Posts by Barbara Halla

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

In Romania and Albania this week, literature abounds.

Any occasion to celebrate language is a happy one, as demonstrated in this week’s dispatches from Romania and Albania. With events honoring Romanian Language Day and an emphasis on Albanian literature in Italy, the forces propelling the continuation and evolution of literary language are well and alive. Read on for the news, reported from the ground by our committed editors.

Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor, reporting from Romania

Romanian Language Day has officially been celebrated on August 31 since 2011. This year, I had the privilege of being in Romania to observe this holiday, more specifically to find myself in Cluj-Napoca, a city with a powerful literary scene thanks to its academic and historical tradition. The event dedicated to this occasion (held one day before, on August 30) was held in an interwar casino revamped into an art gallery in Cluj’s central park, and the general public ranged from the city’s literary elite to a group of kids in baseball caps.

Horia Bădescu, one of the representative literary figures of the 1960s (available in English and French translation) and historian and writer Ovidiu Pecican spoke on the history, significance, evolution, and particularities of the Romanian language, while professor of journalism and writer Ilie Rad and translator Gabriela Lungu (who has translated books like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn, among many others, from Italian to Romanian) discussed the originality, richness, and their own intimate perceptions of the Romanian language.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Bucharest makes waves and the Man Booker International hits headlines.

News of the Man Booker International winner has made its way around the senses of the literary-minded public around the world, but we are here with a personal take on its winner, and why this unprecedented win has earned its accolades and perhaps could also potentially earn a place on your shelf. Also on our list is the incredibly poetic nation of Romania, who presented a manifold of verse champions for Bucharest’s International Poetry Festival. Reporting from amongst the greats are our editors at the front.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, covering the Man Booker International 2019

I was many things the night of the Man Booker International announcement, but gracious wasn’t one of them. Before the announcement was made on May 21, I wrote for Asymptote about my thoughts on the longlist and (correctly) predicted that Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Scottish indie Sandstone Press, would win it. Celestial Bodies represents many firsts in the prize’s history: it is the first book written in Arabic to win the prize, as well as the first book by an Omani author (in fact, Jokha Alharthi is the first female Omani author to ever be translated into English) and with a Scottish press to do so. Although its win was a bit of a surprise to others (being as it was surrounded by books receiving a lot more press and praise), the judges seemed quite taken with it. Talking to Five Books, and even during her announcement, chair of the judges, Bettany Hughes, highlighted one particular line from Celestial Bodies that she believed embodies the spirit of the prize itself: “We get to know ourselves better in new, strange places.”

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Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On our itinerary are independent bookstores in Boston, a bistro on the Tripoli port, and the curious outskirts of Paris.

This week, we’ve come across a spoil of literary riches! Big international names come to show in eastern USA, cultural collectives take full advantage of the historic wonders of Lebanon, and, in France, the académie Goncourt is always up to something. Our editors at the front are here to share the treasures.

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:

New York may be the undisputed publishing capital of the US, but the nearby city of Boston, just a few hours away by car, is also home to a thriving literary scene. Birthplace of the 19th century American Transcendentalism movement (notable members include Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott), Boston boasts one of the country’s richest literary traditions, and it remains a hub for writers and independent booksellers today.

Early last year, one of the city’s most prominent bookstores, the Brookline Booksmith, launched the Transnational Literature Series in partnership with Words Without Borders and the Forum Network. The series “focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation,” and hosts conversations between writers and their translators. Previous Transnational Literature Series events have featured Ivana Bodrožić with translator Ellen Elias-Bursać, Olga Tokarczuk with translator Jennifer Croft, and Luljeta Lleshanaku with translator Ani Gjika.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Explore the very latest in world literature, from Asymptote contributors!

Our dispatches this week range from the celebratory to the urgent. Slovak literature is victorious after a splendid showing in Paris, Guatemalan independent literature stakes out a spot on the main stage, and in Albania, writers have taken admirable steps in order to bring the importance of reading to public attention. Read on to keep up with the thrilling advances of these three national literatures.

 Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia

Slovak literature has been making waves in France: Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, was the city of honour at this year’s Salon du Livre, held from March 15 to 18. Years of painstaking preparations, spearheaded by the Slovak Centre for Information on Literature, have resulted in twenty-six brand new translations of books by Slovak authors being translated into French in the past year or so—twice the number published in the thirty years since Slovakia’s independence. Book launches and presentations were accompanied by readings, discussions, and exhibitions, featuring over a dozen writers, playwrights, and journalists, with a good sprinkling of graphic designers, artists, filmmakers, publishers, musicians, as well as some government representatives, which attracted scores of the reading public and captured the attention of the media (find links to the press coverage on the Embassy of Slovakia’s Facebook page).

The star authors included Pavel Vilikovský, the undisputed grand old man of Slovak fiction (he would surely reject this label), who rarely travels abroad these days, but could not turn down the invitation to Paris given that three of his books have appeared in French translation. He has also beaten another record, as his most recent book, RAJc je preč (The Thrill is Gone, 2018) has just been nominated for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera. This is his fifth nomination since the prize was first awarded in 2006; he won it that year as well as in 2014, and judging by this book’s first reviews, he may well manage a hat-trick this year. READ MORE…

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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Barren Landscape: Who is Afraid of Albanian Women?

For many Albanian women, the domestic is a space of terror and violence; what could be more heroic than surviving and writing in spite of that?

How is it that a formal literary curriculum can almost completely erase the works of a group of proficient, formidable writers? In this essay, Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, asks this question of her country’s educational system, while also discussing and revealing the extensive work of Albania’s female writers. 

I could make a long list of my grievances about the Albanian educational system, but I have generally appreciated the breadth of my literary education. In four years of high school, I was assigned some eighty books to read, spanning Western literature from Antiquity (starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh) to Shakespeare, Hugo, Hemingway, and Márquez.

I no longer retain the official list of my required reading, but it is not hard to find a contemporary equivalent. I graduated from high school in 2011, and in eight years, the list selected by the Ministry of Education does not seem to have changed much, which I find questionable. While I am grateful for my literary education, with the years I have become acutely aware of its flaws, the most egregious of which is the complete dismissal of women writers, especially Albanian women. Dozens of books, an entire year dedicated to Albanian literature during my senior year, and yet I graduated without having heard the name of a single Albanian woman writer. It was almost as if they didn’t exist.

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Behind the Scenes with Barbara Halla

There is happiness in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers.

Enjoying our latest issue? You can be a part of the next one if you apply to our recruitment drive. (Just bear in mind that the application deadline is just two days away!) Some of you may wonder what drives us to do what we do, so today, in a special post, we are sharing a testimonial by Editor-at-large Barbara Halla, who tells us why she decided to take the leap and send us her application in September 2017.

121A few months ago, I was discussing a pitch for an essay with one of the blog editors at Asymptote. The idea was to explore the way Albania—almost thirty years after the fall of Communism—is trying to preserve the memory of life under the dictatorial regime through interactive museums and privately-owned hipster cafés. The issue at hand is this: to understand how we might be able to translate memory into a physical space, and in doing so preserve the past. I had began listing all the resources I was going to use—historical books on the nature of memory, space, and the ever-present danger of glorifying dictatorships.

In fact, I had barely hit “Send” for my latest email on the topic when I received in my inbox our Fortnightly Airmail. Included in the “In Transit” section for this issue was a recommendation for Karl Schögel’s In Space We Read Time translated by Gerrit Jackson, a book on the materiality of space. I keep thinking now that even if I had done extensive research for weeks I might have never stumbled on this book that may as well have been tailor-made to help solve the issue I was wrestling with.

This is not the first time that working for Asymptote has serendipitously led me to sources and people who could help me better understand and serve in my role as an editor. Often, I will write about something for the blog and be contacted by another editor who is working on a similar topic, or knows about a book or article I might be interested in. Our community of editors and translators feels at times like a physical extension of my own mind.

All these advantages are the lucky by-product of my joining Asymptote back in October. What led me here was another experience all-together. The final impetus for my decision to apply was a visit in June 2017 to Daunt Books, a landmark bookstore in London known for its collection of titles from all over the world. At Daunt, despite said extensive collection, I could find no books about Albania or by Albanian writers. There is a good reason for that: beyond Kadare and some sporadic voices here and there, few Albanian writers are actually translated into English.

Working as an Editor-at-Large for Albania, I am slowly making my way through a list of voices I hope to feature in future issues, to bridge this gap. This has led me to venture into the world of literary translation myself. Through translation, I am re-discovering, after years of living through and studying in other languages, the beauty and singularity of my own native tongue. It is frightening to realize the struggles and limitations that underpin the work of a translator. I often find it very frustrating, how incredibly difficult it is to properly transmit into English the history that lends colour to our words and phrases. But there is happiness there, too, in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers. It is their interest, their support, that ultimately makes the work worthwhile.

If you’re inspired to join our team after reading Barbara’s essay, check out some newly available openings (including Editor-at-Large) at our Recruitment page here. We look forward to receiving your application!

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find the latest in world literature here!

This week, join our wonderful Asymptote staff members, Barbara, Rachael, and Nina, as they bring you literary updates from Albania, Spain, and the United States. From prestigious national literary awards to new and noteworthy titles and translations, there is plenty to discover in this week’s dispatches. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania, reporting from Albania:

December was a productive month for Albanian publishers, a natural result of the conclusion of the Tirana Book Fair and the expected increase in book sales that marks the holiday period. On December 18, 2018, the Albanian Ministry of Culture conferred the National Award for Literature for the best books published in 2017. Henrik Spiro Gjoka won the “Best Novel” award for his work Sonatë për gruan e një tjetri (A Sonnet for Another Man’s Wife), which details the life of a psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his patients. Translator Aida Baro won the “Best Translated Novel” award for her rendition into Albanian of Primo Levi’s The Truce (translated into English by Stuart J. Woolf), the continuation of Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man.

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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