Posts filed under 'literature in translation'

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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What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.

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The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.

 

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A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “The Midwife” by Katja Kettu

To this day I can’t say what spurred me into action the first time I helped bring a life into this world.

Today we’re thrilled to present an extract of Katja Kettu’s breakthrough novel, The Midwife—also Kettu’s debut in English, available from Amazon Crossing today. This Runeberg Prize–winning work depicts a passionate love story set against the severe backdrop of World War II’s Arctic front and the desolate beauty of a protective fjord. For a taste of this epic romance, and to discover the book that went on to become 2011’s most widely read title in Finland, read on.

We could hear Lisbet’s screams from the yard. I’d spent the journey sit­ting on the back of a green Tatra truck, my thighs caressed by the wind. Initially I tried to force my way into the cab beside you, Johannes, but Jouni forbade me. I didn’t protest. There’s no arguing with the greatest rumrunner in Lapland.

I didn’t wait for Jouni to haul his stout body down from the pas­senger seat. I barged through a sea of head scarves into Näkkälä’s rose-patterned bedroom. The air smelled of incense and blood. A candle flickered on the altar, and next to an icon, Greta Garbo gave a divine, papery smile. I gripped the white lintel decorated with lace, because the sight of Lisbet shocked me. She was still beautiful, but distress and pain were pushing forth from beneath the beauty. Her milky-white thighs were caked in blood and mucus, her hair stuck across her eyes, now wide with the fear of death. Without ceremony I slid my hand between Lisbet’s thighs. I recalled my very first delivery, at the Alakunnas house­hold, just as I did every time I midwifed.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “One Hundred Shadows” by Hwang Jungeun

They were just pretending not to see what was clearly there, even when I pointed right at it and said, My shadow, that’s my shadow.

If this year’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, has whetted your appetite for Korean literature, we recommend that you check out Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, an oblique, hard-edged novel forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press. Set in a slum’s rundown electronics market, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of Seoul, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world. Here is an excerpt.

I said goodbye to Mujae at the subway station, where we each took different trains. By the time I got back to the area where I lived it was noon and the sun was blazing down as I dragged myself down the street. My stumpy shadow slanted to the right, bulging like a soft-boiled egg, its movements mimicking my own. When I thought about how it had risen now and then, the familiar shops and familiar alley didn’t look familiar at all. I turned into the alley and heard the sound of television leaking out of a window. It sounded like a volleyball match, with a voice saying spike, very clearly enunciated, sounding more electronic than human. Spike, spike, spike, and I turned another corner. Fancy hearing a voice saying spike, I thought, then put my hands in my pocket, unable to recall what had come after. A sharp piece of paper pricked my finger. I pulled it out and saw that it was the wrapper from Mujae’s gum. I bent it with my thumb, and it rustled like a shriveled ear.

I took down the pizza and fried chicken flyers that had been stuck to the door and stepped into the house. Inside it was dark, and seemed exactly how I’d left it even though I’d been gone a whole day. I took off my clothes, which smelled of soil, and went into the bathroom. I positioned myself beneath the naked bulb that dangled from the high ceiling, and looked down at my shadow. It looks a little bigger, I thought, and more thinned-out. I lifted my left foot up for a moment, then set it back down. I raised my right foot this time, put it down and lifted my left once more, then jumped up lightly so both feet were off the ground. The shadow spread out, a little thinner and wider, and definitely touched my feet when I put them down on the floor. I did a couple of jumps in my bare feet, examined the light bulb, then turned on the hot water and washed my hair. Wiping the suds from my eyes, I thought to myself that even if my shadow had drawn me deep in the woods, so deep that I never returned, someone would still have stuck flyers on the door, and pizzas would still have been sold. I went back into the main room, lay down and pulled a blanket over myself. The weather was sultry, but my toes were cold. I wondered if this was because I had my feet pointing north, and shifted them a little to the east, my head a little to the west. But this didn’t feel comfortable so I kept on shifting, again and again. I moved around so much I ended up back in my original position, but something still wasn’t right. I felt as if my lower back had lifted up off the floor, the whole of me trembling like a compass needle. Falling in and out of sleep, haphazard thoughts flitted through my mind.

I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city. The market had originally consisted of five separate buildings, labelled A, B, C, D and E, but had been altered and added to over a period of forty years so that it was now a single structure. You had to know where to look to spot the signs that it had ever been otherwise. The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr. Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop. One day I went down there with an old transformer that needed its copper wire replaced. There in that cramped space was Mujae, wearing wrist guards and an apron. Next to him, Mr. Gong was spinning the wheel with the copper wire twined around it. I held out the old transformer, needing both hands to lift its weight. Mujae took it casually in one, put it down on the table among all the copper wires, and made a note of the shop’s name and phone number. The only remarkable thing about him was his beautiful handwriting. I’d seen him several times before, on my way in and out of the building or running errands to other workshops, but nothing had made those encounters stand out.

I nodded off, wondering whether I would see Mujae at work on Monday, since we said, See you on Monday? When I started awake, the sun was about to go down. The light of the setting sun filled the room. I realised that I’d left my packed lunch in the woods.

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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…