Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Three continents in a ten-minute read. We're bringing you literary news from Morocco to Poland to the USA.

This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards. 

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

The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.

To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Special selections from our Spring 2019 issue!

If you have yet to read our spectacular Spring 2019 issue, what are you waiting for? Maybe for our Section Editors to give you their favourites so you can get off of the right foot—well, we’ve delivered. From the poetry by the hand of acclaimed fiction writers, to century-traversing tales, to contemporary criticism on the role of the translator, here are the highlights, straight from those who have devoted themselves to perfecting this issue.

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Section Editor:

This issue’s fiction lineup is bookended by two Argentine authors (born in 1956) who grapple with Jewish identity in their work. With The Planets shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, Sergio Chejfec is much better known to Anglophone readers, but Daniel Guebel is not exactly an unknown entity—recently the publisher Beatriz Viterbo released an anthology of essays contributed by such writers as César Aira celebrating Guebel’s work. Via “Jewish Son,” Jessica Sequeira’s perfectly pitched translation, English readers are introduced to bits of a weltanschauung that include pilpul (aka spicy thought, a method of interpreting the Talmud), tango singers, readings of Kafka and The Aeneid, all taking place in the last act of a father-son relationship. Yet, it is also very emotional—despite, or perhaps all the more so because of, the philosophical exposition. As with the best fictions, Guebel gestures toward a gestalt beyond the text. I can’t wait for more of this heavyweight to appear in English.

In the poetry section, which I also assembled, two highlights (also bookending the section) are Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the now-international formalist Oulipo movement, and Georgi Gospodinov, acclaimed for The Physics of Sorrow, showing that they have as much talent as poets as they do as fiction writers. An especially exciting discovery is Gertrud Kolmar, nom de plume of Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner, advocated by cousin Walter Benjamin, but only now celebrated as one of the great forgotten poets. Characterized by mystery, the taut but dreamlike poems channeled with elan by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman are fueled by an “ache unnamed”; “a glimmer burning out its flame.” 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, catch up on the latest literary news from Morocco, France, and Hong Kong!

We begin and end this week with a look at two of the winter’s biggest book fairs: Hodna Nuernberg accompanies us on a retrospective tour of the 25th Casablanca International Book Fair, while Barbara Halla lets us know what’s in store at next week’s Salon du Livre in Paris. Meanwhile, Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung, reporting from Hong Kong, updates us on a symposium taking place today to honor 2019 Newman Laureate Xi Xi.

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

Oft-maligned by Morocco’s cultural elite, Casablanca’s international book fair came to a close on February 17. The twenty-fifth edition of the fair saw 560,000 visitors, or 62% more than in 2017, yet publishing houses bemoaned a lack of serious readers. Indeed, the book fair, whose 10-dirham entry fee—about $1—is roughly the price of a big-city café au lait, is a resolutely popular affair where boiled-chickpea sellers rub elbows with poets, children careen wildly from stand to stand clutching brand-new Barbie notebooks, and azans ring out on loop from the Saudi pavilion. This year, 720 exhibitors from forty-two countries offered up some 128,000 titles, about a quarter of which were literary works. Although 80% of books published in Morocco in 2017-2018 were in Arabic, French punches above its weight in the literary domain, accounting for 30% of all published novels.

Catastrophe was narrowly avoided when Éditions Malika’s stand went up in flames during the fair’s final weekend. Apparently the result of a poorly-wired outlet, the fire destroyed much of the small Casablanca-based publisher’s stock and could have done much worse given that there were no fire extinguishers on site when the fire broke out. Fortunately, the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad had brought their own and saved the day. After the ashes were swept away and the shelves restocked, one of the book fair’s finest offerings could be found at Éditions Malika: the sumptuously illustrated Casablanca, nid d’artists by Kenza Sefrioui and Leïla Slimani, which features the work of 115 artists.

