Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.
I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.
As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.
Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then:
And God be with you!
Go in flocks, flocks
without dreams, without thoughts of your own
after Hitler or Stalin
Display on your sprawled bodies
star or Swastika hooks.
Tsvetaeva was also one of the few poets Anna Akhmatova recognized as her equal; interestingly, Tashkent is where Akhmatova spent part of WWII as an evacuee, and where she continued to defy Stalin in her poems. Like most refugees, Akhmatova, who was not eyed favorably for her political views, had to constantly struggle with daily life, barely able to secure food and heating. She nevertheless always managed to escape daily reality through literary work. I therefore couldn’t help smiling when I read Lu Xun’s “The Happy Family”, in which the narrator describes an ideal couple as the heroes of his novel to come:
The two of them are elegant and cultured. Since they grew up in happy families, they probably do not enjoy Russian novels . . . Russian novels often describe the lives of struggling people, and that is not appropriate content for happy families. What books do they enjoy? The poems of Lord Byron? John Keats? No, that doesn’t sound right. Of course, they love reading Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
Yet the same character is made painfully aware that his family can barely afford to buy firewood in a war-torn China, just like Akhmatova in her Tashkent years. The story brims with the dark humor so typical of Lu Xun, a sharp critic of traditional Chinese society, but manages to end on a softer note. Lu Xun is indeed a writer in the Asymptote mold: he was a global reader and a prolific translator who brought over 200 works into Chinese from Japanese, German and English. I imagine he would have been very happy to share his essays on world literature on Asymptote.
This issue’s Special Feature, New Voices in French Literature, edited by Lee Yew Leong, captured my attention next. We have all heard about the ‘state of decay of French literature’, so I was curious as to what new talents could offer and was happily surprised to discover the humor, creativity and poetry hidden in the prose of the new generation. Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho embodies the new francophone literature that is no longer French-centric (references to Korean culture abound in this story), open to questions of global identity, and yet nods ironically to the giants of French literature. Here, for instance, is a short dialogue between the main characters, a Korean student (the first to speak) and a French traveller, that takes place in Sokcho, a small seaside town in South Korea :
“So you’re French.”
I nodded to show I understood.
“You know it?”
“I’ve read Maupassant.”
He turned to look at me.
“How do you picture it?”
I thought for a moment.
“Beautiful. Rather melancholy.”
“It’s changed since Maupassant’s day.”
“I suppose it has. Like Sokcho.”
Another nod to a giant of belles lettres is the review of Marcel Proust’s Letters to His Neighbor, where words have the power transform the interior of a home:
you, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room . . . I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me. It has thus been a blessed messenger, and contrary to the proverb, this single swallow has made for me an entire spring.
Equally poetic is the prose of Jérôme Orsoni in “The Windowpanes”, where a writer decides to put his sentences not on paper but on the windows of his house. Suddenly readers are invited into the surprising and enchanting experience of inhabiting sentences as they see text unfold from the inside of a house:
Once I had written a little, I left it to dry overnight to see which of the two products would do a better job of erasing my prose in the morning. We tend to forget that literature has to be left to dry. We appreciate it better once it is properly dry, especially as we are able to make it disappear.
And just when I thought I had left the realm of francophone literature, I clicked on Mohammad Tolouei’s “Someone Without Peers”, a piece of Iranian literature that pays tribute to Alexandre Dumas and his novel Joseph Balsamo. The main character recalls:
Sometimes I thought I wanted to be D’Artagnan, but then I changed my mind and returned to my hero, old Joseph Balsamo. No other book made me feel like that; I was like someone who had experienced an unknown drug and no matter what I smoked or ate or injected after that, I could not reach that ecstasy again. I never dared read the Balsamo books again, for I feared that the magic of those moments had something to do with the time at which I read them. I wanted to keep at least a sign that indicated that I should be writing, one that could stay in my mind, safe and sound, as wonderful as it was when I first read it, but real life is cruel enough not to allow one to make room for such things.
When I was a 10-year-old growing up in Tashkent, I was given a copy of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which shaped me as a reader for life. As I read Tolouei’s words, I was filled with a sense of deep gratitude, for he had expressed in perfect words what I have always felt for Dumas’ book.
Being a fan of Ozu’s movies, in which the interior of the Japanese house always seems to be one of the main characters, I was thrilled to discover a series of his essays presented under the title of “The Unexpected Scent of Salad” in the Fall 2017 issue. In one of them, “The Unexpected Pleasures of Riding Trains,” he writes:
This next anecdote takes place in a third-class car. I was traveling through the Tohoku region. A lone young boy was sitting before me. He was pouring over the crisp pages of a newly purchased book, and his face was pale and nervous. A country boy, judging by the way he wore his kimono. I wanted to believe that he was a precocious literatus of the village, an avid reader of Takuboku who had spent what little time and money he has on a trip to Tokyo: he’d probably taken in some German cinema, drunk some fine coffee; and now on his way home, was dipping into the literary fashions of the day. Pleased by this thought, I wanted to know what he was reading. But I couldn’t just stare. Fortunately, he got up to use the lavatory, and when I glanced over at the title of the book he had left behind, to my surprise it read, “On Treating Social Neurosis.” Ah, is there any place for such a hapless yet promising young boy in this world overrun with hardheaded men? I too should give that book a read but haven’t yet had the chance. (This is not an advertisement!)
Here Ozu and Lu Xun seem to speak the same language: a mix of warm affection and slightly ironic compassion for those who, like all Asymptote readers and contributors, firmly believe in the power of the written words. Besides, what’s more satisfying than reading on a train?
Finally, I was happy to read two pieces—the interview with Marilyn Booth and Jackson Arn’s review of Eka Kurniawan’s Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash— that address the same theme of literatures that are vastly undertranslated into dominant languages and in which all too often one writer is singled out to represent an entire literature. As Marilyn Booth puts it:
One absolutely cannot separate translation from either politics or history—both those of the original text’s context and that of the context of translation. Given…the persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about “Arabs” and “Muslims”—and given the fact that publishers aren’t necessarily keen to publish what we think is most important to translate—the works we choose to translate, the ways we translate them, the editing, and the choice of cover art all have political stakes. For me, translation is an intertwined aesthetic and political act, that is the way it should be, but it makes it all the more difficult.
In the end, this is perhaps Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.
Filip Noubel has been a French Social Media Manager with Asymptote since October 2017. Follow the Asymptote en français FB page that Filip manages here.
Read more from our #30issues30days showcase:
- Summer 2017: New Words Usher Forth New Worlds
- Spring 2017: Fighting the Muslim Ban
- Winter 2017: Intimate Strangers
- Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk
- Winter 2015: We Almost Didn’t Make It
- Winter 2011: Asymptote‘s Origin Story