Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

New Guatemalan publications, a feminist conference, as well as awards in translation feature in this week's literary updates!

This week brings notable translations of up-and-coming Guatemalan authors, an insightful conversation between two Nigerian writers, and the announcement of highly-regarded translation prizes in the UK. If you’ve been searching for exciting new writers and translators, look no further!

José García Escobar, Editor-at-Large for Guatemala, reporting from Guatemala

In early December, Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP) put out No Budu Please, a selection of poems by the Guatemalan and Garifuna author Wingston González, translated by the Puerto Rican poet Urayoán Noel. No Budu, which has been favorably reviewed by Columbia Journal, Verse, and PANK, marks the first time Wingston’s work has been published in the United States. Additionally, Wingston’s book place of comfort has been incorporated into artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s performance and installation Heart of the Scarecrow, which will be on exhibit through March 9 at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Across the pond, independent publishing house Charco Press is bringing another Guatemalan author into the English language. Celebrated short story writer Rodrigo Fuentes published a collection called Trucha panza arriba in Guatemala in 2017. Since then, the book has been reissued in Bolivia by Editorial El Cuervo and in Colombia by Laguna Libros. Trucha was even longlisted for the Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez. And as of February 7, thanks to researcher and translator Ellen Jones, Trucha is now available in English as Trout, Belly Up. You can read one of the stories from the collection in our Winter 2019 issue.

Finally, on the last day of 2018, one of Guatemala’s most celebrated sociologists, Edelberto Torres-Rivas, passed away at the age of eighty-eight. Born in 1930, Edelberto wrote extensively about political science, social structures, and the search for democracy in Guatemala. He is regarded as one of the leading thinkers and sociologists of Latin America.

Olufunke Ogundimu, Editor-at-Large for Nigeria, reporting from the USA

At the 44th Annual Scholar and Feminist Conference at Barnard College in New York City, Nigerian novelists Akwaeke Emezi and Chinelo Okparanta tackled the role of spirituality, culture, and motherhood in their critically acclaimed books Freshwater and Under the Udala Trees, respectively. In conversation with literary critic Yvette Christiansë, the women used their novels as a lens to explore the event’s theme: “I Preferred the World of Imagination to the Death of Sleep.”

Both writers are Igbo women, and their ethnic heritage plays a prominent role in their novels. The books are grounded in Igbo cosmology, traditions, and language: Emezi’s Freshwater is a semi-autobiographical novel about an Ogbanje (a child who dies and is reborn repeatedly to the same parents) with multiple identities, while the title of Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees refers to a spirit that resides in Udala trees and makes women fertile. When both authors were asked why they chose not to exoticize Igbo words by italicizing them, Okparanta responded emphatically: “. . . To upset gatekeepers!”

Speaking further on the topic of exoticism, Okparanta admitted that her book—with its cover featuring a tree—might seem to conform to the stereotype of book covers by African writers. But Okparanta said she stuck with the tree as her book cover in order to reclaim the power of that narrative, just as her female characters subvert traditional norms of fertility. In response to Christiansë’s question about reconciling the Western perception of their books, either in part or entirely, as folklore rather than reality, Emezi said, “they don’t care,” and then referenced a famous Toni Morrison quote: “It is inconceivable that where I already am is the mainstream.” Both writers also used Malidoma Patrice Somé’s novel Of Water and Spirit, which reveals the effects of Western values and colonialism on traditional Burkina Faso society, to expound on the erasure of African cultures and realities by colonialism. And when Emezi (whose preferred pronouns are “they” and “them”) shared a poignant quote from Somé, the audience snapped their fingers in acknowledgement.

Throughout the event, both writers explored the definitions of reality, its limits, and its subjectivity. Realities don’t have to cancel each other out, Emezi said. Of the reality that shaped their writing of Freshwater, which they do not view as a metaphor for mental illness, Emezi added, “I chose a center and I’m not moving.”

Christiansë pointed out the orality evident in both works, the power of their rhetoric. Okparanta said her novel’s orality comes from the stories her mother told her during blackouts in Nigeria, and the blending of different characters’ beliefs in both Christianity and Igbo culture. Emezi agreed with Okparanta, adding that orality is an important part of their culture. Christiansë also pointed out that neither novel fits exactly into any box: Emezi’s Freshwater, for instance, isn’t exactly “magical realism.” However, both books are unique in terms of the realities they portray and the characters they give voice to.

Marek Maj, reporting from the UK

On February 13, the British Library in London’s King Cross hosted the 2018 Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes. The ceremony was attended by dozens of translators, editors, publishers, and readers, as the prizes are a great opportunity to celebrate and promote the present-day cornucopia of English-language literary translation talent. The TA First Translation Prize went to Janet Hong and her editor Ethan Nosowsky for a translation of Korean author Han Yujoo’s terrifying novel The Impossible Fairytale (Tilted Axis Press), reviewed by Emma Holland on the Asymptote blog. Sophie Yanow won the Scott Moncrieff Prize, awarded to outstanding translations from the French, for her work on Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying (New York Review Comics)—the first time a graphic novel has won one of the awards. You can read more about Pretending is Lying on the Asymptote blog.

Gini Alhadeff, who also appeared on the debut shortlist, won the John Florio Prize for translating from the Italian Fleur Jaeggy’s short-story collection I Am the Brother of XX (And Other Stories). Recognized as one of the greatest living Swiss writers, Jaeggy is known for her simultaneously beautiful and chilling prose. The Schlegel-Tieck Prize was awarded to Tony Crawford for his translation from the German of Wonder Beyond Belief (Polity Press), a book of essays on art by Navid Kermani, while Luke Leafgren’s translation from the Arabic of Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli’s sweeping historical novel The President’s Gardens (MacLehose Press) won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize.

Another notable winner was translator Frank Perry, who received the Bernard Shaw Prize for his translation from the Swedish of debut author Lina Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (And Other Stories), a surreal novel that takes place in a Spanish brothel. Acclaimed translator Megan McDowell, who has translated Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, and many other prominent Spanish-language writers, won the Valle Inclán Prize for her work on Seeing Red (Atlantic), an autobiographical novel by Chilean author Lina Meruane.

Finally, it is worth noting that this year, for the first time, the Society of Authors published its prize shortlists before the winners were announced. The range and overall quality of the shortlisted books are quite impressive, and curious Asymptote readers can peruse and appreciate the full list here.


Read more weekly dispatches on the Asymptote blog here: