Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our multilingual special feature to the urgent work of Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, who wanted to “recollect. . . Syria through the stories of the people,” and to “live its diversity,” our Summer 2018 issue again proves that incredibly groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. Gathering new work from thirty-one countries, this bountiful issue, also our milestone thirtieth, unfolds under the sign of the traveler “looking for [himself] in places [he doesn’t] recognize” (Antonin Artaud). Highlights include pioneer of modern Chinese poetry Duo Duo, Anita Raja on Christa Wolf, and rising Argentinian star Pablo Ottonello in a new translation by the great Jennifer Croft. Today, the blog editors share our favorite pieces from the new issue, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary style represented. Happy reading!
Perhaps because of my fascination with multilingual writing and the languages of mixed cultures, I was immediately drawn to the multilingual writing special feature in this issue of the journal. Shamma Al Bastaki’s “from House to House | بيت لبيت” in particular dazzles with its polyphonic quality.
Bastaki’s three poems (“House to House,” “Clay II,” and “Barjeel”) refuse singularity, whether in terms of form, language, or register. Different voices call out from the text of each poem and are brilliantly rendered alongside an audio clip of sounds from interviews conducted by Bastaki herself. (I would recommend listening to the clips before or during your reading of the piece!) The poems are inspired by and based on the oral narratives of the peoples of the Dubai Creek, but speak also to a modern global phenomenon of language mixing and syntax shifting that many around the world will relate to. I enjoyed what Bastaki terms “severe enjambments”—defamiliarizing what is otherwise standard English syntax, creating an instructive experience for native speakers.
Form and language aside, “from House to House” in particular reminded me of the communal nature of colloquial language—the speech that we are most familiar with in our daily lives, and that which we use with our families. To present them in poetry is an attempt to memorialize what is so near and dear to us. The context of Eid is especially well suited to this project, and to the issue’s timing as a whole, in celebration of Eid just past in June. “Barjeel” on the other hand, reminds me of poetry looking back on childhood (Thomas Hood’s “I Remember, I Remember” comes to mind) and on the things that seemed so big then. The Emirati influences and polyphony of “Barjeel” take that idea and renew it—demonstrating how reflection often is not a solipsistic affair, but very often one that takes place with family, parents telling children of their childhood pasts.
New York City is a generous source of inspiration for writers, young or aged; happy or scarred, but it is also an elusive character—always up for mischief. The stories of 1970s New York have been told through its self-mythologizing artists and rock stars, but Néstor Sánchez’s words, poured onto paper with a deliberate distance from the city, open an observant page in this history. In “Manhattan Island Notebook,” translated by Federico Berea and Casey Drosehn Gough from the Spanish, Sánchez tells his own tale about New York in this seismic decade.
Sánchez’s path crosses with some of the most memorable characters of queer literature, incognito in his writing but very likely from the pages of Andrew Holleran or Edmund White novels:
The militant homosexuality that relentlessly impels ostentation at such a great scale that it seems to proliferate standards denouncing the most ungodly of perditions. They probably imagine an irresponsible, distracted God, the results of whose negligence they must constantly display.
The emphasis on display, and an ongoing conversation with God and the godly run rampant in the novels depicting the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS queer life. It is as if Sánchez noticed from afar the ever-lovely Andrew Sutherland of Dancer from the Dance in Central Park, when he says: “Central Park exoticizes in psychiatric display.”
Some New Yorkers Sánchez encounters “put their feet on top of tables or chairs or armchairs of every kind, throw books, rip off their clothing, shout guturralities, tending to excel in the display of a disgusting awkwardness based on the merit of maximum brutality.” He captured a special moment in the city’s almost bankrupt historical moment, and he was also aware of what was ahead for vandalized New York. Sánchez prophesied, in his unique way, what was coming to the city for good in the late 1970s, when he repeated: money replaces consciousness. This is what makes the 1970s a bygone era for New York City.
Literature has a unique way of revealing the human side of political conflicts as it shows the individual relationships that make up larger, anonymous bodies at work. With the problematic Jewish nation state law passed in Israel last week that declares that only Jews have the right to self-determination in the country and strips Arabic of its official language status (downgrading it to having “special status”), further religious, linguistic, and political distance has been created between people in the region. Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s “Listening In,” translated by Sondra Silverston, speaks directly to this conflict that has long defined and divided the country and beautifully shows the particular relationships that emerge within this framework.
The story alternates perspective between two women, giving the reader two entirely different, yet interconnected worlds. An Israeli soldier working in a phone surveillance unit is charged with listening into the conversations of Nasrin, an Arab woman who crafts an image of herself for the benefit of her listener. A remarkable relationship of both desire and anger develops within their silent interactions as evidenced by Nasrin’s reflection on her listener: “I got used to her, the bitch. On the worst days, when I felt like I was dying from so much dust and misery on the streets, I waited to make a call and hear her listening.”
The author’s delicate use of language, rendered beautifully in the English translation, and her attention to the language politics of the region stand out to me. While the two women never directly speak to one another, Nasrin uses subtle tricks to make a connection with her listener, as the Israeli narrator recounts:
At the end of every conversation, she said “shalom” in Hebrew. She did that sometimes—everyone I listen to does that sometimes. Arabs always throw some Hebrew words into their Arabic when they talk. But on the day I went back after two days of sick leave at home, she did it in every conversation. One minute or twenty minutes in Arabic, and then one “shalom” in Hebrew a minute before the end of the conversation, kind of soft and intimate, a tone I had never heard from her before.
In the end, this is a story about a relationship defined by power dynamics of surveillance, control, and invention, a story that moves beyond the traditional narratives of domination and resentment and it is of utmost relevance both locally and globally.
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