Meanwhile, New York-based artist Meriem Bennani is back in Morocco, working on a film project about French soft power and neocolonialism for the upcoming Whitney Biennale. The project involves filming the well heeled students of Bennani’s alma mater, Rabat’s Lycée Descartes—the crown jewel of the French Republic’s mission étrangère, whose tuition is about twice Morocco’s annual official minimum wage. Bennani describes it as a kind of “coming out” in the context of a society that has been quick to label her work as that of a marginalized minority artist.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, the global literary world was busy with prizes, language politics, and festivals.

Join us on a journey around the world from Hungary to Morocco and Brazil to find out more about the latest festivals, prizes, and news in world literature. Come back to our blog next week for other news and pieces about world literature. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary

One of the highlights of the Hungarian literary scene, Margó Festival and Bookfair took place between 18-21 October. The festival happens twice each year, and while the summer edition focuses on contemporary writers in general, autumn is dedicated to emerging new voices and to literary translation.

The Margó Award is a relatively new initiative that helps to launch a young prose writers’ career each year, awarded to the best debut novel or short story collection of the year. Previous winners include Benedek Totth, whose debut novel Dead Heat (Holtverseny) will be published in English by Biblioasis in 2019 and Mátyás Szöllősi, whose new novel Péter Simon is out now. Short stories of this years’ winner, Anna Mécs peek into young women’s lives as they navigate the chores of adult life. Mécs writes in a voice that merges accuracy with much-needed lightness and acerbic humour.

The audience could meet authors in dozens of readings and roundtable discussions during these densely packed four days. Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Aprómunka egy palotáért follows librarian Hermann Melvill’s wanderings in New York into his labyrinth inner world, delivered in Krasznahorkai’s signature, meandering sentences, while György Dragomán’s Rendszerújra collects his politically themed short stories that grapple with oppressive systems, be they political or technological.

Many eagerly awaited new works were discussed from the emerging new generation as well: Boldizsár Fehér debuted with a satirical utopia of social experiment, and a new novel by Péter Gerőcs follows a portrait photographer’s quest against forgetting, Sándor Neszlár published a volume of experimental prose that pairs every kilometre he ran with a sentence, while Ilka Papp-Zakor‘s new collection sketches out a surreal Budapest with zoo-animals on the run. Two documentary films rounded the experience, portraits of Nádas and Krasznahorkai.

As the festival is over, celebrations give way to anxiety over the ongoing culture wars of the Orbán government, that switched to a higher gear in the past months, dismissing the director of Petőfi Literary Museum, and airing plans about a potential centralisation of literary publishing. Meanwhile, many writers protested against a new law that criminalises rough sleeping. Politics and literary production are increasingly different to disentangle, but events like the Margó Festival are strong testimonies of resilience.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

Don’t know where to start with our Fall 2018 issue? Here are the stand-out pieces, according to our section editors.

The brand new Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote was released last week and we are still enjoying its diverse offerings from 31 countries, including a Special Feature on Catalan fiction. After the blog editors posted their highlights two days ago, the quarterly magazine’s section editors share their favorites from this season’s haul: 

What good is French today? After years of patient apprenticeship, and years of mastery, perhaps writing in French was only a means of escape, or a way of doing battle. These are the questions that Abdellah Taïa battles with, in ‘To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?’ Beautifully translated by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Taïa’s essay attacks the French language, with great vigor and style, and—of course—in French. In a succinct essay, Taïa adroitly sets out the class politics of speaking French in Morocco, and the satisfactions (and oblivions) of conquering a language and a place, and all the complicated forms of hatred (and self-hatred) that come with it.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction editor

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to five different countries.

Woah! It has apparently been a busy week in world literature. Today we bring you news from not just one, not two, but five different countries: Iran, Morocco, Spain, Argentina, and France. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor at Large, reporting from Iran:

The 31st Tehran International Book Fair was held from May 2nd to May 12th, 2018, in Tehran, Iran.

In this year’s fair, a much-awaited novel by Iran’s foremost novelist, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, was finally offered to readers. طریق بسمل‌ شدن , a novel about the Iran-Iraq war, had been awaiting a publication permit from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for ten years. The book has, however, already been offered to English readers, under the title Thirst, translated by Martin E. Weir and published by Melville House in 2014. (You can read a review of Thirst here.) (You can also read a piece by Dowlatabadi in Asymptote’s special feature on the Muslim ban here.)

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In Conversation: Rita Stirn

My book seeks to understand how women manage to become musicians in Morocco.

Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?

Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.

I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.

Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States.

We are back with the latest from around the world! This week we hear about Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States. Enjoy!

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

Some seven hundred exhibitors from Morocco and around the world descended on Casablanca for the Salon international de l’edition et du livre, which took place from February 9-18. Half open-air souk (rumor had it that one of the ambulatory vendors went so far as to offer women’s panties for sale!), half oasis of high culture, the book fair counted over 125,000 titles from forty-five different countries. Egypt, this year’s guest of honor, accounted for nearly fifteen percent of the titles on offer alone, and managed to ruffle more than a few feathers when an Egyptian publisher was allegedly caught displaying a book (A Brief History of Africa) whose cover featured a map of the continent depicting a “mutilated” Morocco—the disputed territory of the Western Sahara appearing as an independent nation under the Polisario flag. The presence of the book was firmly denied by the Ministry of Culture.

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Asymptote Blog Wants YOU to Lead the Conversation!

Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality.

Fran Leibowitz once said: “Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent as the heavy petting of literature.” In that spirit, the Asymptote blog is looking for more book-lovers like yourself to contribute to the global conversation on literature and the arts in translation.  

Showcasing new translations and daily writings on world literature and culture, Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality in our postings. We have published pieces on topics ranging from pop music and children’s books to political calls-to-action. Apart from essays, we run dispatches from international literary events, interviews, weekly new translations, book reviews, and more. Like our journal, we are looking for creative, original, and highly engaging work that considers the role of translation in literature, the arts, and the fabric of everyday life.

We encourage writers of all stripes and colours to engage with global issues as well as particular interests. At Asymptote, we’re all about breaking borders and boundaries, and are looking for writing that does the same.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Traveling the world, one book at a time!

Your weekly shot of global literary news is here! Today we travel to Austria, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Morocco to find out about the latest prizes, performances and literary festivals. 

Contributor Flora Brandl reporting from Austria: 

In the southern state of Styria, the oldest Austrian festival for contemporary art, Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn), recently opened with a powerful speech by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. Styrian-born, Haas is one of the most renowned figures of the international New Music scene and currently teaches at Columbia University.

In his opening speech, Haas reflected on the dynamics of the remnants of Nazism and the burgeoning avant-garde art scene in Styria. While Nazism was always at the forefront of fighting so-called “degenerate art”—“for they knew: art is dangerous for them”—it also provided fertile grounds for a creative form of resistance: “We [artists] were spurred by the pain and the rage and the grief,” Haas recounted. He ended with an invocation that the role of artists today is to “spread the virus of humanitarianism” in the wake of a worldwide rise of fundamentalism. A political speech with a very personal note, the entire speech can be read in the original German here.

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#3arabizi: Arabic in the Internet Era

While the classical/dialectal debate rages, crowdsourced Arabic transliteration rises from the Internet, spreading among the multinational youth.

A language is alive—it’s a breathing, blooming entity that metamorphoses as worlds turn. Often, we turn to the literary when charting these changes, but language goes where the people are. Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Morocco, Hodna Nuernberg,  writes about the changes that the Internet—blogs, texting, social media—is catalyzing in transliterated versions of spoken Arabic around the world. 

According to the United Nation’s 2016 Measuring the Information Society Report, approximately 47 percent of the world’s population are internet users, and nearly 3.6 billion people are expected to rely on messaging apps as a primary means of communication by 2018. Thanks in no small part to the pervasiveness of computer-mediated communication, we are reading and writing more than ever—in fact, Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University and principal investigator for the Stanford Study of Writing, speaks of a literacy revolution in which “life writing” (in the form of texts, tweets, emails, status updates, or blogs) accounts for a massive 38 percent of the average Stanford student’s written production.

For many of us, the distance between our spoken language and its written form is small enough as to seem nonexistent, so converting our speech into print is a fairly straightforward process. But this isn’t always the case.

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