Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From doublespeak in São Paulo and migrant caravans in El Salvador to a very British dystopia, catch up on the latest in world literature!

We’re back this week with dispatches from three countries where literature and politics have been interacting in unexpected ways: Brazil, El Salvador, and the UK. In response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Central American migration to the US, and the Brexit negotiations, museums and literary communities in these countries have been producing thoughtful exhibitions, fiction, and criticism that reflect on national identity and uncertain political futures. 

Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, reporting from Brazil

It is hot and humid in Brazil, and long summer days provide opportunities for new authors and space for reflection about writing as political resistance. Early career authors have an opportunity to submit their work for the SESC Prize for Literature, which is open for submissions from January 9 through February 14, when unpublished authors can submit their manuscripts; the Record Publishing Group will release winning texts.

For Brazilian writers interested in producing their own literature beyond the traditional market, 2019 also offers new opportunities. Graphic artist Rodrigo Okuyama hosts a series of free workshops on zine-making at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. On Saturdays from January 12-26, participants can learn about format, illustration techniques, and how to marry narrative content with visual form. These workshops allow new voices to join a growing independent publishing scene in Brazil, where small collectives like PANTIM work at the intersection of literature and the visual arts.

Meanwhile, the January exhibition circuit provides space for reflection about oppression and resistance, past and present. The Moreira Salles Institute in São Paulo displays a retrospective on satirical cartoonist Millôr Fernandes through February 24. The humorist was politically active throughout Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship. His sharp, incisive critiques of hypocrisy in the dictatorial system and his play with doublespeak in political rhetoric give visitors ample opportunities to reflect seriously about resistance in present-day Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro—an open supporter of the military dictatorship—was sworn into office this January.

Neighboring Rio de Janeiro also has a program of events with similar political relevance. Artists Francisco Zorzete and Jorge Bassani, active in the experimental art collective Manga Rosa in the 1970s and 1980s, displayed their visual interpretations of poetry at the Parque das Ruínas exhibition space through January 13; the Leonardo da Vinci independent bookstore continued its schedule of literary events by welcoming samba and popular music composer Martinho da Vila to speak with journalist Tom Farias, who wrote the biography of Carolina Maria de Jesús, one of Brazil’s most important black women authors. The free event took place in the bookstore on January 22.

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador, reporting from El Salvador

This month, El Salvador celebrates the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Peace Accords, which were signed in 1992 and declared an end to the decade-long civil war. Many people fled the country during the war and have since settled elsewhere around the world. Today, El Salvador is no longer at war, but it is still not a place that many Salvadorans have returned to or would like to live in on a long-term basis. Recently, large groups of migrants from the Central American region have been traveling through Mexico in order to reach the United States, and many Salvadorans have chosen to join these migrant caravans to escape gang violence and to seek safety, health, and work in the United States. With these migrations in mind, The Ministry of Culture launched an exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology titled “Lithographic Printing: The Way of the Beast.” This exhibition, which will remain at the museum through March, features work by artist Alfredo Milían Jeréz and focuses on the use of freight trains as the main source of transportation for Salvadorans embarking on their migratory journey through Mexico. Jeréz is interested in how transportation becomes a symbol filled with urgent and significant contradictions and how the historic moments of these migratory journeys are linked by image and literary text from their departure to their destination.

The recent migrations have also sparked conversation about what makes Salvadoran literature. Mario Zetino, a lecturer at the Central American University in El Salvador, wrote a four-part series proposing a new set of “literary maps” for classifying Salvadoran literature and establishing new criteria and categories. While Salvadoran literature can be classified by its chronology from the nineteenth century and by the historical events of the country, Zetino points to a new “literary map” that defines Salvadoran literature by its geography and circumstances. In this classification, Zetino offers four categories: literature in exile, migratory literature, literature by those who left and returned, and literature written in languages other than Spanish. In this new framework, Zetino signals a change in the scope of Salvadoran literature that is no longer geographically bound to the country but extends to wherever Salvadorans may be living throughout the world.

Jonathan Egid, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the UK

After the latest series of installments in the ongoing tragicomedy that is the Brexit negotiations, one could be forgiven for thinking that the British reading public would want to leave far behind grim political forecasting and an atmosphere of lingering xenophobia. And yet on the very same day as Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected by a historic majority, Faber & Faber published John Lanchester’s frighteningly plausible dystopian novel The Wall, a work that sketches a bleak vision of Britain in the not-too-distant future surrounded by a colossal concrete wall—the “National Coastal Defence Structure”—which replaces the pesky beaches and cliffs of the British coastline. The youth of Britain are conscripted to two years of national service patrolling a stretch of the wall, keeping watch for the dreaded “Others” arriving by boat.

Fortunately, there is life away from Brexit, and mid-January is the first of literary London’s many prize seasons, featuring the Costa Book Awards and the T.S. Eliot Prize, both of which recognized young female writers this year. The Costa Novel Award went to Sally Rooney for her deeply felt and expertly paced sophomore novel Normal People, a love story that has been selling out in bookshops across the country and resonating deeply with younger generations of readers, as well as spawning a cottage industry of cringeworthy appellations for its author from the mainstream press along the way (the most egregious being perhaps “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”). But whilst Rooney is fast becoming a household name, very few can truthfully claim familiarity with Hannah Sullivan’s work prior to her collection Three Poems, the work that made her just the third debut poet to win the T.S. Eliot Prize. Sullivan’s formally masterful meditations on love, death, life and art were greeted with gleeful surprise even by the chair of judges, former winner Sinéad Morrisey: “A star is born. Where has she come from? . . . She has just arrived, and it is breathtaking.”

Moving on to translated literature, Pushkin Press begins 2019 with the paperback release of Francoise Frenkel’s heartbreaking memoirs at the end of this month. Translated by Stephanie Smee, No Place to Lay One’s Head is the rediscovered memoir of one of the truest bibliophiles of the twentieth century, Jewish bookseller Françoise Frenkel. Frenkel established the first dedicated French-language bookshop in Berlin before being forced to flee Germany for France in 1939, beginning the nightmarish odyssey of escape, concealment and uncertainty that makes up these deeply affecting recollections. First printed in 1945, the text itself was rediscovered only recently in a car boot sale, and was republished in the original French seventy years after its initial publication. Last year’s English translation is now on the shortlist for the JQ Wingate Literary Prize, an annual accolade awarded to outstanding books which “translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader.” Also on the shortlist are Lisa Halliday’s acclaimed Asymmetry, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, and Raphael Jerusalmy’s Evacuation (translated by Penny Hueston). The winner of the prize will be announced on February 25.

January 24 also saw the third iteration of a worthy initiative from the PEN Modern Literature Festival, in which UK-based writers present new works in tribute to a writer from the Writers at Risk program. The program—formerly the Writers in Prison Committee—is an almost sixty-years-long campaign against the persecution, intimidation, and harassment of writers around the world. As well as supporting the program’s vital work, one feels that highlighting the plight of writers living under censorious and oppressive regimes might serve to remind Western writers of what could be at stake if political freedoms are not defended at home. This year’s event was held in collaboration with the Writers’ Centre Kingston, and videos from previous years’ events can be viewed here.

On a more light-hearted note, PEN will also be running an intriguing event on Young Adult Literature in Russian on the January 31, featuring Russian publishers Ekaterina Kashirskaya, Satenik Anastasian, Denis Beznosov, and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones.



Read more weekly dispatches from the Asymptote blog: