Monthly Archives: June 2019

Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, May 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I had the need to write down what I had lived during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections.  Is it important to you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

STH: The Dinner Guest reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s Shame, which, in spite of being a memoir, is very similar in tone. Ernaux described Shame as an “ethnological study of myself” in which she examined the influence of a particular incident in her childhood on her relationship with shame. But while Ernaux avoided “inventing reality,” you have actively pursued it while employing voice that feels similarly precise and analytical. Did you experiment with the narrative voice, or did you start the project already sure of the tone?

GY: I like what Ernaux says about the ethnological study of herself. I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life. At the beginning of the writing process, I wasn’t sure about the tone, but I found it through trial and error. I felt that the text worked better when the emotions were contained and not too explicit. In earlier versions, it wasn’t like this at all.

STH: How did you approach researching The Dinner Guest? Did your research most often confirm or contradict your imaginings?

GY: I imagined as I researched. There were many things that I didn’t know, so I couldn’t have imagined them before beginning my research. When I invented things, I always tried to stay true to what I knew of the characters and situations. During the writing of the first part of the book, the part about my grandfather, I was always trying to come closer to my father. Although this is not explicit in the text, it was very shocking for me to see my father’s grieving face in the newspapers; it also impressed me to realize that my father lost his father when he was about the same age as me when I lost my mother. When I saw all the photographs and the news, I couldn’t deny that the murder of my grandfather was true. I always think of The Dinner Guest as a ritual of grief and an exercise of truth in which I use fiction to help me assimilate the deaths of my mother and grandfather.

STH: I find it wonderfully destabilizing the way the narrative frequently cross-examines itself. For example, chapter three begins with a passage which discounts a particular story about your family that is presented as fact in the previous chapter. What inspired you to do this?

GY: In memory, and in most investigations, there are contradictions. I found them constantly in the newspapers.

 STH: Can you speak about your choice to include real documents, including photographs, newspaper articles, and Google search results in the narrative?

GY: I included documents that I felt were important for the story. In the case of the picture of my father with the handcuffs, for example, I tried to describe it, but I thought that it was more powerful to attach the original document. It gives more veracity to the text, I think.

STH: You refer to Robert Walser several times in the book; quoting from The Walk, including the infamous image of Walser on his snowy death-bed and imaginings of Walser’s final walks. How are Walser’s writing and experience in conversation with The Dinner Guest?

GY: Walser’s picture was very inspiring for me. The three deaths narrated in the book seem terrible: my mother died too young at a hospital, my grandfather was kidnapped, and Walser spent his final years in a mental hospital, but I feel that the three of them had—or I like to think that they had—the possibility to die as they lived. My mother was able to die lightly, my grandfather found refuge in his faith, and Walser died walking; that is what he most enjoyed doing. It impressed me to know there is a freedom that is impossible to snatch even when you are in captivity.

STH: Was the experience of “imagining” Walser easier than writing free reconstructions of events involving your family and friends?

GY: It was easier. I think it was the part of the book I enjoyed writing the most.

STH: Are you interested in further examining any of the themes and ideas explored in The Dinner Guest in your future writing projects?

GY: Yes, writing The Dinner Guest has started some very interesting conversations with my father, and I’m thinking a lot lately about how terrorism affected my childhood in the Basque Country. I’m currently writing another book that combines fiction and non-fiction. I’m once again a detective of my own life!

STH: In The Dinner Guest, your narrator mentions writing every Sunday until either being exhausted or running out of ideas. Is this also true for you? What is your usual writing routine?

GY: Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wish I could have an entire day to write. Now I have a 17-month-old baby, and I need to coordinate my working schedule with the kindergarten. The Dinner Guest was written during weekends and very early in the morning, mostly in bed, before showering and going to the office. When I was living in New York, I would often wake at 5:30am in order to get in two hours of writing before work.

STH: Were you involved in the translation of the novel? And how was the process for you?

GY: For me, it’s always painful to reread The Dinner Guest. It is hard to go through my mother’s illness and my grandfather’s death again, and every time that I read the novel, I have the desire to rewrite the whole story. However, it was a pleasure to work with my translator, Natasha Wimmer; she is very sensitive and talented. 

STH: Have English-language readers responded to the book in the same way as Spanish readers have or were there differences?

GY: When I went to London for the book launch, I was impressed to see that most of the people in the audience were women. This wasn’t the case in Spain.

Gabriela Ybarra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1983. She currently lives in Madrid, where
she writes and works in social media analysis. The Dinner Guest is her first novel and was
published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016, and in
the UK, where it was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She
occasionally writes for El País.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.

*****

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Review of Mars by Asja Bakic

[B]eing forced to live on Mars—named for the god of war and the male counterpart to Venus—makes her sick . . .

Mars by Asja Bakić, translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble, Feminist Press, 2019

From a journalist reporting from inside a cult village to children who are convinced their neighbor is a forest monster, the characters portrayed in Mars, the debut short story collection by Bosnian poet, writer, and translator Asja Bakić, are forced to figure out how to survive in their strange realities. Bakić, playing a role reminiscent of Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone,” carefully pushes aside the curtain on these parallel universes to underscore the uncanniness of everyday life. Each story in the collection takes place in a world that looks and feels familiar at first, but becomes stranger and more foreign the longer you spend in it.

Bakić was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, where she obtained a degree in Bosnian language and literature, two themes deeply explored in the collection. Mars, originally published under the same title in 2015, was shortlisted for the Edo Budiša Award. The stories shift seamlessly in genre from science fiction to dystopian horror, and Bakić deftly combines aspects of speculative fiction and realism to form a cohesive collection that explores universal issues. Bakić has a unique, perceptive voice and was selected as one of Literary Europe Live’s New Voices in 2017. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Verdict” by Perveen Shakir

What to say to the ASI? / He who has outsourced the whole working of his mind / what would he know of the perfume of the soil?

Towards the last decade of her life, Shakir worked in different departments in bureaucracy, including the department of Customs and Central Excise. The natural vibrancy and inquisitiveness of her temperament was, understandably, at odds with the drudgery and apathy of mindsets prevalent in these circles. Her writings, provocative on many counts, often got her into trouble with authorities, but she remained steadfast in her poetic verve.

Her encounters with authority figures from the world of bureaucracy form the subject of some of her most interesting poems, ranging in character from light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek encounters, to verse that reads like an open indictment and battle cry.

“Verdict” is part of a selection of one hundred poems published in Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019). This first translation of her work with an international publisher makes her work accessible to the English-speaking world.

—Translator Naima Rashid

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What’s New in Translation: June 2019

The best new reads from across the world, selected and reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Not sure what to read this summer? Our team has you covered with reviews of this month’s most anticipated literature in translation, including a Brazilian bestseller set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, an Egyptian writer’s take on life in the USSR, and an entertaining novel from a beloved Bengali author.

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The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

Reviewed by Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large for Brazil

Look out for blowtorches and the BOPE in Geovani Martins’s debut, The Sun on My Head, a collection of thirteen short stories that bring us into the heart of twenty-first century life in Rio’s favelas. Tensions run high between the police, drug slingers and traffickers, and the men, women, and children trying to live their everyday lives. Martins shows us that the language of the favelas is just as legitimate as the language of the academy, keeping “literature” true to everyday form. Julia Sanches preserves this legitimacy in English, delivering a carefully crafted translation filled with colloquialisms, slang, and Portuguese. The result is “some real trifling shit”—a wild ride that exposes us to the complexities of life in the periphery and the complexities of translating that life from one language into another.

Published in Brazil just last year, 2018, O sol na cabeça became an instant bestseller—a literary sensation that brought the voice of twenty-six-year-old Martins into the spotlight. Martins draws on his experiences of living in a favela to paint a modern-day picture of an ever-evolving Rio—particularly around the time of two major international events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In “Spiral,” we see how racial and class profiling begins at a young age, and how irrational assumptions are perpetuated through inherited distrust. Those who live in the favelas are feared by the private school kids, the teenagers taking tennis lessons and the people waiting, anxiously, at the bus stop. “I remembered how that same old woman who’d trembled with fear before I’d given her reason to certainly hadn’t given any thought to how I probably also had a grandma, a mother, family, friends,” the narrator reveals, in a statement that demonstrates one of the overarching premises of the collection: to turn these stories on their head, to legitimize the experiences of those who face prejudice by representing them as whole human beings. The old lady walking on the street, clutching her bag, eyes turned sideways, isn’t the one telling the story anymore…

Martins takes us in and out of the favelas, introducing us to characters who are often in the heat of action (or one step away). In “Russian Roulette,” a young Paulo traces his dad’s gun down his body, into his pants, “savoring the hot-and-cold sensation”—a sign of both his innocence and a complicated relationship with power. In “The Case of the Butterfly,” a young boy fails to save a butterfly as it flitters into the kitchen and falls into a pool of leftover oil on the stove. The narrator in “TGIF”, fed up with collecting tennis balls for rich kids day after day, heads to Jacarezinho to get his fix, only to be robbed by a crooked cop. Each recollection is more of a vignette than a full-fledged story, where image (rather than plot) holds the metaphor. Though these images are strikingly clear, they (intentionally) leave us with minimal resolution—with an uncertainty as to how these characters endure, or overcome, the situations that they do.

