Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary awards and festivals abound in this week's news from Argentina, Sweden, and the UK.

This week our reporters bring you news of Sweden’s reaction to last week’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement by the Swedish Academy, the FILBA international festival in Buenos Aires, as well as the surprise of the Booker Prize winner(s!) in the UK.

Eva Wissting, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Sweden

Since the announcement of the 2018 and 2019 Laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, the subsequent debate shows no sign of receding. Before the announcement, literary Nobel Prize discussions within Sweden focused on whether awarding a 2018 prize was good for the world of literature or bad because it would smooth over the Swedish Academy’s connection to misconducts.

After the announcement of Polish Olga Tokarczuk (“Flights”) and Austrian Peter Handke as the two most recent literary Nobel Prize Laureates, however, the pros and cons of announcing a 2018 laureate has waned in the shadow of the controversial choice of Handke. The disagreement in Sweden centers on whether Handke’s political standpoint is misunderstood—if he has simply been naive and used by others, if he is an apologist of war crimes—or if awarding Handke is correct on solely literary merits and that disregarding politics is possible. READ MORE…

Our Fall 2019 Issue Is Here!

Featuring Radka Denemarková, Sylvia Molloy, Monchoachi, and a Spotlight on International Microfiction

Welcome to our spectacular Fall 2019 edition gathering never-before-published work from a record-breaking 36 countries, including, for the first time, Azerbaijan via our spotlight on International Microfiction. Uncontained, this issue’s theme, may refer to escape either from literal prisons—the setting of some of these pieces—or from other acts of containment: A pair of texts by Czech author Radka Denemarková and Hong Kong essayist Stuart Lee tackle the timely subject of Chinese authoritarianism. In “The Container,” Thomas Boberg performs the literary equivalent of “unboxing” so popular on YouTube these days, itemizing a list of things in a container shipped from Denmark to the Gambia—all in a withering critique of global capitalism.

The container lends itself to several metaphors but none as poignant or as on point as—you guessed it, dear Asymptote reader—the container of language itself, as suggested by London-based photographer Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee’s brilliant cover highlighting the symbolism of the humble rice grain. This commodity has, like language, been exported, exchanged, enhanced, and expressed in various forms from its various origins across the planet. Even when a state attempts to erase language, resistance remains possible, as poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the country’s frontier with Brazil—demonstrates: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the / dictionary,” he sings, “dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” In one of Argentine writer Sylvia Molloy’s many profound riffs on the bilingual condition, Molloy claims that “one must always be bilingual from one language, the heimlich one, if only for a moment, since heim or home can change.” READ MORE…

Words Containing Multitudes: Theodor Kallifatides on Writing The Siege of Troy

A basic human need is also to remember and be remembered. That is why we put one stone on top of another, we paint, we sing, we write.

In September, we were honored to present Theodor Kallifatides’s The Siege of Troy as our monthly Book Club feature. This poignant, multilayered novel intertwines a modern coming-of-age wartime story with a psychologically profound retelling of the classic Iliad. In the following interview, Assistant Managing Editor Josefina Massot speaks with the author on overcoming writer’s block, writing about Greece in a foreign land and tongue, and humanizing ancient heroes.

Josefina Massot (JM): You had an unexpected bout of writer’s block at age seventy-seven, back in 2015, after almost fifty years of uninterrupted literary output. The Siege of Troy was, I believe, the first novel you wrote once you overcame it. Did your writing process change at all as a result? What was it like, rediscovering your narrative voice in novel form?

Theodor Kallifatides (TK): Yes, it affected me and my writing greatly. I felt free from all expectations, from all demands from the publisher, the public, and myself, and my writing got wings it never had before. I did not care about anything except doing justice to my deepest feelings and ideas. I got back both my eyes. Before it, I always had—as most writers do, I dare say—an eye on what people would think about my work. Suddenly, I simply did not care. I was free. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Don’t Cry” by Mohamed M. Farrag

“Men don’t cry, whatever happens.” And then he wiped my tears.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of Mohamed M. Farrag. The prose is short, succinct, and hits like a hammer—much like the vision of masculinity embodied in the story. Enigmatic messages, the codes that construct subjects along certain lines, flow freely between a boy and his grandfather. These messages transport generational models of masculine repression as they are passed down; in just a few lines, Farrag aptly demonstrates the ways in which the social codes that dictate behavior are transferred. However, the end of the story leaves us with a question: can the script of behavior be broken by reflection and release? Or is this too a planned movement, derived from what came before? Regardless, the emotions captured here are delivered with an uncanny availability: the rhythms that the translator pulls from the original present an ordinary scene that makes one feel as if the answer to some pressing, universal question is close at hand. But the true answer is only a choice: to show or to hide.

He sat beside his dying grandfather; a man known for his cruel heart. He’d never seen him cry. ‎Gently, the grandfather caught his grandson’s hand. “Do you know, son, what my father ‎told me when he saw me crying on the day of my mother’s death?”‎

“No.” The young boy shrugged.

He said, “Men don’t cry, whatever happens.” And then he wiped my tears. “When my wife died your ‎mother was still young. Her death stung me, but I didn’t cry in front of her. I didn’t want her to fall apart. I ‎kept my tears inside.” READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: October 2019

October's new translations, selected by the Asymptote staff to shed light on the best recent offerings of world literature.

A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!

the factory cover

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On Terezín, censorship in Iran, thrilling new Uzbek titles, and the long-awaited Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.

This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan. 

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictionssome cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.

In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.

READ MORE…

Where Theater Starts and Reality Ends: A Review of Fernanda Torres’s Glory and Its Litany of Horrors

When does fiction stop and reality begin? What is theater’s role in the production and perception of reality?

Glory and Its Litany of Horrors, by Fernanda Torres, translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker, Restless Books, 2019

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear

You just sat down, opened up your internet browser—Chrome, because any other browser is just subpar—went to asymptotejournal.com, and finally stumbled across this review of Glory and Its Litany of Horrors by Fernanda Torres. Before reading, you had decided to go for a run, five miles through the woods behind your house that looked similar to the Brazilian backlands. As you ran, you saw a group of soldiers dressed in camouflage about to fire at each other. Without knowing it, you were running through a paintball match; but, thinking it was real, you hit the deck and waited to see what fate would bring you, allowing you to identify with Mario as he struggles through the theater, his acting career, and own reality.

For some of you, this story could be completely true—all details being events that may have occurred throughout your day; for some, bits and pieces were true, while for others, only the act of reading this review is true. These levels of the “you” in reality and the fictional “you” in the above story are the same levels that exist throughout Mario Cardoso’s life in Torres’s work. Published by Restless Books in 2019 (originally published in 2017), Eric M. B. Becker renders Torres’s blurred lines of the protagonist’s fiction and reality (narrated in the first person) in a prose that flows like the action and lines of a play, drawing the reader even further into the scene.

READ MORE…

“Guatemala has always produced great writers”: An Interview with Guatemalan Poet and Feminist Ana María Rodas

One day, poetry simply came out of me. One day, I was filled with poetry.

Wearing a thin sweater, a colorful scarf, and a dazzling smile, Ana María welcomed us to her house in Zone 15, Guatemala City. Outside it was pouring, much like when she presented her famed Poemas de la izquierda erótica (Poems from the Erotic Left), forty-six years ago. She offered us tea—“To fight back the cold,” she said, still smiling—and told us we had to do the interview in the living room, not upstairs, because, “There are books scattered everywhere; imagine, a lifetime spent collecting books.” And, yes, one can only imagine.

Ana María Rodas, born in 1937, is a veteran Guatemalan poet, journalist, and teacher. Her career spans more than sixty years. She has released close to twenty books, and her work has been translated into English, German, and Italian. In 1990, she simultaneously won the poetry and short story categories of the Juegos Florales de México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. In 2000, she won the prestigious Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for her life’s work. She is also one of the leading figures of Guatemalan and Central American feminism. She has lived her whole life in Guatemala. And one cannot say this lightly. She grew up during the Jorge Ubico dictatorship (1931–1944), admired how the Guatemalan Revolution toppled Ubico in 1944, thrived during the so-called Ten Years of Spring, lamented the 1954 CIA-backed coup that removed the democratically elected, progressive president Jacobo Árbenz, and witnessed the atrocities of the Civil War (1960–1996). Many of her friends and colleagues were killed during that time. Alaíde Foppa, Irma Flaquer, and her dear friend, Luis de Lión, author of El tiempo principia en Xibalbá—considered one of the cornerstones of contemporary Central American literature. Even if she never picked up a rifle or joined the militarized resistance, her feminist struggle and intellectual defiance have influenced many generations.   

