Place: Iraq

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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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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My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

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

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

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

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

Dig Deeper into Our Fall 2016 Issue

Selected highlights in the new issue from Asymptote section editors!

Last week, we launched “Verisimilitude,” our star-studded Fall 2016 edition. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the critical reception: A Public Space called the issue “a gold mine of work from 31 countries” while The Chicago Review of Books proclaimed it “f**ing gorgeous.” Among the never-before-published work by both well known and emerging translators, writers, and visual artists we presented in this quarterly issue, Anita Raja’s essay on translation made The Literary Hub‘s Best of the Week roundup. Thank you so much and do please keep spreading the word so we can connect our authors with even more readers! This week, to guide your exploration of the new issue, some of our editors contribute highlights from their respective sections. Follow them from Ireland to Iraq to Mexico to Korea and back again.

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Tactile Translations, Stefana McClure. Review: Eva Heisler, Visual Editor.

Using sources as various as a Japanese translation of The Little Prince, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, or a U.S. government redacted report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” artist Stefana McClure slivers printed matter and re-employs it as material with which to construct her enigmatic objects: stones wrapped in paper; a ball wound of the paper shreds of a novel; a nearly black “drawing” knit from redacted texts. Carmen Hermo’s conversation with McClure delves into the thinking and process behind the artist’s “tactile translations.”

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Translation Tuesday: Poems by Ronny Someck

"In his painted eyes you can see a whole herd, / the prey in his dream’s forever-forest."

Bloody Mary 

                   

And poetry is a gun moll

in the back seat of an American car.

Her eyes pressed like triggers, her pistol hair firing blond

bullets down her neck.

Let’s say her name is Mary, Bloody Mary,

words squeeze out of her mouth like the juicy guts of a tomato

whose face was knifed just beforehand

on the salad plate.

She knows that grammar is the police force of language—

her earring transmitter

detects the siren at a distance.

The steering wheel will shift the car from question mark

to period

when she’ll open the door

and stand on the curb as a metaphor for the word

prostitute.

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