Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Our wide-ranging literary dispatches this week cover protests, translations, and debuts.

This week’s dispatches report on a four-day literature festival in Italian-speaking Bellinzona in Switzerland, a new podcast dedicated exclusively to Guatemalan and Central American literature, as well as news of the arrest of journalist Hajar Raissouni in Morocco and a theatre group resisting such censorship and freedom of the press violation with a performance of Don Quixote.

Anna Aresi, Copy Editor, reporting from Switzerland

An interest in mapping (often the result of conquests and colonization) and remapping—rethinking what was erased and systematically left out in the mapping process—is at the core of Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel. In Lost Children Archive, mapping is related to sound: “Focusing on sound forced me to hear as opposed to seeing, it forced me into a different rhythm. You cannot consume sound immediately,” she explains, “when focusing on sound, you have to sit with it, let it unfold.” It is within this rhythm, she adds, that English emerged as the language that was conducive to the writing of this novel, which she had begun writing in both English and Spanish simultaneously.

Luiselli reflects on this and other aspects of her writing in an intense conversation with Italian writer Claudia Durastanti, in the intimate setting of Bellinzona’s social theater. 

Every year, Bellinzona—the capital of Swiss Italophone Canton Ticino—hosts Babel Festival, a four-day event entirely dedicated to literature and translation. This year’s fourteenth edition, entitled “You will not speak my language,” explored the limits and boundaries of language and literature, as well as languages that are “imagined, invented, despised, censored, regional, silent, visual, and enigmatic.”

The lineup included writers and authors such as Irvine Welsh, who doubled up as a DJ in the opening concert on Friday night; Luigi Serafini, the creator of the Codex Seraphinianus, an encyclopedia of imaginary creatures and things written in a constructed language; Claudia Durastanti, one of the most original voices in the contemporary Italian literary landscape, whose most recent memoir explores her experience of growing up with deaf parents; and many more.

Alongside talks, readings, and performances, Babel also offers literary translation workshops, from English, French, or Portuguese into Italian. “The quality of the workshop was extremely high,” says Annalisa Romani, who translates from the French: “We worked on the texts, the tricks of the trade, and the different translation possibilities. Yasmina Mélahoua [the Italian translator of Daniel Pennac, amongst many others] also confronted us with the fundamental questions that are often buried within one’s translation practice . . . The workshop, for me, still continues.”

If you happen to be in the area next September, stopping by at Babel is highly recommended!

Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco

Freedom of the press in Morocco took a body blow with the August 31 arrest of Hajar Raissouni, a journalist with Akhbar Al Yaoum, one of the kingdom’s last remaining independent daily newspapers. Raissouni was stopped by half a dozen plainclothes police officers as she left a gynecologist’s office in Rabat, and was arrested along with her fiancé, the doctor, a nurse, and the receptionist. Accused of debauchery (for having sex outside of marriage—although she and her fiancé had been wed in a religious ceremony) and undergoing an illegal abortion (although her doctor claims she was being treated for internal bleeding), Raissouni remains in jail, where she has allegedly been tortured, subjected to forced “medical examinations,” and—significantly—questioned about her work as a politically engaged journalist.

Raissouni has extensively covered the Hirak Rif, a protest movement that began in late 2016 in response to the death of Mohcine Fikri in Al Hoceima. The 31-year-old fishmonger was crushed to death in a garbage truck as he attempted to salvage fish that local authorities had confiscated from him. A historically restive region, the Tamazight-speaking Rif has long been neglected and marginalized by Moroccan authorities, and the 2016 uprising was violently repressed. According to Rachid Belaali, a lawyer involved in the defense of several Hirak Rif activists, over twelve hundred protesters and activists have been arrested since 2017, and protest leader Nasser Zefzafi was sentenced to twenty years in prison for sedition and conspiracy in the summer of 2018. In addition to her ongoing coverage of the uprising, Raissouni had recently published a series of high-profile interviews with Zefzafi’s father, the president of the Tafra Association for Families of Hirak Prisoners.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for Raissouni’s immediate release. After two delays, her hearing has been set for September 23. Raissouni risks a sentence of two years in prison if convicted.

Meanwhile, despite the kingdom’s crackdown on the Hirak Rif, a Tamazight-language theater troupe is quietly advancing the movement’s demand to respect, preserve, and protect the Amazigh identity and language in the Rif. Troupe Thifswin, founded in 1998, presented Don Kichouh, an adaptation of Don Quixote set in modern-day Morocco and written by Saïd Abdernouss, to standing-room-only audiences in Al Hoceima earlier this month. A national tour is in the works.

José García Escobar, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Central America

This week, I’d like to bring your attention to the first Central American podcast devoted entirely to Guatemalan and Central America literature: Audiobuki, produced by the online news outlet Agencia Ocote and written by the Guatemalan poet Julio Serrano Echeverría. Audiobuki began transmitting in early July and has since featured the work of Rodrigo Fuentes, Carolina Escobar Sarti, Humberto Ak’abal, Alaíde Foppa, and a rare interview with Miguel Ángel Asturias, on his way to collect the Nobel Prize of Literature, initially transmitted by Radio-Paris.

We’re also days away from having the chance to read Oscar Martínez and Juan Martínez’s (El Salvador) latest book: The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman (Verso Books). Originally published in Spanish last year by Debate, The Hollywood Kid not only tells the story of Miguel Angel Tobar (the aforementioned hit man) but also speaks on how US intervention and a civil war were the cause of the disparity, poverty, and lack of opportunity that bred Tobar, and countless others like him. Other books by the Martínez brothers include A Year Inside MS-13 (OR Books), The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail and A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: