Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On our itinerary are independent bookstores in Boston, a bistro on the Tripoli port, and the curious outskirts of Paris.

This week, we’ve come across a spoil of literary riches! Big international names come to show in eastern USA, cultural collectives take full advantage of the historic wonders of Lebanon, and, in France, the académie Goncourt is always up to something. Our editors at the front are here to share the treasures.

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:

New York may be the undisputed publishing capital of the US, but the nearby city of Boston, just a few hours away by car, is also home to a thriving literary scene. Birthplace of the 19th century American Transcendentalism movement (notable members include Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott), Boston boasts one of the country’s richest literary traditions, and it remains a hub for writers and independent booksellers today.

Early last year, one of the city’s most prominent bookstores, the Brookline Booksmith, launched the Transnational Literature Series in partnership with Words Without Borders and the Forum Network. The series “focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation,” and hosts conversations between writers and their translators. Previous Transnational Literature Series events have featured Ivana Bodrožić with translator Ellen Elias-Bursać, Olga Tokarczuk with translator Jennifer Croft, and Luljeta Lleshanaku with translator Ani Gjika.

On April 3, the most recent event in the series, titled “Translating Duanwad Pimwana,” brought together translator Mui Poopoksakul and local writer Nina MacLaughlin. Duanwad Pimwana is widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in contemporary Thai literature, and Poopsakul’s translations of two of her books, Bright and Arid Dreams, will both be published this month. Though MacLaughlin expressed surprise that Bright is the first novel by a Thai woman writer to be translated into English, Poopoksakul pointed out that there are very few Thai-to-English literary translators, and as a result, the majority of Thai literature remains untranslated. The conversation also touched on the general difficulties of translating Thai into English, the themes of class and gender that are so central to Pimwana’s work, and Poopoksakul’s relationships with both Pimwana and Prabda Yoon, another Thai writer whose work she has translated.

Fortunately for Bostonian readers and translators, the Transnational Literature series will continue into the spring and beyond. On April 12, award-winning author Miriam Toews will discuss her newest novel, Women Talking, with local author Paul Yoon. And next week, on April 18, Portuguese writer Ana Luísa Amaral will appear in conversation with her award-winning translator, Margaret Jull Costa.

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Lebanon:

In spring, cultural and literary events in Lebanon remain as popular as ever with a wealth of readings to inspire writers, poets, and literature enthusiasts. The Lebanese Cultural Forum has been running poetry and fiction reading events three times a month, attracting both new and seasoned writers ranging in ages and backgrounds. The President of the Cultural Forum confirmed several sightings of eminent Lebanese poet Mohammed Ali Shams Al Din in the audience, whose poetry has been translated into several languages including Spanish, English, Farsi, and French.  

Mansion Beirut, a formerly abandoned 20th century villa, has, since 2012, slowly transformed into a shared creative community space. It describes itself as an “attempt at creative reuse,” simultaneously connecting and encouraging individual expression. It holds events ranging from poetry and literature readings to social impact workshops. Inhabitants and visitors share and collaborate within a range of open spaces scattered around winding, creaky staircases that lead to a public library, a communal hall, and a large outdoor seating area of palm and orange trees.

Further north in Tripoli, Warshe 13 (an Arabic word meaning workshop) hosts cultural events including poetry readings in a bistro at the edge of the Tripoli port and the Mediterranean Sea. Inside is a cave-like interior made of stone, preserving Tripoli’s rich architectural history spanning as far back as the 7th century, and a seating area scattered among the arched rooms with a bookcase lining one wall and a piano another.

Finally, the Arab Cultural Club (created in 1944 and the co-organizer of the Beirut Arab International Book Fair held at the end of each year) opens its doors next week to a poetry reading by spoken word poets Kamal Saleh, Raif Humany, and Jamila Hussain. Although the publishing industry in Lebanon continues to face challenges, the 62nd edition of the twelve-day book fair last December hosted 244 publishers from the region, 167 of which were Lebanese, and saw the inclusion of Chinese and Ukrainian books translated into Arabic.  

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France:

The Virginie Despentes phenomenon continues to overwhelm France; on April 8, Canal+ released the first episode of Vernon Subutex, adapted from the first two instalments of Depentes’s eponymous series. The series centers on the experiences of a homeless music-lover and his entourage as they struggle to survive in an indifferent Paris. So far, it has been highly praised by French media for its ability to look past the clichés and faithfully depict the experiences of those who live on the outskirts, both literally and metaphorically, of French society. The Vernon Subutex books have been a hit in the English-speaking world as well. Frank Wynne’s translation of its first volume was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. There is no news yet as to when the translation of the next volume in the trilogy might drop in the UK, but perhaps the series can serve as a good distraction for its fans as they wait.

France has its big literary award season in November, but some prizes are also staggered throughout the year. The Goncourt, which is also in charge of the biggest of such prizes, awards a prize for the best debut novel in spring, an accolade that can certainly make a young writer’s career. Five novels have been shortlisted for the 2019 iteration. It’s interesting to compare the debuts making waves in France with their British and American counterparts. In the UK, writers like Sally Rooney present unflinching accounts of the complexities and pressures of relationships between millennials; this shortlist could not be more different. Rather than focusing on contemporary France, the five books all deal with historical subjects, from the spreading of books and reading in 15th century Portugal, to an artist in 1860s France trying to find the origins of an artefact that is dear to him, to (a bit more recently) an account of what it meant to grow up gay in 1980s Paris. The winner will be revealed on May 7.


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote Blog: