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.

Romanian women writers are also active and visible abroad. Poet, writer, and art critic Magda Cârneci was recently interviewed for the journal Le Matricule des Anges about her novel FEM; in Italy, cross-disciplinary literary critic Roxana Patraș launched a book in English on Literature and Political Eloquence in 19th-century Romania; and London-based Romanian poet Simona Nastac was invited to present her work Polyphonicin collaboration with visual artist Raluca Popa and nine other Romanian poets—at Scotland’s international poetry festival StAnza. 

Chloe Lim, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from Singapore

2019 is off to a roaring start in Singapore, with new releases and literary events dotting the country’s literary scene these past months. This year is also a particularly unique one as it marks the bicentennial or two hundred years after the ‘founding’ of Singapore by British colonisers. A committee has been founded by the government to highlight Singapore’s seven hundred year history, as well as modern Singapore’s beginnings in 1819.

In literary news, earlier in January, poets Jason Wee and Cyril Wong read from their newly released collections. Wee’s An Epic of Durable Departures is unique in its use of the renga and haiku forms as points of departure, before moving into a mythical world, attempting to stand testament to friendship in the face of mortality and illness. Wong’s Oneiros, on the other hand, marks the prolific poet’s eighth collection. Depicting dream-like states, Wong contends with lost parents and yearned-for cityscapes, while ellipses, missing titles, and the absence of an introduction or contents page suggest erasure and a subversion of expectations toying and interacting with simultaneously revealing material.

Just before the dawn of 2019, electronic literary journal OFZOOS also produced new material with the release of its Issue 7.1, ‘Rough Material’. Crafted to ‘question the very notion of the finished’, the issue featured collaborative works where one poet began a piece, and the other re-drafted, completed, and commented on the original. Presenting both the initial ‘draft’ and its ‘completed’ form side by side, the issue offers commentary on the act of artistic collaboration, in an experimental formal extension of the creative process.

At the same time, poetry took centre-stage at the Global Migrant Festival in December 2018. Alongside panel discussions, film screenings, and crafts activities, the Festival featured finalists from the 2018 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition as well as the Poetry Competition in Refugee Camps in Kenya. The Festival’s success this year, attracting more Singaporeans than foreigners for the first time, was particularly significant as the migrant worker community is by-and-large considered a marginal and isolated community in Singapore, despite increasing activism for migrant workers’ rights. The use of theatre and poetry, in particular, provided a humanising perspective to individuals that Singaporeans often dismiss. At the same time, the Festival reminded attendees of the economic and political circumstances surrounding global migration, and the heterogeneity of participants and poets was testament to this, with winning poets from both competitions hailing from six different countries. The Global Migrant Festival will take place again in 2020.

Evidently, even as a national narrative-making project is underway with the Bicentennial, other narratives are drafted, completed, made and unmade, in Singapore’s many creative worlds. Perhaps as we enter this landmark year, it would be best to not only consider centralised narratives of the nation, but also the personal, experimental, and marginal.

Maria Snyder, Educational Arm Assistant, reporting from the USA

One of things I appreciate about translated literature is the way it can transport us beyond the usual centers of power and influence and into the wider world. Fascinating ideas and powerful narratives can take shape on any continent, in any place, from a backwater to a capital. It’s surprising how much the concentration of publishing and media in a few global centers continues to reinforce the false notion that wealth creates culture. In fact, we don’t need New York or Paris to tell us what and where art is. As I’ve discovered since moving to the heart of the American Midwest, art can even thrive in the middle of the prairie.

Iowa City, home to the annual Iowa City Book Festival and one of the UNESCO Cities of Literature, offers a surprisingly warm welcome to writers and books from around the world. Now, if you haven’t visited Iowa City, don’t be frightened off. What it lacks in skyscrapers and expensive restaurants, it makes up for in literary landmarks. During the Festival, you can take a walking tour, as I did, past the places where Rita Dove, Marilynne Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor—and many writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—lived and worked during their time in the city. It’s enough to make you skeptical of claims that writers’ workshops make all the participants sound the same. And of course, literature from the past and present share the stage at the festival: each year, during a week in October, there are book signings, book discussion panels, and book-related movies at the local arthouse movie theater, among other events.

The Festival takes place over the course of seven days, but I came for its final, rainy weekend in October of last year. I spent hours in Prairie Lights bookstore, where several readings took place (and yes, there’s also a bookstore café that serves the best coffee in the state), as well as the newly-renovated downtown space called MERGE, which hosted a book fair along with readings and panels. Since small presses and literary journals are some of the best places to find literature in translation, I spent time hovering around the book tables. You could purchase novels by featured festival writers, including Dina Nayeri and Wayétu Moore, or pick up a pocketful of literature for free from a print-on-demand kiosk which lets you choose a text whose reading will take one, three, or five minutes.

But the most exciting part of the book festival is the presence of writers—dramatists, poets, novelists, and translators—from all across the globe. Thanks in large part to the International Writing Program under the direction of poet Christopher Merrill, the University of Iowa each year plays host to writers from Algeria, Botswana, Iraq, Myanmar and many other countries whose artists don’t otherwise benefit from subsidies or book advances in order to travel abroad. These are the kinds of writers who don’t get usually get book tours and space on the best-seller tables in the US, so when some of them appear at the Festival, it’s a rare opportunity for readers. I’ll admit that they’re the main reason I go. In previous years, I’ve seen an award-winning Chinese-Portuguese translator from Macau, who revealed to me a current of literary exchange I could never have discovered on my own. I’ve heard the opinions of a Russian editor who, as a poet, strove to write poetry that would be “untranslatable” as well as mind-bending. And this year, my highlight was a panel on writers and the sense of place.

Another advantage of encountering writers from beyond the English-speaking world is that they don’t always share the same set of clichés about writers and writing, so they can give the usual Q&A sessions a good shaking up. This panel included the Pakistani playwright Usman Ali and the Kurdish poet Bejan Matur. Of course, it was refreshing to hear Usman Ali begin his response to the question, “What does your writing space look like?” by saying that he’d never been asked that before. Even better was his response, in which he explained that his conception of “physical theater” required getting up from his writing desk and working up a sweat—maybe by jumping rope or kicking around a soccer ball—in order to feel his characters’ emotions. As a writer who presents society’s most despised and misunderstood members in his work, Ali seems to carry his figures inside himself, and they don’t make his life easy. Bejan Matur, on the other hand, expressed less interest in the physical and concrete landscape. Instead, she described her fascination with the metaphysical and spiritual realms in her poetry, and her inner landscape included the past worlds inhabited by the poets she read. Surely the biggest literary star from overseas was Sjón, an Icelandic novelist and sometime lyricist for Björk. Now that Icelandic mysteries (and Nordic thrillers in general) have become common, you might imagine that the Icelandic writer had long pursued an ambition to be as famous as Henning Mankell or Arnaldur Indriðason. Far from it! Sjón began as a teenage poet and has long written for an Icelandic audience; as a young man, he couldn’t expect the world to be interested in the literary traditions of such a small island.

Maybe Iowa City is a little island of literary traditions, in its own way. It’s not glamorous, it’s a bit wind-swept, and during the winter months, it’s pretty forbidding. But maybe that’s just the reason so many writers have been content to spend a while here, and why its most important festival isn’t a beer-soaked party, but instead an invitation to settle down with a good book.


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