Is world literature racist? (By ‘world literature,’ I refer specifically, of course, to agents in the world literature industry, say, programmers of literary festivals or those who disburse funds.) An unhappy episode looms in my recollection of Asymptote-related work leading up to the Summer 2014 issue. I have only ever brought it up once, and briefly, two years ago, in a blog post about editing a literary journal as a person of color. With Asians in America reclaiming their visibility recently, it may not such be a bad idea to ride the wave. So here is the story: Five years into helming a magazine as its only full-time team member, I came to know about an invitation sent to a part-time team member. This invitation, issued by a White person, to represent Asymptote at an international conference with an offer to be flown in from anywhere, was sent directly to the White female Assistant Managing Editor who’d been with Asymptote for less than seven months, and who actually lived farther away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. Appalled by the blatant racism, I told her that I would not authorize her appearance on behalf of Asymptote—if I couldn’t defend myself against the racist, at least I wouldn’t be complicit in his invisibilization. What surprised me was how incomprehensible this decision was to another White senior team member, who took it upon himself to sway my mind. Forced as a person of color to “accept offense and facilitate its reconciliation,” I chose to shut down the conversation instead, as Maya Binyam would have recommended. Since then, I’ve observed an interesting pattern: people will often rush to the aid of one marginalized group without realizing how it occurs at the expense of other marginalized groups—groups that don’t even have anyone else flying a flag for them, be it Asians or editors (more on this later). Here to introduce the Summer 2014 issue is Senior Editor Sam Carter.
This issue graced the Asymptote homepage when I was applying to join the journal back in August of 2014. As I put the finishing touches on a cover letter—and as I later drafted my responses to a series of follow-up questions—I came back to the contents of this edition again and again to explain why I wanted to contribute to such an impressively expansive, incredibly inclusive, and somehow still remarkably cohesive literary project. Greeting me each time was Robert Zhao Renhui’s stunning cover featuring a man leaping from an iceberg juxtaposed with a polar bear swimming in presumably icy waters. Amid a stillness that nevertheless captures a sense of imminent movement, both remain cool and collected despite the unknown that lies ahead. I soon followed suit, plunging into a new position that, as often happens with sudden immersion, proved instantly invigorating.
If you’re looking for an ice-breaker—or a place of your own to dive into the issue—you probably couldn’t do better than the excerpts from Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Ice, translated by Daniel Borzutzky. Yet unlike the cover photographs, ice here freezes time, recording the past rather than providing any sort of springboard into the future: “You then look at the giant wall of ice and you feel you were once there, perhaps hundreds, thousands of years ago, and you curl up in a ball as if wanting to save yourself from that memory.” The five prose poems have a decidedly chilling effect, one that the poet has been exploring his entire career.
Zurita is one of the biggest names in contemporary Latin American poetry, and in this issue he’s accompanied by a truly awesome slate of prose writers that appear in the Latin American Fiction Feature. Some of the names might now seem familiar to English readers, but, as the editor’s note reminds us, Julián Herbert appeared in English for the first time in our pages, with an excerpt from Tomb Song—a novel that came out just last year. Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire, released to great acclaim in 2016, had also yet to appear, but Maureen Shaughnessy provided our readers with an introduction to some of this extraordinarily talented short story writer’s work with “The Little Angel’s Exhumation.”
There are, however, also those who needed no introduction, even back then. Sergio Chejfec’s “The Witness,” translated by Steve Dolph, begins by combining the unexpected and the familiar: “Our first protagonist is Julio Cortázar.” The other protagonist? A man named Samich who, as it happens, is reading a collection of Cortázar’s letters. It’s a conceit that might recall the author of Hopscotch, but Chejfec takes it in a direction all his own.
That interaction between one Argentine writer and another finds an echo in the issue’s Writers on Writers section with Adrian Nathan West’s translation of César Aira’s essay on Osvaldo Lamborghini. In a certain sense, Lamborghini seems like just the kind of writer Aira would invent: “the last time I saw him, the day he left for Barcelona the second time, he was holding Lectures on the Philosophy of History; he had chosen to read it on the airplane, a matter explained to me in this way: he had opened it at random in a bookstore and noticed that on that accidental page Hegel spoke of… Afghanistan. (Afghanistan, Afghanistan!) That was enough for him.”
Perhaps Lamborghini decided Hegel could help him combat the effects of a long jet lag, which also serves as the subject of a piece by Waly Salomão. In “Jet-Lagged Poem,” marvellously rendered into English by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, Salomão offers more connections than an international terminal as he moves among ideas, places, languages:
Like an arrow: multilingualism is the goal.
I search for “los papeles rotos de las calles’
and in a rectangle of the Girona wall turned into
The back of a tiger for the cackle of a god
Here is what I make out:
És quan dormo que hi veig clar!!!
Throughout this occasionally dizzying poem, Gharavi’s translation is everything the jet-lagged traveller isn’t: agile, alert, attentive to rhythms. The translation of the last line is perfect: the “Embora? Em boa hora” of the original becomes “Notwithstanding? In good standing.” Even without knowledge of Portuguese you can see the ingenious resolution of a problem of interlingual wordplay.
Part of what drew me to apply to Asymptote was its focus on these processes and problems of translation. After all, the journal makes space for the translator by including notes alongside the final product and even longer essays on craft. In this issue, Daniel Hahn offers a fascinating reflection on translating Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People that also contains the best description of good editing that I’ve ever encountered. Editing, he explains, is like “getting a window cleaned. The view afterwards isn’t a different view to the one before, it’s just a little brighter somehow. Free of those slight smudges you hadn’t really noticed were there.” In her essay about translating Guadalupe Nettel, J.T. Lichtenstein offers up a fantastic metaphor of her own to describe the work of the Mexican writer: “Her prose is like something found in nature: an animal following its instincts, a plant that unfurls tender leaves outward as it grows, a lichen that quietly creeps over the bark of a tree, an expanding frost slowly patterning a windowpane as the temperature drops and becomes crueler.”
As both Hahn and Lichtenstein point to windows and what might obscure them, they remind us that the best writing does not mirror something we already know but rather offers a new view. The same is certainly true of Asymptote, which can also help you confront your biases. My (now abundantly evident) bias towards work from Latin America is countered by work in this issue from elsewhere in the world.
Mui Poopoksakul, for instance, guides us through a contemporary Thai literary landscape dominated by short stories, including a footnote that explains how the Thai style is to refer to authors by their first names, evincing an intimacy that already appears when, as she puts it so well, “readers who know how to take a text and run with it do not necessarily all end up in the same place.” In “Hanoi, Silences,” however, Valentine Goby reflects on her return to the same place: the modest establishment she used to frequent nightly for a bowl of pho. The proprietor warmly greets her as if a year’s absence had never happened, and Goby—via translator Christine Buckley—gives just the right description of that subtle yet emotional moment: “joy is a smile with your teeth here.” It’s a quiet smile, in other words, but Goby also expertly draws out the other, more sinister silences of the city.
Ofelia Prodan’s Apollodorus, on the other hand, possesses a divine voice and is anything but silent—at least at first. His legendary loquacity has filled the world with marvels, but it also leaves the concerned priests with no alternative except to cut off his tongue in order to rob him of speech. The cost of such an action? A world without wonder.
Asymptote, of course, is a space where each tongue—each language—can freely express its own wonders and where your mother tongue doesn’t limit your ability to enjoy work from others. But there was something else, something that had been on the tip of my tongue: as I’ve found out over the past four years, this issue is just the tip of a vast and immensely, endlessly fascinating iceberg.
Sam Carter is a Senior Editor at Asymptote.
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