Monthly Archives: December 2017

My 2017: Jacob Silkstone

Perhaps the fitting thing to do would have been to throw the book into the water and let the waves close over it...

Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.

* * *

“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”

The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.

In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”

This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my lifehaving finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…

My 2017: Diána Vonnák

“Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great.

Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own. 

I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.

I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.

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My 2017: Poupeh Missaghi

We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.

Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.  

I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.

I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.

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My 2017: Rachael Pennington

This year has brought me Japanese titles that disarm despite very little happening in their pages.

Today, Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, who joined us in October this year, tells us about her year of reading Japanese literature—and how it gave her a heightened appreciation for the smaller details of life.

When asked to review my year in reading, my initial reaction was to think back to my most significant moments—travelling to Japan, getting a new job, seeing my best friend getting married—and to recount what I was reading at the time. But on second thought, remembering Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture, which celebrated “the small and private”, I decided to look past 2017’s more momentous occasions in search of the quiet moments of revelation. Asking myself, when nothing seemingly important was happening around me, what books was I reading in what Ishiguro described as “quiet—or not so quiet—rooms”? In the times I was caught up in the monotony of everyday life and lost to my daily routine, which books had tided me over and heightened my appreciation for the minutiae of life?

I read Nastume Sōseki’s The Gate (translated by William F. Sibley) on several Sunday mornings throughout September. Here, cradling a hot cup of coffee and basking in the first rays of the day peeking through the window of my downtown Barcelona flat, I came to understand why Sōseki declared it his favorite amongst his works. The novel captures the intimacy of life through a minimal plot, tracing the magnificently undramatic existence of a middle-aged couple, old before their time. With this relationship as the anchor, people come and go, seasons flourish and wither, yet the patience with which Sōsuke trims his toenails and the grace with which Oyone carries the loss of their children never once falter.

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My 2017: Sam Carter

As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! This week, our staff continue to take turns looking back on 2017 through the lens of literature. Next up, Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.

One of the highlights of my reading year was the entirely unplanned—and unexpectedly delightful—move between translations and originals within a series not once but twice. Early in the summer, I had the chance to review the third volume of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari that Seagull Books brought out in July. Some years ago I had read in the original Spanish much of what constitutes the first two volumes in English translation, yet, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I never made it to these discussions that display a Borges who, despite being 85 years old at the time, remains a consummate conversationalist with a voracious intellectual appetite. He moves effortlessly from an unabashed Anglophilia—Joyce, Whitman, and Wilde are just some of the figures he enjoys reflecting on—to a more global concern. As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

It was with another Argentine author—cosmopolitan in his own right—that I ended up moving in the opposite direction: from translation to original. A few months before Restless Books was set to publish it in November, a friend handed me a galley of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Unwilling to wait to get my hands on a Spanish copy, I devoured it in the course of a few hours. (You can find an excerpt of this title, which was released in November, in our October 2017 issue.) There are two more volumes of these diaries, the last of which was released in Spanish in September, and I was thrilled to finish this masterful trilogy that traces the vicissitudes of the writing life with a unique intelligence and unmatched willingness to reflect on what different forms might offer. In Piglia’s view, for instance, a diary is a place where “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.” He elegantly explores those limits in this record of how a great reader struggles to become a great writer by drafting versions of a novel that will only appear decades later, defining himself both with and against dominant influences, and spending what little money he has on books. The first volume is also, somewhat miraculously, both a great starting point for anyone who has yet to read any Piglia and a welcome addition to those who already familiar with much of his work.

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Announcing Our First Book Club Selection

The Lime Tree is the latest novel by the prolific Argentine writer César Aira to be translated into English.

We are delighted to reveal that the inaugural title for the Asymptote Book Club, as chosen by our editorial team, is César Aira’s The Lime Tree. Aira has previously been a Man Booker International finalist, and translator Chris Andrews received the Valle-Inclán Prize for his English version of Bolaño’s Distant Star. The Lime Tree is published by not-for-profit translation champions & Other Stories.

On January 2, 2018, we will be launching our members-only online discussion space where subscribers can talk about César Aira’s The Lime Tree. An interview with translator Chris Andrews will also be posted on the Asymptote blog shortly thereafter. In the meantime, we invite you to tweet about your first reactions on social media using the hashtag #AsymptoteBookClub!

For more on the newly launched Asymptote Book Club, or to start your subscription in January 2018, see details here. We’re already preparing the next exciting title, so don’t delay!

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My 2017: Lara Norgaard

I think about how collective memory—that living, ever-shifting phenomenon—shapes the stories we tell ourselves today.

It’s time to kick off an annual tradition! From today till the end of the year, Asymptote staff will take turns reflecting on his or her year in reading, revealing the pivots they took in their consumption of literature, and the intimate ways those pivots informed their lived experience. First up, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard.

In the first painful weeks of 2017, I found myself looking to the past to make sense of the present. How did we get here? That was the question that repeatedly echoed through my head, like a drumbeat, during inaugurations, rallies, executive orders, new legislation. How did we get here?

It was on a flight to Buenos Aires during those first painful weeks of January that I gained insight into why this is so difficult a question to answer. I’d packed an old copy of the Argentinian-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990) and, as the plane took off, found myself transported back to the first years of democracy after Pinochet’s fall from power. A woman who had been kidnapped under the dictatorship faces the very man who tortured and raped her: he enters her home, randomly, after helping her husband Gerardo get back home when he is stranded because of a flat tire. She takes justice into her own hands, staging a trial in her living room, while Gerardo, who is a member of the truth commission investigating deaths incurred by the military regime, urges her to follow democratic procedure even if the state might never recognize her story or bring the man to court. In his stunning English-language play about post-dictatorship politics, Dorfman captures a private memory that is at odds with public discourse. Though the fairly recent periods of fascism in South America predate the global bubbling up of right-wing energy in 2017, official narratives of those regimes remain incomplete.

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Meet the Publisher: Charco Press Director Carolina Orloff on Contemporary Latin American Literature

Being small and independent means that we have total freedom when it comes to making our decisions.

Charco Press is an Edinburgh-based publisher dedicated to bringing the best in contemporary Latin American fiction to English-speaking readers. The press seeks out innovative, thought-provoking literature—and compelling stories—and their first titles, released in the summer of 2017, reflect the diversity of voices they are committed to publishing. Over email, Charco’s director, Carolina Orloff, and Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, discussed the press’s origins, the wealth of contemporary literature being written in Latin America, and what Charco has in store for 2018.

Sarah Moses (SM): How was Charco Press born?

Carolina Orloff (CO): Charco Press was born from observing a real stagnation when it comes to Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. When you ask an avid reader, what’s the last book they read by a Latin American author, the same names recur: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges, maybe Bolaño, maybe Isabel Allende. Having experienced first-hand the extraordinary wealth and variety of literature being produced on the other side of the pond, we felt it was time to update the scene and bring some of that talent across for the English-speaking reader to discover and enjoy.

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Translation Tuesday: “Reading on the Tram” by Aibhe Ní Ghearbhuigh

The staccato poetry / of noticeboards

Today we are thrilled to present a frosty poem that brings us to the trains of Ireland. Irish poet Aibhe Ní Ghearbhuigh beautifully weaves together locomotive travel with the more abstract movement of reading. 

Reading on the Tram

The morning tram

I go unseen

in the concertina of life,

in the articulation

between two cars

 

(out with your book)

 

I can feel

every soft turning

every

rounding of the bend

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In Conversation: Boey Kim Cheng on his new novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation...mediating between languages and cultures, memory and imagination...past and present."

Boey Kim Cheng’s reputation as a critically acclaimed writer rests on his work as a poet and essayist. He has authored five poetry collections—Somewhere-Bound (1989); Another Place (1992); Days of No Name (1996); After the Fire (2006); and Clear Brightness (2012)the first two of which won Singapore National Book Development Council awards, and the last of which was selected by The Straits Times as one of the best books of 2012. His collection of essays Between Stations (2009) was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize in nonfiction.

This past October saw the publication of his first foray into novel writing. Set during a turbulent period in Tang-Dynasty-era China, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017) is a fictionalized biographical account of Du Fu, one of China’s most esteemed classical Chinese poets. The end-result of a ten-year-long, meticulously researched labor of love (the early fruits of which appeared in Asymptote’s inaugural issue), Gull represents the first extensive literary treatment of Du Fu’s life, fictional or otherwise, in any language.

In addition to venturing into the territory of prose fiction to complete the project, the Singaporean-born poet also undertook new translations of Du Fu’s poetry, which appear scattered throughout the novel, gem-like and epiphanic. In this interview with Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao, Boey recounts what compelled him to see this book to completion, as well as the challenges and joys of translating not only Du Fu’s poems, but his character and life.

Tiffany Tsao: On the one hand, your novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth represents a shift for you. Until now, you’ve been a poet and essayist. On the other hand, there’s considerable continuity between your previous works and this one: Gull is about a poet and his poetic calling; it contains poetry as well as themes of travel and nostalgia, which feature prominently in your past work. What prompted you to switch forms for this project? How have you found the experience of writing fiction in prose compared to writing poetry and nonfiction in prose?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world.

Our team is always keen to keep you up to speed on the most recent prizes, festivals, and publications regarding the most important writers around the world. With this in mind,  we are excited to bring you the latest news from our editors-at-large in Mexico, Central America and Indonesia. Stay tuned for next week! 

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Mexico: 

The Tsotsil Maya poetry and book arts collective Snichimal Vayuchil held a book presentation for its latest publication, Uni tsebetik, on November 30 at the La Cosecha Bookstore in San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas, Mexico. A collection of works by the group’s female members, the volume was introduced by the Tsotsil sculptor and multimedia artist Maruch Méndez and anthropologist Diane Rus. The event is part of a big month for the group, which includes the publication of their selected works translated into English, and a reading of works from Uni tsebetik at the Tomb of the Red Queen in the Maya archeological site of Palenque.

The same night, the State Center for Indigenous Languages, Arts, and Literature (CELALI) held a book presentation for its latest publication, Xch’ulel osil balamil, by poet and artist María Concepción Bautista Vázquez. The anthology Chiapas Maya Awakening contained her work in an English translation by Sean S. Sell, who was interviewed in Asymptote in April.

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Snichimal Vayuchil: Writing Poetry in an Endangered Maya Language

They insist that they be allowed to express themselves, above all else, in Tsotsil and as Tsotsiles.

As outlined in the controversial fall 2013 editorial from n +1, concepts of “World Literature” or “Global Literature” in translation are continually haunted by circuits of colonial power. Must we begin with Goethe and his Weltliteratur? Must translation practices always be subject to market forces and so dominated by economically powerful languages like English? What is the role of individual multilingual readers who communicate in multiple languages? These questions become all the more pressing in the cases of so-called minoritized languages. Possessing limited access to education and formal literary training within their respective nation states, minorizited languages are by definition disadvantaged with regard to publication and the dissemination within their respective national confines. Indeed, whether the context is the United States, China, or Colombia, despite the tireless activities of linguistic activists, one of the overriding concerns of publication in minoritized languages is who, exactly, constitutes the audience for a text that, more often than not, will be accompanied by a translation into the dominant language anyway?

These are a few of the topics that came up in conversation with the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Tsotsil Maya literary collective Snichimal Vayuchil (“The Flowery Dream”) when I sat down with a few of its members recently. Consider, for a moment, the untranslatability of the group’s name. What sounds like an overwrought cliché in English is actually the adaptation of a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican difrasism or semantic couplet, in xochitl in cuicatl (“my flower my song”) in Náhuatl, which reflects an aesthetic conceptualization linking poetry with the natural world as well as entrée into a distinctly non-European set of literary and aesthetic values.

According to Xun Betan (Venustiano Carranza), the group’s founder and coordinator, the group’s mission is to produce a Tsotsil literature that originates from Tsotsil understandings of the world. That’s why, both in their first anthology and in an upcoming English translation of the group’s work in the North Dakota Quarterly, they label themselves “a poetic experiment in Bats’i K’op (Tsotsil Maya).” Betan noted that, unlike Maya K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, languages whose pre-Hispanic literary traditions were recorded in the colonial Popol vuh and the Books of the Chilam Balam, respectively, there are no Tsotsil language colonial documents that reflect what we would call a Tsotsil literary tradition. The group sees its work as being more “experimental” and much less proscriptive than the traditional literary workshop setting, as they explore Tsotsil language as a medium for literary expression. For readers already well-versed in US Native American literature, this situation is not unlike the one described by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko when she asks, “What changes would Pueblo writers make to English as a language for literature?” with the key difference here being that these writers are undertaking this work in their mother tongue. READ MORE…

In Conversation: Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart

International literature famously offers a window on the world—a much-needed window, these years.

‘I want to buy my way to everything’: halfway through Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (excerpted in the Asymptote Fall 2015 issue), the shape-shifting, double-tongued voice declares yet another sweeping and futile desire. Translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, this collection is a text much like the many-chambered place that is third-millennium heart, with intersecting meditations on the human body and its connection to the natural world, which evolve into a solid critique of late capitalism, especially in relation to reproduction. Throughout, there is a disconnect between necessity and excess, the architecture of human consumption, a tussle between the body’s need and desire for more. During this email interview, Olsen makes me a list of Danish words for the parts of the body, and the etymology is fascinating. Moderkage, Danish for ‘placenta’, would literally translate into ‘mother cake’; livmoder, the word for ‘uterus’, into ‘life mother’. Following is the interview between Ursula Andkjær Olsen and her English translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen.

Sohini Basak: I want to begin with names and naming and the body, because that’s where the book (and our language, for that matter) begins. When you were young, Ursula, what language did you learn about the body? Science, especially medical science, uses the English language (and Latin, for nomenclature), so I’m curious to know . . . what were the first names you learnt for the heart, its ventricles, chromosomes, all of which form the structure of this collection?

Ursula Andkjær Olsen: My mom was a doctor, so I think the naming of the body for me was a mix of Danish and Latin. I was always very fascinated with the scientific approach to the body (in fact I studied medicine for almost two years before changing to musicology and philosophy), and I remember, as a little girl, poring over a book of photographs of the body’s insides, beautiful pictures by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. And doing it again and again. All these cavities, canals, soft corners, bridges, chambers! It was a kind of architecture, in fact.

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Translation Tuesday: BALLERINA by Kinga Tóth

in the hole is the wire / the wire coiled / around the girl / like a lace collar

“BALLERINA” is a poem from Hungarian writer Kinga Tóth’s book, ALL MACHINE. Tóth is not only a poet, but a visual and multimedia artist, some of whose visual work was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Asymptote. The sound poetry Tóth produced for ALL MACHINE can serve as a fitting prelude (or accompaniment) to reading “BALLERINA.” We hear a whirring, disjointed medley of voices surrounded by the squeaking of an unoiled machine, much like the rotating figure in the music box of the poem. 

Also included here are some illustrations from ALL MACHINE and photos from Tóth’s live work. Of them, Eva Heisler has written, “While the typed phrases in Tóth’s visual poems are a mix of English, German, and Hungarian, the poet insists that translation is not necessary, that legibility is not the point; words in her poem-drawings shake their signifying function and border on visual stammers, the line spacing often squeezed, the lines tightly stacked, and the pages factory-tuned.”

Kinga Toth, cover, 1._balerina (1)

1

the object’s shape material
regular 10×10 wood
top and bottom parts
joined with metal hinges
rotating a cylinder
in the centre a hole where
sharp fixings
are screwed
its internal design
delicately lineated
including curves
in the centre of the cylinder
(and opposite too)
is wire knotted
to hooks inside the object
the other end
positioned on a platform
onto a turning rod
wound to 2/3
with the opening and
closing of the lid the taut
rod scrapes against
the object’s inner wall/border
upon lowering against
the opposite the aim
of the first phase is to scour
the girl out from within

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