Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week’s literary news from Brazil, Texas, and Kashmir.

Our reporters take us to literary festivals in Brazil, to celebrations of Women in Translation month in Austin, Texas, and to Kashmir, where the voices of writers and journalists are revealing the urgency and importance of communication, free speech, and speaking out against injustice.

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

Identity, colonialism, and immigration were among the main topics discussed at the 7th edition of Litercultura (August 12-16), a week-long literary festival in Curitiba, Brazil. In conversation on this year’s theme, “Borders,” Italian writer and journalist Igiaba Scego explored her own family’s trajectory, tracing her parents’s migration from Somalia to Italy in the wake of Siad Barre’s coup d’état in 1969. Her novel Beyond Babylonrecently released by Two Lines Press, in a stunning English translation by Aaron Robertson—is a multigenerational story that explores the brutal dictatorship in Somalia and the challenges and discrimination still faced by Afro-descendants in Italy today. Scego seemed particularly at home with her Brazilian audience, perhaps because this was not her first time in Brazil; three of her books have been translated into Portuguese, and she was a headliner at the International Literary Festival of Paraty (Flip) in 2018. Other participants at this year’s Litercultura included Patrícia Campos Mello (Brazil), Leonardo Padura (Cuba), Bernardo Carvalho (Brazil), and Juan Cárdenas (Colombia).

While Scego was closing out Litercultura in Brazil’s southern city of Curitiba, the 13th International Book Biennial of Ceará was just getting started, over 2,000 miles away in the northeastern capital of Fortaleza. Under the theme “Cities and Books,” this year’s fair (August 16-25) will unite some of Brazil’s most cherished writers, including Maria Valéria Rezende and Raduan Nassar. The goal of the Biennial is to create space for artistic and literary exhibitions while engaging the wider public in conversations around books, literature, and literacy. In ten full days of programming, the Biennial will welcome over sixty authors, including international writers such as Mia Couto (Mozambique) and former Asymptote contributor Abdellah Taïa (Morocco). Over the past two years, the fair has averaged approximately fifty-five thousand visitors per day, including children, young adult, and adult readers.

Together, Litercultura and the Biennial of Ceará remind us of the sheer size of Brazil, a country that continues to discover new talent within and beyond its borders.  

Andrea Blatz, Blog Copy Editor, reporting from the USA

As we celebrate Women in Translation Month in August, bookstores around the country are hosting events to bring attention to this special month. On Saturday, August 17, Malvern Books, located in Austin, Texas, held its own celebration. The bookstore is community-focused and specializes in independent publishers, as well as lesser-known and emerging writers. They also love translated works—nearly half of their stock is translated literature!

The event began with readings by two local, acclaimed female translators: Liliana Valenzuela, an award-winning poet and Spanish translator, and Marian Schwartz, who translates Russian classic and contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Valenzuela read a passage from her Spanish translation of Puro Amor, a chapbook by Sandra Cisneros. Schwartz followed this with two passages from Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being.

After the readings, Valenzuela interviewed Schwartz, who is her mentor, about being a female translator and how translating women writers has changed over the years. Schwartz pointed out that when she first began, books by women in Russian bookstores were often separate from books by men, which caused translation of female authors to be treated differently, and not in a good way. Schwartz also mentioned the evolution of medium—for example, Facebook can now be used as a means of publishing—and how it is contributing to more dynamic writing that is drawing attention away from the establishment. Valenzuela spoke about how gender and ethnicity interplay with her translations. She called attention to the fact that, although women are now more commonly represented in translated literature, we still need to bring a wider mix of women from more countries and ethnicities, as well as considering gender and sexuality, as these are rich fields with endless possibilities to explore.

Finally, the audience had a chance to ask questions. One audience member said that since the 2016 election she has vowed to read more works in translation, and asked if Valenzuela and Schwartz believed that the act of translation had become more political over the past three years. For Valenzuela, the answer was a definite yes, and she underlined the fact that simply speaking Spanish now feels like a political act, and that translating helps her engage with a plurality of voices. Schwartz also suggested that translation is as important as ever, and that it is good to humanize the other side, to learn their stories so that we can connect with people from all over the world.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from Kashmir

The language, history, culture, and trust of a people are under siege. There will be words of rage and demands for justice from the people of Kashmir; but for now, while they grapple with the shock of this injustice and its aftermath, here is some literature that sheds light on the reality, the trauma, and the anger on the ground.

Though Kashmir has been in a state of siege since India gained independence from the British, the recent move by the Indian Government to abolish Kashmir’s special status is a complete turnaround from what India had promised the people of this state—a plebiscite during more peaceful times to decide whether they want to fully become a part of India or Pakistan or become completely autonomous. “This is not more of the same. This is more vicious,” says Kashmiri novelist Mirza Waheed about the recent turn of events in an interview with The New Yorker in which he lays out this history of lies, deceit, and violence.

Communication was cut off for over seven million people in the state, and more than thirty-five thousand paramilitary forces were sent to guard what was already one of the most militarized regions in the world. “By midnight on August 4, all forms of communication had been suspended, one after the other. There was no Internet, no cellular services, no landlines, no broadband, no cable television. A funereal silence gripped the state until the next morning. And then, the rumors came true—all of them, one after the other,” writes Kashmiri journalist Ashwaq Massodi, in a hard-hitting piece in n+1 about what it means to be imprisoned in one’s own home en masse, without cause or warning.

“Now, it is a naked occupation . . . Kashmir will become Palestine. We will lose everything,” said the people of Kashmir to Praveen Donthi, who was one of the few Indian media journalists to report the realities on the ground in a rare piece in The Caravan that brought out the voices that the communications blackout sought to shut out. Meanwhile, a committee of researchers including Jean Dreze and Kavita Krishnan, who had gone on a fact-finding mission and released a report called Kashmir Caged!!, were not allowed by the Press Club of India, Delhi, to screen the footage they had collected. The video shows protest and unrest, something the Indian Government has categorically denied the existence of.

“The masters were pleased that a recalcitrant colony had finally, formally, been brought under the crown. For its own good. Of course,” writes Arundhati Roy, in a seething essay in The New York Times that tracks the historical injustices meted out to the people of Kashmir and rightfully looks at the Indian Government as a colonizer. But as Roy says, “These are the conversations we are having in India while we wait for Kashmir to speak. And speak it surely will.” Like Naseem Shafaie’s words, translated for Asymptote, about a brutal prophecy that has come to pass:

It took one moment, just one
to wipe out the entire city

. . .

They, with empty hands and empty pockets,
had no coins to pay the ferryman
to take them across.
Nor any murmurs to console each other.


Read more weekly dispatches from the Asymptote blog: