Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week in literary news, we recognize the ones who created the world we live in.

We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.  

Huge congratulations are in order for Alison Entrekin, longtime translator of Brazilian literature, who was recently awarded the 2019 New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize. The prize is awarded biennially to acknowledge the contribution made to literary culture by an Australian translator. Entrekin’s translations include City of God by Paulo Lins, Budapest by Chico Buarque, and Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, among others. Her translation of Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector’s first novel, was shortlisted for the PEN Translation Prize in 2013. For some words of wisdom, check out Eric Becker’s interview with Alison from our blog archive!  

Those looking for more of Lispector’s work in translation might turn to The Complete Stories (2015), translated by Katrina Dodson. Or perhaps this insightful interview with Katrina on translating Lispector (“I don’t think she wants to be completely understood . . .”). The same publishing house, New Directions, has just released Lispector’s third novel, The Besieged City (translated by Johnny Lorenz), seventy years after its initial publication. In The Paris Review, Mike Broida calls it “an artifact and a time capsule, a bittersweet revelation of a missed moment in a modernist movement that has long since passed.” Clarice Lispector is widely considered one of Brazil’s preeminent modern writers.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from China

The legacy of the May Fourth Movement continues to reverberate throughout China, casting its now hundred-year-old shadow over current political plights. Amidst the nation’s current struggles with economic power, hostile international relationships, and blatant governmental trespasses on citizen communications, the Movement, with its insistence on self-awareness and active mobilization for social justice, is not ushered quietly in and out of the public consciousness as mere ceremony, but remains a vital reference in comprehending the China of today.

In recognition of the centenary, Guangling Books (a publisher of traditional Chinese culture and academia based in Yangzhou) has collected and published nearly fifty (previously out-of-print) journals that facilitated the Movement in a forty-eight-volume compilation titled 五四新文化运动研究资料汇编” (The May Fourth New Culture Movement Research Materials Collection). The journals were assembled with the intention of reflecting three aspects of the movement: Marxism and its popularization, women’s liberation and social transformation, and public response to the movement throughout the country. This immensely valuable and unprecedented resource will track the movement from Beijing to Hunan and provide insight into the minds of the revolution. In China, it has always been considered honourable to look backward, to see where one has come from. It is a shame that incidences throughout our history have eradicated certain fundamental opportunities to do so, but through such publications, we are witnessing a little redemption.

We are also seeing a slow but tenacious progression to rectify the imbalance of female writers in China. Last month, the Changjiang Poetry Publishing Centre released a volume of poetry by women writers, edited by Hai Nan and Shi Shiran, titled 中国女诗人诗选 · 2018年卷 (The 2018 Volume of Chinese Women Poets). Within the careful and considerate collection, we can find renowned poets who have won the Lu Xun Literary Award in consecutive decades, rural writers famed in their locality, poets from the autonomous territories of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, and poets who rose to fame on the internet platforms of Weibo or Wechat. Editor Shi Shiran conjures Virginia Woolf in her introduction to the collection, stating that poetry is “no longer limited to personal emotions, but has made the conscious turn to social reality . . .  and the power inherent in discourse.” She also insists that there is no emphasis on identity politics, but that good poetry is simply comprehensive and multidimensional. After their 2017 volume was released to so much critical acclaim, it is with a tremendous sense of pride and even greater ambition that we receive this innovative and rectifying text.

In the words of poet Dai Weina, the love of poetry is a “terrible, reckless love.” May it live on within us, the Chinese poets, forever.

Jonathan Egid, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the UK

On May 21, the winner of Britain’s most important prize for translated fiction, Man Booker International, will be announced from a remarkable shortlist that includes Annie Ernaux’s generational epic The Years (trans. Alison L. Strayer), Olga Tokarczuk’s enigmatic detective novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape Of The Ruins (translated by Anne McLean). Make sure to stay tuned to the Asymptote blog in the weeks leading up to the announcement for discussion, commentary, and wild speculation as to the winner!

The Man Booker International announcement is quickly followed by Britain’s largest literary event, in which thousands of festival goers descend upon the usually tranquil Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye for a long bank holiday weekend of literary discussion and braving the seasonally torrential rains. Attendees include Anna Burns, Leila Slimani, and Simon Schama, as well as the eventual winner of the Man Booker International in conversation with head judge Bethany Hughes.

Towards the end of the month, a book very close to my heart will be published: Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English. The book is unusual in its telling a history of philosophy from the perspective of a particular vernacular language, and remains attentive throughout to the issues of translation, outlining how translation has always been a central part of the philosophical tradition, and how the tradition itself has enriched the English language through its various acts of linguistic borrowings, appropriations, and theft, at least as much as English-speaking writers have enriched philosophy. Indeed, modern English is almost unthinkable without those foreign words introduced by philosopher-translators, from ‘person,’ ‘self,’ and ’emotion’ to ‘tarnish,’ ‘regret,’ and ‘identity.’


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote blog: