It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.
Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”
Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective. READ MORE…
Blog Copy Editor Andrea Blatz’s 2018 reading list was packed with nineteenth-century science fiction and women in translation. In today’s post, she discusses the common themes that unite many of these books, among them the experience of trauma and the role of space and place in our lives, before looking ahead to her reading list for the new year!
Like most book lovers, I buy more books than I have time to read, so my “To Read” list is usually longer than my “Already Read” list. Having so many books to choose from for my next read means I usually pick something completely different than the book I’ve just read. However, this year, it seems as though spaces have been a prominent theme in much of what I’ve read.
I started the year with The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner. After finding a book written in a mysterious script in a bookshop, the narrator begins noticing strange things around him in his home city, Prague. The result is a strange, new reality composed of spaces that are ignored in the daytime. Fish talk to you, tiny elk live on the Charles Bridge, and ghosts appear as the mysterious narrator crosses a boundary into this “other city.”
The Asymptote Book Club enters its second year with a first African title: Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago, is a moving tribute to the author’s mother, one of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide.
After visits to Turkey and Croatia in the previous two months, we again find ourselves confronting “the dark and bloody face of history” through the mirror of prose. Mukasonga’s homage to her mother, though, “radiates . . . with warmth and affection,” in the words of our reviewer. “This slim memoir,” says Alyea Canada, “is a haunted and haunting love letter.”
Head to our online discussion page to add your voice to the discussion on The Barefoot Woman. All the information you need to subscribe for future Book Club selections is available on our Asymptote Book Club site, together with a full overview of our first twelve months.
Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.
Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.
Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.
For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.
Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa
Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.
“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.
In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists.
What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.
Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.
Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”
In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Chloe Lim shares the books that defined her year in reading. As she moved between two cities and two phases of her life, Chloe also explored literature from Albania, Taiwan, and the Caribbean diaspora—and made some reading resolutions for 2019 along the way!
2018 has been a strange transitional year. I spent half of it in Oxford, finishing a Masters degree, and the other half in Singapore. Making sense of the world, and the daily madness of news cycles, became just a bit more bewildering working from two different cities. Recently, my days have been filled by attempts to try new things, and being open to the unexpected experiences that moving can bring. My year in reading has followed that pattern: eclectic as a whole, but generous in providing new perspectives and often respite from the chaos of world politics.
A friend gave me a copy of Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun for my birthday last year, and it became one of the first books I read this year. A slim novel in and of itself, it’s breathtaking in its pacing, and filled with Murakami’s trademark haunting prose. Arguably a great read for the winter months, Shimamoto’s melancholy, grief, and terrible loneliness are coupled with an ennui she compares to the illness hysteria siberiana. Picturing herself as a Siberian farmer, she explains:
“Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You throw your plough aside and, your head completely empty of thought, you begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun.”
Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.
Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.
High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.
The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.
In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta reflects on the many books that accompanied her during a year abroad in Brazil, ranging from classic Japanese novels to contemporary fiction in translation.
Early in 2018, as I was preparing to move to Brazil, I picked up a faded old book from my parents’ bookshelf. Junichirō Tanizaki’s classic novel The Makioka Sisters, originally published in serial form in the mid-1940s, follows four sisters, two of whom are in need of husbands, as they navigate their own altered fortune and the clash between tradition and modernity in inter-war Japan. There’s nothing I love more than a really long novel, and this one, for me, was an ideal blend of familiar (the Jane Austen-style plot) and different (the specifics of Japanese society in that era, which I knew little about). In hindsight, it was probably my favorite of all the books I read this year.
As soon as I finished The Makioka Sisters, I started The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (who, notably, was shortlisted for Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award this year). Though the two novels were written nearly a half-century apart and have little in common, I enjoyed reading them back-to-back, especially since one of Murakami’s characters, who would have been a contemporary of the Makioka sisters, tells war stories from his time in the Japanese army during World War II.
As my trip to Brazil drew nearer, I rushed through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, fortunately for my suitcase, managed to finish it just before I had to leave for the airport. Once at my gate, I got started on Charles Dickens’ massive Bleak House, which I had tried—and failed—to read once before. I promised myself that I would finish it this time, no matter how long it took. And so I spent the next two months carrying Bleak House around the streets of Curitiba, Brazil, reading it on the sunny couch in my apartment, and occasionally using it as a yoga block (it was about the right size).
Aree Manosuthikit’s translation of this short story by renowned Thai writer Wanich Jarungkitanand takes us to the urban slums of Bangkok, where a university student falls in love with a young woman who lives in his neighborhood. A poignant commentary on the social ills facing contemporary Thai society, “We Both Live Here . . . in the Same Soi” is one of Jarungkitanand’s best-known stories.
My house is in a soi (a narrow street branching off a main road). It’s like a thousand other cramped and congested sois in Bangkok’s Thonburi district. Since I have no time to mingle or make friends with anyone, I know only two people in this soi: the lady owner of a coffee shop and another from a small restaurant I frequent. We’re just acquaintances. Though I know them both by name, I don’t see why they should know mine or why I should bother to identify myself.
This soi is like all other sois, harboring boisterous gangsters and delinquents. They sit idly around in the coffee shop waiting for the weekend to come. Then they scoot over to the racecourse, come back flat broke at sunset, cry like babies over the money they’ve just squandered, and then plot a way to get it back in the darkness of the night.
This soi is a safe zone for drug pushers and addicts who abuse all sorts of illicit substances, from painkillers and marijuana to opium and solvents. It’s also a haven for all classes of thieves, from bandits-in-chief to rookies and the whole gamut in between. Frequenting this coffee shop has given me the idea that if I wanted to get involved in illegal activities, I could be an agent for the experienced criminals infesting this soi who steal cars, burglarize, brawl, rob, and murder. Once I witnessed two nonlocal gangsters getting beaten to a pulp right in front of the coffee shop.
Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press
Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.
Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.
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“I felt myself in translation all the time.”
Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James sits down via Google Hangouts with poet and translator Aaron Coleman in this third and final installment of interviews inspired by John Keene’s essay Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness. In October’s conversation with Keene and our previous podcast with Lawrence Schimel, we explored the more radical social possibilities of translation. Our discussion continues with Coleman, a Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the 2017 Philip K. Jansen Memorial Fellowship, awarded to outstanding translators of color. He joins us to talk about his studies in international Blacknesses, interpreting on the red carpet at the MTV Music Awards in Madrid, and playing basketball in Extremadura. Tune in for this and much, much more!
This week, we remember a prolific Catalan novelist and celebrate the achievements—including prizes, publications and a Ph.D.—of Indigenous writers from Mexico, Colombia and Australia.
Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Australia
In October, Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow announced that their fortieth issue would be produced entirely by a First Nations collective of writers, artists, editors, academics, and activists. The cover and contributors for the issue, which was titled Blak Brow, were revealed in late November. The issue launched on Wednesday, December 12th, at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne, and is also now available to be ordered.
To mark the anniversary of the Asymptote Book Club, we’re delighted to be publishing our first author-translator interview. Ivana Bodrožić, author of The Hotel Tito, speaks to her English translator, Ellen Elias-Bursać, about the events that led to her debut novel, the book’s initial reception in Croatia and Serbia, and how she went from being “everybody’s sweetheart” to being attacked by nationalist critics.
In a conversation that gets to the heart of the novel, Ivana Bodrožić reveals which scene was most difficult to convey on the page, and explains why she needed a police guard for her book-signing in Belgrade.
Ellen Elias-Bursać (EEB): What started you writing The Hotel Tito?
Ivana Bodrožić (IB): Ever since I first learned how to write I have been writing down anything that seemed important, the things that formed me and my world; in my pre-teen years it was wise sayings, when the war was raging around us I copied out the lyrics of Nirvana and R.E.M songs, I kept a diary. Then I tried my hand at writing my own poetry: when I was sixteen I’d shut myself in my room and by the light of a candle, with a little bottle of vodka, I’d imagine I was Yesenin—until my mother knocked at the door. Writing was always something important for me and a little exalted; I see this now as an attempt at interrogating the world around me. When I came to understand, as an adult, that my childhood had been out of the ordinary, I began to think that in time I’d forget, as people do, all that had made my life what it was, what made my world and me as I am today. That is when I began jotting down fragments of memories and after I’d written out some forty pages I realized I was writing prose that said something, to me. That was the point when I realized I needed a protagonist through whose eyes and heart I’d narrate this piece of my life and the life of my whole generation who grew up during the war. My love of reading and writing and my specific life experience quickly gave The Hotel Tito its shape.