Posts by Barbara Halla

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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Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

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What’s New in Translation: December 2018

Travel to Cuba, South Korea, and Russia with these newly translated works.

Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.

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Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018

Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant

“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of the world’s literary news brings us to Iran, Albania, Romania, and Moldova.

This week’s dispatches take us on a tour of November’s most important literary festivals. In an attempt to combat perennial issues of low readership and lack of access to literature, the festivals offered live readings, awards ceremonies, and discounted books to readers in Iran, Albania and Romania.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Iran

Since 1993, November 15th has been celebrated as the day of Books and Reading in Iran, ushering in a week of celebrations and events to promote literature. The slogan for this year’s Book Week was “The Great Joy of Reading.” Public libraries around the country offered free membership on November 15th, and the Books in the City Festival provided introductions to important Iranian literary figures through music and theatrical readings in subway stations around Tehran.

On November 18th, at the closing ceremony of the 17th Festival of Books and Media, the winners of awards in different media categories (including news, interviews, specialized criticism, humor, photography, websites, and audio and visual media) were announced.

The Imam Ali Society, a charitable foundation, took the occasion to invite its supporters, through the Kids Without Books Twitter campaign, to donate books for children. The campaign also published video in which children invited writers and public figures to donate books to the society’s library.

On the last day of the week, publishers also held readings and talks in different bookstores, creating spaces for readers and authors to come together in celebration of their love for books.

Similar events were held at schools, mosques, and other cultural institutions around the country. However, with low rates of readership and books published per edition, it is unclear how influential these symbolic annual gestures are in changing the reading culture of Iranian society.

In other news, a recent collective initiative has begun to bring together an informal archive of Persian language accents. On November 15th, translator and writer Erfan Mojib tweeted, “Let’s create a website, upload a text, and invite people to read the text in their various Persian accents.” The idea started as a curiosity, but Mojib hopes it can be developed and used eventually for systematic studies. He got so much positive feedback about the idea that he started a telegram channel (t.me/lahjeyab) and a Twitter account (@lahjeyab), and people have been sending him voice messages of themselves reading a text he posted about the diversity of accents in Iran and their unity under the umbrella of the Persian language.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in world literature can be found here in Asymptote's weekly roundup!

This week, our weekly dispatches take you to Poland, France, Mexico and Guatemala for the latest in literary prizes, and literary projects, featuring social media, and indigenous poets in translation.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Poland:

Hot on the heels of a US book tour for her International Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), the indefatigable Olga Tokarczuk appeared at a series of events to mark the UK publication of her newest book. The “existential thriller” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is fast garnering rave reviews, and London audiences had an opportunity for a Q&A with the author combined with a screening of Spoor, the book’s film adaptation. There was also a lively conversation between Olga Tokarczuk and writer and chair of the International Man Booker judges, Lisa Appignanesi, at the Southbank Centre. Meanwhile, Flights has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for translation as well as for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the shortlist of which includes another book by a Polish author, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with a Stained Glass Window (also translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Anyone who may have been afraid to tackle the classics of Polish literature will no longer have any excuse now that Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz has appeared in a new and highly readable English version. “I undertook this translation out of the conviction that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an accessible poem for twenty-first-century non-Polish readers. It’s witty, lyrical, ironic, nostalgic, in ways that seem to me quite transparent and universal,” writes multi-award-winning translator Bill Johnston in his introduction. At a book launch at the Polish Hearth Club in London on October 8, Johnston compared notes with poet and translator George Szirtes, who introduced his translation of the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách.

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.

In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Literary awards, festivals, and commemorative exhibitions reign in this edition of weekly dispatches.

It’s been a busy October in world literature! Join us to find out more about literary happenings from around the world, in Taiwan, China, the United Kingdom, and Albania.

Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Taiwan:

The “Double Tenth Day” on the 10th of October has been commemorated as the “birthday” of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan. On this day in 2018, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery in Sanxia District, New Taipei City, held an opening ceremony for a series of exhibitions featuring the works by two important Taiwanese cultural figures,  Li Mei-shu (李梅樹, 1902-1983) and Zhong Lihe (鍾理和, 1915-1960), respectively a painter and a novelist. Both were influential to the development of Taiwan’s art and literary scenes, and having lived through the martial law period, Li and Zhong grounded their paintings and novels in depicting the homelands that had nourished them. Both are considered to be among a group of Taiwanese nativist artists, who composed works to express their concerns and affections about the local people and places in Taiwan. The exhibition is open to the public until the 18th of November, featuring many precious manuscripts by Zhong, paintings by Li, as well as artworks of the other two younger Taiwanese artists.

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What’s New in Translation: October 2018

Join us to find out more about titles fresh off the press in the world of translation.

Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.

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Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel.  The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues.  “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”  Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.

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Cracks in the Ordinary: Yasmina Reza’s Babylon in Review

How are ordinary people pushed to inconceivable acts of violence and stupidity?

Babylon by Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by Linda Asher, Seven Stories Press, 2018

The “soirée entre amis” (literally an evening among friends) is one the most quintessential of French clichés. Quintessential not only for its pervasiveness in art centred in Paris, but also because it is ridiculously pervasive in real life, too. A staple, even, of life in France. And, if like Yasmina Reza, you believe that “you can’t understand who people are outside [their] landscape,” what better setting for the exploration of the pressures and absurdities of daily existence than precisely a dinner party between friends, a space that demands constant performance due to its many spoken and unspoken social rules?

In a fictional suburb of Paris, Elisabeth and her husband, Pierre, are throwing a party for their friends and family. Invited, at the very last minute, are their neighbours the Manoscrivis, Jean Lino, and Lydie. The party goes well, but tragedy strikes shortly after: Elisabeth and Pierre are woken in the middle of the night by Jean Lino, who has killed his wife after a banal domestic dispute. Even more inexplicable is what follows as Elisabeth, a sensible and rather ordinary woman, decides to help Jean Lino get away with the crime, despite sharing nothing more than a tentative friendship.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Print houses and jury panels are busy, autumn is coming.

Fall’s footsteps can already be heard in literary circles. As summer hosts its last open-air festivals, prize organizers and publishers are gearing up for a new season of surprises. In today’s dispatch, our Editors-At-Large from Europe tell us more about what is going on in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France in this transitionary period. Come back next week for this summer’s last dispatch. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

Held from 1 July to 4 August at venues in five cities – Brno, Ostrava, Wrocław, Košice and Lviv – across four countries, Authors‘ Reading Month (ARM) may well be Europe’s biggest literary festival. It is certainly a major logistical feat: now in its 19th year, the festival featured 100 authors from six countries. Turkey alone, this year’s guest country, was represented by more than thirty authors, including Nedim Gürsel,  Murathan Mungan, Ayfer Tunç and Çiler İlhan. A strong Czech contingent featured prize-winning novelists Bianca Bellová and Josef Pánek, bestselling writers Michal Viewegh and Alena Mornštajnová, as well as a plethora of poets.

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