Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in world literature can be found here in Asymptote's weekly roundup!

This week, our weekly dispatches take you to Poland, France, Mexico and Guatemala for the latest in literary prizes, and literary projects, featuring social media, and indigenous poets in translation.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Poland:

Hot on the heels of a US book tour for her International Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), the indefatigable Olga Tokarczuk appeared at a series of events to mark the UK publication of her newest book. The “existential thriller” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is fast garnering rave reviews, and London audiences had an opportunity for a Q&A with the author combined with a screening of Spoor, the book’s film adaptation. There was also a lively conversation between Olga Tokarczuk and writer and chair of the International Man Booker judges, Lisa Appignanesi, at the Southbank Centre. Meanwhile, Flights has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for translation as well as for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the shortlist of which includes another book by a Polish author, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with a Stained Glass Window (also translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Anyone who may have been afraid to tackle the classics of Polish literature will no longer have any excuse now that Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz has appeared in a new and highly readable English version. “I undertook this translation out of the conviction that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an accessible poem for twenty-first-century non-Polish readers. It’s witty, lyrical, ironic, nostalgic, in ways that seem to me quite transparent and universal,” writes multi-award-winning translator Bill Johnston in his introduction. At a book launch at the Polish Hearth Club in London on October 8, Johnston compared notes with poet and translator George Szirtes, who introduced his translation of the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách.

This year’s premier Polish literary prize, NIKE, as well as the readers’ prize, went to Marcin Wicha for Rzeczy, których nie wyrzuciłem (Things I Haven’t Thrown Out), a poignant and original take on grief in which the author recalls the life of his recently deceased mother. Death, mixed with a healthy dose of humor and warmth, also looms large in Po trochu (Bit by Bit) by young writer and translator Weronika Gogola. This semi-autobiographical account of growing up in a small Polish village won the 2018 Conrad Award for the best prose debut of 2017. The award ceremony took place as part of the Conrad Festival, one of Poland’s major literary events, held for the tenth time in Kraków from October 22-29, with the main theme, “Pop”, covering everything from popular culture to populism.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France:

I mentioned in my August dispatch about France that autumn is a highly busy season for French literature. So busy, in fact, that it feels impossible to keep up with new releases, events, and the dozens of literary prizes that suffuse the atmosphere. These prizes are incredibly important for French authors and publishing houses alike. While most of them do not come with a fat check attached, winners usually receive huge sale boosts. On average, Goncourt winners sell at least 400,000 additional copies, Renaudot winners 200,000, and books that win the Prix Femina about 150,000.

The most internationally recognizable of these prizes is without a doubt the Goncourt. In fact, winning the Goncourt theoretically guarantees financial success within France and, often enough, a quick deal for an English translation: only two of the books who have won the Goncourt in the past twenty years have not been published in English. This year’s winner was announced on November 7: Nicolas Mathieu’s Leurs enfants après eux (Their Children After Them). The book delivers a portrait of eastern France during the 90s, moving from nostalgic reminiscence of the main character’s teenage years to a sobering portrait of the region’s rural poor.

The Goncourt’s prestige is rivaled by two other prizes during this cycle: the Renaudot and the Prix Femina, which announced their winners on November 7 and 5, respectively. The Renaudot was given to Valérie Manteau for Le Sillon (“The Groove”), a book that follows the intertwined stories of a French woman who moves to Istanbul and an assassinated Armenian journalist. This decision sparked a second wave of controversy surrounding the Renaudot, as Manteau’s book was longlisted, but not shortlisted, for the prize. The first of such controversies happened back in September, when the Renaudot longlisted a book published exclusively on Amazon and bookshops all over France threatened to boycott the prize. The Femina, on the other hand, went to Philippe Lançon for Le Lambeau (“The Flap”), the story of a journalist who survived the Charlie Hebdo attacks and his struggle to rebuild his life.

Paul M. Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-At-Large, reporting from Mexico and Guatemala:

On November 15, Yucatec Maya writer Sol Ceh Moo traveled to the United States to give a talk at Texas State University entitled “Dignity, Identity, and Human Rights of Indigenous Women in Mexico in the 21st Century.” The topic intersected with one of the most prominent topics in Ceh Moo’s work, namely the discrimination that young Maya women experience within the context of their communities, and more broadly within contemporary Mexico.

On November 6, Guatemala’s Ediciones La Maleta Ilegal released the recordings of its June 9 WhatsApp poetry reading on SoundCloud. As stated in the release, the project seeks to leverage social media’s potential to facilitate intercultural exchange. Poets participating in the project include Manuel Tzoc, Michelle Echeverría, Tanie Hernández, Marco Valerio Reyes Cifuentes, and Marcos Gutierrez, all from Guatemala, as well as Rodrigo Arenas-Carter and Gabriel Ignacio, who are from Chile.

Latin American Literature Today released a new dossier of indigenous poetry in translation entitled “Four Mesoamerican Poets” on November 2. With an introduction by translator Paul M. Worley, the dossier includes works by (Totonac) Manuel Espinosa Sainos, (Tsotsil) Ruperta Bautusta Vázquez, (Tseltal) Adriana López, and (K’iche’) Manuel Tzoc who was coincidentally recently profiled in a Remezcla article as one of ten Central American poets people should be reading right now.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: