Eleven days after its launch, Asymptote’s Fall 2019 issue continues to capture the zeitgeist. Many of its pieces, drawn from a record thirty-six countries, simmer with polyvocal discontent at the modern world, taking aim squarely at its seamy underbelly: the ravages of environmental degradation, colonial resource extraction, and media sensationalism of violence, in particular. If you’re still looking for a way in, perhaps our Section Editors can be of some assistance. Their highlights from the edition follow:
From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction, Poetry, and Microfiction Special Feature Editor:
Via frequent contributors Julia and Peter Sherwood, an excerpt from Czech writer and dramaturg Radka Denemarková’s latest Magnesia Litera Prize-winning novel, Hours of Lead, brings us into the bowels of a Chinese prison, bearing witness to a dissident girl’s defiance of state repression and censorship. Inspired by Václav Havel, the protagonist’s struggle is entirely private and self-motivated, untethered from any broader democratic collective or underground movement. Her guards are driven mad by her equanimity and individuality in the face of savage interrogation: “Even her diffident politeness is regarded as provocative. As is her decency. Restraint. Self-control. Humility. . . The guards find her very existence provocative.” Renounced by her parents and rendered persona non grata, “a one-person ghetto,” by the state, her isolation is both liberating and the ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice.
Meanwhile, poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the Uruguayan frontier with Brazil—revels in an act of presence just as radical and defiant of the mainstream, resisting the state’s attempted erasure of his language. Laura Cesarco Eglin and Jesse Lee Kercheval’s translation sings: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the dictionary/ dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” Don’t overlook the luminous poems of prolific French and Martinican Creole writer Monchoachi, whom Derek Walcott has credited for “completely renewing our vision of the Creole language.” “The Caribbean could be considered a workshop for the modern world,” he conveys in Eric Fishman’s English translation, “with its deportations, its exterminations, and also its ‘wildly multiple’ side, its ‘ubiquity of voices and sounds.’”
What’s the pull of microfiction? Mexican writer Hugo Labravo, whose book Transfinite Things is excerpted in Ellen Jones’s English translation in our second spotlight on International Microfiction, has a hypothesis: “People who read books are used to reading novels, and they aren’t going to haul themselves up off the green velvet armchair until they’ve devoured a minimum of twenty pages or are murdered. And because we know that not every page of a novel is supposed to be memorable, we lie there on autopilot, reading without really paying attention, as though we were washing the dishes. A habit that’s fatal when it comes to microfiction, where every plate counts.” Alongside the sinuous mischief of Labravo, don’t miss a pair of surreal microtexts by Seo Dae-kyung and Yang Dian prying at the seam between fiction and nonfiction. Translated from the Korean by Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, Seo’s “Autumn Night” begins: “One fall night I puked up a monkey. I was in the bathroom at a bar.” The absurd conversation that ensues between the story’s narrator and the monkey underscores how “the real is revealed by dreamscapes and fantasies.” Meanwhile, witness in Yang Dian’s “A Contrarian’s Tales” the revival and reversal of the dynastic Chinese literary tradition of bijiti—a sort of fictionalized encyclopedic form that delivers dreamscapes and fantasies in the tone of reality and, to the knowledge of translator Jack Hargreaves, has not been published in the hundred years preceding this issue.
Ellen Jones, Criticism Editor, weighing in on the final section she put together for us:
My highlight this quarter is Kareem Abu-Zeid’s wonderful essay about his sixteen-year journey to publishing a translation of Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian-born poet Adonis. As well as serving as a helpful introduction to Adonis’s work and to modern Arabic poetry more broadly, the essay is edifying in numerous ways. Abu-Zeid reflects, with enviable humility and self-awareness, on the value of collaboration in poetry translation, on the stresses and strains of the academic peer review process (and indeed the academic world more broadly), and on the value of patience and persistence in the contemporary publishing industry. His co-translation with Ivan Eubanks was published by New Directions earlier this year.
Caridad Svich, Drama Editor, says:
In this issue’s Drama section, we feature Alejandro Ricaño’s Idiots Contemplating the Snow translated by Jacqueline Bixler and Julia Lukshina’s Nervous translated by Anne O. Fisher. Both excerpts illuminate figures in states of anxiety, seeking a measure of peace in worlds that offer little. Ricaño’s mordant humor and deceptively light touch as a playwright is served well here by Bixler; likewise, Lukshina’s precise work is met by Fisher’s careful voice.
Varun Nayar, Nonfiction Editor, on the highlight of his first lineup for Asymptote:
Lists pervade Thomas Boberg’s narration of his time in the Gambia, excerpted here from his travel book, Africana – Rejseroman. At the beginning of “The Container”—translated skillfully by Peter Sean Woltemade—a container waits to be opened, revealing, as Thomas believes, “a key to an understanding of the Gambia, of West Africa, of the whole continent, and therefore, of the world.” Africa is at the center of this piece, and through the simple naming of objects shipped from his home country of Denmark, Boberg unveils an acute and ongoing tension between person and product, local lives and global market forces, and late capitalism and the remnants of neocolonial economics in the Global South. Lists simultaneously reveal and conceal information about their contents. The container is the world, and Boberg’s act of valuing objects as they come out at Banjul’s harbor produces a sharp and self-reflexive critique of what is considered valuable within the vocabulary of global supply chains and what is left behind.
From Victoria Livingstone and Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers (WoW) Section Editors:
“In an authoritarian state, what does it mean for an artist to refuse the binary of self-censorship and dissidence?” In this issue, poet and translator Kelly Morse poses this question as she explores the ways in which Vietnamese writer Nhã Thuyên has negotiated the tensions between the state and resistance in order to fashion her own artistic identity. Like the poet/painter Trần Trung Tín, whose work appears on the cover of her new book of essays un\\martyred, Nhã Thuyên has refused to conform to any particular set of artistic or ideological expectations. The other essays in this issue’s “Writers on Writers” feature also challenge conventions. Alexander Elinson shows how Moroccan writer Yassin Adnan takes us to a Marrakech rarely seen by tourists in his new novel Hot Maroc and Argentine author Luis Chitarroni, in Allison deFreese’s translation, reflects on the work of Benjamin Constant in an excerpt from a book that blends biography and fiction.
Henry Ace Knight, Interviews Editor, on the significance of this issue’s interview:
In an exclusive conversation, Sarah Timmer Harvey talked to poet laureate of Philadelphia Raquel Salas Rivera about recent activism in Puerto Rico, the collaborative bilingual collection of Puerto Rican poetry Salas Rivera released in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the complexities of hybridizing dominant and marginal languages, the trap of self-translation, and much more.
“To translate oneself is to self-other in order to move through a space dominated by another system or code,” Salas Rivera says. “In order to self-translate, I must to some extent face my colonizers and turn my back on my unknowability, but since I never stop being whole, I am also able to witness my estrangement, my refusal, and my doubling.”
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