Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

Writers from twenty different countries gathered in Bergen’s bowl of snow-capped hills, including recent Asymptote contributors Helon Habila and Dubravka Ugrešić. In her opening notes, festival director Teresa Grøtan emphasised that “This is a festival where politics meets poetry, where society meets art, and where art meets the world . . . [This] is not a place where we seek consensus. It is not a festival where we are looking for an answer.”

A festival with a clear purpose, then, although sometimes the real charm of literary festivals lies not in the grand message but in the minor details: Dubravka Ugrešić twice interrupting questions from Daniel Medin to rummage through a crumpled grey and orange rucksack before locating a pair of reading glasses; Cambridge professor James E. Montgomery left temporarily speechless by a performance from Saudi poet Hissa Hilal, eventually breaking the silence with a muttered “Powerful . . .”

Encouragingly, the children’s programme was held in front of a packed audience, and most venues were filled to capacity. Cynthia Haven was among the bloggers covering the inaugural festival, “tired and hungry and footsore and jetlagged, but delighted . . .” It’s hard not to conclude that any event that can remain a delight even to the tired/hungry/footsore/jetlagged audience member has to be regarded as an emphatic success.

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large for Hungary, reporting from Budapest

The past few weeks of Hungarian literary news have been dominated by obituaries and anniversaries. The country was shaken by the loss of Dezső Tandori, a poet, prose writer, graphic artist, and translator whose work persistently resists categorisation. His oeuvre has a formal dexterity, playfulness, and attention to the non-human world that is rarely matched by other Hungarian authors. The literary community came together to celebrate Tandori’s 80th birthday in December with an unusual verve, irrespective of aesthetic programs, institutional factions, or political divisions. Waves of laudation were replaced by obituaries and recollections comparable only to those that followed the deaths of Szilárd Borbély and Péter Esterházy. Apart from a collection of selected poems published by Princeton University Press, most of Tandori’s work awaits English translation.

Szilárd Borbély died five years ago, on February 19, 2014, soon after his first novel, The Dispossessed, was published. Unlike Tandori, Borbély has been a huge success in the English-speaking world. His poetry collections Berlin Hamlet and The Dispossessed were published recently (both translated by Ottilie Mulzet)—and you can read an interview with him, excerpts of his work, and an essay about him on Asymptote’s website. In Hungary, the literary site Litera commemorated him with a series of reflections and favourite poems chosen by Hungarian authors.

On a happier note, Hungarian writers can compete for the European Union Prize for Literature this year. The prize is awarded to an author who is no longer an emerging voice, but has yet to receive wide recognition. A shortlist will be drawn up by March 28, and the winning candidate will be announced on April 15. The awards ceremony will take place in September, in Brussels. Previous Hungarian winners include Edina Szvoren in 2015 and Noémi Szécsi in 2009.

Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor, reporting from the UK

There’s always lots of literary news out of the UK, and this past month was no exception, especially in the capital. On the first night in February, about fifty of us crowded into the Cervantes Institute’s reading-room, where Alba Londres—the London-based magazine that spotlights the more radical corners of current Hispanic writing—had organized bilingual readings of work featured in their ninth issue, which had launched a few days earlier. Hardly any of the writers or translators were actually present, but those that did read their own words were great, and so was the cadre of volunteer readers who performed the rest. I liked what I heard and knew I’d probably like it even better in print, so I dropped £7 on a copy of Alba’s ninth issue. With over 130 pages devoted to Spanish-language poetry from the Caribbean, the issue features work from Katherine Bisquet, Antonio Robles, Julieta Arella, and many others. The English versions are excellent, and among the translators involved are former Asymptote contributors Annie McDermott, Rodrigo Olavarría, and Alexis Almeida. There’s an essay by Adalber Salas Hernández and a short story by Carlos Fonseca. Oh, and it’s illustrated too!

Another recent enthusiasm of mine is Mother Tongues, a self-described “interdisciplinary research-led collective” which utilizes “decolonial, feminist, and queer theory in exploring language and identity.” They’ve hosted four translation parties and workshops so far, most recently at the end of January. The location rotates and it hardly looks like there are plans to settle, which I appreciate, because why pay rent when it’s free to crash at someone else’s place? Previous venues like May Day Rooms or The Feminist Library have archives full of pamphlets, periodicals, zines, broadsheets, and various other textual marginalia which you can dig through for sources. Events are free, which is obviously a plus. I also love that they’re called parties, because that’s much more exciting to see on my calendar than a seminar. Details for the next event aren’t out yet, but they should be soon. For Asymptote readers who may be interested in attending, the best way to keep up is on Instagram: @mother.tongues_

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA

It’s awards season here in the US! On Tuesday night, just two days after the Academy Awards, PEN America held its 55th Annual Literary Awards Ceremony at the Skirball Center in New York. Hosted by comedian Hari Kondabolu, the sold-out event was packed with high-profile writers and translators, including Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros and Pen America President Jennifer Egan. For those who couldn’t buy tickets in time—or just wanted to avoid the frigid weather—a livestream was available on PEN’s Facebook page.

The first of the night’s two translation prizes, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, went to Richard Sieburth for his work on Belgian poet Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume. This humorous and absurdist collection, centered around a character named Plume, beat out Ahmed Bouanani’s The Shutters (reviewed here on the Asymptote blog), Jacek Dehnel’s Aperture, Juan Gelman’s Today, and Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space, an excerpt of which appeared in Asymptote’s Winter 2017 issue.

The second award, the PEN Translation Prize for a book-length work of prose, was awarded to Martin Aitken for his translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love, which was the Asymptote Book Club’s February 2018 selection. Love, a novel about the relationship between a single mother and her son, won despite competition from seasoned translators like Jhumpa Lahiri (for Domenico Starnone’s Trick, another Asymptote Book Club selection) and Margaret Jull Costa.

Another notable prize winner was Sandra Cisneros who received the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. The award was judged by Alexander Chee, Edwidge Danticat, and Valeria Luiselli, who recognized Cisneros for her “formidable and awe-inspiring body of work, which includes fiction, memoir, and poetry.” An award-winning author who holds both Mexican and American citizenship, Cisneros is best known for The House on Mango Street, a short novel about a young girl growing up in a mostly Chicano neighborhood of Chicago. Though she writes mainly in English, Cisneros often incorporates Spanish words, phrases, and syntax into her writing, and Chicana identity is one of the defining themes of her work.


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