The favela, the morro, the barraco: these are complex, distinctly Brazilian, places. Readers who are familiar with them will have an easier time navigating Martins’s text, while those who aren’t might find themselves a bit lost on “the hill”—particularly amidst the vernacular of stories like “Lil Spin,” “The Tale of Parakeet and Ape,” and “The Crossing,” where words are exchanged as quick as drugs. In her latest essay, Sanches points out that Martins seems to choose “to not explain; to let certain readers in and keep others out; there’s something for everyone here, but more for some than for others.” This is a book that lives on the streets, among the people of Rio’s favelas. And life there doesn’t slow down just because we might be unfamiliar with it.

9780857426505

Ice by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Margaret Litvin, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Sam Carter, Senior Editor

Between 1971 and 1973, the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim studied at the All-Soviet Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Yet there he spent less time learning the craft of filmmaking than engaging with cinema as spectator, and, by the time he returned to Egypt in 1974, he had confirmed that his preferred medium was the written word rather than the silver screen. That meant a return to a form in which he was already famous. 1966’s That Smell, which had been banned even before its printed copies could be distributed, was a loosely autobiographical account of a political prisoner after his release yet still under house arrest in Cairo. It is now widely regarded as one of the most significant texts written in Arabic in the second half of the twentieth century.

Margaret Litvin’s deft translation of Ice, which originally appeared in 2011 after being written the year before, sharply observes the Soviet situation in roughly the same period as Ibrahim’s stay there. But rather than a writer interested in potentially becoming a filmmaker, the novel features a scholar pursuing further study in history. Ibrahim’s style, though, resembles nothing so much as that of slow cinema as it stitches together an array of episodes that never yield to the exigencies of a plot and instead offer us the subtle intricacies of life in the USSR.

The result is a compelling depiction of the listlessness that often besets student life. Shukri, the historian, spends some of his time sitting down at a typewriter without producing many pages or sifting through an extensive set of Egyptian newspapers given to him by a journalist and creating a collection of cuttings whose ultimate purpose is unclear even to him. Yet most of this novel suffused with vodka and frequently frustrated sexual desires revolves around the social space of the obshchezhitie or dormitory, where he lives with a rotating cast of roommates that includes Hans, a German student who often attracts the interest of the women Shukri lusts after. These young people have come to Moscow from many parts of the world unsure of what exactly awaited them, and many of them seem to leave with an even less clear idea of what the future will hold after their Soviet sojourns.

Although it is a novel about indecision—about the inability to figure out both what one is doing right now and will then do next—Ice decisively deploys what Litvin calls a “flat style” and does so to great effect. There is something intensely absorbing about the abrupt prose that traces the numbing experience Shukri has as he finds only convolution and irresolution in what had promised to be a place of revolution.

9780811224734Harbart

Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee, New Directions Press, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

By the time he died in 2014, Nabarun Bhattacharya, the author of Harbart, had a Bengali cult following. Through translator Sunandini Banerjee’s mediation, his pool of post-mortem admirers is sure to expand throughout the anglophone world.

Harbart, born into a wealthy family, but orphaned as a young boy and abandoned to the care of his father’s unloving relatives, grew up reading books about the occult. One day, he has a dream in which his Naxalite revolutionary cousin Binu, who’d been shot by the police, reveals the location of a diary hidden behind a picture of Kali in his aunt’s prayer room. He directly sets up a lucrative business; “Conversations with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar,” says the sign over his door. “Harbart could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Harbart’s time now. He would have to produce pandemonium—rip apart everything, turn everything upside down until the entire universe reeled in the dance of devastation.” He’s a fake, but also not. True, he lies to his customers. But another truth it that the dead stand on the sidelines of the novel, coexistent with the living, squabbling and commentating. Harbart is a haunted man, and the telling of his own death bookends the rest of the narrative. The reader has the impression that he’s not as much a fraud as a victim-participant in the forward march of capitalism and of the impetus to assign significance to the pointlessness and chaos of material existence.

We meet Harbart, already dead, through the eyes of a lizard. He’s “so still that the lizard crawled across his chest and then down his arm to his left hand, only to find it immersed in a bucket of blood-smelling cold water.” We proceed to learn about him by having a look around his room with him dead in the middle of it. This opening scene is characteristic of the rest of the novel. The perspective is askance, never straight on, and driven by happenstance—a narrative style that playfully destabilizes the gravitational pull of the central plot, protagonist, and message in a traditional novel.

This decentralization, the focus on society’s castaways and their surroundings and vernacular, is typical of Bhattacharya’s body of work. Banerjee’s acrobatic translation is both enormously fun and true to the radical content. The writing disrupts the hegemony of the English language from the inside by celebrating the multilingualism possible within it. Harbart’s English is characterized by staccato dialogue, aurality, sensory experience, and inventive swearing: “Illi! Fucking willy! So many big people—lawyers—doctors—everyone—believed but now all of a sudden blam, it’s a sham! Some strand of pubic hair from somewhere—and I have to go to him and confess. Why? I am a monkey and you’re my uncle? Carbuncle!”

Additionally, the Bengali original is full of English phrases, which can act as status symbols or simple residue of globalization. The translation maintains these phrases in italics. Their clumsy affectation often makes a buffoon of the speaker: “Then he turned to the cameraclicking girl and said, ‘See, as soon as you expose them, they begin to scream and shout. They think that all this melodrama will help them get away with it.’ ‘But he seems to be a dud,’ . . . ‘Oh, he’s a sweet, cute, small-time crook.’ . . . Harbart got angrier. ‘Don’t think your English talking scares me! Fucking English!’”

Without giving away the ending, I will say that it summarizes what’s been already demonstrated throughout the novel: the most explosive volatility is found in what is most thoroughly overlooked.

*****

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

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Armenian Literature: A History, A Future in Translation

It is something of a surprise that a country with such an ancient literary tradition has not had more of its corpus translated into English.

Armenia is a small country with an enormous diaspora and a rich literary tradition—so why hasn’t more Armenian literature been translated into English? Today, Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon takes us on a tour of Armenian literary translation, introducing us to influential writers, both ancient and contemporary, who have yet to appear in English.

Many people in the English-speaking world, upon hearing of Armenia, naturally tend to think of the Armenian Genocide. While the recognition of a national tragedy beyond its borders is central to acts of both justice and healing, this notoriety can serve as a double-edged sword for a country’s culture. On the one hand, healing implies a significant act of transcendence, and so cross-border translation of Armenian literature has been important in the past for victims of the Genocide and presumably remains important for the Diaspora today. On the other hand, the works by (and about) Armenians that have received the most exposure have been those written in other languages, outside of Armenia. Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (originally published in German in 1933) is the most notable example of this kind, creating a ripple effect immediately after the dramatic effects took place and raising awareness for the Armenian plight tremendously; decades later, Varujan Vosganian’s The Book of Whispers (first published in Romania in 2009) was longlisted for last year’s PEN America Award. Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (originally written in Russian), along with two English-language books, Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls (Doubleday, 2012), and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking Press, 2006) have enjoyed great success and are examples of the many texts that make up a sort of canon on the subject. But although the topic of the Armenian Genocide remains relevant and important, the fact that none of the best-known books on the topic were written in the Armenian language point to a lacuna that continues to present a question mark today. What’s more, though the Genocide is a central point in Armenian history, we still don’t publish enough Armenian literature in translation. Let us take a trip through this part of the world, then, and explore its literary history. READ MORE…

Transporting Poetry Across Borders: On Teaching Ethnographic Poetry in Japan

With its multiple writing systems, Japanese seemed to lend itself particularly well to the task of writing multilingual poems.

Educator’s Guides are published alongside each issue of Asymptote and include detailed lesson plans that can be used with students of literature, language, or writing. The Asymptote website has additional audiovisual materials, translator and author bios, and works in the original language, making it a valuable educational resource. The most recent issue of the Educator’s Guide can be found on the Asymptote for Educators page.

