Posts by Tiffany Tsao

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our bookish reporters on the ground in Indonesia, Spain, and India

Your weekly world tour kicks off in Indonesia this week, where we’ll hear about writers receiving special honors and new books out in Indonesian and English. Then we’ll jet to Spain because some of the biggest literary awards are being announced right now! And our final destination will be India, where…

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, has some serious scoop:

In commemoration of the writer Sapardi Djoko Damono’s seventy-seventh birthday late last month, seven books were launched at the Bentara Budaya Jakarta cultural institute in South Jakarta: one new novel and six new editions of Sapardi’s previously published poetry collections. The novel, entitled Pingkan Melipat Jarak [Pingkan Folds Distance] is the second installment of a trilogy, the first novel of which is titled Hujan Bulan Juni [June Rain]. Sapardi is widely considered Indonesia’s pioneer of lyrical poetry. Well-known writer and journalist Goenawan Mohammad opened the evening with a few words about Sapardi’s work, followed by poetry readings—including musical renditions—by writers and musicians.

Several writers from the province of West Sumatra have put forth a proposal that the poet Chairil Anwar be officially recognized as one of Indonesia’s national heroes. Born in the Sumatran city of Medan in 1922, Chairil wrote poetry until his untimely death in 1949 at the age of 27. Critics consider his poetry to be revolutionary on several levels, notably his engagement with the Indonesian struggle for independence at the time, his introduction of Western-influenced themes into Indonesian poetry, and the groundbreaking way he wielded bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian—the new official language of the nascent nation.

Feminist fiction writer and essayist Intan Paramaditha’s short-story collection Sihir Perempuan [Black Magic Woman] will be rereleased at the end of April by Indonesian publisher Gramedia Pustaka Utama. The collection was originally published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa Award.

The English translation of the Indonesian bestseller Perahu Kertas [Paper Boats], written by Dee Lestari will be released on May 1 by Amazon’s literature-in-translation imprint AmazonCrossing. Paper Boats is one of the seven Indonesian works that AmazonCrossing announced it would publish at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Indonesia was the guest of honor. Last year saw the publication of Nirzona by Abidah El Khalieqy and translated by Annie Tucker, and The Question of Red, written in English and Indonesian by Laksmi Pamuntjak.

Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski reports from Spain:

April is an important month for prizes in the Spanish literary world and as such, let’s begin with the most prestigious. Equivalent to the Nobel Prize for Spanish literature, the 2016 Cervantes Prize, will be awarded on April 23 to  Eduardo Mendoza for his contribution to Spanish letters. Created in 1975, the prize is awarded on April 23 to coincide with Día del Libro (World Book Day), the day selected by UNESCO to honor both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who died on the same calendar date though not on the same day. At 125,000 euros, it is Spanish literature’s biggest award for Castilian language writers, with recipients alternating each year between Latin America and Spain.

Also of note, the 2013 Cervantes award winner, Elena Poniatowska, presided over this week’s announcement of the 2017 Alfaguara award for the novel, Rendición, by Ray Loriga which, according to ABC, was described by Poniatowska as both a “Kafkaesque and Orwellian history on authority and collective manipulation.” Citing Juan Rulfo among his influences, this multitalented author, screen writer, and director, Jorge Loriga Torrenova, who is better known as Ray Loriga, chooses to describe his dystopic science fiction novel as having “little science.”

Also worth mentioning is the 2017 Premio Azorín awarded to the Basque author from Bilbao, Espido Freire, for her novel, Llamadme Alejandra [Call Me Alexandra] about the last Russian Tsarina. Created in 1994, as a joint venture between the provincial government of Alicante and the Spanish publisher Editorial Planeta, the prize carries the pseudonymous name Azorín, used by Augusto Trinidad Martínez Ruíz of the “Generation of 98,” to sign his work. To learn more about this important member of the Generation of 98 don’t miss ABC’s tribute to Azorín in this week’s culture section commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

Finally, and certain to be of interest to Asymptote readers, is Laura Salas Rodríguez’s Spanish translation from the original French of Bosnian writer Velibor Colic’s Manual de exilio [Manual of Exile], available from Periférica. Based on his experience as a Balkan war refugee in France, Colic’s novel is particularly relevant now given the global refugee crisis. Be sure to read this Letras Libres interview, “Exile is Apprenticeship”, in which Colic discusses the paradox of writing in French, a language he didn’t begin to learn until the age of thirty.

And Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan checks in with us from India:

As festival season wraps, it’s becoming clear that one festival in particular made its mark this year. Not one of the literary heavyweights in the country (like the Jaipur Literature Festival), but the lesser-known Bookaroo, a children’s literature festival in its ninth year, came into the limelight when it won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair (LBF). You can read an interview with the organizers of the festival here.

At a time when, not only in India but also in countries across the world, there is a noticeable shift towards tightening borders and a clinging on to an “ahistoric” nationalism, this in-depth interview with historian Romila Thapar provides an understanding of the new phenomenon. In a five-part conversation with the India Cultural Forum—an organization that focusses on issues of concern to writers, educators, and cultural practitioners—Thapar says about nationalism, “We are at the moment today when nationalism means territory. We are all nationalists in our own way and our debate on nationalism in a post-independent nation like ours is yet to be broad-based and public.”

Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar, the first book translated from Kannada to have a release in the U.S (in February), has had  a grand reception with a 1000-word New York Times review—a welcome sign for translated literature from the country.

On the other hand, Indian language writing faced a sad month with the passing away of the legendary Tamil writer Ashokamitran in late March. A prolific writer with 200 short stories, 20 novellas, and 8 novels to his name, he brought into being a unique literary history in the country. This exhaustive tribute by one of his translators, N Kalyan Raman, compares his work and life to those of his contemporaries, shedding light on what distinguished Ashokamitran from his colleagues. As the translator notes, his 200 short stories “belong to one indivisible world and can be experienced as the one big story in which we may all find ourselves.” Other tributes to Ashokamitran have also pointed out and lamented the obscurity of a writer, who should be read and reread much more widely.

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Read More Dispatches from Around the World:

What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

milk of dreams

The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

READ MORE…

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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Read More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

“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.

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My 2015: A Frazzled New Mother’s Year in Reading

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower took me by the hand, led me up the stairs, and pushed me off the roof.

2015 was an eventful year, to put things mildly. I lumbered into it heavy with child, in mid-March I gave birth to a bundle of joy, and post-mid-March has been spent living with said bundle of joy—an experience filled for the most part with elation, excitement, and gratefulness, with a good dose of exhaustion, frustration, and terror.

In other news, I completed the manuscript of my second novel, worked with my publisher to see my first novel The Oddfits through the final stages of editing and proofing (it comes out on February 1, 2016!), and filled in remaining cracks with a few smaller projects—translation, writing, and editing. Chaos took the opportunity to reign supreme in our apartment. What you could see of the apartment between the eternal hillocks of yet-to-be-folded laundry.

Don’t look at the bathroom. For the love of God, don’t look at the bathroom.

And somehow, thankfully, I managed to read. In hindsight, reading is perhaps what kept me sane…if it could be called sanity. Audiobooks were useful when I didn’t have a hand free but still needed to be in motion. And it was nice to be read to, though my choices were hardly the stuff comforting bedtime stories are made of. With the relentless cynicism of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh cackling in my ears, I saw the world’s cheeks drained of their rosy hue; and I cackled along. Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower took me by the hand, led me up the stairs, and pushed me off the roof. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son set me adrift on a nightmarish sea, the pitching so constant, however, that I almost felt as if I were being rocked in a cradle. READ MORE…

New Asia Now: A Dispatch From Sydney

"Perhaps it was only natural that conversation that evening revolved around the writer's responsibility to eradicate social injustice."

On the evening of August 11th, the University of Sydney hosted a writers’ panel in celebration of the Griffith Review’s recently released issue, New Asia Now. Co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens, and published in parallel with the Asia Literary Review, the two-volume issue is dedicated to writing about contemporary Asia by Asian and Australian authors born after 1970.

The event in Sydney was one of several, held in various locations around Australia last and this month to promote the issue. Making up one set of contributors on tour are Murong Xuecun from China, Joshua Ip from Singapore, and Maggie Tiojakin from Indonesia (who took part in Asymptote blog’s multilingual translation project “Say Ayotzinapa”). The other touring trio featured Indian writer Annie Zaidi, Chinese writer Sheng Keyi, and Filipino novelist (and Man Asian Literary Prizewinner) Miguel Syjuco.

It was the latter trio—Sheng, Zaidi, and Syjuco—who spoke at the University of Sydney that night, along with Schultz, who facilitated the panel and acted as Zaidi’s interviewer. And it was my pleasure to be included on the panel as Syjuco’s interviewer, along with Beatriz Carillo Garcia who interviewed Sheng Keyi, and Jing Han from Australia’s multicultural broadcasting service SBS who translated for Sheng (needless to say, it was very crowded up there on stage). READ MORE…

Worlds-Within-Worlds: A Testimonial

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao on Indonesian writing—and how Asymptote fits in a new, more nuanced "World Literature"

Asymptote’s mission is to introduce not only literary voices from a wide range of countries, but a greater number of voices from within each country. That’s where our twenty over editors-at-large, from Cuba to China, come in. Their goal? To seek out the worlds nestled within worlds that may be invisible from the outside. With their fingers on the pulse of their regions’ literary scenes, our editors-at-large act as extra eyes and ears for our section editors, ensuring a stream of the freshest content from the world over. Often this work is commissioned from scratch (see Mui Poopoksakul on Contemporary Thai Fiction or Yardenne Greenspan on Contemporary Israeli Literature). Editors-at-large also organize outreach events, partner with local journals, and send us literary dispatches for the blog. Our Indonesian editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao, who gave us this dispatch from the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, wrote the following blog post to commemorate our fourth birthday.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

World literature is a loaded word with a lot at stake. The term makes a grand promise: access to literatures, in foreign tongues, about unfamiliar peoples, in far-flung places. “World Literature” promises to reveal the astounding diversity of the globe through letters.

But its execution risks the exact opposite effect: in place of diversification, simplification; in place of multiplication, diminishment. A handful of writers behave as spokespeople for an entire nation, ethnic group, even continent; a single novel purports to function as representative of a variegated and ever-varying literary and popular culture of any given context. This prospect of oversimplification alarms both skeptics and advocates of world literature alike, and (unfortunately) even the most good-intentioned of attempts to avoid this plight may count for naught. READ MORE…

What We’re Reading in December

This December: family sagas, American classics, flash fiction, and meta-translation

Tiffany Tsao (Editor-at-large, Indonesia): Family sagas make up my month’s leisure reading so far. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been on my to-read list for several years, and it was with a combination of sheepishness and triumph that I finally got round to cracking open their spines. One occupational hazard of being a literary academic is that you often lack the energy to graze beyond your particular fields of expertise. As a recent post-academic, it has been a great pleasure indeed to read more in the way of the American “classics”—and not just so I can finally stop embarrassing myself at dinner parties where I often disappoint fellow guests by not having read every work in the western canon, all the latest prize-winners, and everything listed on the latest “Top 100 great reads” list circulating the web.

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Notes from the Field: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2014

“Is it possible to celebrate linguistic diversity while using one language only—that same language of global hegemony—to do so?”

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held annually in Bali, Indonesia, is Southeast Asia’s largest (and arguably its most well-known) literary festival. This year, the festival featured about 150 writers hailing from more than 25 different countries. Its eleventh iteration, however, proved an even more festive occasion than usual, overlapping with both Saraswati Day—a holy day in the Balinese Hindu calendar dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge—and a series of religious ceremonies held at the nearby Gunung Lebah Temple. The sun was hot, spirits were high, and the roads were packed as religious and literary pilgrims crisscrossed the small town of Ubud from morning to evening to attend their respective events.

Among the many recurring topics of conversation and debate at the festival was the growing global dominance of the English language. Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura confided her regrets about choosing to write in Japanese rather than English (she was capable of doing both, having spent twenty formative years in the United States), thus forgoing the opportunity to reach the wider audience that writing in English would have afforded her.

And yet, despite initial regrets, Mizumura affirmed her commitment to write in Japanese, noting not only that she has had a far greater impact on Japanese literature than she could have ever had on English literature, but also that she regards writing in a non-English language as a sort of personal moral obligation. Asking her audience to imagine a world in which the best and brightest spoke only English—a horrible, pitiful world, she opined—she regarded her writing as an attempt to save us from that awful fate. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Poetry by Nala Arung, translated by Tiffany Tsao

"Who would have guessed that love would collide / Into the wall that is FPI."

Efpei I’m in Love by Nala Arung

The cover of Efpei I’m in Love, a poetry collection by Indonesian writer Nala Arung, announces that it is “a book of tasteless poetry.” And it is apparent from the outset that its tastelessness operates on multiple levels.

Its title is deliberately lowbrow—a take on the title of the wildly popular teenage chick-lit novel, Eiffel … I’m in Love, published in 2001 and adapted for film as a romantic comedy of the same name two years later.

The Efpei that has displaced the original Eiffel refers to the FPI, or Islamic Defenders’ Front. A hard-line Islamic vigilante organization, FPI has gained national notoriety for using violence to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. Its members often patrol areas for signs of un-Islamic activity, destroying property and beating up offenders. The organization has also attacked religious minorities, including Buddhists, Christians, and Ahmadi Muslims, whom they consider a heretical sect. FPI is certainly no laughing matter and hardly the stuff love poems are made of—or so it would seem until one reads the titular poem “FPI, I’m in Love.”     READ MORE…