Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Three continents in a ten-minute read. We're bringing you literary news from Morocco to Poland to the USA.

This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards. 

Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco

The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.

To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.

During the discussion, Sefrioui painted a grim picture for Moroccan publishing—a 40 percent illiteracy rate, a serious shortage of bookshops, a long legacy of state censorship, and the lack of a legal framework to address the issue of piracy. Abdelkader Retnani, the president of the Association marocaine des professionnels du livre, was more optimistic, pointing to the rapid expansion of the country’s publishing industry—from 850 titles in 1986 to some 3,000 in 2018. But despite this impressive growth, access to books is still largely limited to the Tangier-Rabat-Casablanca axis. Agadir, a major southern city, has just two bookshops but a population of nearly half a million and Oujda, a city of roughly the same size in the east, has just one.

French-language books already only account for a small fraction of published works in Morocco (about 16 percent), and this market is shrinking, according to Retnani. However, the ambiguous role of French in Morocco may soon be bolstered by a proposed education bill to broaden the teaching of French in public schools (notably by replacing Arabic as the language of instruction for scientific subjects), which has become a topic of intense debate in recent weeks, with Education Minister Saïd Amzazi declaring the as-yet-unvoted-upon bill an “irreversible choice.”

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Poland

Madeline Levine’s authoritative new translation of Bruno Schulz’s Collected Stories  (Northwestern University Press, 2018) has received the 2019 Found in Translation Award for the best translation from Polish literature into English, which the jury praised “for its fluency and fidelity to the rare and often elusive complexity of Schulz’s prose.” In his April 2018 review for the Times Literary Supplement, Benjamin Paloff wrote: “Levine’s translation is not only exquisitely composed and fastidiously accurate, but it cleaves so tightly to the original that it is easy to imagine that these are the words that Schulz would have written in his own hand had he written in English. It is without question a translation masterwork.”

The March 2019 issue of The High Window, a quarterly journal of poetry, edited by Karen Kovacik, introduces works by six contemporary Polish poets. Those wishing to broaden their knowledge of Polish literature will find plenty to choose from in this roundup of books that will appear in English translation in 2019.  Those already out and garnering positive reviews include an entertaining retro-crime novel set in turn-of-the century Kraków, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, by Maryla Szymiczkowa, the nom-de-plume of the duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński. The book is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose English translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s metaphysical crime novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has been shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize. We will find out very soon, on May 21, if Tokarczuk can pull off winning this coveted award, which is shared with her translator, for the second year running.

Novelist and short story writer Malgorzata Rejmer, who spent several years living in Albania, received the prestigious Paszport Polityki prize for her reportage Błoto słodsze niż miód (Mud Sweeter Than Honey), which “consists simply of voices of people, their stories of the workings of Enver Hoxha’s system of terror.” “Nine Circles,” an excerpt from the book, translated by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, is a poignant account of the years writer Fatos Lubonja endured in prison.

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

Between the Game of Thrones finale and the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize winner, May will be a momentous month. Fortunately, we’ll have something to look forward to even after the £50,000 prize has been awarded and the Iron Throne has been won: the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards.

The Man Booker’s lesser-known American counterpart, founded in 2007 by Chad Post of Three Percent, honors outstanding works of literature in translation. Now in its twelfth cycle, the Best Translated Book Award has a history of spotlighting a diverse set of international writers, and this year’s fiction and poetry longlists include books translated from sixteen different languages by authors from twenty-four different countries. Mark your calendars for the announcement of the finalists and winners on May 15 and 31, respectively!

Literary-minded visitors to New York will also find an abundance of readings and events in the Big Apple this month. On May 17, Spanish speakers may be tempted by “Voces en off: Traducción y Literatura Latinoamericana,” a bilingual event at McNally Jackson in Nolita; Francophiles, meanwhile, won’t want to miss “Le Sang Noir des Hommes,” a discussion in French between novelist Julien Suaudeau and professor Isabelle Milkoff at Albertine, a project of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. And on May 21, the same day as the Man Booker announcement, PEN America will host its annual Literary Gala, the proceeds of which will support the organization’s cultural programming and advocacy for freedom of expression.

Boston, too, will host a handful of exciting literary events in the coming weeks. On May 16, Pajtim Statovci will discuss his novel Crossing with translator Ani Gjika at the Brookline Booksmith. And in early June, as the weather (hopefully) warms up, the third iteration of Lit Crawl Boston, affiliated with the Boston Book Festival, will feature “a variety of unique literary events including games, performances, provocations and other oddities, all in surprising venues ranging from cafes and art galleries to barbershops and furniture stores.” The best part? Lit Crawl events are free, and many of them will offer complimentary beverages!


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote blog: