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.
Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City
Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.
In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.
This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards.
Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco
The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.
To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.
Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda
In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.
It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.
We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked. READ MORE…
As we reported in Asymptote’s weekly dispatch a few weeks ago, Slovak literature made waves at this year’s Salon du Livre in Paris, where thirty-seven books by Slovak authors, including twenty-five brand new translations, were presented. Also in attendance was writer and past Asymptote contributor Marek Vadas, on this occasion wearing his hat as staff member of LIC (Centre for Information on Literature), the agency responsible for promoting Slovak literature abroad. He has agreed to share his insider’s view of the book fair with us.
There are two kind of stands at international book fairs. The first attract attention because of their long-term reputation, literary stars and talent, thoughtful cultural policy and diplomacy or, simply, thanks to the money lavished on them. The second kind—old-fashioned, lacking in invention or sophistication—rarely attract anyone apart from a narrow circle of specialists or the odd passerby. This year, all of a sudden, the Slovak stand found itself in the first category. What happened? READ MORE…
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…
Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.
Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?
Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.
JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?
In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists.
What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.
Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.
Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”
World literature will be inclusive only through a continuous effort of organizing against the dominant, listening to the underrepresented, and making space for the unheard to bloom. This week our Editors-at-Large report such efforts from Australia, Hong Kong, and Slovakia. Read on to find out how the voices of women, indigenous and local peoples are being amplified around the world.
Tiffany Tsao, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Australia:
As part of an effort to resist the colonial systems that are the Australian publishing industry, the Australian media and arts industries, and modern Australia itself, the literary quarterly The Lifted Brow made the decision to hand over the entire production of their December issue to an all-First-Nations team of writers, editors, and ancillary staff. “We at TLB are too white, in all senses of that term,” read the magazine’s official statement on the matter. “[I]t’s way past the time that this should’ve changed. Our job and responsibility now is to push back against these oppressive and harmful regimes-within-regimes, not because we can undo the past, but because we can make better the present and the future.”
By April 2014, Asymptote has snowballed into a team of 60. Though I never signed up to lead so many team members, expansion is a matter of inevitability for a magazine that publishes new work from upwards of 25 countries every quarter (and that prides itself on editorial rigor). After all, if Asymptote section editors only relied on personal connections, it would only be a matter of time before available leads dried up. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge and, more importantly, local networking, since getting the author’s permission to run or translate his or her work is often the hardest part. (For the English Fiction Feature in the Spring 2014 issue alone, I sent solicitations, directly or indirectly, to Rohinton Mistry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Tash Aw, Akhil Sharma, and Tao Lin—all in vain alas.) An entire book could probably be written about how Asymptote wooed author X or translator Y or guest artist Z to come on board as contributor. One particularly memorable (and—I assure you—not representative of the way we operate) episode comes to mind: When her phone call to an author was intercepted and met with a flat rejection by his secretary, a particularly persistent team member signed up for a two-day workshop conducted by said author. At an intermission, she casually makes the ask. The author agrees to discuss the matter the next day, at a restaurant. During dinner, our team member is subjected to intensive grilling before permission is finally granted to run and translate his work. Here to recount how we managed to ask Nobel laureate Herta Müller to come on board as contributor (and to give us permission to translate her moving essay into 8 additional languages) is editor-at-large Julia Sherwood:
I was invited to join the Asymptote team as editor-at-large for Slovakia after volunteering to translate into Slovak Jonas Hassen Khemiri´s Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, which appeared in 20 languages in the Spring 2013 issue of Asymptote. The journal had only been around for two years, but it had already established a reputation for featuring translations from a staggering array of languages and authors who had never been published in English. Slovak, my native language, had yet to make an appearance, so I immediately set out to source suitable texts in high-quality translations. My first success came when “Where to in Bratislava”, a story by Jana Beňová and translated by Beatrice Smigasiewicz, was chosen for the Winter 2014 issue. Soon after that I managed something of a scoop: bringing to Asymptote “The Space Between Languages,” an essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller. READ MORE…