Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore

Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit. 

Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:

PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.

Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.

Running alongside the International Literary Festival is Hong Kong Literary Season 2016, organised by the House of Hong Kong Literature. Themed ‘Nature in Literature’, the three-month Literary Season from October to December explores different facets of nature in Hong Kong literature. The interdisciplinary literary and visual arts exhibition, ‘Possibilities of Narrating the Islands‘, is open to the public from 12 November to 23 December. Amid the two large book events, Hong Kong audience can also enjoy fresh theatrical experience in the New Vision Arts Festival by watching a tragicomic reinterpretation of Prometheus Bound, or exploring the logic of language at the Wittgenstein.

Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, reports from Singapore:

Over the past fortnight, the Singapore Writers’ Festival saw some of the biggest names in world literature arriving in the city-state for workshops, lectures, and debates around the theme of ‘Sayang’—a delightfully multi-layered word for ‘love’ in Malay, the country’s national language. Alongside well-attended talks by writers like Gosho Aoyama of Detective Conan fame, Pulitzer Prize-winner Vijay Seshadri, and renowned critic Marjorie Perloff, among others, were discussions on topics from Taiwanese film to anti-realist fiction. Plus Singapore’s writers led guerrilla readings in independent bookshops, held an uproarious closing debate, and launched an unprecedented number of new titles.

Various events at the Festival also made a splash online. Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui’s reflections on ‘The Future of Singapore Literature’ were shared widely afterwards on social media, while a group of writers was able to organize an impromptu tribute to the American poet and musician Leonard Cohen at the Festival on Saturday evening, after news of his death broke the previous day. As the Festival drew to a close, Singaporean publishing house Epigram Books announced the shortlist for their second Fiction Prize, which saw the total prize money doubling this year to $40,000. The shortlist includes a new novel by last year’s winner, O Thiam Chin, as well as an entry from former Asymptote contributor (and recent finalist in the Singapore Literature Prize 2016) Jeremy Tiang.

Amidst the celebrations, news about the US Presidential Election caused tremors through Singapore’s cultural scene as one contemporary artist closed his exhibition in protest, and several writers spoke out in the Straits Times against the misogyny and bigotry that characterized the Trump campaign. But out on the streets, there was also cause for celebration. Inspired by Boston’s ‘RainingPoetry’ project, home-grown non-profit Sing Lit Station spray-painted excerpts of well-known poems from Singapore—including these poignant lines from ‘Me Migrant’ by the young Bangladesh-born poet Md Mukul Hossine—on sidewalks in prominent locations around the city centre. Step out on a rainy day, and you’ll find that Singapore’s hidden literary life is slowly but surely coming to light.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa, covers the goings-on both there and in Nigeria:

Billed as ‘one of the most affordable return tickets to Uganda’, Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir Flame and Song was launched in the first week of October by Modjaji Books, a feminist press based in Cape Town. Also new from Modjaji is How to Open the Door, a collection of poems by South African Marike Beyers.

African Perspectives Publishing, a long-standing small press based in Johannesburg, has recently reissued FELA: This Bitch of a Lifea biographical work about the iconic musician and activist Fela Kuti based on hours of conversation between Kuti and author Carlos Moore. First published by Allison & Busby in London over a quarter century ago, FELA: This Bitch of a Life has long been out of print, with rare secondhand copies fetching hundreds of dollars.

Arsenaal van Klank (‘Arsenal of Sound’) is a new Afrikaans translation of Dutch poet and novelist Anna Enquist’s latest poetry collection. Enquist (the pen name of writer Christa Widlund-Broer) studied psychoanalysis and music, a combination that echoes throughout her work. Award-winning poet and translator Zandra Bezuidenhout ably translated the collection into English.

South African Literary Awards (SALAs) winners were announced last Monday. Notable recipients included Panashe Chigumadzi and Willem Anker, who jointly won the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award, for Sweet Medicine and Buys, respectively. Leon de Kock and Karen Schimke took home the Literary Translators Award for Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker, a collation of intimate correspondence between two of South Africa’s most well-known and admired writers.

The inaugural Bridge Books Festival was launched on 29 October across several locations in inner-city Johannesburg. Participating authors included big names like Nozizwe Cynthia Jele (Happiness is a Four-Letter Word), Niq Mhlongo (Way Back Home), and struggle-era journalist Nomavenda Mathiane (Beyond the HeadlinesEyes in the Night).

The fourth edition of Nigeria’s Ake Arts and Book festival will take place from 15–19 November and feature novelists, poets, activists, artists, dancers, and musicians sharing their work and ideas with one another and the public. The festival theme this year is “Beneath This Skin”, to prompt conversations about identity, race, and individuality.


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