Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to El Salvador, South Africa, and Tunisia. 

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large, reporting from El Salvador:

It was announced in early June that Centroamerica Cuenta awarded writer and LGBT+ activist Alejandro Córdova the 6th annual Central American Prize for the Short Story. At 24 years old, Córdova is the first Salvadoran to win the prize for the Central American region. His short story “Lugares Comunes” (“Common Places”) took him 2 years to finish and is narrated from the perspective of a son attempting to reconstruct the events of how his parents met during the Salvadoran Civil War. Córdova was born just at the end of the war but commented in an interview with InformaTVX that fiction was a marvelous way of trying to comprehend a history that was not his. Córdova also comments on the status of Salvadoran literature and how it is alive and well, not necessarily because of support from the state or from various literary circles, but due to the collective suffering of a complex society in El Salvador. Those complexities can be seen in the country’s literature, which Córdova likens to a strange flower born in the desert, a type of rarity that makes Salvadoran literature even more alluring than other Central American regions.

Salvadoran publishing house Kalina launched a series of three events between May 31st and June 8th celebrating the second edition of La Familia O El Olvido (Family Or Oblivion) by writer and historian Elena Salamanca. This marks Salamanca’s fourth full-length book and her first to be translated by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, cofounder and coeditor of Kalina. Fellow writer Álvaro Rivera Larios comments, “One can say, that as a creator, Elena is a sprawling house and that through the windows of that house, one sees unraveling landscapes. Traveler that she is, Elena veers from one literary genre to another, merging and blending their borders. In the romantic ideal, the subject validates tradition through creation. If tradition exists, it exists as a grammar that serves to articulate the singularity of the individual.” Salamanca describes her latest book as a filigree, a delicate interweaving of both poetry and prose featuring multiple women: girls, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, saints, girlfriends, widows (starving women), women who are fed up, women who bury or are buried, women who cage birds and are those same birds, women filled with oblivion, women so empty that they levitate. These women thread, needle, unravel knots, weave and embroider these filigrees that tell a story of life in this city with no name, no memory, pulled down by the weight of yearning and emptiness.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, reporting from South Africa:

On a Friday night in late May, Ingrid Jonker Prize-winner Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese, gave a reading from her debut poetry collection Loud and Yellow Laughter (Botsotso, 2016) to a small audience at the University of Cape Town. In the collection, Busuku-Mathese takes familial ties and fictions as her subject and constructs a dramatic scaffolding—metaphorically reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s Dogville—in which characters with titles such as “The Daughter” perform a history of closeness, loss and longing. Before the poet took the microphone, writer Karina M. Szczurek put the award—and Busuku-Mathese’s work—in context. Szczurek is the widow of André P. Brink, an acclaimed South African author whose affair with poet Ingrid Jonker, after whom the award is named, was laid bare in a collection of searing personal letters published as Die Vlam in die Sneeu: Die Liefdesbriewe van André Brink en Ingrid Jonker (“The Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker”, Umuzi) in 2015. Brink and Jonker were—and still are—seen as luminaries in the Afrikaans literary world and their affair a flame of inspiration for both writers. Jonker committed suicide by walking into the sea at Three Anchor Bay in the winter of 1965. Szczurek explained that she was asked to give the introduction to the award because of her relationship with Brink, whose relationship with Jonker was a source of enduring influence in his life and work—a fact to which Szczurek has testified. In a moving contemplation of Jonker’s life, Szczurek said that we may wonder what the poet might have written if she had lived; what Jonker would have made of this time. Although we will never know, said Szczurek, the work of the winners of the Ingrid Jonker Prize, awarded in alternate years to an English or Afrikaans debut collection, is in many ways a continuation of what Jonker began and has become as much part of the poet’s legacy as Jonker’s own oevre.

At the same time, ninety kilometres from Cape Town, the Franschhoek Literary Festival was underway. The festival, which takes place annually in the affluent town of Franschoek in the Cape winelands district, has previously come under fire for being a “middle class literary lovefest”. In 2015, author Thando Mgqolozana announced during a panel discussion that he would no longer be attending similar literary events in South Africa, which he described as “colonial” and where he is regarded as a curiosity, rather than a legitimate member of the literary establishment. Debates at the festival are demonstrably charged; this year, notable talking points were the form and function of feminism in South Africa today, and the political landscape following the resignation of embattled president Jacob Zuma in February. Following an incident at the festival in which a guest author was assaulted and robbed by armed men, journalist and author Redi Tlhabi introduced the issue of violence perpetrated on individuals in South Africa into a panel discussion. South Africa has one of the highest rates of crime in the world—a fact that is translating into numerous non-fiction (and several fiction) titles investigating the psychology and manifestations of crime in the country. Cash-in-transit heists have recently come into the spotlight after the publication of investigative journalist Anneliese Burgess’s Heist! (Zebra Press, 2018), which exposes the root causes of this type of organised crime in gripping reportage. Non-fiction is particularly popular in the South African literary scene and books within this category have been instrumental in the exposure of corruption and changing civil society. It was thanks in part to journalist Jacques Pauw’s bestselling The President’s Keepers (published late last year by NB Publishers) that saw the tide turn for President Jacob Zuma, who is currently facing sixteen charges of corruption.

Pauw was recently awarded the Recht Malan Prize for Non-fiction at the Media24 Books Awards held on 14 June, where Afrikaans novelist Eben Venter won the WA Hofmeyr Prize for the fifth time for Groen Soos Die Hemel Daarbo (Tafelberg, recently translated as Green as the Sky is Blue). In other awards news, notable inclusions in the shortlist for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize are: The Third Reel by S. J. Naudé (featured in Asymptote), Bird-Monk Seding by poet Lesego Rampolokeng, and The Camp Whore by Francois Smith, translated by Dominique Botha.

Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Tunisia:

Ramadan in Tunisia was filled with literary events, from poetry readings to literary conferences, including the first Tunis Forum of the Arab Novel, which took place in Tunis’s City of Culture at the end of May. The forum hosted novelists from Sudan to Morocco and marked the inauguration of the City of Culture’s new cultural institution,  La maison du roman/بيت الرواية.

Already demonstrating a productive future, La maison will host two events later this month, one on “Soccer and the Novel” and another about the Tunisian poet, Abou el Kacem Shebbi, whose poem “Desire for Life” served as a rallying cry in countless protests during the Tunisian revolution.

Also coming up later in June is an evening with the author and ex-Minister of the Economy and Finance, Hakim Ben Hammouda. The event, which will be hosted at Librairie Al Kitab in La Marsa, Tunis, will feature Ben Hammouda’s latest books, published by Editions Arabesques/دار نقوش عربية للنشر: La révolution, un desire d’émancipation, Et voguent les idées, and Football, rêve de gosse.

While you’re in Tunis, head to Espace Mille Feuilles, to meet the contributors of Cérès Editions’ latest collective work La tentation du Jihad: violences et jeuneesse à l’abandon. The piece “invites (the reader) to listen to this violence, from its noise and inflections” and “does not judge, but instead proposes, observes the first rustles, identifies the backfire, probes, and tries to take care of the situation.”

Read more recent news from the Asymptote blog: