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.”
In times of transition, and with the approach of a new year, contemplating the mundane often leads us to thoughts of the sublime. Is it possible to achieve? Worth it? Hajime’s journey is simultaneously thought-provoking and masterfully told.
One of the last fictional works I will read this year ironically circles back round to where I began. Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary landed itself in my reading list by appearing at eye-level in a public lending library. Madame Bovary, like Hajime, is troubled by aspirations for the better, for sentimental possibilities and lofty romantic ideals, while saddled with unsatisfying circumstances. Reading Bovary today, however, is particularly striking. Emma Bovary continuously laments the lack of choice she faces and the lack of ability she has to make a life she loves for herself. While part of this is to do with her frivolity, her being a woman blocks her path and limits her options at every turn. The highly realistic representation of internal life by Flaubert makes Emma so thoroughly relatable that her story remains intriguing and topical today as feminism is challenged by the likes of incels, and misogyny-driven murders still regularly occur.
Difficult news and existential meditations aside, there has been time for academic work too. This year, I wrote extensively on the Caribbean, particularly on the representation of inter-generational trauma in the novels of Edwidge Danticat (I particularly recommend The Art of Death and The Farming of Bones) and Junot Diaz. The latter got involved in a #MeToo scandal while I wrote my paper, prompting this essay, and ridding me of any ideas that academic study can be performed in isolation, detached from the “real world.” Instead, the history that I learnt about the Hispaniola, and the very real effects that that history has on Haiti and the Dominican Republic today, combined with the #MeToo movement, have proved again the potential of literary study to be extremely current, to reflect on and reshape existing narratives. At the same time, multi-lingual writing from the Caribbean diaspora has marked this year’s treasures. In particular, the Old Norse leanings of Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear and the Spanish of Loretta Collins Klobah’s Ricantations stand out as volumes of poetry that refuse a specific language or cultural source. To read more cross-cultural, diasporic work is a new resolution that I will be bringing into 2019.
July 2018 also marked my joining the wonderful team here at Asymptote—a more dedicated and capable crew is surely hard to find. I’ve learnt a lot about translated literature from Asymptote and working on the blog has brought more translated work into my reading diet. Barbara’s writing for Asymptote led to my reading of Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone, a book with a fascinating translation history (its first publication in English did not feature translator Arshi Pipa’s name, after a dispute with Kadare). The fairy-tale-like story, told largely from the perspective of a child narrator, loosely based on Kadare’s own life, is set in the stone city of Gjirokastër. The absurdities of war, told from a child’s perspective, are both startling and surreal, coupled with Kadare’s depictions of bomber planes in a makeshift airfield where cows used to graze, and the accelerating alternation of leadership between the Greeks and Italians over Gjirokastër. It is a book like this that reminds me how useful Asymptote is in its diverse coverage of work from all around the world, I now am determined to pick up more Albanian literature, for example! There are only so many homes we can be familiar with, but allowing others to introduce their homes to us makes the world seem so much bigger.
Speaking of homes, I found myself at home in another book I read this year, Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle. Translated by Darryl Sterk, Wu’s book is one I chose as part of my attempts to read more Asian literature. Despite growing up in Singapore, a culturally stubborn colonial hangover meant I read more about countryside homes in Enid Blyton books than I did about kampungs and/or the city I grew up in. Wu’s passages describing the Southeast Asian jungle and cycling down the Malayan peninsula gave me a welcome home of another sort—a recognition of the cadences of humid air and tropical wildlife that I was now seeing with new eyes. Wildly vivid depictions of elephants and butterflies aside, The Stolen Bicycle also paints a family drama that I think many East Asian (and people of East Asian heritage) would relate to. Cheng’s search for his missing father and his father’s bicycle is at once personal and deeply historical as well, bringing the reader through Taiwan’s history, as well as its links to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Darryl Sterk’s notes on translating the Taiwanese and maintaining the aural qualities of the multi-lingual original are particularly notable too, making the work my final recommendation this year.
2019 is nearly here, and I’m looking forward to providing Asymptote readers even more quality content on translated literature. I hope you will join us in the new year, but for now, happy holidays!
Chloe Lim is a recent graduate from the University of Oxford, where she obtained her BA and MSt. She is now a student teacher preparing to teach English and English Literature in Singapore.
Read more essays on the Asymptote blog: