Posts by Filip Noubel

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On Terezín, censorship in Iran, thrilling new Uzbek titles, and the long-awaited Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.

This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan. 

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictionssome cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.

In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.

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The Multiple Worlds of the Writer: In Conversation with Margo Rejmer

I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives . . .

Margo Rejmer’s spare, exacting prose and illustrious methods have earned her widespread praise for both her meticulous reportage and her discerningly detailed narratives. From recollections garnered from the survivors of Communist Albania, to the stories collected from the varied and elaborate landscape of Bucharest, to the grappling of relationships in certain toxic fictional characters in Warsaw, the worlds depicted are all at once worn with secrecy, curious with hope, and bold with the human instinct for survival. In this following interview, Asymptote’s Filip Noubel speaks to Rejmer on subjects of writerly process, choice under totalitarianism, and individual freedoms.

Filip Noubel (FN): You have written two books on the experience and the consequences of dictatorial Communism in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Hoxha’s Albania. What drew you to those countries that, even within the context of then Communist Central Europe, have been generally perceived as economically underdeveloped, politically very conservative, and unattractive as destinations?

Margo Rejmer (MR): Both of the books, Bukareszt. Kurz i krew (Bucharest. Dust and Blood, 2013) and Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, 2018) deal with problems of power, strategies of survival in the authoritarian system, and searching for spaces of freedom. Although, when I started working on them, I didn’t know where they would lead me, as it turns out, everyone has their own inner path that leads to the same point. My book about Albania was supposed to simply be a guide to the Albanian mentality for the Polish reader. In the end though, it turned out to be a story about an isolated Orwellian-Kafkaesque space where people are controlled and punished, yet try to look for happiness and for a substitute for freedom, at least internally.

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Recovering What Is Missing: In Conversation with C.J. Anderson-Wu

The collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, the far-right exists, and inequality prevails.

Chieh-Jane Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese author, translator, and publisher of Taiwanese literature in translation. She is partly inspired by the white spots of Taiwan’s recent history, namely the White Terror, a forty-year period of martial law which began in 1949 and witnessed systematic repression within the nation, particularly targeting intellectuals. Pervasive censorship during the White Terror affected literature, but also the lives of many families at a time when secrecy and denial turned into a survival strategy for many. Anderson-Wu has written several works, including the story collection Impossible to Swallow and “Life Looked at From A Single Window,” and is currently working on a new novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Today Taiwan is one of the freest societies in Asia, yet martial law only ended in 1987, almost forty years after it was first imposed. This period, known as the White Terror, witnessed tremendous political violence: over one hundred and fifty thousand people, including many intellectuals, were arrested, and several thousands were executed. It is also the theme of your collection of short stories called Impossible to Swallow. What has led you to find inspiration in this particular period of Taiwan’s history?

C.J. Anderson-Wu (C.J. A-W): There are several causes, but one of them is my sense of guilt. I did not understand it until I had written several stories. After the Formorsa Incident in 1979, posters of the so-called rebels were everywhere. I was a kid and really believed that they were bad people, that they should be arrested and put in jail. Years went by and as more historical materials were released after the abolishment of martial law, I gradually realized what lies we had lived in. I feel so grateful to those who never backed down and sacrificed so much for the freedom we are enjoying today, and resent my gullibility.

Another thing is that we never had transitional justice. We never had a Nuremberg Trial-type that conducted thorough investigation on what had really happened, why it happened, and who should be responsible. Thus we don’t know how we can prevent it from happening again. Today the past dictators are still worshipped, the days under authoritarian rules are still commemorated, and lies are still believed. I was shocked, in despair, and infuriated. How can people stay ignorant when all the evidence is presented in front of their eyes? How can people feel okay sacrificing the rights that were earned by blood, tears, and sweat?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Xi Xi, Bianca Bellová, and Osamu Dazai. Have we got your attention? Read on.

The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.

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

This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.

To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.

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Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

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What’s New in Translation: March 2019

Reviews of the newest and most exciting fiction from Denmark and France!

March brings with it a host of noteworthy new books in translation. In today’s post, Asymptote team members cover two novels set in the early twentieth century: Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time and Marcus Malte’s The Boy.

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A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books (2019)

Review by Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor

Weaving together diary entries, poems, letters (both opened and unopened) and song, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a stirring reflection on death and mourning, loneliness, and female identity in a changing 20th century Denmark. Fru Bragge—almost always referred to by her married name—has just lost her husband. During a loveless marriage spanning more than two decades, she endured Vigand’s lack of affection and derisive comments in silence. Although she has finally gained her freedom in losing him, she has also lost all direction in life:

I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to go. There would be no difference: north, south, east, or west, it would be the same wherever I went.

It is in this vast landscape, the heathlands of Denmark, that she begins to sift through her memories, uncovering the girl she was before she became Fru Bragge. During the day, she welcomes courteous visitors who come to pay their respects and packs away her late husband’s belongings for donation; during the evening, after darkness has fallen and the oil lamp in the window of her empty home is lit, she feels most comfortable. Here, surrounded by a “silence greater than silence” she writes in her diary, giving voice to a part of herself she had almost forgotten: “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young school-mistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.”

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Fall 2017: The Last Space For Resistance

Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.

Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.

I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.

As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.

Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then: READ MORE…

One Author, Many Selves: Murathan Mungan in conversation with Filip Noubel

On how many pages have I appeared and disappeared?

Murathan Mungan likes to describe himself as a polygamous writer: not only does he write plays performed across Turkey and Europe, including his widely acclaimed trilogy, The Mesopotamian Trilogy; he also writes essays, song lyrics, poetry, and novels that have brought him national recognition as one of the most inventive Turkish authors for the use he makes of the Turkish language. Being himself of mixed origins (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Bosnian), he is very sensitive to the life of underrepresented groups such as women, Kurds, the LGBTQI+ community, and explores taboo themes in his creative writing. I interviewed Mungan in the Czech Republic in the Month of Authors’ Reading Festival where the guest country was Turkey. His latest works include a novel called The Poet’s Novel and a play, The Kitchen. He is currently working on a novel describing the urban aloofness of Berlin.

Filip Noubel (FN): Murathan, you embody a plurality of personal origins, and seem to favor characters from various minorities. Why is diversity essential in your life and in your work? And how is it perceived in Turkey? 

Murathan Mungan (MM): Many people live inside of me. I come from the city of Mardin, in the southeast of Turkey, a city close to Syria and not too far from Iraq. Mardin mirrored the diversity of my own family: my father’s ancestors came to Turkey in the 17th century from Syria, my paternal grandmother’s mother came from the Kurdish regions; my mother’s side is from Sarajevo, which is in Bosnia today. Though I was born in Istanbul, I grew up in Mardin and within a mix of cultures and religions, mingling with people who are Turks and Kurds, but also Assyrians, Alawites, Yezidis, and Armenians.

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In Conversation: Hamid Ismailov

I wish that different literatures were mutually translated, bypassing English or other dominant global languages.

Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing. 

Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?

Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.

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