Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through France, Japan, and Vietnam as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

This week, our editors are bringing you news from France, Japan, and Vietnam. After quiet summers in the literary world for many countries, September brings the literary scene back to life. In France, the anticipation is building ahead of the most prestigious literary prizes being awarded. In Japan, a new edition of a historic quarterly is uniting Japanese and Korean literature through a shared feminist voice. And in Vietnam, the launch of a new anthology, as well as events held by prestigious translators, celebrate the ties that are created through translation.

Sarah Moore, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from France

September in France marks the rentrée littéraire, with hundreds of new titles published before the big award season starts in November. The prix Fémina, prix Renaudot, prix Interallié, prix Médicis, and the prix de l’Académie française will all be contested, as well as the prestigious prix Goncourt.

Amongst the French titles announced for the rentrée, Amélie Nothomb’s Soif (Albin Michel, 21 August) is highly anticipated, although not at all unexpected—an incredibly prolific author, she has consistently featured in the rentrée littéraire every year since the publication of her debut novel, Hygiène de l’assassin, in 1992 (Hygiene and the Assassin, Europa Editions, 2010). With a narrative that takes the voice of Jesus during the final hours of his life, Soif is sure to be as audacious, controversial, and successful as ever for Nothomb.

Marie Darrieussecq’s new novel, La Mer à l’envers (P.O.L, 2019), examines the migration crisis, narrating an encounter between a Parisian woman and a young refugee, rescued from a capsized boat. Many of Darrieussecq’s novels have already been translated into English, including her first novel Pig Tales (Faber & Faber, 2003), and, most recently, The Baby (Text Publishing, 2019). An interview with her translator, Penny Hueston, for Asymptote can be read here and an extract of her translation of Men was part of Asymptote‘s Translation Tuesday series for The Guardian.

Whilst Jonathan Coe’s “great Brexit Novel,” Le Cœur de l’Angleterre (Middle England, Penguin, 2019), and Tommy Orange’s Ici, n’est plus ici (There There, Penguin Random House, 2019) will rank highly in the rentrée’s sales, the Anglophone authors featuring in the rentrée list are dominated by women. Toni Morrison, who sadly passed away last month, will have her final collection of essays, the luminous The Source of Self Regard (Penguin Random House, 2019), translated into French as La source de l’amour-propre with éditions Christian Bourgois. This collection of her non-fiction writing from the last four decades is an astute and piercing examination of today’s political and social moment. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale will appear in October with éditions Robert Laffont; Edna O’Brien’s Girl, to be published by éditions Sabine Wespieser, gives voice to a young girl abducted by Boko Haram; Joyce Carol Oate’s 2017 novel The Book of American Martyrs (Fourth Estate), which tackles the subject of America’s abortion war, has just been published by éditions Philippe Rey.

The announcement this week of the fifteen titles in the running for the prix Goncourt came with some controversy. Author and film director Yann Moix won the Goncourt du premier roman (the Goncourt prize for a debut novel) in 1996 for Jubilations vers le ciel and his latest novel, Orléans, was tipped to be a potential winner this year. However, the polemic novel, which recounts his traumatic and abusive childhood, caused a media storm after accusations by his family that he had lied. And then, the revelation by the French magazine L’Express that Moix had contributed anti-semitic drawings to a magazine whilst a student, means that his notable absence from the Goncourt list did not come as a surprise.

Amongst those on the list, Amélie Nothomb’s Soif is in the running, and Santiago H. Amigorena’s Le Ghetto intérieur, Nathacha Appana’s Le ciel par-dessus le toit, and Jean-Luc Coatelem’s Le part du fils have all been nominated for both the prix Goncourt as well as the prix Renaudot. Both prizes will be announced on November 4. Last year’s prix Goncourt winner, Leurs enfants après eux (Actes Sud, 2018), written by Nicolas Mathieu will be published in English as And Their Children After Them in April 2020 by Other Press.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from Japan

The conflict-ridden relationship between Japan and South Korea has taken over the public consciousness in both countries in the last few months, fuelled by increasingly hostile trade relations and unresolved disputes regarding Japan’s previous occupation of the Korean peninsula. As both governments remain anxiously steeped in animosities past and present, the historical literary quarterly, Bungei, has provided some much-needed nuance to this complex discord by orienting their Fall 2019 issue around the theme of “Korea, Feminism, Japan.” Perhaps due to its topicality, this edition of Bungei has been the first to produce three print runs since the magazine’s founding in 1933, experiencing an exhilarating popularity.

