Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From the contemporary to the ancient, this week's roundup of literary news covers Argentina, Latin America, and Hong Kong.

This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:

On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age.

Schweblin, born and raised in Argentina, resides in Berlin. Her novel Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) was first published in Spanish and the translation—also executed by the indomitable McDowell—was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Fever Dream is a terrifying, hallucinatory narrative about a woman on her deathbed interrogating a child about the poison that is killing her and the kids in the town where she is vacationing. This ecological horror story spins an uncanny tale of children poisoned by glyphosate, featuring a tense and precise narration, tales of spiritual possession, and, perhaps most of all, the obsessions, care, and paranoia that are part and parcel of maternal attachment (hence the phrase that gives the novel its Spanish title, “rescue distance”).

In the recently published Mouthful of Birds—which was just longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize—Schweblin’s short stories mark the horror of the everyday and the uncanniness of reality. Uncomfortable and addictive, these imaginative narratives revolve around mysterious holes in the earth, nightmarish abandonments, mythical creatures, and, most often, fearful or fear-inspiring pronouncements about everyday interactions. To be absorbed by Schweblin’s psychopathology of the quotidian in Mouthful of Birds is the verbal equivalent of watching Hitchcock at his best—I’m unable to look away, even if I wanted to.

Finally, I’d like to highlight the recent coverage of Schweblin’s work from a literary-academic perspective. In the current issue of Latin American Literature Today 2.1, a dossier edited by Pablo Brescia includes essays on several of Schweblin’s books and features an interview with the author herself.

Paul M. Worley, Editor-at-Large for México and Costa Rica:

The past few weeks have seen a number of important developments with regard to Latin American Indigenous Literatures. First, highlighting the broad translational flows of these literatures, Jorge Alberto Tapia-Ortiz’s long-awaited Educación, comunidad y literatura: condiciones para la emergencia de una literature indígena contemporánea (caso bröran-térraba en Costa Rica), or “Education, Community, and Literature: On the Conditions for the Emergence of Contemporary Indigenous Literature (The Case of the Bröran-Térraba in Costa Rica),” was released as part of the Revista Iberoamerica’s New Century Series (Serie Nuevo Siglo). The book recounts the experiences that Tapia-Ortiz, an academic working at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in Mexico, had while participating in literary workshops among Costa Rica’s Bröran-Térraba people. The book is destined to be a classic in the field for both its model of engaged scholarship and its nuanced, highly contextualized approach to how Indigenous literary movements take shape in the twenty-first century.

From March 16-24 in Mérida, Yucatán, the Autonomous University of Yucatán is holding its annual International Reading Festival (Feria Internacional de la Lectura Yucatán; FILEY). Over the past few years FILEY has risen in prominence as an important venue for Indigenous—specifically Maya—authors and intellectuals to present new publications, read from, and disseminate their work. Among this year’s highlights, on Friday, March 22, there will be a roundtable discussion on contemporary Maya literatures that includes not only some of the most important names in these literatures, such as Yucatec Sol Ceh Moo, Tsotsil Enriqueta Lúnez, and Yucatec Jorge Cocom Pech, but also critics such as Arturo Arias, Donald Frischmann, and Gloria Chacón. On March 23, as scholars who are also renowned experts in Maya literatures, Arias and Frischmann will present Chacón’s new book, Indigenous Cosmoletics: Kab’awil and the Making of Maya and Zapotec Literatures, in conjunction with the author. As with Tapia-Ortiz’s book, Chacón’s work is an important and timely contribution to the field; in this case it is one of the few works that analyzes Indigenous literatures from within an Indigenous framework. On March 24, the educator and cultural promoter Mariana de la Cruz García will present her collection of Yokot’an (Maya Chontal) riddles and poems, Uxp’e t’an Uxtu ixik (Three Voices, Three Women).

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong:

March, as the annual Hong Kong Arts Month, features an array of arts and cultural events across the city. The international arts exhibition, Art Basel Hong Kong, will take place from March 29 to 31 to showcase the artworks of established and emerging artists from all over the world, and the Asia Contemporary Art Show, opening from March 29 to April 1, will highlight cutting-edge works of artists from the Asian areas.

The literary scene is as vibrant as that of the visual arts, with an equally diverse panoply of programmes. On March 18, the first Hong Kong-based international literary journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, held a reading session titled “When We Talk about Love,” moderated by Cha editor Tammy Ho. The session invited writer Donald Berger, scholars Guo Ting and Lucas Klein, and actress Crystal Kwok to discuss different aspects of love.

On March 20, Africa Center Hong Kong hosted the third session of the African Literature book club, which is an initiative of the centre to engage both African and non-African readers in sharing their views toward African culture through reading novels. In further literary news, local writer Sunny Mak Shu Kin will converse with young writer and editor Tam Wing-sze on his twenty-year-long writing career. The talk will take place on March 24 at Kubrick Bookshop in Quarry Bay. Sunny Mak will talk about his views on writing and sources of inspiration, and will introduce his new collection of novellas, Dark as Night, which is a new attempt of fictional form for the writer.

Local composer Daniel Lo Ting-cheung has produced, in collaboration with local writer Wong Yi, a chamber opera entitled Two Ladies, which adapts two short stories, “A Girl Like Me” and “The Cold,” by renowned Hong Kong writer Xi Xi. The chamber opera explores the love stories of two women and the emotional depth of female sensibility. There will be two sessions of the performance on March 24 in the Cattle Depot Artist Village.


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