This article describes the lesson plan Language in Transit: Understanding Ethnographic Poetry from the Asymptote Summer 2018 Educator’s Guide. The piece, from House to House, consists of two poems, “House to House” and “Barjeel,” both of which were written and translated by Shamma Al Bastaki. These poems are part of her undergraduate senior project based on interviews she conducted with people living in the United Arab Emirates. Although she has translated the poems into English, some words or phrases are transliterated, while others are left untranslated and remain in the original languages. From the translator’s note, we discover more about the role of language in the piece:

. . . it is a project about language: language in translation, language as bearer of meaning and medium for story telling, language as a catalyzer of communion and communication, language as sound and a series of phonetics, and language as physical material, existent for its own sake.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Francisco Layna Ranz

If there’s any heart left to swear on, I do it to sue for innocence.

To write seems a common salve for grief, and in this week’s Translation Tuesday, we’re reminded of why, in times of darkness, we turn to the written word for solace. Francisco Layna Ranz’s words are rife with the sharpness of new sorrow, clean and stark, yet with a keen eye he turns toward the motion that is an inevitable consequence of living. With language we may continue, and the action of admittance in poetry is a good thing, a good thing that results from continuing.

A Friend’s Son Died

A friend’s son died.
I pay my respects.
It’s Tuesday, cold between the stones, and I come back by Daroca Avenue.
Brick wall.
The bricks always look old. I don’t know: I think I’d start smoking again if I could.
It’s also too soon for sound. The proof is in the frost on the weeds and garbage.
It’s a question of innocence in the reading of what happens: soon and late
are words of now.
And all I can do is babble excuses for what’s left of my life, and everybody else’s life.
Of course a written letter is a sign that you’re getting old. For paper and for you it’s already much too late.
I know it makes no sense, but maybe I should go back to that crematorium and stay for what’s left of the morning.
Sitting on those benches, thinking of nothing.
Hear the traffic and think of nothing, the way the cold does.

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All of What It Could Be: In Conversation with Tiffany Tsao

To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

When reading a new book in translation, I usually begin by reading the translator’s note. Although it is customary to print the translator’s note at the end of any translated work, I find it enriches my reading to know in advance how the translator approached and connected with the text, to understand their particular choices and challenges. But while translator’s notes often reveal a profound intimacy with the original text, I have rarely read a translator’s note as unapologetically impassioned and moving as the paean Tiffany Tsao wrote for Norman Pasaribu’s award-winning collection of poems, Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Tsao’s translator’s note calls Pasaribu and the collection a “miracle” and describes how working on the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus was transformative for both translator and author. “Norman’s poems,” Tsao writes, “have become a part of and spring from me as well,” adding, “I don’t think that I can ever go back to be being the person that I was before.” 

Through the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus from the Indonesian, Tsao and Pasaribu have forged a partnership that is intellectually energizing and dripping with creative charisma.  After reading Pasaribu’s vibrant poems, Tsao’s exceptional translator’s note, and following the two on social media as they successfully toured the UK, I was raring to speak with former Asymptote Editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao. Amongst other things, Tsao was generous enough to share more about the “mutually nurturing” relationship she has developed with Pasaribu, and how Sergius Seeks Bacchus, published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in Australia from Giramondo, has come to belong to both of them.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, April 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Congratulations on the publication of Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you tell me about the collection and how it was received in Indonesia?

Tiffany Tsao (TT): After spending three years working with Norman on the translation, I almost feel I’m too close to speak coherently about it! It’s like being asked to describe someone you know intimately: you’re aware of all their facets, of them in different situations and at various points in time. Still, I’ll try my best. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is about contemporary queer life in Indonesia—as he and others have experienced it, but also and importantly, as all of what it could be. Hence the Christian, Batak, and speculative dimensions of many of the poems. Some of them depict realities for queer individuals that Indonesia’s present-day circumstances deny: strolling the streets of Heaven hand-in-hand; strolling the streets of post-alien-invasion Earth hand-in-hand; being celebrated by one’s family via the traditions of one’s culture; getting married (and divorced); having children; being happy; growing old. The poems range in tone too, from melancholy, darkly humorous, wistful, playful, tragic, to tragicomic. Perhaps this variegation is also what makes Norman’s collection so difficult to sum up.

The collection’s reception in Indonesia was bifurcated in the extreme. On the one hand, it won a major national literary award, placing first in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript competition. On the other hand, because the poems of Sergius Mencari Bacchus were overtly queer, Norman experienced a tremendous amount of online bullying afterward, which plunged him into severe depression.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

June is a month of commemoration and celebration from opposite sides of the Pacific.

