Winter 2018: A Treasure Hunt Without A Map

That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations.

Thanks to the hard work of Duncan Lewis, Jacob Silkstone, József Szabo, Marina Sofia, Emma Page, Kyrstin Rodriguez, Giorgos Kassiteridis, Tiffany Tsao, Alexander Dickow, and myself, November 2017 sees the launch of the Asymptote Book Club, a sustainability initiative meant to support independent publishers of world literature while also helping Asymptote stay afloat. By January 2018, after an intensive marketing campaign (e.g., I answer some questions about the Book Club here), we succeed in attracting more than 120 subscribers. In addition, our seventh anniversary is greeted by two important milestones, both to do with the number 100: We cross the 100 mark for number of team members on our masthead, and, with the addition of Amharic and Montenegrin in the Winter 2018 edition, we have gathered work from exactly 100 languages in our archive of world literature! In his interview with Asymptote that we ran in this issue, Lithuanian editor Marius Burokas laments that, as with many peripheral literatures, Lithuanian writing “can only speak of a one-way influence” from English at the moment; that said, Lithuanian literature is by no means a “small [one].” “There are only writers who are not good enough,” he observes wryly, “or writers who are not publicized enough.” This speaks to the very heart of Asymptote’s mission, which is why we have whole teams (from social media to graphic design) set up for the purpose of marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with, as detailed in an earlier post where I released this publicity report. Where we direct our efforts applies to where we direct our funds as well: For instance, by January 2018, the money we’ve cumulatively thrown at Facebook promotion alone has exceeded $10,000 USD. It’s not only money that I’ve staked personally; in our eight years, I’ve supported almost every single Facebook post in order to encourage other team members as well as our own readers to engage with Asymptote’s feed, all so that we can be a more powerful advocate for so-called “small literatures.” Cruelly, then, around this time, because of the backlash from Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, Facebook deprioritizes social media pages like ours, hurting our ability to connect authors with new readers. I know because I was still supervising the new English Social Media Managers (as well as the Assistant Director of Outreach—whose day job was in social media analytics—I was hoping to install as a permanent team member) from the hospital ward where I was quarantined after radioactive treatment, anxious as much about our falling social media engagement as my own Geiger counter reading (which on the other hand refused to fall as quickly as the doctor and I had hoped, thereby prolonging my hospitalization and resulting in a larger medical bill). Here to introduce the Winter 2018 issue is Brazil editor-at-large Lara Norgaard.

Two parallel snapshots of everyday scenes spliced by double-circle frames form the cover image of Asymptote’s Winter 2018 issue. A woman calmly pushes a stroller on the left, mirroring a different woman on the right who wears dark sunglasses and stares directly into the camera, allowing us to only guess at her penetrating gaze. In these cover photographs, the edition’s guest artist, Elephnt, captures one of its central components: the way each contribution takes a powerful approach to perspective. The authors in this issue all write with a particular and intense gaze that confronts or perhaps commiserates with the reader.

I decided to look back at the woman on the right as I prepared to write this reflection. It is not just her staring back at me that catches my eye; she seems to recognize the camera, to acknowledge how the image representing her was created. The Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote was my first as part of the magazine’s team. I witnessed—and participated in—the compilation of so many voices into one unified whole.

I began zoomed in, focused on the Southern Cone of Latin America. As an Editor-at-Large in Brazil for Asymptote, I search for new content from the region. It is a treasure hunt without a map, one in which I follow a trail of serendipitous encounters—with writers, artists, prose, and verse—until I find work that speaks to something larger. In October 2017 I came across the first such text: Dead Girls, Selva Almada’s narrative nonfiction piece. A Brazilian author had recommended the intellectual e-magazine Peixe-elétrico, and as I perused its issues I was struck by this powerful account of femicides in Argentina that had been translated from Spanish to Portuguese. Timing was everything: the #metoo movement was in full swing in the United States, and a Latin American perspective on gendered violence was sorely needed (Argentina has also witnessed increased energy in its movements against gendered violence in recent years). But more than the context, the reported novel also falls into a long tradition of narrative journalism in Latin America. Almada has not written a cold, dispassionate text but rather provided us with a powerful and personal perspective on the topic. She intersperses stories of violence with her own memories, like the lightning flashes that poured through her bedroom window the night before she first heard the news of murdered girls in her area.

During those same months leading up to the Winter 2018 issue, I invited one of my mentors, the scholar and literary critic Pedro Meira Monteiro, to contribute a survey essay on Brazilian writersMonteiro came back with a piece that addressed literature through the lens of the artist Hélio Oiticica. The choice to focus on a visual artist was not traditional, but  this perspective made the content powerful, interesting, and fresh. And I had to culturally translate that approach to Asymptote editors since art forms constantly intersect in Brazil. Concrete poetry movements, for instance, connect image and prose, while a traditional kind of chapbook in the northeastern region is both sung aloud and printed in book form. Oiticica’s work connects to Brazilian literature and Brazilian music. In fact, an installation of  of his inspired the name for Tropicália, one of Brazil’s most celebrated movements in popular music from the late 20th century. Brazilian culture is grounded in a syncretism that extends to artistic genres, which constantly fold together in new and interesting ways. By publishing Monteiro’s essay, Asymptote captured the Brazilian perspective on literature in addition to featuring a compelling account of radical writers in the 1960s and 70s.2

The opportunity to include a contribution from celebrated Brazilian poet Ana Cristina César rose out of the thin air of casual email correspondence. Her words in At Her Feet spring from the same feminist energy as Almada’s nonfiction, gazing at gender through a similarly personal lens. In poetic prose she writes:  

I’m no longer drowning, I don’t wag my tail or shake my hips without fuel for takeoff. I don’t look back. I warn and prophecy with my crystal ball that sees real soap operas and my golden blue cloak heavier than air.

And as I peeked at the growing lineup before the issue launch, I was blown away to see how work coming from diverse sources paralleled the contributions that I had so painstakingly sought out. Tijan M. Sallah on The New Gambian Poets complements Monteiro’s essay on Brazilian literature by approaching Gambian verse through a socio-political as well as literary lens, portraying the struggles for budding poets in light of authoritarian rule. Culturally speaking, syncretism too becomes a significant theme as it directly links the two critical essays from across the globe. Sallah quotes poet Mariama Khan to capture a syncretic approach to ethnic identity:

The shrine of my ancestors

Know when I become

A Fulani born-again

I may speak your tongue

Praise the acrobat decorum

Dance your dances

Sing your songs

Perhaps the metaphor of a camera lens cannot capture the myriad ways in which an Asymptote issue comes together. Perhaps each contribution to the Winter 2018 issue is instead a moving part in a kaleidoscope—unique in tone, form, and content and yet also part of a larger mosaic that is always in movement. Sashka Oberemok’s memories of a defunct fictional paper mill in Maxim Osipov’s The Mill take on new meaning in light of the memories of a Korean prisoner of war caught between North and South, East and West, in Choi Suchol’s short story Dance of the POWs. Ismail Kadare’s essay Aeschylus, the Lost adopts a uniquely and much-needed Balkan perspective on classic literature—and also moves in conjunction with an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, who analyzes popular Western culture through mythic paradigms.

Yet the metaphor matters little. After all, it is the viewer behind the tool that counts, the individual who adjusts the focus on the camera lens or the wooden base holding kaleidoscope glass, interpreting and understanding the subject in new ways. That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations. This is what I contemplate as I gaze on one of our 30 editions. What colors your view of Winter 2018—the pallid sun of salamanders or a blast of nuclear light? Open the table of contents: Standing in front of a nondescript building, a woman wearing dark sunglasses will stare intently at you from the corner of the frame, waiting for your answer.

Lara Norgaard has been Brazil Editor-at-Large for Asymptote since July 2017.


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