We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.
Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil
It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.
The Spring 2019 issue of Asymptote, “Cosmic Connections,” features work from 27 countries and 17 different languages. If you’re not sure where to begin, our blog editors have you covered with recommendations for some of their favorite pieces, including an essay about an adventure in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a story that jumps from medieval Jewish theology to the relationship between an Argentine father and son, and poems that offer us a glimpse into intimate moments in the city of Shanghai.
Asymptote’s newest issue is one of the journal’s best to date, meaning that it was nearly impossible to choose just one piece to highlight. In the interviews section, I found Dubravka Ugrešić’s comments on literary activism and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s discussion of the role of Marxism in his work particularly illuminating, while, in the special feature, Nancy Kline’s essay stood out for its focus on the often-overlooked role of the writer’s (and the translator’s) accent and spoken voice in the translation process. But I’d like to devote my highlight to an essay by a somewhat lesser-known writer, one who might otherwise get lost among the many big names that appear in this issue.
The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.
Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?
Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.
If Valentine’s Day doesn’t get your heart racing, Asymptote has something different to offer this February 14. Read on for sinister mansions, absent wives, and the ambivalent origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love!
This Valentine’s Day, consider instead the often terrible odds that romantic endeavours will succeed, the relationships that end mysteriously, and the partners that vanish without a trace. This is exactly what happens in Taiwanese author Wang Ting-Kuo’s English debut, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (Granta Books, April 2019), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun. First published in 2015, the novel has already won all major Taiwanese literary awards and is set to make a spectacular entrance into the English literary scene.
The novel is a first-person retrospective narrative by an unnamed protagonist who has set up a small cafe by the sea, waiting for his missing wife, Qiuzi, to return to this spot, her favourite along the coast. The initial premise is simple: Qiuzi, dissatisfied with the narrator’s absence, his financial lack, and his unintentional neglect of her, disappears one morning into the arms of Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and Qiuzi’s photography tutor. The unnamed protagonist’s narration is then triggered by Luo’s chancing upon the cafe, setting in motion an encounter that drives Luo mad. As the story unfolds, however, the truth of the matter becomes increasingly less certain, complicated also by the appearance of Miss Baixiu, Luo’s daughter, who haunts the cafe daily in an attempt to ‘heal’ the protagonist’s soul. READ MORE…
We’re back this week with dispatches from three countries where literature and politics have been interacting in unexpected ways: Brazil, El Salvador, and the UK. In response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Central American migration to the US, and the Brexit negotiations, museums and literary communities in these countries have been producing thoughtful exhibitions, fiction, and criticism that reflect on national identity and uncertain political futures.
Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, reporting from Brazil
It is hot and humid in Brazil, and long summer days provide opportunities for new authors and space for reflection about writing as political resistance. Early career authors have an opportunity to submit their work for the SESC Prize for Literature, which is open for submissions from January 9 through February 14, when unpublished authors can submit their manuscripts; the Record Publishing Group will release winning texts.
For Brazilian writers interested in producing their own literature beyond the traditional market, 2019 also offers new opportunities. Graphic artist Rodrigo Okuyama hosts a series of free workshops on zine-making at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. On Saturdays from January 12-26, participants can learn about format, illustration techniques, and how to marry narrative content with visual form. These workshops allow new voices to join a growing independent publishing scene in Brazil, where small collectives like PANTIM work at the intersection of literature and the visual arts. READ MORE…
Featuring work from twenty-three languages and a record-breaking thirty-five countries, there’s plenty to choose from in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue! Today, our three blog editors share their favorite pieces, from Icelandic, Slovak and Latvian poetry to Brazilian Portuguese social commentary and Bengali short stories.
From the Fiction section, the ever-intensifying “The Meat Market,” translated from the Bengali, takes one unexpected turn after another in a thrilling prose adventure. Set a week before Eid, what should be a celebratory, communal affair quickly turns sour in East Rajabazar. This is a city where transactions are tainted by the potential for danger, just as the meat sold is tainted by false advertising. Aminul Islam faces the full consequences of these circumstances that he fails to fully understand, culminating in a shocking conclusion carefully set up by Mashiul Alam’s artful prose, switching deftly between first- and third-person at crucial moments in the narrative.
If you are looking for exciting poetry freshly translated into English, don’t miss out on Steinn Steinarr’s “Time and Water.” Hailed as Iceland’s greatest modernist poet, Steinarr’s ethereal poetry combines Icelandic poetics with modernist free verse and imagism to create gems like:
And the sorrow I hid
nearly found your own,
like a fjord-blue sea.
In this sequence on a failed and flawed relationship, the distance between the speaker and the other is quite nearly but not quite ever bridged. Equally impressive are the complex rhythms of Monta Kroma’s extract from Lips. You. Lips. Me., a larger collection of experimental modernist poems. The Latvian poet plays on the use of refrains and repetition to create a circular, almost obsessive monologue. These poems are ones that I’ve been returning to, and ones you might love too! READ MORE…
Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.
Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.
High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.
The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.
Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading!
From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.
The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.