Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Zambia, South Africa, Czechia, Singapore and the 82nd PEN International Congress

All aboard the Asymptote Express, first stop: Zambia! Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports on the latest literary events, and then takes us to the PEN International Congress in Spain and to South Africa, where the defense of freedom of expression is the issue of the hour. From Czechia, Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood notes the most recent publications and endeavors to widen the readership of Czech literature, and from Singapore, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek gives us the rundown on awards, festivals, and funding concerns. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports from Zambia, South Africa, and the 82nd PEN International Congress:

Zambia’s inaugural Tilembe Literary Festival took place over three days last week in the country’s capital, Lusaka. The festival theme was “Celebrating the Art of the Liberation Struggle”, inspired by a quote from South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.” The festival’s headline guest, Malawian Shadreck Chikoti, explores this theme in his work in both English and Chichewa.

The theme of protest writing and writing in protest was also on the agenda at the 82nd PEN International Congress, which began on September 29 in Ourense, Spain and brought together over 200 writers and PEN members from around the world. PEN South Africa and PEN Mexico proposed a change to the PEN Charter that would build on the initial mandate to help dispel race, class, and national prejudices. The amendment calls to dispel discrimination based on religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. PEN South Africa also submitted a resolution, seconded by PEN Uganda, for Egyptian government to free writers and activists detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, guarantee the independence of the Egyptian Writers Union and Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate, and repeal certain restrictive laws. Speaking about this year’s congress, PEN International President Jennifer Clement quoted former President Arthur Miller: “When political people have finished with repression and violence, PEN can indeed be forgotten.”

In South Africa, student protests over the right to free tertiary education and a decolonialized academic programme continue. A list of books inspiring the various student movements has been circulated online. Prominent authors include Steve Biko, Franz Fanon, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Meanwhile, the launch of Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid will take place next week in Johannesburg. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism, and extracts from novels and memoirs, the book features writers like Nat Nakasa and RRR Dhlomo and aims to highlight local literature as a way to engage with South Africa’s past. In the foreword, author Zakes Mda offers the adage, “you will not know where you are going unless you know where you come from”, and urges the reader to keep a record of the present since “[t]here is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us”.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has literary updates from Czechia:

In December 2014, Prague joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities network as one of eleven “Cities of Literature.” The city’s Municipal Library, which also offers residencies for translators and writers, has since organised several street projects as part of the initiative. One of the first beneficiaries, English author Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), is currently working on a modern gothic novel set in Prague. Not everyone is convinced of the program’s merits, however. Writer Ivana Myšková, who resigned after a year on the project team, explained in the literary journal Host that without proper planning and coordination, it may “remain an end in itself, an empty political gesture”.

To mark the 115th birthday of poet Jaroslav Seifert, a new monument was unveiled in Žižkov, where the Nobel laureate grew up. The piazza near the Prague National Theatre was renamed to commemorate the playwright-turned-president Václav Havel, while across the Atlantic, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared 28 September Václav Havel Day in New York City. Bohumil Hrabal may soon have a monument of a different kind: fans of Too Loud a Solitude can contribute to a Kickstarter campaign to fund an animated short based on the novella, voiced by Paul Giamatti.

Pálava Publishing, a new publisher aiming to introduce contemporary Czech writers to English readers, launched in Brno with its first two titles this summer: Melvyn Clarke’s translation of B. Proudew by Irena Dousková, and Martin Fahrner’s The Invincible Seven, translated by Andrew Oakland. Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, which has been publishing Central European literature in English translation since 1992, recently brought out the first English editions of two Czech classics: Vítězslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger, translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (read a sample in our July issue) and Carleton Bulkin’s long-awaited translation of Vladislav Vančura’s Marketa Lazarová (famous for the 1967 film version, hailed as the best Czech film ever). Akashic Books is planning a selection of crime and noir stories set in Prague, with contributions from fourteen leading contemporary Czech writers including Miloš Urban, the country’s foremost mystery author. And two more forthcoming Czech titles you shouldn’t miss: Prague Noir and Burying the Seasons.

And from Singapore, we hear from Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek:

This month kicked off with the release of Words Without Borders’ October 2016 special feature “In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore”, guest edited by Dan Feng Tan and William Phuan of The Select Centre. The issue includes fiction, poetry, and drama by Singapore’s Cultural Medallion winners KTM Iqbal, Kuo Pao Kun and Yeng Pway Ngon, as well as a prescient essay, “Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism”, by the late Malay luminary Masuri S.N., translated by interfaith expert Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib. The Select Centre also finished up a well-attended event series, “Translate Singapore”, which brought together writers and translators to discuss hot-button literary topics.

The Singapore Writers’ Festival has unveiled this year’s theme and line-up, featuring a range of renowned voices in world literature including Eka Kurniawan, Li Ang, Tan Twan Eng, Shobasakthi, and Hanya Yanagihara. The announcement coincided with a controversial address by one of the Festival’s invited speakers, Lionel Shriver, at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival.

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew, whose Singapore Literature Prize-winning The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was picked up by Pantheon Books in the US, as well as French and Italian publishers, caused a stir after posting candidly on Facebook about the realities of arts funding in Singapore and his decision to accept a grant from the National Arts Council for his next project. Though particular details of his post have been questioned, it has been widely interpreted as a call for more open dialogue on governmental support for the arts in Singapore. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye initially received a similar grant, later withdrawn due to official concerns about the book’s “sensitive content”.

The National Book Development Council of Singapore will host a forum on Friday, October 7, for writers, illustrators, and other creatives to learn about and respond to proposed changes to Singapore’s Copyright Act, seen as an attempt to provide better protection for intellectual property in Singapore.

Finally, Chinese poet and calligrapher Koh Mun Hong has just been awarded this year’s Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest artistic honour, alongside singer Nona Asiah. Poets Marc Nair and Pooja Nansi—both active in bridging Singapore’s growing page and performance scenes—and director Liu Xiaoyi have received Young Artist Awards. All the awards are administered by the National Arts Council of Singapore.


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