Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Get close up and personal with global literary happenings.

Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.

In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.

According to BBC Persian, previously, the services were offered by Create Space company, but when the company was acquired by Amazon, Persian/Farsi was removed from the list of supported languages for direct publishing.

In response to this limitation, recently, Mahyar Mazloumi, @Mahyarmaz, a writer/translator based in Canada, started a petition asking Kindle Direct Publishing to support Persian (Farsi) language in its services. The petition reads:

Nowadays direct publishing of books through online services such as KDP is one of the most effective ways for writers to overcome censorship, publish their contents and for readers to find what they like directly in Amazon online stores. However KDP services are not supporting some languages such as Persian (Farsi) and this made lots of troubles for many writers around the world who write in this language.

While Persian culture/literature is and has been one of the greatest throughout the history, it is very unfortunate that Persian speaking writers can not use KDP services to reach their audience who are about 120 million people around the world.

Here we want to ask Amazon to establish KDP services for Persian Language as well. This is a huge step to fight censorship and promoting freedom of speech.

By June 12, more than twenty thousand people have signed the petition. The goal is to reach at least twenty-five thousand signatures.

Lou Sarabadzic, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from France

From June 5 to 9, Paris held, as usual, one of its most important events for poets: le marché de la poésie, and annual “poetry market.” More than a hundred stands were set up to welcome publishers, bookshops, prolific writers, and avid readers to this annual celebration. Attendees also benefited from free talks, readings, performances, signings, and concerts planned over the five days. It’s impossible to get bored at the marché de la poésie! Actually, you would struggle to accomplish everything you want to do, even if you stay for the whole duration of the market. On their website, le marché de la poésie is presented as a unique European event, bringing together about five hundred poetry publishers and journals!

It didn’t get off to a great start on Wednesday, June 5, since the weather was extremely bad, with heavy rain and wind. . . Organizers, editors, and publishers may have been a bit worried, but the market still managed to attract a huge crowd of poetry lovers, especially as the sun came out later that week, bringing more acceptable temperatures for a full day out.

While French was, unsurprisingly, the main language represented, there are many reasons someone with an interest in world poetry and translation would want to attend such an event. First of all, it gives you a much wider perspective on contemporary writing in French: not only the one happening within France, but in many French-speaking countries. The market is a great opportunity to find contemporary authors who have yet to have their work translated into English. It is also a way to explore French writing from different linguistic angles; the very first roundtable, on Wednesday, discussed France’s variety of languages, with poets representing Basque, Occitan, Antillean Creole, and Picard. On Thursday afternoon, there was also a signed performance and conversation by L’Institut national des jeunes sourds, to explore poetry through French sign language.

The focus on translation was both national and international, and The Netherlands was the country especially invited for this 37th edition of the market. For five days, attendees could listen to Dutch poetry in both the original language and French translation. The stage was strategically positioned in the centre of the Place Saint-Sulpice, where the market was taking place, which meant that whichever path you were following, you would have had a good chance to discover Dutch poets and their texts—as well as Dutch musicians—at some point! When Dutch artists were in conversation, simultaneous translation into French was also provided. English readers shouldn’t fear, though: many of the invited poets have been translated into English as well, for instance: Simone Atangana Bekono, Benno Barnard, and Hester Knibbe, just to name a few.

Finally, I must admit that what I really liked about the market was meeting editors specialising in—or with at least a strong collection of—poetry in translation, sometimes with bilingual editions. There wouldn’t be enough space to name them all, but we could at least mention the éditions Bruno Doucey, Des Lisières, Le Murmure, Paradigme, and Le Temps des cerises. Should you ever want to see what’s going on in the French world of poetry in translation nowadays, I strongly encourage you to look at their websites!

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic

As Czech graphic art and illustration gain increasing recognition abroad, comic book fans have a chance to get acquainted with the country’s leading Czech artists in a special edition of the Belgian comic-strip magazine Stripgids, to be followed by an exhibition of Czech artists at the Brussels Comic Strip Festival in September. The fiction prize at the 2019 Bologna Book festival went to Panáček, pecka, švestka, poleno a zase panáček (Puppet, Plum Pit, Plum, Plank, and back to Puppet). Stunningly illustrated with Chrudoš Valoušek’s linocuts, this is the first foray into children’s literature by Vojtěch Mašek, a prize-winning comic book writer, known also for his film scripts and plays. The Bologna jury said that in this retelling of the Pinocchio story everything is psychedelic, pop, absurd, witty, satirical—and unexpected.” A Czech critic praised the book as an “absurd ride full of exuberant humour” in the vein of Daniil Kharms.

Latin American literature was the focus of this year’s Book World (Svět knihy), the Czech Republic’s main book fair, held in Prague in May and featuring Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez, the Columbian Luis Fayad, the Mexican Álvaro Enrique and Guatemalan-born David Unger, as well as Spanish writers Javier Cercas and Dolores Redondo, among many others. The packed programme included a reading by Robert Menasse and David Grossman; Alain Finkielkraut and Marek Bienczyk discussing Kundera as a Czech and French author, as well as presentations by two expat Czech writers: France-based Patrik Ouřednik and Jan Faktor, who writes in German. The highlight was undoubtedly a sold-out discussion on May 28 between two Nobel laureates, Mario Vargas Llosa and Herta Müller. Müller insisted that: “There can be no democracy without literature and culture. That is why all dictatorships curb culture and introduce censorship as soon as they seize power. They do it because they are scared. Art is unpredictable in its messages and that frightens them because it makes them lose control over their citizens. That is why literature’s role in fighting dictatorships is so important.”

In brief: the current English translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk by Cecil Parrot appeared in 1973, so it is welcome news that Gerald Turner is about to take on the challenge of bringing this Czech classic into the twenty-first century. In its current prose poem issue, the Prague-based online journal BODY features leading Czech poet Petr Borkovec’s tongue-in-cheek “Brief Bio for the Bereaved. Finally, Bianca Bellová, winner of last year’s European Union Literature Prize, vents her frustration over the lack of interest from English-language publishers in her book, The Lake, even though it is being translated into nineteen other languages.

Shelly Bhoil, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

The last two months in Brazil have been turbulent with mass rallies and demonstrations across two hundred cities against the 30% cuts to education after Abraham Weintraub, the new education minister, declared his intention of decentralizing investment in institutions that promote critical thinking. Amidst the ongoing uncertainties, the writing community has fastened itself, evident by the literary festivals being organized here.

Desvairada, one of the largest poetry festivals of São Paulo, had its fourth edition held in May. The festival paid homage to Dalila Teles Veras from Portugal, and one of Brazil’s oldest living avant-garde poets, Augusto Campos. One of the festival highlights was the video-poetry contest, which received a hundred and twenty entries. For Tiago Marchesano, one of the organizers, this reflects the aspirations of poets in times when cultural aspects of society are being dismantled by the public administration. Daniel Minchoni’s “Reza Barbara,” Diego Staseen’s “Manifesto Verdadista,” and Natasha Felix’s “Ferramenta da Queda” were placed in the top three of the contest. Felix also received a standing ovation for her poetry performance, which can be seen here. Another highlight of the festival was its unique format of panels and participation—the organizers opened a registration period for independent publishers, and further collaborated with the thirty-two shortlisted publishers for the recommendation of poets. This, according to Julia de Carvalho Hansen, a poet and publisher, helps build a much needed sense of community among publishers and writers.

While the organizers of Desvairada had secured government aid in the form of venue at the public library Mário de Andrade in São Paulo, it remains to be seen how the upcoming International Literary Festival of Paraty (FLIP) in the state of Rio de Janeiro will fare under the far-right president Bolsonaro’s ideologically controlling and financially restraining regime. Devised after the model of UK’s Hay Festival by Liz Calder, the co-founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, FLIP has put Brazil on the international map of literary festivals. In its 2019 edition, FLIP will pay homage to the Brazilian author Euclides da Cunha and will include thirty-three authors from ten countries.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: