Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

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This week, join our wonderful Asymptote staff members, Barbara, Rachael, and Nina, as they bring you literary updates from Albania, Spain, and the United States. From prestigious national literary awards to new and noteworthy titles and translations, there is plenty to discover in this week’s dispatches. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania, reporting from Albania:

December was a productive month for Albanian publishers, a natural result of the conclusion of the Tirana Book Fair and the expected increase in book sales that marks the holiday period. On December 18, 2018, the Albanian Ministry of Culture conferred the National Award for Literature for the best books published in 2017. Henrik Spiro Gjoka won the “Best Novel” award for his work Sonatë për gruan e një tjetri (A Sonnet for Another Man’s Wife), which details the life of a psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his patients. Translator Aida Baro won the “Best Translated Novel” award for her rendition into Albanian of Primo Levi’s The Truce (translated into English by Stuart J. Woolf), the continuation of Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man.

December and November also saw the publication of a number of highly anticipated books. Vera Bekteshi published Vila me tri porta (The House with Three Doors), an autobiographical account of her family’s life under the rule of Communist leader Enver Hoxha and their subsequent banishment to one of the many internment camps built all over Albania to imprison “enemies” of the state. Politician and lawyer Spartak Ngjela published Hakmarrja e një Gruaje (A Woman’s Revenge), a novel which tackles the pervasive, and yet unspoken, assault and rape of many women by powerful men during the Communist regime.

2018 also marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero, commemorated even by the Vatican, where Pope Francis held a special celebration with a group of Albanian “pilgrims.” In honor of this anniversary, the publishing house Milosao will release a novel in verse entitled Kastriotët: A Trilogy of the Brave by Mark Ndoja, detailing the life not only of Skanderbeg, but of his entire family. Ndoja wrote the book between 1961 and 1964, when he was interned on the island of Zvernec. His dying wish was for this work, standing at 9000 lines, to be published only in 2018, his tribute to the life of Skanderbeg.

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:

Anyone familiar with the American publishing industry may have noticed two key trends in 2018: readers’ increasing preference for nonfiction over fiction, and their growing interest in writers who identify as women and/or people of color. Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir about growing up without any formal education, spent most of the year on the New York Times Bestseller List; Robin DiAngelo’s timely White Fragility was one of the year’s most-discussed books. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings (and Trumpism in general) also seem to have generated a larger-than-normal appetite for books about women in politics: in 2018, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the subject of a 700+ page biography, a documentary, and a biopic, while Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming has topped the bestseller list since its release in November. Obama received such an enthusiastic response that she expanded her initial book tour, and her lineup for the next few months now includes cities in the US, Canada, and several European countries.

Looking to 2019, some of this winter’s most-anticipated books include Megan McDowell’s English translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, Marlon James’ novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and Kristen Roupenian’s short story collection You Know You Want This. Readers in New York may be interested in attending Roupenian’s book launch and signing at the Strand on January 14 or James’ reading in Brooklyn in early February.

Later this month, PEN America will announce the finalists for its 2019 PEN America Literary Awards, which will be granted in February. Notably, women make up the majority of the longlist nominees, even in categories in which they are traditionally underrepresented. Two Asymptote Book Club titles were nominated for the PEN Translation Prize: Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation of Trick by Domenico Starnone, and Martin Aitken’s translation of Love by Hanne Ørstavik. In addition to interviewing Lahiri and Aitken, Asymptote editors have spoken with several other PEN nominees, including Sara Khalili, translator of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow, and Emma Ramadan, translator of The Shutters by Ahmed Bouanani.

Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from Spain

The end of a year and the start of another would not be complete without one, or several, lists of books. In the midst of bestsellers in 2018 and the top books to give as Christmas gifts, one series I was pleasantly surprised to see published by the newspaper El País was 2018’s top ten African novels translated into Spanish. Spanish readers now have access to works representing a vast literature by many authors who, with roots in the continent, are now part of its scattered diaspora. One notable title is El Castigo (The Punishment), an autobiographical work by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose novel The Happy Marriage was reviewed by Rosie Clarke in our Winter 2016 edition. The award-winning South African poet Koleka Putuma also made the cut with her anthology Collective Amnesia, a profound exploration of what it means to be black and a woman. Of particular note is the special mention given to the translators and the fantastic works they have produced.

Moving on to a translator renowned for his translations into the Catalan of some of the greatest names in the literary canon: last week, Ramon Folch i Camarasa passed away, leaving behind a vast legacy of over one hundred novels and translations. It was in 1959 that he began his career as a translator, with the debut of The Diary of Anne Frank in Catalan. As censorship in Spain lost its hold, he flourished in his newfound position and began translating from the English, the French, the Italian and the Spanish. Some of his best-known works include the Catalan versions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and various works by Graham Greene, to name but a few. In 2006, Folch i Camarasa was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in recognition of his vast contribution to literary translation.

We’ll end this roundup in Folch i Camarasa’s birthplace, Barcelona, which on January 6 saw the seventy-fifth edition of the festive Premio Nadal de Novela award—one of the most prestigious and long-lived awards in Spanish literature. For only the fourth time in the award’s long history, a Latin American author took home the prize. Argentine writer Guillermo Martínez was praised for elevating the dimensions of the mystery novel with Los crímenes de Alicia (The Crimes of Alice)—the sequel to his novel Los crímenes de Oxford, which was adapted for the big screen in 2008 by director Álex de la Iglesia as The Oxford Murders.


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