Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Multiple Worlds of the Writer: In Conversation with Margo Rejmer

I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives . . .

Margo Rejmer’s spare, exacting prose and illustrious methods have earned her widespread praise for both her meticulous reportage and her discerningly detailed narratives. From recollections garnered from the survivors of Communist Albania, to the stories collected from the varied and elaborate landscape of Bucharest, to the grappling of relationships in certain toxic fictional characters in Warsaw, the worlds depicted are all at once worn with secrecy, curious with hope, and bold with the human instinct for survival. In this following interview, Asymptote’s Filip Noubel speaks to Rejmer on subjects of writerly process, choice under totalitarianism, and individual freedoms.

Filip Noubel (FN): You have written two books on the experience and the consequences of dictatorial Communism in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Hoxha’s Albania. What drew you to those countries that, even within the context of then Communist Central Europe, have been generally perceived as economically underdeveloped, politically very conservative, and unattractive as destinations?

Margo Rejmer (MR): Both of the books, Bukareszt. Kurz i krew (Bucharest. Dust and Blood, 2013) and Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, 2018) deal with problems of power, strategies of survival in the authoritarian system, and searching for spaces of freedom. Although, when I started working on them, I didn’t know where they would lead me, as it turns out, everyone has their own inner path that leads to the same point. My book about Albania was supposed to simply be a guide to the Albanian mentality for the Polish reader. In the end though, it turned out to be a story about an isolated Orwellian-Kafkaesque space where people are controlled and punished, yet try to look for happiness and for a substitute for freedom, at least internally.

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Collective Memory: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter: A Fiction in Review

An exercise in the resilience of human memory, the novel integrates a broad swath of literary and global cultural touchstones . . .

Human Matter: A Fiction by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Eduardo Aparicio, University of Texas Press, 2019

As noted over the years by scholars such as Arturo Arias, Central American cultural production remains largely at the margins of academic study. As Arias points out in Taking Their Word, because popular knowledge of the region is so sparse, and because geographic ignorance (particularly in the United States) is so widespread, Central American immigrants will often identify Mexico as their country of origin, both for reasons of Latinx solidarity, and to protect themselves from discrimination and prejudice. This erasure is not even a recent phenomenon: the protagonists of the 1983 film El Norte, the Guatemalan-Maya brother and sister Enrique and Rosa Xuncax, are told to tell people that they are from the heavily Indigenous state of Oaxaca, Mexico, to avoid being taken advantage of in both Mexico and the US. However, from the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century to the practices of Canadian mining companies, and even US president Donald Trump’s facilitating, in the words of the Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman, “organized crime” in Guatemala’s 2019 presidential elections, global forces have always played, and continue to play, an outsized role in the region.

Despite its apparently marginal status, the region has made a number of enduring contributions to world literature. Foremost among them is one of the fathers of Latin American modernism, the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, and the Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, not to mention one of the most important works of Indigenous literature in the Americas, the K’iche’ Maya Popol Wuj. Outside of these points of reference, however, much of the region’s vast, rich literature remains untranslated, which makes Eduardo Aparicio’s translation of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s El material humano as Human Matter all the more important.

Rey Rosa, perhaps Guatemala’s most important living novelist, has had an eclectic literary trajectory. Having gone to New York in the early 1980s, he eventually became the protégé of the US-expatriate author Paul Bowles, spending a good deal of time with the author in his adopted home of Tangier, Morocco, and even becoming executor of Bowles’s literary estate upon the author’s death in 1999. Tellingly, one of Rey Rosa’s previously translated novels, the magnificent The African Shore, deals with the intersection of tourism, privilege, and migration in the border zone not between Guatemala and the US, or even between Guatemala and México, but between Morocco and Spain.

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Translation Tuesday: “Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments)” by Yonezawa Nobuko

Beneath them, oh living things, / wander / as you dance.

This week for Translation Tuesday, Asymptote is pleased to present the lush poem “Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments).” These fragments from Japanese luminary Yonezawa Nobuko revel in the fusion of concept and image in miniature. Inspired by the Symbolist tradition, Yonezawa’s poetry seems to refract the very words that make it up, allowing for subjective particulates to surface from the flow of experience and conspire with the reader. In this skillful translation, the concrete style of the original is maintained, so that the form of the stanzas themselves seem to impress a visual coherence and solidity to the movement of the language. As if struck with an afterthought, the poems end with suspended lines that evoke a response and an elaboration. With movement and the quotidian electrified, they breathe. 

Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments) 

I

That moment, like the blind,
running
at full speed,
gently
gold dust was sleeping
the simple,
faded color of dreams.

II

Bare reality,
just a flower planted in a beaker.
Spotted as if with falling blood,
raw
gladiolus. READ MORE…

Translating a Powerful Connection: In Conversation with Zahra Patterson

. . . the political questions, rather than the success of the translation, became what was more interesting to me.

Zahra Patterson’s Chronology won the 2019 Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Memoir or Biography. Deserving of the accolades, but defiant of genre conventions, Chronology was inspired by Patterson’s friendship with Lesotho writer and activist, Liepollo Rantekoa, and her attempt to translate a story from Rantekoa’s native language, Sesotho, into English. Produced in collaboration with the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, Chronology is arguably more a box than a book, a capsule of the writer’s personal and political landscape containing so many loose pieces that keeping it intact requires physical care. Personal notes, diary entries, and photos from are interspersed with essays on the politics of translation, post-colonialism, activism, history, and connection, forming a narrative that firmly deconstructs its own relationship to chronological order and time. Following the Lambda Awards, we reached out to Patterson to congratulate her and ask her to about Rantekoa’s enduring legacy, finding and losing mementos and her decision to learn Sesotho in New York’s public libraries.

Sarah Timmer Harvey, July 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Chronology opens with an email exchange between yourself and Liepollo Rantekoa. Can you tell me about meeting Liepollo?

Zahra Patterson (ZP): I met Liepollo during a bizarre exchange at a café in a trendy part of Cape Town. I was a tourist, and she worked at Chimurenga, a pan-African journal whose headquarters were nearby. I was taking a long lunch reading and writing, and I might have been the only customer in the café when she entered. She was supposed to be meeting a friend, and she was late, or the friend wasn’t there, and she needed to use a phone. Then she approached my table to ask me to watch her bags—she was going to use the waiter’s mobile to make the call so had to go and buy him minutes first. Basically, within a matter of seconds of entering the cafe, she had both me and the waiter doing her bidding, but she was also very gracious and generous in her authority. 

I had recently purchased Dambudzo Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight and had been reading it while I ate, so it was sitting on my table. She was very excited and confused to realize that I, a tourist whose purpose was to watch her bags, was reading one of Africa’s most controversial writers, who was also one of her favorites. A few days later, we were friends, and I moved into her shared apartment in Observatory, a southern suburb of Cape Town. I lived in her house for three and a half weeks, and then we kept in touch via email, gchat, and Facebook. Our close connection was based mostly on a shared ideology that we accessed through literature. 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…

The Voice of Interiority: Lytton Smith on Translating Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess.

[The inward-looking quality] structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form.

Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s profound and inward-looking saga, History. A Mess., was July’s Asymptote Book Club selection, translated from Icelandic to English. Callum McAllister speaks to the novel’s translator, Lytton Smith, on the process of translating this sweeping and intuitive work. In this conversation, the two discuss the intricacies of translating the evasive language of space and the even more mysterious language of the inner self, and Lytton gives as well some much-appreciated recommendations of Icelandic literature.

Callum McAllister (CM): Iceland is well-known for its impressively high literary output and vibrant creative culture, but Icelandic isn’t a widely spoken language. Are you daunted by how much Icelandic literature has yet to be translated into English, or do you think it gives you more freedom to opt for your favorite texts? Is there anything you’d love to see in English or work on next?

Lytton Smith (LS): Definitely daunted, even as I’m excited by the opportunity! There are wonderful translators from Icelandic working to bring more books into English (which can then also be a gateway to other languages), but there’s a limit to how many presses are willing to do what Open Letter does and take a chance on publishing titles—especially when translations are hard to sell to readers. I’m looking forward to Sigrún’s next novel, which is in part about the theory that Icelanders “discovered” America, and Ófeigur Sigurðsson, whose novel Öræfi / The Wastelands I translated last year (Deep Vellum), has another two novels that center on volcanoes that I’d like to translate. And I’d love to translate another book by the amazing, singular Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Next up, I’m lucky to be translating some of Andri Snær Magnason’s work.

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What’s New with the Crew? (Aug 2019)

We've been keeping busy!

What do Asymptote staff get up to when they’re not busy advocating for world literature? Answer: Quite a lot! For those interested in joining our team, please note that we have just completed the first phase of our recruitment drive and will conclude the second and final phase by the end of the month. It’s not too late to send in an application!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published two poems in Plume, in English and French versions.

Assistant editor Andreea Iulia Scridon‘s poem, Glossa, a re-writing of Mihai Eminescu’s Romanian poem of the same name, has been published by WildCourt.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi‘s Italian translation of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) was released in May by Edizioni Ensemble. 

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova) has been featured in a Romanian poetry anthology in Italian translation, Sette poeti rumeni (Seven Romanian Poets) edited by Matteo Veronesi.

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Translation Tuesday: “I fell in love with a poet . . . ” by Manuel Tzoc

I fell in love like you fall in love with silence / and darkness (fears I’ve never conquered)

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of the Indigenous/Queer poet Manuel Tzoc. “I fell in love with a poet” comes from Tzoc’s theatrical poetry El jardín de los infantes locos y la escafandra de oro (The Garden of Insane Children and the Golden Diving Helmet). The poem, imbued with a strong, imaginative voice that comes through even in translation, is a love address to a poet—a poet that exists only within Tzoc’s address itself. This imagined lover/poet is a pastiche of Guatemalan and international attributes, past and future stories, and complex desires. Identity is woven together from what the addressed poet does and does not do, what he wears. To a certain extent, the poet as the subject of address in Tzoc’s poem is an ideal subject, but not an idyllic or stereotypical one. Desire is expansive, and by imagining and versifying the poet/lover, Tzoc is able to birth the ideal made possible in poetry to encompass the specificity and the variety of a intersectional Indigenous Central American/urban/Queer poetics.

I fell in love with a poet
a boy poet
with the attitude of a horrible little prince
I fell in love like you fall in love with silence
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What’s New in Translation: August 2019

Noirs, voyeurs, and sensuality abound in this week's reviews of the newest in translated literature.

This week’s reviews of the newest and most compelling translated literature include the latest work by Poland’s preeminent writer, Olga Tokarczuk, a fascinating portrayal of manic self-interrogation and class by Stéphane Larue, and a darkly dionysian tale of the female gaze by the award-winning Nina Leger. Our editors burrow into the philosophy, language, and atmosphere of these three novels to give you some extra additions to your reading list.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Riverhead Books, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Janina Duszejko is the kind of woman that many would call “eccentric”: she’s in her mid-sixties, often bordering on paranoia, and she’s firmly convinced by astrology, absolute vegetarianism, and William Blake. In rural Poland, Janina—as she hates to be called—lives peacefully and in relative solitude as a guardian for the summer cabins surrounding her home. However, she quickly comes into conflict with the insensitive and barbarous hunters who reign over the area. The death of a neighbor escalates such tension, creating a series of mysterious murders that Janina will be privy to, and which will culminate in an unexpected twist.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Lebanon, Hong Kong, and France as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

From the town nestled in the peaks of Lebanon, to the recent surge in Hong Kong streets, to the crystal waters of the Occitanie coast, our three literary destinations of the week bring forth an array of Lebanese love stories, reimaginings of home, and the rich culture of Mediterranean poetry. In the words of the great Sufi poet Yunus Emre, “If I told you about a land of love, friend, would you follow me and come?”

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Lebanon

The mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon should see an increase in tourism following the Lebanese debut of a musical adapted from Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Broken Wings, published in 1912. Born in Bsharri in 1883, Gibran’s book The Prophet, published in the United States in 1923, is still one of the best-selling books of all time after ninety-six years and 189 consecutive print runs. Showing at Beit El Din Palace, a nineteenth century palace which hosts the annual Beiteddine festival, the musical tells of a tragic love story which takes place during the turn of the century in Beirut.

Closer to sea level, an evening of poetry in Beirut celebrated Lebanese poet Hasan Abdulla.  Born in Southern Lebanon, Abdulla was inspired by its natural beauty, and infused his poetry with observations of nature. His work, spanning over forty years, has been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian. 

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Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two

Those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb...

In the second part of this previous post, Brother Anthony of Taizé continues to celebrate the forgotten thinkers of the early Arab world. Although Renaissance Europe turned its back on Arabic writing, two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Averroes and Maimonides, had produced invaluable commentaries and philosophies based on the works of Aristotle, whilst Toledo became a literary epicenter for re-translations from Arabic into Latin and Spanish. Read on to find out more.

The golden age of Córdoba did not last long. In 997, the military leader Almanzor captured Santiago and soon became the effective ruler of southern Spain. He ordered the destruction of books related to philosophy and astronomy, which he considered contrary to Islam, leaving only those about medicine and mathematics. After his death in 1002, bands of marauding North African Berbers sacked Córdoba, sparking an exodus of Jews, in particular, to other cities. Later in the century, in 1085, the Christian kingdom of Castile captured the great city of Toledo. The Muslim leaders were forced to turn to the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa for help, likewise composed of fierce Berber warriors. In 1089, the Almoravids took complete control of Islamic Spain. Less than a century later, they were replaced by an even fiercer and more fanatical North African dynasty, the Almohads, who were especially intolerant of Jews and Christians. READ MORE…

Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part One

Anti-Islamic attitudes are not a modern phenomenon and the campaign to erase the Islamic contribution to modern thought began long ago.

Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Comfort Is Expensive” by Mlenge Mgendi

Standing up alone in a nearly empty daladala, every passenger could see me. Those majambozi rascals had turned me into a public one-man show!

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the Swahili-language writer Mlenge Mgendi. “Comfort Is Expensive” comes from Mlenge Mgendi’s self-published collection Mama wa Jey: Hadithi za Uswahilini (Jey’s Mother: Stories of Swahili Life). Nathalie S. Koening’s nuanced translation captures the different registers of speech in this scatological tale, which weaves indispensable Swahili terms with well-timed slang that, in some ways, feels universal. The speaker captures the anxiety of youth squeezed under community expectations and bureaucratic pressure. Sober, infused with wry humor, and laced with charming off-beat metaphor, “Comfort is Expensive” shows a slice of life that points to the atmosphere of a place and the dispositions that form under specific pressures there.

That day, I was coming from school. My stomach, jeopardizing the love, unity and cooperation that had reigned in my bowels for centuries, was causing me real trouble. I had no choice but to hurl myself into a daladala bus and get home in a hurry. Don’t you know? Since our schools have no money for healing all that ails us, students get a “discount” when they ride the bus?

When I got to the stop, a daladala was waiting. It was totally empty, having been outsmarted by another bus that, zipping past like a toothbrush, had plucked up all the fares. As I was climbing in, the konda boy grabbed hold of me. “Hey, you! Stoo-denty! You taking up an actual seat coz you’re gonna pay full price?” The bus pulled away brush-empty, but even then, he wouldn’t let me sit. READ MORE…

“From a madhouse to a monastery”: Twenty-Five Years of Guatemala’s Magna Terra Editores

We turned into a McDonald’s of books . . . It was madness!

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guatemala’s longest-lasting publishing house, Magna Terra Editores. Founded in November 1994 by poet and novelist Gerardo Guinea—and now run by him and his son Paolo—Magna Terra has published more than two thousand books and has propelled the careers of writers across three generations. As the press nears its bodas de plata, early this month I sat down with the two editors to talk about Magna Terra’s beginnings, the press’s many houses, and transitioning from a hectic McPress to a much more Zen indie house that boasts some of the best books produced in the country. Its author list is undoubtedly proof of this.

—José García Escobar

In the early 1990s, when Magna Terra was nothing more than a dream, its founder, Gerardo Guinea, and his family were exiled to Mexico City by the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). He was one of many. Other famed Guatemalan writers, such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón and Raúl Leiva, also chose to live abroad given the local political climate. After all, the government often persecuted writers. Otto René Castillo, Luis de Lión, and Alaíde Foppa are just a few of the many intellectuals the government and army killed during the war. While in Mexico, Gerardo had the chance to visit and become familiar with local publishing houses. He met with Joaquín Diez-Canedo of Joaquín Mortiz Editorial, now part of Grupo Planeta, and Carlos López of Editorial Praxis. As he watched the editors working, the books piling up on the shelves enthralled him. He wondered, as the talks of peace in Guatemala became more frequent, if he could create something similar at home. READ MORE…