She’s not a cynic, though. Or bitter. She’s hopeful. “Even though we have a brute for president,” she says, “I believe in resisting.” And resisting, Ana María has done.

But as much as Ana María is grandmotherly and warm, as much as she’s a jokester and amicable, she is also analytical, astute, and disarmingly agile. She’s a force of nature, a rising tide, and an unmovable object. Her poetry is sensitive, electric, and subversive.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Hedgehog” by Anastasia Afanas’eva

About the dead, we cannot speak / for they are completed.

For this week’s Translation Tuesday, Anastasia Afanas’eva constructs a world of shapes, shadows, and sensations that thematize dread and longing. The poem raises up images from the page in a maelstroma deluge of realizations that impress themselves on the reader like a flood. But the images’ actions are unreal; they are strung together in uncanny ways. In this poem, language acts absurdly, mirroring the unmistakable confusion of loss and of reckoning. The Hedgehog and its shadow are central, and show, in verse, how the most innocuous of things can become sutured with the weight of the universe.

READ MORE…

Traversing the Forbidden: A Journey Through Prohibited Literatures

Banned literature offers us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial.

For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.

In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them. 

Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin 

Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population. 

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Catch up on this week’s latest news in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Romanian authors around the world.

This week, our reporters tell us about the literary response to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and the translation of protest poetry by The Bauhinia Project, book fairs in Vietnam, as well as guiding us through the many Romanian writers performing at the largest Central European literary festival, the Author’s Reading Month festival. 

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

The extradition bill demonstrations in Hong Kong have been ongoing for four months and show no signs of stopping. There has been countless speculation over the city’s standing as a financial and trading center, but what has happened for certain is the plethora of art created in response to the movement. In an interview on the subject of contemporary art, a museum curator placed her bets: “The greatest art is going to be produced in Hong Kong.”

The same could be said for its literature. Since June, Hong Kong’s literary scene has actively documented current happenings through poetry, fiction, and criticism. Numerous local literary magazines, including Fleur des lettres, Voice & Verse, and Formless, are running issues dedicated to the protests, and the activity is not restricted to within the city’s borders. In particular, there is an initiative to translate protest poetry from Hong Kong for an international audience. In July, The Bauhinia Project was launched by an anonymous Hong Kong poet in Berkeley, California. Named after the city’s flower emblem, the project gathers poetry submissions and testimonials in text or audio from anonymous sources. The submissions are then translated into English and made into postcards. So far, the postcards have been displayed in a series of exhibitions held in Germany as well as different cities in California. The Bauhinia Project is also curating events on the extradition bill movement. On September 25, a panel discussion on misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the protests abroad were held at Moe’s Books in San Francisco and featured six speakers, among them Hong Kong poet Wawa, previously interviewed on Asymptote on her medium-pure poetry, and writer Henry Wei Leung.

I will also moderate a discussion on civil society and literature between writer Hon Lai Chu, who spoke about politics and literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year, and playwright Yan Pat To, whose latest play, Happily Ever After Nuclear Explosion, premiered in German at Munich’s Residenz Theater and subsequently in Cantonese at Tai Kwun, an arts and heritage site in Hong Kong, and South Korea’s Asia Playwright Festival. The event is part of Goethe-Institut Hong Kong’s wider series on civil society and art, which previously covered independent films, LGBT, and moving images. READ MORE…

Idiomatic Agony and Collective Vision: Izidora Angel on Bringing International Literature to the Forefront

I want to convince all publishers that putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book is the right thing to do . . .

Chicago-based Izidora Angel is one amongst only a handful of translators working to bring Bulgarian literature to English-language readers. Her experiences as an emerging translator working in an under-represented language prompted Angel to seek the support and knowledge of her peers, and what began as an informal workshop with fellow translators Lucina Schell and Jason Grunebaum has evolved into an international network of literary translators who seek to share resources and mentor each other, in addition to bringing literature in translation to a wider audience. Third Coast Translators Collective co-founder Angel spoke with Asymptote about forming the collective, the importance of community, activism, and her best translation practices.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Can you tell me about Third Coast Translators Collective and how it came to be?

Izidora Angel (IA): When I joined the group in early 2016, it wasn’t yet the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC), it was still more or less an informal group gathering of Chicago-land translators started by Lucina Schell, who translates from the Spanish, and Jason Grunebaum, who translates from the Hindi. But people kept wanting to join, and we all had this great chemistry, so we thought, why not make it official? Have a proper name, a mission and vision, a website, a digital presence, readings. Now there’s over thirty of us; it feels like a powerful entity.

STH: Why is being part of a collective important to you?

IA: Community is essential, regardless of what it might be that is bringing you together. Humans are social animals, and we need that connection for life. As translators, especially if we are translating from at-risk or vulnerable languages like I am, belonging to a group like this is integral for collaboration, workshopping, and knowledge sharing. Including minority languages like Bulgarian helps to shape the mission of a group like TCTC in a really important way. READ MORE…

The Singing Knots of Jorge Eduardo Eielson: Room in Rome in Review

The white pages are treated like canvas, and the lines as singing knots.

room-in-rome-jorge-eduardo-eielson-rgb

Room in Rome, by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, translated from the Spanish by David Shook, Cardboard House Press, 2019

Knots
That are not knots
And knots that are only
Knots

  1. Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson once said of César Vallejo: “There is no superfluousness in Vallejo’s poetry, just as there isn’t any in Christian mysticism, although for opposite reasons”. This reason, according to Eielson, is that Vallejo’s poetry, as opposed to Christian mysticism that supposes a martyrdom of the body, is “a descent of the body—fleshly and social—into hell, that supposes another martyrdom, that of the soul.”
  1. Eielson writes the fleshly and social descent of the body into the Eternal City. Just looking at the title of the opening poem confirms Eielson’s commitment to the body: “Blasphemous Elegy for Those Who Live in the Neighborhood of San Pedro and Have Nothing to Eat.” Room in Rome was written in 1952, shortly after he had left Peru for Italy, where he would settle until his death in 2006. Vallejo, his hero, would also leave Peru for France. Despite this, Eielson’s book was widely available until 1977. During this period, he produced the novel El cuerpo de Gulia-no (The Body of Gulia-no). Again, its title suggests a rigorous investigation of the body and its descent into the worldly. Eielson would write, in 1955, Noche oscura del cuerpo (The Dark Night of the Body)—a shout-out to the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross.)
  1. “i have turned / my patience / into water / my solitude / into bread”
    “here i am headless and shoeless”
    “our father who art in the water”
    “love will be reborn/ between my parched lips”

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Homecoming” by Badai

Eventually, at the edge of his vision, where the fog begins to thin, a figure of a person emerged.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of Badai—an indigenous Taiwanese writer. “Homecoming” probes at themes of reunion, service, and loss through the eyes of a young man torn between the traditional ways of his family and the projects of the nation-state. Juxtapositions between the mountains where the protagonist lives and the flatlands with the military bases, government projects, and different linguistic groups are drawn into tension. This tension is extended for the protagonist as roads, schools, and parks show the growing homogeneity of the national culture. Pride in one’s service—to family and to the state—are complicated things for young men and women. Moments like those expressed here show the complex interrogation that the short story form provides. Here, the interrogation revolves around one’s implication in the changing social fabric of Taiwan. 

A young man was on a bus, heading home. His name was Dumasi. Dumasi had already transferred buses once; this was the second leg of his journey, and he was forcing himself to nap because he still had the final leg ahead of him. The bus would drop him off at the last stop, and then he would hike for two hours up mountain trails. Not that he felt the slightest bit tired. Every inch of him was bursting with the excitement of returning home. Nonetheless, he shut his eyes to rest.

A voice said: “Hey, mister bus driver, this is my stop!”

Dumasi opened his eyes: there was a middle-aged man walking unsteadily up the aisle, laden with bags and bellowing good-naturedly in the direction of the driver’s seat. For Dumasi, the sight and sound of this man was deeply familiar, comforting even—from his broad shoulders to the way he spoke Mandarin with a thick, mountain-man accent.

Dumasi reached down to his luggage and ran his hand along a bulge in the bag. Good—the two bottles of sorghum liquor he’d bought for his homecoming were intact—all was in order. Father will be so happy, he thought to himself. READ MORE…