Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.”

Another surprising take on the moves of translation is the sequence “Subsisters” by Uljana Wolf, translated from the German by Sophie Seita. Scenes that call to mind 1940s film noir are interspersed with dark strips of “mistranslated” subtitles that read like subversive haiku.

Throughout this issue, “history” circulates as both touchstone and adversary. History Will Break Your Heart, a feature on Kemang Wa Lehulere—named Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for 2017 just as this April 2016 issue was in production—showcased the artist’s “protest against forgetting.” As our South Africa Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs explains, Wa Lehulere makes work that engages marginalised black South African artists who are no longer living. In one such work, Wa Lehulere asked an aunt who, as a child, had visited the home of artist Gladys Mgudlandlu, to draw her paintings from memory. The aunt’s chalk “copies” were then exhibited alongside Mgudlandlu’s paintings, which Wa Lehulere had purchased at auction. As Inggs put it, “the act of writing history, the fallibility of memory, and the nonviability of linear time” are issues raised by Wa Lehulere’s works.

The grandiosity, absurdity, and tragedy of state-authored history is evoked in “The Tomb of the Romanian God,” an excerpt from Margo Rejmer’s Bucharest: Dust and Blood, translated from the Polish by Olga Drenda. The essay tells the story of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Palace of Parliament, a mammoth construction with over one thousand rooms:

And here it is. A building with the qualities of a black hole, raised against human needs and human scale. The Palace of Parliament, or, if anyone prefers, the People’s House.…When I walk along the fence to reach the only entrance, I have the impression that I’m walking on a treadmill.

The translator’s note explains that the various registers of Rejmer’s essay—”elements of anecdote, fragments of everyday speech, quasi-legendary narrative, and the newspeak of the regime”—are familiar to readers in Poland and Romania, but in translation the language “gain[s] an extra dimension of pomposity and contrivance that is helpful in conveying the otherworldly quality of the Eastern Bloc.” Otherworldly, indeed: the seat of Romania’s parliament is “a mansion inspired by the architecture of the moon.”


This brings me to an aspect of Asymptote that I really appreciate. Translations in Asymptote usually include recordings of the work in its original language (often in the author’s own voice) as well as translator’s notes. These notes may be reflections on the challenges of  translation or mini-essays elaborating on the context of the work, as in the expansive notes for Youssef Rakha’s Paolo, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. This extract from Rakha’s third novel is set in the run-up to the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections. Written as a series of blog-like dispatches by an “undercover operative for State Security,” Paolo is a dizzying work, with complex, circuitous details and a voice that veers from paranoid to interrogative to pedantic to prophetic. Here is the narrator on the function of details:

There was much written on Facebook and YouTube, contradictory and comprehensively wrong for all that it was nothing but details. That’s political analysis for you, even when the professionals are at it. Very precise and very complex claims utterly untethered to the truth. …Strange to say, most of the people who do this kind of propaganda do it for free because they believe they’re in the right. And so life becomes an island of In Focus surrounded by an image that is all Out of Focus. And that island is, itself, of something ugly and boring.

The narrator, too, moves in and off that island of In Focus, and I might have been lost—impressed but confused—were it not for the translator’s notes explaining the context of Rakha’s experimental writing, and suggesting the use of blog entries as “a depiction of the corralled spaces in which his secular hero must now live.” According to  the translator, Rakha has said that, “You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.”

Rakha’s assertion kept echoing as I reread this issue, and I noted the relationship of writing to the body, to hurt both real and imagined, narrativized and reframed, or cloaked with words.That hurt is unnamed in “Handclap,” Maiko Sugimoto’s poem included in the excerpts from Hemflower, translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto. The “handclap” may be a device in the body, perhaps a spinal cord stimulator, or it may be an imagined form of relief. As metaphor, it weds public event (applause) to the privacies of suffering:

so a mouth, not mine,

bitterly, albeit matter-of-factly, asserts                            

uneven handclap wiggles through my body,


and hardens like an awakening crag in a field …

Aging and gender are addressed in Aase Berg’s poems from Hackers, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson. Using the vocabulary of computer hacking, the poet challenges the stereotype of the “hag:”

You have no idea

what beautiful breasts I have

What pale hands

slink sensually through nets


The free net and the dark one

eternally lonely

in my algorithmic sequence

a misconfigured

open proxy server


when the black box

sinks softly

down to the bottom of the sea

outside of China

The hurt is both unnamed and suppressed in Kim Kyung-uk’s “Spray”, translated from the Korean by Jason Woodruff. The narrator, having picked up someone else’s package in error, is obsessed with why he made this mistake so contrary to his personality. The error causes him to feel “disheveled, somehow unpleasant, like the feeling of holding a sweaty hand.” It turns out that sweaty hand is his own: he is plagued by sweaty palms that he believes was the cause of being left by his first, and only, girlfriend.  His mistake sets off a chain of disturbing events as the narrator discovers a “sharp pleasure” when “roughly rip[ping] off the tape” of another’s package. The story is both funny and horrifying.

To return to the experience of being moved—and on the move—I close by applauding Albert Casals’ hilarious travelogue The World on Wheels, translated from the Catalan by Ona Bantjes-Ràfols. This excerpt from a 2007 travel journal was written when Casals, then a college student, explored Asia and Europe alone and in a wheelchair. He masters the art of hitchhiking—“chairhitching” he calls it—with the help of a young German woman who instructs him on the most effective methods. His main problem, however, turns out to be choosing in which direction to travel:  

…a car stops for you and says they’re headed toward Brussels, and you think: “Well, why not? I’ve never been to Brussels, I’m sure it’s cool.” But when you’re halfway there and you stop to rest another car will comment that they’re headed for Poland, and you say to yourself, “Wow, Poland must be incredible, and I’m sure there are far fewer tourists in Poland than in Brussels!” and then just as you’re about to get in the car you realize that you’ll be going back the way you came, and then you feel pretty dumb. You definitely need to be sure of where you’re going, when hitchhiking, or you won’t go anywhere.

Eva Heisler has been Visual Editor at Asymptote since August 2014.

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