Cero, and many others. On the same weekend, Flipa (Fería del Libro Popular [Popular Book Fair]) took place at the Paco Urondo Cultural Center. This initiative, free and open to the public, came out of “Construyendo Cultura,” a collective of cultural spaces in Buenos Aires, and aims to create a editorial circuit that reaches “the largest possible number of authors, readers, and spaces for the diffusion…of collective, homegrown presses and graphic cooperatives.” This is just another example of the thriving DIY print culture in Buenos Aires. Also held recently was La Sensacíon, a monthly book fair held at the bookstore La Internacional in the Villa Crespo neighborhood. It boasts titles from independent presses such as Blatt & Ríos, Fadel & Fadel, Milena Caserola, and others.

Two recent conferences spotlighted 20th century poets: Alejandra Pizarnik and Susana Thenon. The former was held at the MALBA contemporary art museum, and brought together various contemporary writers and literary critics, such as María Negroni, Daniel Link, and Federica Rocco, to discuss different aspects of Pizarnik’s work. There was also a screening of Virna Molina and Ernesto Ardito’s documentary, Alejandra. The latter was part of a series on gender and poetry presented by Arturo Jauretche University.

Ni Una Menos, the feminist advocacy group, recently led a march on November 25, for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There was also a national assembly held the same day in public spaces in cities throughout the country, in which advocates and citizens made public demands for legalized abortion and stronger legislation for the prevention of gender violence, among other issues.

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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.

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More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore

Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit. 

Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:

PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.

Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.

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Translation Tuesday: “Shadow Puppets” by Wong Yoon Wah

With a dab of paint I become the singing, dancing doll everyone loves.

The stories told with Southeast Asia’s shadow puppets, better known in the region as ‘Wayang Kulit’, range from adaptations of ancient epics to familiar, domestic sagas. This poem was written in 1977, when the Malayan-born Wong Yoon Wah (by then an outspoken scholar, critic, and award-winning writer) was appointed Director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang University—just as higher education in Singapore was experiencing a period of upheaval. In this poem, Wong holds his own multiple identities up to the light, and a candid sense of his inner self shines through.

i. Birth

A sharp knife
pares the leather into shape.
A ruthless awl
carves each nub of my character.

With a dab of paint
I become the singing, dancing doll
everyone loves.

 

ii. Family Background

Though I’m a shadow
acting in the night’s mystery,
I am a child of light,
nothing without its beam.

The village’s earth is a white gauze.
In this soiled world, I can’t find myself.

I’ve never left a footprint
on the path.
I sing movingly
but never with my own voice.
At home, I’m a shadow on the screen.
On stage: a self you can see.

 

iii. Confession

Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
or hankers
after Solomon’s princesses. 

A shapeless thread holds each of my four limbs.
Being superstitious, I can’t refuse being fate’s plaything.
The old man backstage
has my voice in his hands.
Whether I’m crying or laughing,
he decides.

 

iv. Fate

If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find usheroes, ladiesall
in the arms of the ugly puppeteer.

After we’ve been played,
our heads are taken down,
bodies folded and stacked again
in his box, secured with string
where patiently, like prisoners,
we’ll wait to see the sun.

November, 1977

Translated from the Chinese by Theophilus Kwek

Born in Malaysia, Professor Wong Yoon Wah has won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion (1986), Thailand’s South-East Asia Write Award (1984), and the ASEAN Cultural Award (1993). He has published more than twenty books as well as over fifty articles on modern and postcolonial Chinese literature, and is presently Senior Vice President of Southern University College, Malaysia.

Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and his translation of ‘Moving House’ by Wong Yoon Wah placed second in this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.

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Mid-autumn News from the Asymptote Team

From poetry to graph theory to dance, we've been keeping busy.

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado‘s poem ‘Route: Desert’ was recently published in Poor Claudia.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich‘s new play, Archipelagopremieres in the UK on 24th November at the Lighthouse in Poole, directed by Stephen Wrentmore. Her essay, ‘Six Hundred and Ninety-Two Million: On Art, Ethics and Activism’ recently appeared on Howlround.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu, aka MARGENTO, co-authored an academic article on artificial intelligence with Bryan Paget and Diana Inkpen that has recently been published in the Journal of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. This is part of an ongoing research project, The Graph Poem, led by MARGENTO that applies graph theory to poetry computational analysis and poetry composition or generation.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac‘s translation of Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić will be published by Seven Stories Press. Read an exclusive excerpt in Asymptote‘s Spring Issue! She has also just been elected Vice-President of the American Literary Translators’ Association.

Assistant Editor K.T. Billey, who also edited Asymptote‘s recent Special Feature on Canadian Poetry, has three new poems in the latest issue of the Denver Quarterly

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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_cover

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_cover

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.

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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”.

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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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