With the inclusion of established authors both Korean and Japanese, this exceptional issue acknowledges the recent tide of feminist literature that has cascaded over South Korea, as well as the inspirations, influences, and fascinations between the two cultures. When scanning the list of writers, it’s apparent that the features were chosen with a mind of bringing prominence to works that traverse feminist narratives, experiences, and ideologies, including: short fiction by Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Hiroko Oyamada (author of The Factory), and discussions on contemporary feminism in Japan and Korea with prolific translators Mariko Saito and Yukiko Konosu. The title that acted as the catalyst for this issue, however, is Cho Nam-ju’s bestselling novel, Kim Ji-young Born 1982, which details the various experiences of limitation and aggression that stem from living everyday life as a woman within patriarchal culture. Though feminism has been a slow-growing concept in Japan, it has nevertheless put down deep roots within the cultural realm, and Cho’s book resonated with Japanese readers as a redolent and realistic depiction of an everyday woman’s life.

Political alliances takes a backseat to literature in this particular instance of the Korean-Japanese relationship, as writers of both countries continue to appreciate and maintain interest in one another’s works. As the official dialogue continues to waver between resentment and barely repressed acrimony, one is grateful for the continued exchange of texts and stories, as an enduring indication of how we may come to understand one another.

Quyen Nguyen, Editor-at-Large for Vietnam, reporting from Vietnam

After a quiet summer for the literary scene in Vietnam, September comes with refreshing changes for both publishers and readers, including an anthology of Korean literature and the departure of a translation icon.

On the first day of the month, the Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh and Korea Foundation launched the collection Truyện ngắn đương đại Hàn Quốc (Korean Contemporary Short Stories) at Nguyen Van Binh Street—a Book Street popular with both locals and tourists in Ho Chi Minh City. The book comprises twelve short stories, selected from Koreana Magazine, and features critically acclaimed modern Korean writers such as Kim Kyung-uk, Kim E-whan, Gu Hyo-seo, Kim Yeon-su, and Kim Jong-ok. As the Vietnamese market has been saturated with household names like Han Kang, Kim Young-ha, and Shin Kyung Shook, publishers have high hopes that the new anthology will facilitate a new way of reading and looking at Korean literature.

In Hanoi, on September 3, just after the National Day, a talk on the translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s classic Death on Credit took place at L’Espace—the French Cultural Center in Hanoi. To the surprise of the organizer, more than one hundred and twenty people (including audience members, as well as critics, writers, and journalists) were present to bid farewell to the legendary translator Duong Tuong, who announced his retirement on the spot. Notorious for his declaration that, “An ideal translation is a creative work, wherein the translator is the co-author,” Duong Tuong has been one of the most celebrated translators in the country for more than five decades. Born in 1932, he is a self-taught translator, poet, and critic who has been translating literary works from both French and English to Vietnamese since as early as the 1960s. His œuvre consists of more than fifty classic works such as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, to name a few.

While Western classics have always been a staple on Vietnamese bookshelves, in the past five years, Vietnam has witnessed a rising trend in the translations of Chinese historical and period novels. On September 6, Dong A Publishing and Ca Chep Gallery and Bookstore in Hanoi will host an event to celebrate the publication of Zhen Wei’s Xihan Tongsu Yanyi (Romance of the West Han Dynasty), translated by Chau Hai Duong, a prominent translator of Chinese classics. His previous translations include Tang Song Chuanqiji (Strange Tales from Tang and Song Eras) by Lu Xun and Yetan Suilu (Occasional Accounts of Conversations at Night) by He Bang’e. Thanks to Chau and other great Chinese-Vietnamese translators, Vietnamese readers can enjoy the privilege to delight in many great Eastern classics that have not been translated in the Western world before.


Read more dispatches from the Asymptote blog: