Interviews

Meet the Publisher: Juliet Mabey on Oneworld’s Roots and the Business of Publishing Translations

When you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems...

Oneworld was founded in 1986 by Juliet Mabey and her husband Novin Doostdar. The press is now based in London and publishes over 100 books a year. Most of these continue to be non-fiction titles across a broad range of subject areas. In 2009, Oneworld launched their fiction list, and shortly thereafter began releasing novels in translation. To date, the press has published authors from 40 countries and works originally written in 26 languages. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to Juliet Mabey over Skype to discuss the importance of reading fiction from across the globe and Oneworld’s commitment to diversity in publishing literature in translation.

Sarah Moses: Can you tell me a bit about how Oneworld came to be?

Juliet Mabey: My husband Novin Doostdar and I had always been interested in books and bookshops. We were in university in Edinburgh together, where we met and got married, and we decided that we wanted to set up a company ourselves. It was really a choice between setting up a bookshop or a publishing company. In fact, originally we wanted to set up both, but we never really had time to do the bookshop. We set up Oneworld in 1986, very much with a view of publishing accessible, authoritative narrative non-fiction across quite a broad range of subjects.

At that time there was no Internet. If you wanted to learn a bit more about psychology, and you went into a bookshop, all you could find were say, the complete works of Freud or an A-level textbook of an introductory nature. So we felt there was a big gap in the market for books that were written by experts or academics but in an accessible style. That was very much what we intended to do, across philosophy, psychology, history, popular science. In fact, it’s still very much the core of our non-fiction list. The first year in 1986 I think we published four books. We then built it up very slowly. Neither my husband nor I came from a publishing background so we learned as we went along and talked to booksellers and that sort of thing.

SM: How did you decide to make the move into fiction?

JM: That’s a really interesting question. There were certain factors that came to a head around the same time. On the one hand, I kept reading novels that I felt were very sympathetic to our kind of ethos in our non-fiction list; that if we had a fiction list, we would be interested in publishing ourselves. But of course we didn’t. That went on for a few years before we took the plunge.

For example, novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus offered a very interesting way of learning all about Nigerian culture, its history, and that part of the world. They’re fantastic novels in their own right. They weren’t a worthy introduction to Nigeria at all, but they took you there. That seemed to be very much the sort of thing I would have loved to publish if we’d had a fiction list. By this point we’d been in publishing for just over twenty years. Finally I just thought, you know what, I’m going to tell everybody that I’m interested in starting a fiction list, and we’ll see what happens. So we went to Frankfurt in 2008 and I started telling people, “By the way, we’re hoping to start up a fiction list.”

One of the first novels that was suggested to me was Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which we went on to publish the following September, in 2009. That was the start of our fiction list. So we were just incredibly lucky. You know, sometimes it happens. And when you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems that are sitting there, which (in the case of James’s novel) everybody had turned down already because it was written entirely in Jamaican pidgin English. Then his next novel—the second novel we published of his—went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015. So it was truly a very propitious start to our fiction list.

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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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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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Joshua Freeman talks Uyghur Poetry, Part II

The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.

Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.

When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?

Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.

When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.

Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?

There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page. READ MORE…

On Editing an English Literary Journal as a Person Of Color

The matter-of-fact, even slightly cheerful, answer: "Have your characters come to the US!"

Hello! (Taps mic…) Our regular blog editors Madeline, Hanna and Nina are on leave today, so I’ll be guest-blogging to continue our daily programming. My name is Yew Leong (yes, that’s two words for my first name) and I’m the Singaporean editor working behind the scenes of the magazine since 2010. I’m thirty-nine this year (the photo of me, above, was taken in a yakisoba restaurant when I was thirty-six).

Some details of how I came to found the journal are mentioned in the interview I share below, so I won’t get into that here. What I will say to preface my breaking the fourth wall is this: After July 2011, I stopped signing the quarterly issues’ editor’s notes at least partly because, as the only full-time member at Asymptote, I didn’t want to overshadow the team’s collective efforts (for the same reason, I also declined to be videoed for our first-ever Indiegogo campaign). For several years thereafter, all editor’s notes were simply ascribed to “The Editors.”

In July 2016, I decided to sign my name after the editor’s note again: Prior to that, I’d seen Asymptote being written off as a mere “platform” by a prominent translator, but specifically in the derogatory sense of “editor X used the platform Asymptote to do Y” (Y being a massive translation project, requiring coordination across the different roles), as if all I had done was create a free-for-all Facebook or Twitter-like interface for providers of world literature. That could not be further from the truth: there is someone leading the magazine (although hopefully not off a cliff!), someone with a vision to boot, not merely a loose collective of editors, contributing whatever they’d like to contribute.

Secondly, I’d started wondering if, by not putting myself out there a little more, I had become complicit in, let’s just say, a certain racial oppression. This year, after six years of editing the magazine, I was happy to be invited to my first London Book Fair panel (actually any event that wasn’t organized by Asymptote, although, as its editor-in-chief, I have played varying roles toward making 33 world literature events happen in four continents), and I remain eternally grateful to the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK for subsidizing my trip there (as I could not afford the flight ticket otherwise).

But, few know that, in 2014, about five years into helming the magazine, and surviving those five years by wearing many different hats to keep the journal going, an invitation was received by someone on the team to represent Asymptote at an international conference, with the offer to be flown in from wherever. The invitation was sent to a part-time White Assistant Managing Editor who’d been on board less than seven months, who actually lived further away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. I’d left the US many years ago to avoid being an invisibilized person of color, specifically in a literary environment (Junot Díaz and Ken Chen talk about this issue very eloquently), and suddenly there I was being overlooked again.

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Q&A with Polina Barskova, editor of Written in the Dark

For me, this anthology presents a great lesson of humanity.

Today, we feature editor-in-chief Lee Yew Leong in conversation with Polina Barskova, scholar of the devastating Siege of Leningrad, in which as many as one million perished from famine. Working with a team of historians and translators on “miraculous” archival material, Barskova produced Written in the Dark, an important human testament of its time. After reading this interview, be sure to check out a selection of works from the anthology which we arranged with The Guardian to showcase on a recent Translation Tuesday

Your project presents a literary phenomenon that has been “unknown even to Russian readers for 70 years,” according to the introduction accompanying the anthology. Can you give our (mostly non-Russian) readers a bit of background into the dire circumstances that resulted in the writing gathered here? Why was it unknown for 70 years, even in its native Russia?

The Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) was a complex disaster indeed, resulting in around one million deaths from famine. But yet another dire consequence was Soviet power doing everything possible to conceal the humanitarian catastrophe that happened in the city. For decades, only the Soviet version of the heroic fight could be published; all other voices and opinions were suppressed. The poems collected here present the human suffering, not the official version of heroism.

Your work as a scholar on the Siege undoubtedly helped you unearth these important poems, whose survival has been called a “miracle.” Can you shed some light on the discovery, and the process of presenting an English anthology?

This anthology is a collective effort: many scholars worked to unearth and preserve and interpret these texts. My job was mainly to put them together, to organize them into one coherent poetic and historical statement. It is mainly due to the families and disciples of these poets that these texts have survived. In every case, their survival is a miracle.

And with this feeling of awe I’ve been talking about the anthology both in the West and in Russia, and curiously very different audiences receive the book with equal enthusiasm.

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In Conversation: Abnousse Shalmani on the Politics of the Female Body

To cover the female body with a veil, a burqa, a hijab, a burkini, is to accept that said body is a site of desire and only that.

The first time I heard Abnousse Shalmani speak was her TEDxParis talk, which opened with: Oh, putain de bordel de merde [oh, motherfucking shit]. The auditorium echoed with scattered titters of discomfort and appreciation. “It’s ugly, all these curse words in a woman’s mouth, at least that is what parents tell their daughters,” Shalmani continued, “but I think the opposite: that all these swear words—words of the mouths of men—in the mouths of women, are indispensable.” In the remainder of the talk Shalmani exhibited through personal anecdotes and precise historical and literary analysis how sexism and misogyny, through the constraints on women’s bodies, permeate the Republic celebrated for equality and liberty.

To Shalmani, freedom begins with the liberation of the body and the assurance of one’s ability to fulfill corporal desire without limits or restriction. In her first book, Khomeini, Sade, et Moi [Khomeini, Sade, and Me, tr. Charlotte Coombe, World Editions]—which toes the line between memoir, manifesto, and novel—Shalmani expands and elaborates upon these foundations. In September 2016, I had the opportunity to interview the author about her book, feminism, and the conundrums facing contemporary France

Nina Sparling (NS): In Khomeini, Sade and Me, you make the case for a renewed humanist project, a way past all forms of extremist thought. But you get there via an unusual intellectual trajectory: through the libertine literature of authors like the Marquis de Sade or Pierre de Louÿs, both of whom are often associated with the search for extreme—even cruel—sensations and thoughts. Is it possible to reconcile humanism and libertine literature?

Abnousse Shalmani (AS): Above all, I plead for the liberation of the female body. And that liberation is impossible without the erasure of prejudice. The intellectual paths I’ve taken might seem unusual, but under closer scrutiny, their trajectory fits perfectly within the tradition of Enlightenment thought.

I first ‘encountered’ Pierre Louÿs, the prolific erotic writer. What struck me most about this lover of Beauty (“Beauty is made from Greek perfection crowned with Oriental grace,” he wrote) in his erotic poems and pornographic novels was his playful vision of flesh, of sex. Born in Teheran under the Islamic Revolution, all I knew of the body was the drama it provoked, the gravity with which my world covered up the female body, the danger it represented. To read a poet—at fourteen—who laughed about the body, about sex, who took pleasure in both, this took the drama out of the body. I began to see my body as something besides a forbidden place. It began as a literary step; the politics followed.

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Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.

PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.

Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.

Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.

Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?

Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.

We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.

CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?

JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

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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.

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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…

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…

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…

“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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Translating Iranian Poetry: A Conversation with Siavash Saadlou

As human beings, we need to truly acknowledge that we all are different hues of the same spectrum—that is the human spectrum.

Siavash Saadlou was born in Tehran, Iran. He started learning English at the age of 17, and has since worked as a sports journalist, translator, simultaneous interpreter, editor, and college professor. His English translations of the minimalist Iranian poet, Rasool Yoonan, have appeared in Washington Square Review, Blue Lyra Review, Visions International, The Writing Disorder, Indian Review, and in Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue. He was also a finalist for Slice Magazine’s 2015 Bridging the Gap writing contest for his creative non-fiction piece I Didn’t Mean It. Saadlou is currently a second-year MFA creative writing student and a teaching fellow at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Shortly before and after the US election, Asymptote’s Ryan Mihaly spoke with Saadlou about translating Persian, meeting Yoonan, and the importance of literature in breaking down barriers and transporting culturenow more than ever. 

Ryan Mihaly (RM): Yoonan’s humor seems to translate well into English. You’ve captured the dark humor of reassuring a friend that his corpse will be buried, and the silliness of a ‘Don Quixote’ who ‘wears a saucepan on his head’. Were these literal translations? How did you capture them in English?

Siavash Saadlou (SS): When it comes to translating Yoonan, I try to maintain a balance between literal and figurative language, although in the cases you mentioned, I have translated the text verbatim. I should mention that in the first example, the word ‘friend’ has been used sarcastically. There’s a lot of witty sarcasm in the Persian language and literature, and in this poem Yoonan is using a wry tone to describe tyranny by using the word ‘friend’. I have also tried to maintain Yoonan’s diction. For that purpose, I first read all of his poems over and over again and took note of his word choice. For example, the word mozhek could be translated as ‘absurd’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘inane’, or ‘preposterous’, but since I happened to have a holistic cognizance of Yoonan’s plain and unadorned tone, I chose the word ‘absurd’.

READ MORE…