Literature has always been at the forefront in movements for societal change, and, in the efforts to continually push for action, we perceive the bold literary markers that fulfill art’s role to pay tribute, to inspire, and to call for attention. It’s been thirty years since the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 in Beijing. It’s been over fifty years since the Latin American Studies Association was founded in the spirit of building civic engagement. It’s been fifty years since the Stonewall Riots began on June 28th, 2019 in New York City. From commemorations in Hong Kong, joyous displays of pride in the US, and unprecedented exchange of Latin American academic dialogues occurring in Boston, our editors bring you news that show a valiant, ongoing endeavour towards justice.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, also called the June Fourth Incident, for which it is tradition among different parties in Hong Kong to hold annual commemoration. In light of the anniversary, the city’s literary journals are organizing special features and events to take stock of the cultural, political, and social changes the incident has caused in Hong Kong, China, and beyond.

Cha, Hong Kong’s resident literary journal in the English language, is publishing a special edition of original English and translated works, photography, and art exploring the incident and its aftermath. The issue will include a selection of translated works by Chinese poets Duo Duo (featured in Asymptote’s Summer issue last year, also translated by Lucas Klein), Meng Lang, Lin Zhao, Xi Chuan, and Yian Lian, as well as a translation of “One Family’s Story” by Ding Zilin, co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers. Alongside the Tiananmen issue, Cha is also collaborating with PEN Hong Kong to hold a remembrance reading with local writers at Bleak House Books on June 3.

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Announcing Our May Book Club Selection: Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum

“My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.”

“A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system,” says Kim Yi-deum. “[She] writes with the language of her body—her womb, tits, tears, blood.”

Those lines give a taste of the combative nature of Blood Sisters, Kim Yi-deum’s debut novel (she is perhaps best known as the author of five poetry collections, selections from which have previously appeared in Asymptote, translated by Ji Yoon Lee). The novel’s protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is forced to struggle in a country rocked by the fallout from the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980. “Trauma,” writes our reviewer, “permeates the pages of Blood Sisters.”

In Ji Yoon Lee’s English translation, Blood Sisters becomes the first Korean title to be selected by the Asymptote Book Club. You can view all our previous titles and sign up for forthcoming selections via our website, or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

 

Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Deep Vellum (2019)

Reviewed by Alyea Canada, Assistant Editor

In a recent interview with The Margins, Kim Yideum said, “Humans talk as if there is something grand in all things. But I don’t believe that. I don’t like things that are so ideological.” It is perhaps best to approach Yideum’s Blood Sisters with this sentiment in mind because it is a book which resists simple summation and emotional reveals. Its protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is a young college student trying to make her way in a Korea rocked by the violent suppression of student demonstrations in the 1980s.

Yideum is primarily a poet and this is evident in the texture and sensuality of her prose, skillfully translated by Ji Yoon Lee. “My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.” Such sentences are comfortably juxtaposed to the coarse way Yeoul speaks and describes the world around her. Yideum expertly depicts a world in which female pain is casually cast aside—a world that will be all too familiar to many female readers. The men in this novel do not fare well. They are almost exclusively violent, manipulative, or childlike. In such an environment, where men will inevitably be violent and women are expected to forgive and forget, it is no surprise that female friendships anchor Yeoul. READ MORE…

Meet the Publisher: Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press

It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?

Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.

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Translation Tuesday: “In the City of White Paper” by Nagae Yūki

Each spring we wish / to leave the city, and we will always / end up staying.

In today’s Translation Tuesday, Nagae Yūki captures the alienation felt by urban office workers who have lost their connection with the natural world. She draws on the image of fleeting cherry blossoms, a staple of traditional Japanese poetry, to emphasize how little time we have to waste on meaningless tasks.

In the City of White Paper

Though not on the calendar,
the year begins for us city-dwellers
in April. That’s when the fiscal year
resumes and we trade in our selves
for desks. Earth still spins, news
cycles don’t stop to consider
our triumphs or griefs. READ MORE…

A Linguistic Dystopia: Language and Metamorphosis in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

What happens to a language when generation gaps are allowed to stretch on forever?

For Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in both German and Japanese, language’s power—and its failings—are a central concern. In today’s essay, Asymptote Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung explores how Tawada’s fascination with language informs her novel The Emissary, which takes place in a dystopian Japan that has forbidden the use of foreign languages. 

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

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