Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Catch up on this week’s latest news in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Romanian authors around the world.

This week, our reporters tell us about the literary response to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and the translation of protest poetry by The Bauhinia Project, book fairs in Vietnam, as well as guiding us through the many Romanian writers performing at the largest Central European literary festival, the Author’s Reading Month festival. 

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

The extradition bill demonstrations in Hong Kong have been ongoing for four months and show no signs of stopping. There has been countless speculation over the city’s standing as a financial and trading center, but what has happened for certain is the plethora of art created in response to the movement. In an interview on the subject of contemporary art, a museum curator placed her bets: “The greatest art is going to be produced in Hong Kong.”

The same could be said for its literature. Since June, Hong Kong’s literary scene has actively documented current happenings through poetry, fiction, and criticism. Numerous local literary magazines, including Fleur des lettres, Voice & Verse, and Formless, are running issues dedicated to the protests, and the activity is not restricted to within the city’s borders. In particular, there is an initiative to translate protest poetry from Hong Kong for an international audience. In July, The Bauhinia Project was launched by an anonymous Hong Kong poet in Berkeley, California. Named after the city’s flower emblem, the project gathers poetry submissions and testimonials in text or audio from anonymous sources. The submissions are then translated into English and made into postcards. So far, the postcards have been displayed in a series of exhibitions held in Germany as well as different cities in California. The Bauhinia Project is also curating events on the extradition bill movement. On September 25, a panel discussion on misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the protests abroad were held at Moe’s Books in San Francisco and featured six speakers, among them Hong Kong poet Wawa, previously interviewed on Asymptote on her medium-pure poetry, and writer Henry Wei Leung.

I will also moderate a discussion on civil society and literature between writer Hon Lai Chu, who spoke about politics and literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year, and playwright Yan Pat To, whose latest play, Happily Ever After Nuclear Explosion, premiered in German at Munich’s Residenz Theater and subsequently in Cantonese at Tai Kwun, an arts and heritage site in Hong Kong, and South Korea’s Asia Playwright Festival. The event is part of Goethe-Institut Hong Kong’s wider series on civil society and art, which previously covered independent films, LGBT, and moving images.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Central Europe, Western Europe, and the US

This year, Romania was the guest of honor at the Author’s Reading Month festival, the largest Central European literary festival, which has been running annually since 2000 and is co-organized by four countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and the Ukraine. The Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) supported the participation of no less than thirty-two Romanian writers in the festival, with names ranging from the legendary poet Ana Blandiana (recently awarded the prestigious Struga Poetry Evenings Prize), established poet-translator Octavian Soviany, past Asymptote contributor, trans-surrealist poet, essayist, and critic Simona Popescu, performer and writer Iulia Militaru, distinguished fiction writer and literary historian Ioana Pârvulescu, (modestly self-titled) “new wave” poet and editor Claudiu Komartin, to rising stars such as Andrei Dósa, and even writer-politicians such as Varujan Vosganian and Adrian Cioroianu. The events, organized in five major cities across Central Europe, paired up every Romanian writer with a local writer—in most cases via intriguingly relevant combinations. This continued a recent trend that brought other Romanian/Moldovan writers—such as Alexandru Vakulovski and Diana Iepure—and their work to Central Europe.

Further west, three Romanian authors (including two past Asymptote contributors) also took center stage in major European venues: poet and academic Flavia Teoc had her book—On the Language of Skaldic Poetry—presented at a special ceremony at the Romanian Embassy in Denmark, whilst poet, critic, and fiction writer Radu Vancu had a poetry collection launched in Stéphane Lambion’s French translation. In England, poet and classicist Lucia Dărămuș, active already for a couple of years in Gloucestershire, participated in the International Literary Festival in Dorset.

Concerning Romanian and Central/Eastern European literatures in translation, a panel on the art of literary translation and the business of publishing translated literature was organized a few days ago at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in celebration of National Translation Month. This event included a program of literary readings from recently translated works and featured Asymptote editor Ellen Elias-Bursać as she presented her recent Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian projects alongside Romanian-American poet Claudia Serea, who read from her forthcoming translation of Iulia Militaru’s poetry.

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

In the crisis of a so-called alarming downfall of reading culture in Vietnam, where every single newspaper laments constantly that “Vietnamese read less than one book/year”, a book fair is a golden opportunity for publishers to sell books and promote authors with various book launches, signings, and exhibitions. With the same goals, the 6th Hanoi Book Fair kicked off on October 2 and will run for five days at The Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long, a Unesco World Heritage site in Hanoi. The theme of 2019 is “Hanoi city for Peace” to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Hanoi’s Liberation day. The fair is organized by Hanoi Department of Information and Communications, and the Bureau of Publishing and Distribution.

Yet, this endeavor is, more often than not, tested by the competitive online market. Tiki, the biggest e-commerce platform in Vietnam, threw an unexpected virtual book fair with innumerable titles up to 80% off, just before the book fair mentioned above. In the context of a fixed-price law, never mentioned let alone up for debate, e-commerce business currently dominates the book marketplace where the reader can buy a newly released book for 40% less than its original price.

Despite countless difficulties in the small and already saturated market, this year’s book fair brings forward a surprisingly wide range of events. Apart from thirty domestic publishers, fourteen international publishers, embassies and associations also participated in the fair, including Gramedia international (Indonesia), Pelangi Books (Malaysia), the embassy of Italy, and the French Culture Center in Hanoi, to name a few. Thanks to this diversity of members, an informative discussion has been held by six invited speakers who are chairs of the Asean Book Publishers Association, the Philippines Educational Publishers Association, the Myanmar Publisher and Bookseller Associations, and the Indonesia National Book Committee. Entitled “An overview of the publishing industry in Asean countries,” the talk was intended to advance cultural exchanges and share experiences in publishing among these countries. The best speech was given by Laura Prinsloo from Indonesia, who shared her insights on how Indonesia became the Guest of Honor at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015. She pointed out that success is thanks to the commitment of the government and the solidarity of all the publishers in their relentless efforts to promote the cultural identity of Indonesia to the world. The fair also has a variety of events comprising a talk titled “The message of The Mahābhārata for 21st century” by the director of Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre, a workshop on the picture book “Inventions” by the French illustrator Axelle Doppelt, and several book launches of Vietnamese writers.

One of the most outstanding exhibitions at the fair is the display of a number of rare and antique Vietnamese translations of several important Czech writers, which is held by the Czech Embassy in Hanoi. The presentation boasts a comprehensive list of Karel Čapek’s works, translated from the 1960s in Vietnam and out of print since then, such as the collection of short stories “The Blue Chrysanthemum”, and the play “The Mother”. Unlike Franz Kafka’s works that have been translated widely in Vietnam, translations of Čapek’s most well-known novels were not published until the early 21st century. The exhibition is the first event in the one-month literary festival aiming to promote Čapek and his works to Vietnamese readers. Along with Čapek’s, many other translations of Czech fiction are also on display such as “Love And Garbage” by Ivan Klíma, “Life Is Elsewhere” by Milan Kundera, and the abridged version of “The Good Soldier Švejk” by Jaroslav Hašek.


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