Place: Iran

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly dose of literary news

A quick zip through the literary world with Asymptote! Today we are visiting Iran, Brazil, and South Africa. Literary festivals, new books, and a lot more await you. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, fills you up on what’s been happening in Iran:

The Persian translation of Oriana Fallaci’s Nothing and Amen finding its way into Iran’s bestsellers list almost fifty years after the first publication of the translation. The book was translated in 1971 by Lili Golestan, translator and prominent Iranian art gallery owner in Tehran, and since then has had more than a dozen editions published. The most recent round of sales is related to Golestan giving a TEDx talk in Tehran a few weeks ago about her life in which she spoke of how that book was the first she ever translated and how its publication and becoming a bestseller has changed her life.

In other exciting news from Iran, the Tehran Book Garden opened its doors to the public recently. Advertised as “the largest bookstore in the world,” the space is more of a cultural complex consisting of cinemas, cultural centers, art galleries, a children’s library, science and game halls, and more. One of the key goals of the complex is to cater to families and provide the youth with a space for literary, cultural, scientific, educational, and entertainment activities. The complex is considered a significant cultural investment for the the Iranian capital of more than twelve million residents and it has since its opening become a popular destination with people of different ages and interests.

Finally, a piece of news related to translation from Iran that is amusing but also quite disturbing. It relates to the simultaneous interpretation into Persian of President Trump’s speech in the recent U.N. General Assembly broadcasted live on Iranian state-run TV (IRIB). The interpreter mistranslated several of his sentences about Iran and during some others he remained silent and completely refrained from translating. When the act was denounced by many, the interpreter published a video (aired by the IRIB news channel and available on @shahrvand_paper’s twitter account) in which he explained that he did not want to voice the antagonistic words of Trump against his country and people. This video started another round of responses. Under the tweeted video, many users reminded him of the ethics of the profession and the role of translators/interpreters, while others used the occasion to discuss the issue of censorship and the problematic performance of IRIB in general.

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Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

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In Conversation with Iranian-American poet and translator Kaveh Akbar

"How do you change everything about a poem and still preserve the essence of the thing?"

Kaveh Akbar is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. His newest collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books this fall. Earlier this year, Mr. Akbar was featured on PBS after tweeting poems from banned countries in response to President Trump’s infamous travel ban, and translated Negar Emrani’s poetry for Asymptote’s feature on banned countries in the Spring Issue. Claire Jacobson spoke to Mr. Akbar about the experience. 

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What are some of the limitations you found in translating between Farsi and English, in general or specific to poetry?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I can speak to my own limitations as a translator—I don’t actually speak Farsi, not really, and so I rely on Negar’s patient explication of her own poems. She provides me with the trot, and then allows me to ask question after question after question about connotations and specific meanings and idioms. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary to ensure a kind of fidelity.

CJ: How does working with the author change the way you approach the process (as opposed to, say, translating someone who is no longer living)?

KA: Being able to work directly with Negar, who speaks English well enough to talk me through her poems and answer my questions, has been such a treasure. She signs off on the final drafts (and often rejects many earlier ones), which affords me a kind of confidence in the fidelity of the final translations. Besides that, she’s an absolutely original poetic mind, and being able to spend time talking with her and exploring the cosmology of her verse has taught me so much about poems in general.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your latest updates from Brazil, Iran, and the UK

This week, Brazilian Editor-at-Large Maíra Mendes Galvão reports from Brazil’s vibrant literary scene. Poupeh Missaghi writes about how Iranians celebrated a revered literary figure’s birthday and gives us a peep into the preparations for the Tehran International Book Fair. And M. René Bradshaw has much to report from London’s literati! Hope you’re ready for an adventure! 

Maíra Mendes Galvão, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, brings us the latest from literary events:

The capital of the Brazilian state of Ceará, Fortaleza, hosted the 12th Biennial Book Fair last weekend. The very extensive and diverse program included the presence of Conceição Evaristo, Ricardo Aleixo, Marina Colasanti, Joca Reiners Terron, Eliane Brum, Luiz Ruffato, Natércia Pontes, Daniel Munduruku, Frei Betto and many others. The event also paid homage to popular culture exponents such as troubadour Geraldo Amâncio, musician Bule Bule, and poet Leandro Gomes de Barros. One of the staples of Ceará is “literatura de cordel“, a literary genre (or form) that gets its name from the way the works (printed as small chapbooks) have traditionally been displayed for sale: hanging from a sort of clothesline (cordel). It was popularized by a slew of artists, including a collective of women cordel writers, Rede Mnemosine de Cordelistas, who marked their presence in a field originally dominated by men.

The northeast of Brazil is bubbling with literary activities: this week, from April 26-28, the city of Ilhéus, in the state of Bahia, hosts its own literary festival, FLIOS. There will be talks and debate about local literature and education as well as a book fair, workshops, book launches, performances, and readings.

The other upcoming literary festival is Flipoços, hosted by the city of Poços de Caldas in the south eastern state of Minas Gerais. Milton Hatoum, celebrated writer from the state of Amazonas, will be the patron of this edition of the festival, which will also pay homage to the literature of Mozambique. Guests include Rafael Gallo, Roberta Estrela D’Alva, Tati Bernardi, Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, and others.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote

Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!  

In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.

Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret in translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.

—Drama Editor Caridad Svich

Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?

—Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest from Iran, the United States, and Morocco!

Ready for your Friday World Tour? We touch down in Iran just in time for the New Year celebrations—for which thousands of books are exchanged! Then off to the States, where writers of all backgrounds are reacting to the political tumult of the times. Finally in Morocco, we’ll catch the National Conference on the Arabic Language. Let’s get going!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large for Iran, updates on the New Year celebrations:

The Persian year of 1395 (SH for solar Hijri calendar) will come to an end and give way to the year 1396 on Monday March 21st, the day of the spring equinox, at exactly 13:58:40 Iran’s local time. The arrival of the New Year and spring is celebrated with various Nowruz (literally meaning “new day”) traditions such as haft sin, the special table spreading that consists of seven different items all starting with the Persian letter س [sin or the “s” letter], each symbolizing one thing or another. The International Nowruz Day was inscribed on the list of UN’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

To welcome the New Year, the Iranian literary community, like the previous year, has set up a campaign entitled Eydane ye Ketab [Nowruz gifts of book]. It began on March 5th and will run for a month, aiming to promote buying books as eydi (gifts for the Persian New Year) for friends and family instead of offering money or other gifts, or even as replacements for the calendars that companies widely give out as promotional year-end gifts. More than four thousand publishers around the country are part of this campaign and offer more than one million titles with special prices. In the first seven days of the campaign, more than 190,000 books were sold.

Some of the translation titles on the bestsellers list of the Eydane, have included: The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Şafak; Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; A Fraction of a Whole by Steve Totlz; After You by Jojo Moyes; Asshole No More, The Original Self-Help Guide for Recovering Assholes and Their Victims by Xavier Crement; The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton; One Plus One by Jojo Moyes; and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

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Announcing Our Call for Literature from Banned Countries

Spread the word!

Thanks to the 77 backers of our Indiegogo campaign who’ve contributed $12,736 so far, there’s already enough for us to launch a call for a Feature on Literature from Banned Countries. As new work from these affected countries will have to be specially commissioned as well as promoted, we will be directly constrained by what we manage to raise. If you’d like to see a huuge showcase to answer Trump’s new travel ban, due to be released any day now, please pitch in with a donation of whatever amount you can afford or help us spread the word about our fundraiser!

Here is the official call, taken from our submissions page:

Asymptote seeks hitherto unpublished literary fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry from the seven countries on Trump’s banned list (i.e. from authors who identify as being from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) that have been created in response to Trump’s travel ban, or can be interpreted as such. If selected for publication, the work will run either in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian or in our Spring 2017 quarterly edition (or both). Submissions of original English-language work will only be considered for publication in our Spring 2017 edition. For works in English translation, the decision as to where the work will be placed rests entirely at the discretion of our editor-in-chief, who curates Translation Tuesdays at The Guardian and who will be assembling this Special Feature.

While other guidelines from our submissions page apply, contributors to this Feature only will be paid at least USD200 per article.

To make sure that the articles from this Feature are circulated widely, we will leverage on our eight social media platforms in three languages, and, depending on whether our crowdfunding campaign meets its target, paid ads in high-profile media outlets to promote them for maximum impact.

Submissions can be sent directly to editors@asymptotejournal.com with the subject header: SUBMISSION: BANNEDLIT (Country/Language/Genre). Queries, which can be directed to the same email address, should carry the subject header: QUERY: BANNEDLIT

Deadline: 15 Mar 2017 

Translation Tuesday: “Made in Denmark” by Mohammad Tolouei

We lived in a world in which people followed certain ideologies even for how to grip a racket.

On the subject of the travel ban, much of the rhetoric coming out of Trump’s administration has focused on the dangers posed by immigrants. This devastating but ultimately heartwarming story by Iranian writer Mohammed Tolouei, told from the point of view of a four-year-old, conveys to us what it is like from the other side, that may not be so readily apparent to those who’ve never been forced to flee their countries. To be reckoned with, above all, in any decision to migrate, is the pain of uprooting from one’s homeland.

This short story marks the first of many in an extensive showcase we hope to bring you, spotlighting new writing—and new translations—from the seven countries Trump intends to ban. If you’d like to see more of this showcase, there’s still a week left to pitch in to our fundraiser here. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at editors@asymptotejournal.com.

We lived in a house of closed doors. The door to the veranda was closed. The third room’s door was closed. The bifolding doors to the hall were closed–we had placed an American sofa in front of them. The door of the big bathroom was closed. The basement’s door was closed. The door of the toilet in the yard was closed. The door opening to the ridge roof was closed. And so was the door of the large hall all over the springs and falls and winters because we never had enough oil to heat up the whole place. Only in summers the doors opened and I could play ping pong with my mother with the ping pong table in there. She put a bedstead below my feet so that I could reach up the table and then she tried not to strike hard returns. My mother was Iranian Girls’ Schools Champion and fond of penhold grip of the racket, while I favored shakehand. We lived in a world in which people followed certain ideologies even for how to grip a racket, and from the very beginning I sided with the Western party.

Our styles were totally different. My mother used to hit short, tight topspins while my hits were rather long and loose. I was more at ease with sidespins while my mother made better topspins. Yet in spite of all the trophy cups Mother had received, I won because of my playing style—the victorious western style. Mother still followed Eastern methods, yet Father wanted to take us to Denmark, a place in the West that ironically paid living subsidies, unemployment compensation and allowance for the children like most socialist countries. And in order to convince my mother to leave, each day he locked up more and more doors of our house.

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Postmarked from Iran: An Open Letter to the American People

It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water.

Dear Americans,

Hi guys. How are you? Accept my condolences on the ending of President Obama’s presidency. I’m sorry that I must also send my condolences that it’s the beginning of President Trump’s era. It’s as if spring has immediately been replaced by winter. Or as if you’re in the passenger seat of a Ferrari, the driver suddenly falls asleep, the car goes crashing in a valley; then you are brought out of the Ferrari, escorted to a horse-drawn carriage whose coachman is one who has just gotten his license. But don’t worry. I totally feel for you. My country’s president during the Eight Years Reform era was a Ferrari driver and we had so much fun. Then, well, for the eight years after him, we rode in a carriage and I really need to thank the president who rode in that carriage, because at the end of his term, he turned the rules of physics upside down and set new Guinness World Records.

You ask how? This is how: he rode the carriage forward but we kept going backward. If Einstein were alive, he would probably die of a stroke trying to solve that problem.

Anyway, don’t be too worried. This President Trump of yours will make you want to emigrate. This will be very good for you, because until now you have always seen immigrants but never been immigrants yourselves. We Iranians have widely emigrated to the U.S. ourselves. So you are more than welcome here; if you have it too hard, move here. Whatever the conditions are here, they are better than being known with Trump after Obama. Think about it: so far, we Iranians have imagined American life to be like the film The Matrix; it is truly a pity to see it as American Pie now, or something even stupider than that.

Can you believe it? Under President Ahmadinejad, we sympathized with Japan when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Since the inauguration of President Trump, perhaps you have been sympathizing with the universe during the Big Bang.

But be glad, because Mr. Trump is going to make you all grateful later. It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water. No pill is going to cure your headache when you are furious about your president’s speeches; you’d do better to take an ice-cold shower and try to forget.

Believe me, there is no reason to panic. These days the medical field has improved a lot, and it can cure any cancerous tumor, even President Trump.

That said, one needs to be fair. President Trump might have a thousand and one vices, but he will have one great virtue. Rest assured that no matter how bad President Trump’s time in office is for everyone, it is going to be amazing for your satirists. They will have so much material they’ll be able to export half of it outside the U.S.

But President Trump has another virtue, as well: You will become so anxious that you will stop gaining weight. The Iranian people were each sixty-three kilos overweight, on average, before President Ahmadinejad. You won’t believe it, but by the day he left office, not only had we lost the extra weight, we almost disappeared. And if you get really lucky, your country will lose its extra weight, too. Our country was, for example, several thousand billions of rials and dollars thinner, and a few oil towers and gold bullion and foreign currency trailers lighter. The nation even lost millions of tons of its weight as a result of the decimation of buildings, forests, and lakes.

By the way, President Trump’s slogans are similar to President Ahmadinejad’s in that he keeps making promises to workers. I suggest that, no matter what your job, always hide a thousand dollars under your pillow, because these politicians, whenever they say they want to do a good job and benefit us, the first thing they do is take our jobs from us.

Truth is, if I were you, I would exchange all my dollars to rials. Why? Because if President Trump does to your economy what President Ahmadinejad did to ours, you will suddenly find yourselves able to buy only one can of Pepsi with one thousand dollars.

Also, why are you so troubled by President Trump’s anti-women talk? You should not forget President Clinton, who cheated on his wife and, of course, on you, while in the White House. Psychologists believe that people who appear to be nice are more likely to do bad things in their own homes and in the White House. Let’s hope that President Trump is all talk and no action. If President Clinton, who did not talk of such things at all, carried such acts, imagine what President Trump, who already talks of them, could do; if he is to act, you need to worry about the White House’s female cats and birds.

Anyway, as Americans would say, God bless you.

And, as Iranians would say, God bestow upon you real patience.

Yours truly,
Pouria Alami

Translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi. This piece was originally published in Persian in two installments in Shargh newspaper on January 22nd and 23rd, 2017

Pouria Alami is a thirty-five-year-old satirist, journalist, and writer, based in Tehran, Iran. He has a daily sociopolitical satire column in Shargh newspaper, the largest independent newspaper in the country. He is the author of eleven books and teaches journalism, satire, and creative writing, as extracurricular classes in various universities. His work has also appeared in English in World Literature Today.

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Our Fundraiser Is Now Live!

Help us bring you literature from the seven countries Trump intends to ban!

Johnny Depp was reported to have spent three million dollars firing Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a canon; our endeavour is modest by comparison: we are aiming to raise at least $30,000 for an urgent showcase of marginalised voices to happen both in our Spring 2017 edition and at The Guardian (here’s an example of what you can look forward to). 20% of all proceeds will be donated directly to ACLU or Refugees Welcome. The more we raise the more we can do: e.g. a printed anthology of the work, a large-scale free event featuring these authors.

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But wait, there’s more: support our campaign and you’ll receive specially autographed books by Junot Díaz, Yann Martel and George Szirtes, among others! Apart from the wide selection of books below, we’ll also give away, among our wide range of Asymptote memorabilia, a newly designed AsympTOTE—featuring artwork by the guest artist of our current issue, Dianna Xu. If you’re a loyal Asymptote supporter, you’ll certainly want to add this AsympTOTE to your collection. Don’t wait—donate to our fundraiser today!

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary updates from the Czech Republic, Iran, and England

This Friday, we present three very distinct reports from the world of literature. Slovakian Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood looks back at what was a great year of Czech literature in translation and gives us a sneak peek at what to look forward to this year. Her Iranian colleague Poupeh Missaghi reports on language-related issues in a human rights Twitter campaign. And finally, the UK Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw tells us where to head for great readings in London this month and next.

Julia Sherwood, our Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, has good news from the publishing world:

Last year proved to be a big year for Czech literature in English translation, with no fewer than eighteen publications from eight different presses at the latest count. They include, to mention just a few, Worm-Eaten Time, poet Pavel Šrut’s elegy for his homeland after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, translated by Deborah Garfinkle, and symbolist poet Jaroslav Durych‘s (1886-1962) 1956 novella God’s Rainbow on the expulsion of the German-speaking population from Bohemia after World War II. First published in censored form in 1969, it is now available in full in David Short’s translation as part of Karolínum Press’s Modern Classics series, which also features Eva M. Kandler’s translation of the World War II literary horror The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks, a study of the totalitarian mindset that still resonates today (extract in BODY Literature), and served as the basis for one of the key films of the Czech new wave, directed by Juraj Herz.

Stoppard_and_Bajaja,_photo_by_Pavel_Stojar

On 30 November, a packed audience at the launch of Antonín Bajaja’s Burying the Season (also translated by David Short) at Waterstones Piccadilly in the heart of London included the playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s father came from the town of Zlín, the setting for this novel depicting the early years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Czech literature scholar Rajendra Chitnis introduces the book as part of an Istros Conversations podcast on Audioboom, while Michael Tate of Jantar Publishing discusses on Czech radio the challenges of bringing Central European literature to English readers.

World Literature Today picked Czech writer Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt as one of its Notable translations of 2016, characterizing it as “historical fiction at its best”. In an interview with the Czech cultural bi-weekly A2, the novel’s translator Alex Zucker points out that while more books by Czech authors are now being published than ever before, they don’t necessarily reach many more readers since—like translated literature in general—quite a few are brought out by small independent presses and are therefore not visible in major bookshops and rarely reviewed.

In 2017, we can look forward to Zucker’s translations of two the most acclaimed contemporary Czech writers: Jáchym Topol’s Angel Station is due from Dalkey Archive in May, and Petra Hůlová’s taboo-breaking Plastic Three Rooms will be brought out by Jantar Publishing. Budding UK translators keen to be part of this unprecedented boom in Czech literature in English can participate in the fourth annual international competition for young translators, who this year are asked to tackle an excerpt from Bianca Bellová’s The Lake by 31 March (see their call for submissions). Budding Czech-to-English translators can also dip into the treasure trove of tricky issues, complete with solutions generously shared by Melvyn Clarke, in his blog post Translating Hrdý Budžes.

Acclaimed writer Zuzana Brabcová, who sadly passed away in 2015, was posthumously awarded the Josef Škvorecký prize for her haunting last novel Voliéry [Aviaries]. And as the year drew to a close, scores of students and literature lovers mourned the loss of the legendary Fišer bookstore in Kaprova Street near Prague’s Old Town Square, which closed its doors after selling books since the 1930s.

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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Spain, England, and Iran

Holidays are nearly upon us, but there is no rest in the world of literature. This Friday, Asymptote staff brings you dispatches from Spain, The United Kingdom, and Iran. Spain mourns the death of poet Adolfo Cueto, says Editor-at-Large Layla Benitez-James, while her colleague M. René Bradshaw has plenty of awards news from the UK. To wrap up, Editor-at-Large for Iran Poupeh Missaghi writes about the recent scandal involving the late poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad. 

Layla Benitez-James, our Podcast Editor, gives us the rundown on literary awards and new publications:  

Many in Spain’s creative community are mourning the death of Spanish poet Adolfo Cueto who passed away unexpectedly in Madrid on Sunday, December 4 at the young age of 47. His collection of poetry, Dragados y Construcciones, won him the Premio Alarcos de Poesía in 2010, followed by the Ciudad de Burgos de Poesía in 2013 for Diverso.es, and the Manuel Alcántara Prize in 2016.

As Spanish writers come to terms with losing one of their literary greats, they are also celebrating the accomplishments of Eduardo Mendoza, who has just won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize. The award celebrates an author’s entire career, and for Mendoza, the honor comes on the heels of the Premio Ciudad de Barcelona, Premio al “Libro del Año,” Premio de Novela Fundación José Manuel Lara Premio de la Cultura de Catalunya, and the Premio Franz Kafka, among many others. Mendoza was born in Barcelona in 1943, and his win has been especially heartwarming to the city. A group of young writers born after the invention of the prize in 1976 were inspired to get together and talk about the modern state of writing in Spain and Barcelona’s role as a key literary city.

The work of twelve important writers is about to debut in a new collection, Mujer, lenguaje y poesía, which will be forthcoming early in the New Year. Poets Alicia García Núñez, Lola Nieto, Laia López Manrique, Miriam Reyes, Chus Pato, Flavia Company, and Elena Medel, among others, will appear in this new anthology which hopes to expand the contemporary conversation of poetry in the country.

Further discussion and promotion of modern verse took place at the event “Displaced Verses: Nomadic Poetry Recital,” part of the recent Encuentro euroMediterráneo, a meeting of creative people showing solidarity with refugees. Participants hailed from eighteen Euro-Mediterranean countries: Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The conference continued the trend of poets and writers in Spain taking an active role in advocating for human rights, highlighting the overlap of the poetic and the political.

In a similar spirit, María Isabel Quiñones, also known as Martirio, dedicated her recent Premio Nacional de Músicas Actuales 2016 to “young people who are ready to fight.”

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