Monthly Archives: February 2019

An Alternative Valentine’s Day Reading List

St Valentine is the patron saint not only of lovers, but also of beekeepers, greetings, epilepsy, travelers, and the plague.

If Valentine’s Day doesn’t get your heart racing, Asymptote has something different to offer this February 14. Read on for sinister mansions, absent wives, and the ambivalent origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love!

This Valentine’s Day, consider instead the often terrible odds that romantic endeavours will succeed, the relationships that end mysteriously, and the partners that vanish without a trace. This is exactly what happens in Taiwanese author Wang Ting-Kuo’s English debut, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (Granta Books, April 2019), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun. First published in 2015, the novel has already won all major Taiwanese literary awards and is set to make a spectacular entrance into the English literary scene.

The novel is a first-person retrospective narrative by an unnamed protagonist who has set up a small cafe by the sea, waiting for his missing wife, Qiuzi, to return to this spot, her favourite along the coast. The initial premise is simple: Qiuzi, dissatisfied with the narrator’s absence, his financial lack, and his unintentional neglect of her, disappears one morning into the arms of Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and Qiuzi’s photography tutor. The unnamed protagonist’s narration is then triggered by Luo’s chancing upon the cafe, setting in motion an encounter that drives Luo mad. As the story unfolds, however, the truth of the matter becomes increasingly less certain, complicated also by the appearance of Miss Baixiu, Luo’s daughter, who haunts the cafe daily in an attempt to ‘heal’ the protagonist’s soul. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Bradshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius by Ričardas Gavelis

It goes without saying that among the general company there was a dissected frog trumpeting the end of the world.

This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Elizabeth Novickas render Ričardas Gavelis’ hallucinogenic modernism at its most intense and challenging. In this short extract, we follow the stray dogs, rubbish-tip flies, and neighbourhood drunks of Vilnius as the everydayness of their actions is transformed into something altogether stranger. 

The most important musical happening in Vilnius—and therefore the Universe—is the brilliant concert of the flies over Karoliniškės’ garbage containers. It is considerably deeper and metaphysically purer than Tarasov’s famous fly-sound installation. It’s a true live concert brimming with improvisation; its sounds determine the movement of the stars, the smells of Vilnius’s streets, and Vilniutians’ sexual mores.

Those flies buzzing above the new gray containers are numberless, but only a complete idiot would say they’re identical, or more or less identical. If that was all they were, they certainly wouldn’t determine either the movement of the stars or Vilniutians’ sexual moods. Those flies are much more varied than humans: from the tiny Drosphila to the impressive horse shit fly. When Apples Petriukas went looking for the meaning of life in the garbage dumps, he counted one thousand seven hundred thirteen varieties of flies. I go up to Korals’ reeking garbage containers and simply wave to that surreal orchestra with my hand—I don’t even need a baton. The domain of the flies greets me with a majestic fortissimo, in which individual musical themes diverge only later: humming, whining, buzzing, as well as all the other fly sounds. But this is merely the beginning of the beginning—the buzzings will out-buzz one another; primary and secondary motifs will be born, as well as fly self-disclosures and leaps into infinity toward the Absolute of the flies. And on top of all of that, you need to add the smell! Only the concerto grosso of Vilnius’s flies synthesizes a flawless musical sound and an artistic smell. The reek of that concert is simply unmatched—almost as amazing as that of my attire.

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Blocages and Barricades: Les Miserables and French Dissatisfaction

Revolution by revolution, France inches forward in search of its ideal of a just society, and every revolution thinks it will be the last.

France’s revolutionary past and future come together in Claire Jacobson’s reflections on the gilets jaunes movement and its connections to Victor Hugo’s famous revolutionaries in Les Miserables. Read on for Kylian Mbappé, Édouard Louis, and Emmanuel Macron. Vive la Révolution!

