Place: Brazil

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from Brazil, Egypt, and Spain!

This week, we take off on tour just south of the equator, where Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Maíra Mendes Galvão, gives us the scoop on Indie Book Day and some big-time literary awards. Then it’s east to Egypt, where we’ll catch up with Editor-at-Large Omar El-Adl about some exciting recent and upcoming events. Finally in Spain, Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski highlights new releases and a chance to win poetry collections!

Maíra Mendes Galvão, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, has the latest from the lit scene:

The National Library Foundation of Brazil has issued an open call for publishers from all over the world interested in translating and publishing works by Brazilian authors to send in their proposals. Selected works will be eligible for a grant. Publishers have until May 2 to apply.

Raduan Nassar, veteran Brazilian writer with a short but acclaimed bibliography, has made headlines after giving a politically-charged speech on February 17 when he accepted the Camões Prize, issued by the Ministry of Culture of Brazil in partnership with Portugal. Mr. Nassar has called out the present government’s controversial claim to power, calling it anti-democratic and pointing out specific instances of misconduct by the administration, the president’s cabinet, and the Supreme Court nominees.

The popular Plana Fair, catalyst of a movement to popularize self-publishing and small publishing houses in Brazil, is holding its fifth edition under the name Plana – Art Book Fair at the São Paulo Biennial building, taking over the ground floor and the mezzanine of the iconic Pavilion Ciccillo Matarazzo from March 17 to 19. Plana will feature around 150 national and international exhibitors and a parallel program of talks, screenings, performances, and workshops.

Brazil is taking part on this year’s Indie Book Day on March 18, an initiative to promote and popularize independent publishing. It is a concerted action with a simple proposition: to go to a bookstore, any bookstore, on this particular day, buy an independently published book and post a picture of it on social networks with the hashtag #indiebookday.

Casa Guilherme de Almeida, the São Paulo State museum dedicated to Modernist journalist, poet, and translator Guilherme de Almeida, is holding a two-day conference dedicated to the translation of classics—the 3rd Translation of Classics in Brazil Conference—with the theme Re-translations in Conversation. Speakers will focus on comparative efforts of the differences between the premises, procedures, and results of translations of the same classical works.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Updates from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Austria

Would you believe we have already reached the end of January? We’ve already brought you reports from eleven different nations so far this year, but we’re thrilled to share more literary news from South America and central Europe this week. Our Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, brings us news of literary greats’ passing, while her new colleague Maíra Mendes Galvão covers a number of exciting events in Brazil. Finally, a University College London student, Flora Brandl, has the latest from German and Austrian.

Asymptote’s Argentina Editor-at-Large, Sarah Moses, writes about the death of two remarkable authors:

The end of 2016 was marked by the loss of Argentinian writer Alberto Laiseca, who passed away in Buenos Aires on December 22 at the age of seventy-five. The author of more than twenty books across genres, Laiseca is perhaps best known for his novel Los Sorias (Simurg, 1st edition, 1998), which is regarded as one of the masterworks of Argentinian literature.

Laiseca also appeared on television programs and in films such as El artista (2008). For many years, he led writing workshops in Buenos Aires, and a long list of contemporary Argentinian writers honed their craft with him.

Some two weeks after Laiseca’s passing, on January 6, the global literary community lost another great with the death of Ricardo Piglia, also aged seventy-five. Piglia was a literary critic and the author of numerous short stories and novels, including Respiración artificial (Pomaire, 1st edition, 1980), which was published in translation in 1994 by Duke University Press.

The first installments of Piglia’s personal diaries, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi, were recently released by Anagrama and are the subject of the film 327 cuadernos, by Argentinian filmmaker Andrés Di Tella. The film was shown on January 26 as part of the Museo Casa de Ricardo Rojas’s summer series “La literatura en el cine: los autores,” which features five films on contemporary authors and poets, including Witold Gombrowicz and Alejandra Pizarnik.

On January 11, the U.S. press New Directions organized an event at the bookstore Eterna Cadencia in anticipation of the February release of A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Argentinian journalist Leila Guerriero and translated by Frances Riddle. Guerriero discussed the book, which follows a malambo dancer as he trains for Argentina’s national competition, as well as her translation of works of non-fiction with fellow journalist and author Mariana Enriquez. Enriquez’s short story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire (Hogarth), translated by Megan McDowell, will also appear in English in February.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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Book Design in Translation

Talented publishers around the world are pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation.

In 1915, Franz Kafka pleaded with his publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag not to show the beetle on the cover of Metamorphosis. It had to remain unseen. If the cover displayed one illustration of the beetle, Gregor might never be glimpsed or guessed at again through the sheer language of the story.

When a book travels and changes, publishers won’t always present it in quite the same way. And when the translations multiply sometimes you have a series of cover artworks no longer focused on exactly the same thing. Outside the English language there are a great many talented publishers pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation rather than borrowing set formulas. In all languages we may now have covers illustrating beetles, but there are hundreds of variations and the details keep changing.

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In Conversation with Ferrez, the Father of Literatura Marginal

We don't wait for writers to come to the periphery, we create our own kind of art.

Brazil’s São Paulo is the largest city in Latin America, with a population of around 20 million people. Where Rio de Janeiro, a few hours up the coast, delights tourists with its beautiful scenery and relaxed beach lifestyle, São Paulo often horrifies visitors. Dubbed ‘blade-runner in the tropics’ by the Serbian-born musician DJ Suba, who was one of Brazil’s most important producers, the city can seem, at first, like a dystopic mess of concrete towers and roads which continue endlessly into a shimmering grey horizon.

What makes the city so vast is the miles and miles of densely packed poor neighbourhoods that border the city. Locals call this a peripheria—the periphery—or as margins—the margins. This border was built over the last few decades by immigrants to the city. Finding jobs but nowhere to live they began building their own homes on the outskirts of São Paulo. Poorly constructed houses and unplanned streets with very few amenities, the periphery has been described as medieval by some local commentators. Life here is often characterised by violence, crime and isolation. Locals with low-paid service jobs in the centre of the city often commute four or five hours a day to get to work because of problems with roads, transport, and traffic.

All of this makes the fact that the São Paulo periphery is home to one of the most popular Brazilian literary movements in recent years all the more surprising. Poetry salons, called Saraus, happen all around the periphery every day of the week, where writers and poets recite compositions detailing life in their neighbourhoods. The best of these events are packed with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. There are very few established writers who have not made the pilgrimage to a periphery Sarau. The movement even has its very own bookshop, devoted to all that is marginal, located in the centre of the city.

The author Ferrez is known as the father of the Literatura Marginal movement. His novel, Capão Pecado, published in 2000, was one of the first contemporary accounts of life in the periphery by an author who grew up there. Its descriptions of violence, use of city and hip-hop influenced slang, and characters who often seem to have no future made the book a classic and Ferrez himself a household name. When he coined the phrase Literatura Marginal, he became a symbolic role model for a generation of marginal writers.

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In Conversation with Adam Morris

I regard one of the functions of literature as social interaction, of reaching and challenging other minds. Otherwise, why write at all?

Adam Morris and I emailed over the course of July about his translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Quiet Creature on the Corner from Two Lines Press. The novel follows a young, freshly unemployed poet-drifter in Porto Alegre, Brazil who lands himself in jail after committing rape. Then, without explanation, he is taken to a country house owned by German immigrants Kurt and Gerda where the world suddenly turns irrational. As the protagonists’ world turns surreal, the real world churns on around him, as Lula runs for president for the first time, and the Landless Workers’ Movement stages protests on the street.

                                    –Ryan Mihaly

Ryan Mihaly (RM): I want to start with a grammarian’s query as you say. Some of Noll’s sentences are relentlessly long and often change tense. They almost read like transcriptions of a casual conversation. Was there ever a temptation to break up Noll’s comma splices with something like a semicolon or em-dash instead of a comma?

Adam Morris (AM): You are really taking a risk with this question. I have worked as an editor for many years and am opinionated about grammar and punctuation. I’ll try to be brief.

Semicolons are not used in Brazilian Portuguese and are falling into disuse in English, except among the most pedantic writers. So I discarded that option out of hand. The narrator in Quiet Creature is not a pedant and is, as you say, speaking in a conversational tone. The em-dash was another available option, and unlike the semicolon, its prevalence is increasing. I often find it to be the signature of juvenile or lazy writing, which seemed suitable for the adolescent narrator of Quiet Creature. So I tried using it for some of the more blunt comma splices in Quiet Creature. But when I reread what I’d done, I discovered I’d lost the narrator’s voice. In English, the em-dash commands more of a pause than I heard in his wandering drift. His narration is not choppy or staccato, but a sort of numbed fugue of uneven pace. So the em-dash had to go. A few of them remained, and some turned into commas, but I got rid of most.

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Urban Protest in Brazil: the City and the Politics of Luiz Ruffato

What annoys me sometimes in literature is when you try to show me a world which is only a violent, terrible world. I know this already.

‘Our political history is a succession of dictatorships.’

                                                                                            —Luiz Ruffato                                                        

The fiction of Luiz Ruffato tackles the grave injustices found in Brazilian society: the deep chasm between rich and poor, the endemic corruption, the cheapness of life in the sprawling poverty-stricken peripheries of the major cities. He is the kind of outspoken writer that tumultuous Brazil needs right now. The country is in crisis following recession, a massive corruption scandal and the impeachment process of its President Dilma Rousseff.

It is the poor who will suffer most from this debacle. After just a week in power the administration of acting President Michel Temer began scaling back social policies that the left-wing Workers’ Party had put in place over many years. The Guardian reports that ‘moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house-building programs’[1].’

Ruffato gave presage to all this in his 2013 speech to Frankfurt Book Fair, presenting Brazil not as an up-and-coming economic success story, but a country in which the shackles of slavery had not been shaken off, describing the abject state of the majority of the population as ‘invisible…deprived of the basic rights of citizenship: housing, transportation, leisure, education, and healthcare…a disposable piece of the machinery driving the economy.’

Ruffato is in a position to talk of these matters. The son of an illiterate washerwoman and a popcorn seller, he slept rough for a month in a bus station when he first moved to Sao Paulo, making his subsequent literary success all the more remarkable. His most famous novel, There Were Many Horses, published in English in 2013, has been hailed as a defining novel in the history of Brazilian literature, winning both the Brazilian APCA Award for best novel and the Brazilian National Library’s Machado de Assis Award. In 2016 Ruffato won the International Herman Hesse Prize for Literature in Translation.

Set in São Paulo, a metropolis of over 20 million people, There Were Many Horses roams across the cityscape and its underbelly, investigating the lives of the homeless, the broken, the lonely, the corrupt and the evil. It is an important book for its political and social statements but also a rare example of a novel which engages completely with the concept of the developing world megacity: in characters, imagery, and structure. A series of 69 vignettes which happen over the course of a night in São Paulo, it began as an experiment, an attempt to capture the sprawling city in a way which Ruffato felt traditional novels had not done. Ruffato argues that the book’s experimental form mirrors the splintered infrastructure of São Paulo and the fragmented lives of Paulistas more effectively.

This interview was conducted in two parts. The first meeting happened in Sao Paulo, at the home of Ruffato. The author lives in an old-fashioned apartment block on the quiet crest of one of the city’s steep hills, in the upper middle-class neighbourhood of Perdizes. The narrow marble corridor that leads to his apartment, filled with potted plants and hanging ferns. Inside, the apartment is neat, with few ornaments. Opposite to a shelf of novels and books on art, a sofa sits by a window looking out across the city. The streaming lines of cars, the expanse of blue sky, the poor peripheral sprawl that goes on and on, blurring into the horizon: all of this made a fitting setting to talk about São Paulo itself, the genesis of There Were Many Horses, the challenges of writing about Brazil and developing world cities. 

The second part of the interview happened over the internet, after the recent suspension of the President Dilma Rousseff. This time, the author focused on politics and on uncertain future of Brazil. The bold red typeface in which he answered questions was perhaps an indication of the fear he feels for the dangerous position Brazil finds itself in today.

Kathleen McCaul (KM): Tell me how you came to write There Were Many Horses?

Luiz Ruffato (LR): There Were Many Horses, started first of all, like a stylistic exercise. I was thinking the following; for me, to write about São Paulo, or any other megacity, is almost impossible. The idea of a novel is closed, it’s a closed structure, and with a closed structure, you need to make choices, you need to make edits. I thought that these edits were precarious. I was wondering in what way I could get the city in the way that we (Paulistas) get it. I stayed thinking about these questions. The two basic units/concepts of a novel is time and space and I was thinking how does time and space work in a megacity? It’s not the same in a small city—space and time are different there. And space and time in São Paulo and London are different, for example. These two questions were the first things I was thinking and then I started to think how to put these things into São Paulo, how to create a novel, thinking about time and space, set in São Paulo. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? June 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation

The Clouds by Juan José Saer, tr. Hillary Vaughn Dobel, Open Letter Books. Review: Hannah Berk, Digital Editor

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The Clouds begins with the destruction of a mental asylum and ends with an arrival at its threshold. Its central journey takes place across a vast expanse of flatlands, every horizon so much the same that progressing and doubling back lose their distinction. This is a novel of contingent geometries. In some respects, it is linear: there is a journey in which a doctor leads a crew of five mental patients, two escort soldiers, and a guide across a desert to a mental hospital. At the same time, it carves layer upon layer into itself. The manuscript we read is a file on a floppy disk being read by one Pinchón Garay in a Paris apartment, haphazardly annotated by the man into whose hands the thing haphazardly fell.

Our narrator is Dr. Real, who works under a psychologist renowned for experimental treatment methods that mostly seem to entail allowing the mad live their lives just like anyone else. He is tasked with leading a group of patients on a long journey to a mental health facility in 1804 Argentina. His charges include a delusional narcissist, a nun convinced that the only way to approach consummate divinity is by consummating as many earthly relationships as possible, two brothers as incapable of communication as they are of silence, and a distraught philosophy student unable to unfurl his fists. Dr. Real promises a scientific account of their ailments at the outset, but the moment their journey begins, we are forced to question whether their responses are so outlandish for their circumstances, or, at their core, much different from our own.

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Graphic Novel in Translation: Karim Zaimović’s “The Invisible Man from Sarajevo”

Translating genre, language, text, and image—this is Asymptote blog's first graphic novel in translation

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Channeling The Language (And Spirit) Of Clarice Lispector: An Interview with Katrina Dodson

"I don’t think she wants to be completely understood, and she wouldn’t have understood herself."

“Clarice inspires big feelings. As with the ‘rare thing herself’ from ‘The Smallest Woman in the World,’ those who love her want her for their very own. But no one can claim the key to her entirely, not even in Portuguese. She haunts us each in different ways. I have presented you the Clarice that I hear best.”

By spending the last two years translating nearly four decades of Clarice Lispector’s work in what she calls “a one-woman vaudeville act,” Katrina Dodson has joined a club of translators (trumpeted by Lispector’s biographer and de facto proselytizer, Benjamin Moser), whose interpretations of the Brazilian writer have now generated a skyscraping tidal wave. Though recognized by Brazilians as their greatest modern writer, Lispector was little-known among English-speaking readers until the beginning of this decade. Today, she is the first Brazilian writer to appear on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 2015). For the first time in English, Complete Stories brings together all the short stories that established her legacy in Portuguese.

Lispector gives the impression of a woman looking from the outside in, always taking notes. Like Borges, she expects you to follow her fantastic trains of thought, but she is unconcerned as to whether you enjoy the ride or not. In Complete Stories, eggs become infinite metaphoric permutations (interestingly, Lispector would die of ovarian cancer, on the eve of her 57th birthday), a lonely, red-headed girl and a red-headed basset hound discover they are soulmates, but destined never to be together, and a woman has a face.

Because in Lispector’s world—and Dodson’s translation—it must be asserted that a woman has a face, as if such a characteristic is not naturally of this world. These familiar details, made new —especially during fevered sequences when geography reflects a character’s unraveling—are what end up grinding our faces into the pavement as Lispector gazes on, coolly, but not unkindly, with great curiosity from above.

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MB: When did you first encounter Clarice Lispector, and did you have a form of epiphany moment when you discovered her?

KD: I first started reading her in 2003. I was living in Rio de Janeiro and teaching English at a private English school called Britannia, and I had moved to Brazil that year speaking some Portuguese but, but it was—I spoke French, and then I was listening to these cassette tapes. That’s how long ago it was [laughs]. I would listen to cassette tapes that they would use to teach the Foreign Service how to learn a foreign language. I would listen to these Portuguese tapes before going.  READ MORE…

Revisiting Our 2014 Contest Winners: Ó by Nuno Ramos

Like a whale letting its gas escape, the insane energy of our physical happiness seeks cover—in language.

With less than three weeks to submit to our Close Approximations competition, we thought it’d be a good idea to revisit the winning translations of our previous edition (judged by Eliot Weinberger and Howard Goldblatt), each accompanied by a brief note from the victorious translator.

This year’s esteemed judges—Michael Hofmann (Poetry), Ottilie Mulzet (Fiction) Margaret Jull Costa (Nonfiction)—are itching to start reading your submissions, so we hope these prize-winning translations inspire you to submit your work and stand to win up to 1,000 USD in prize money! Visit our contest page for full details.

This weekend, we will be presenting the two runners-up in the fiction category. First up, Krista Brune’s prize-winning translation of an excerpt from Nuno Ramos’s Ó, from the Portuguese: READ MORE…

The Waters of March

Writer and musician Lívia Lakomy reflects on Tom Jobim's songwriting in translation.

At one point in his career, in the late 1960’s, Antônio Carlos Brasileiro Jobim (known universally as Tom Jobim) was the second most recorded artist in the world, second only to the Beatles. “But take note that there are four of them in English and only one of me in Portuguese!” he would joke. He was then, and still is, even twenty years after his death, arguably Brazil’s greatest popular composer.

Think of Rio de Janeiro, the view of the Christ statue in the distance, the bay of Copacabana, the beautiful women walking on the beach, their skin glistening under the sun. If you can feel the breeze of the ocean, you can hear the bossa nova beat that Tom Jobim and his contemporaries helped export to the world. Though somewhat out of fashion now, this genre—started in the late 1950s—helped influence jazz and pop music, and (unfortunately) became synonymous with muzak. You have certainly heard it in some office-building elevator. You might even know it as “Brazilian lounge music.”

This sophisticated style introduced a completely new way of playing the classical guitar and managed to be a pop fusion of African-inspired styles like samba with contemporary influences such as American experimentations in jazz. Musicians and lyricists leading the movement were at the very top of their game, and Jobim himself was referred to as the maestro. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Waters of the World” by Clarice Lispector

And that was what she’d been missing: the sea inside her like the thick liquid of a man. Now she’s entirely equal to herself.

There it is, the sea, the most unintelligible of non-human existences. And here is the woman, standing on the beach, the most unintelligible of living beings. As a human being she once posed a question about herself, becoming the most unintelligible of living beings. She and the sea.

Their mysteries could only meet if one surrendered to the other: the surrender of two unknowable worlds made with the trust by which two understandings would surrender to each other.

She looks at the sea, that’s what she can do. It is only cut off for her by the line of the horizon, that is, by her human incapacity to see the Earth’s curvature. READ MORE…

Thirst is the Force of Gravity: Ferreira Gullar’s “Dirty Poem” in Review

"The poem’s necessity makes me bitter."

Much has already been said about exile. Losing a country or losing a home is “like death but without death’s ultimate mercy,” “a kind of ripping apart,” “a condition of terminal loss.” Ferreira Gullar wrote Dirty Poem (newly translated by Leland Guyer for New Directions) in 1975 in Buenos Aires, while in political exile from the Brazilian dictatorship. Like the author himself, the speaker of Dirty Poem imagines his return home, an attempt to recover the São Luís do Maranhão of his childhood.

The opening stanzas of this 80-page poem are filled with gaiety and fond memories of youth in the northeast region of Brazil. But just a few pages later, the speaker “preaches subversion of political order” and is banished to Argentina. In a fine translation from the Portuguese, Leland Guyer captures the richness of language of Gullar’s poetry—from local idioms to the language of displacement. The book culminates in saudade, alienation, and decay. READ MORE…