Marius and Enjolras didn’t wear yellow vests to the barricade on rue de la Chanvrerie, at least not as Victor Hugo tells it. But after watching a group of gilets jaunes attack three police officers on the Champs-Élysées on BFMTV the weekend before Christmas, the comparison suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched.

I was in Paris with friends to see the PSG-Nantes game that evening, enjoying Turkish kebab in Boulogne-Billancourt and then cheerfully singing “joyeux anniversaire” to World Cup hero Kylian Mbappé with a stadium full of his adoring fans, and we didn’t hear the news from the Champs-Élysées until the next morning. It seemed inconceivable that such a thing could be happening scarcely five kilometers away while we chanted “ici c’est Paris!” and picked apart Paris Saint-Germain’s defensive strategy from the nosebleeds. Inconceivable, and yet it made a strange kind of sense; what the gilets jaunes lost in numbers each week, they seemed to make up in desperation and increasing anger worthy of the most vehement nineteenth-century revolutionaries.

I was thirteen when I first heard Les Misérables all the way through, listening to my parents’ Original Broadway Cast Album cassette tape in the car over and over as we moved from Seattle to Iowa City. We saw the touring cast perform in Madison a few years later, and went to see the movie as a family when it came out on Christmas. So when I picked up the book at the end of November, I read with the gilets jaunes watching over my shoulder and the musical whispering in my ear.

Knowing the musical backwards and forwards has actually helped me while reading, keeping the greater narrative arc in view despite frequent digressions analyzing corrupt church leadership, all of the potential reasons Napoleon lost at Waterloo, or the value of monasticism to society. The unabridged French edition is 1,254 pages, which I read alongside the Fahnestock and MacAfee translation, an update of Charles Wilbour’s 1862 original. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Catch up with the latest from our very international staff!

Curious about what our team has been up to in 2019? Read about our staff’s many achievements in the new year, including publications, art exhibitions, and reviews. 

Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han received a distinguished mention in The Best American Short Stories 2018 for a story of hers originally published in StoryQuarterly.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow’s latest book, Appetites, was reviewed on The Blunt Post by Linda Rijel.

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An Interview with Asja Bakić

It seems to me that people today tend to underestimate Eros in literature when it’s obvious that the best books are full of it.

Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.

Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?

Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.

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Translation Tuesday: “Shchepliak” by Zigmunt Leyb

The long gray years are stifling his marrow, devouring him piecemeal, chilling his blood.

From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.

Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.

Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.

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“The Will to Oblivion”: Ma Jian’s China Dream in Review

China Dream is psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it.

China Dream by Ma Jian, translated from the Mandarin by Flora Drew, Penguin Books.

The controversy over the cancellation and restoration of two public talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian by the venue provider, Tai Kwun, in last November’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, has added to the topicality of Ma Jian’s newly published translated work, China Dream. Bearing a politically sensitive title that blatantly alludes to President Xi Jinping’s project of rejuvenating the Chinese nation, his “Chinese Dream” as portrayed in the novel is quite an oddity as a translated work. The translated English version was published before the original Chinese version, which is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher; however, this is within expectations considering the sensitiveness of the subject matter. Ma Jian’s scathing critique of autocracy not only targets the national project of the present Chinese government but all forms of rigid, state-controlled policies that annihilate individual subjectivity.

China Dream is in line with the tradition of dystopian fiction in its imagination of negative government. Different from its Chinese predecessors, such as Lao She’s Cat Country, which is more akin to a Swiftian satire, or Chan Koon-chung’s The Fat Years, whose dystopian vision is embodied in the form of science fiction, China Dream is more psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it. China Dream is about the will to oblivion and subsequent self-destruction of a Chinese officer who rises to power after his betrayal of his Rightist parents in the Cultural Revolution. The narrative centers on how Ma Daode, the director of the fictional China Dream Bureau, who is simultaneously a representative of state corruption and moral guilt, falls from his prime, and kills himself in a paradoxical moment of delirium and recognition.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

In this week’s dispatches, literary highlights from Romania, Singapore, and the United States!

This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova

The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.

While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.

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