From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!
Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:
The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.
It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France
Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”
Selling books can be a form of political activism. That’s according to Ketty Valêncio, who founded the initiative Livraria Africanidades, a unique bookstore in São Paulo that only sells books that focus on and valorize black women.
Africanidades Bookstore began online in 2014 and opened its physical location in December 2017. The walls of its new home have murals created by black women artists and its bookshelves are lined with fiction, poetry, feminist theory, nonfiction, and even cookbooks, the vast majority of which are written by black authors from Brazil’s peripheries. The space carries the fruitful results and future promise of selling books by authors who reside on the margins of the Brazilian publishing scene—or who are excluded entirely from the traditional literary market.
Here, Ketty Valêncio tells Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, some of the challenges for women of color in Brazilian publishing and the power of increasing visibility for writers of color, both in Portuguese and in translation.
Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you come up with the idea for the Africanidades Bookstore?
Ketty Valêncio (KV): The bookstore came about because of my struggle to understand myself as a black woman. I never felt that I fit in anywhere. And then I came across Afro-Brazilian literature, texts that have black characters as protagonists. I understood my blackness through literature, through these books written by black authors and also by a few white authors who place value on black characters. I came across these narratives and thought, wow, there are people writing about me, about who came before me, about my ancestors and my memories.
We are back with the latest literary news from around the world! This week we hear about various happenings in Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States.
Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-large, reporting from Brazil:
Brazil made international headlines when black feminist city councilperson Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro on March 14. Renowned authors from around the world, including Chimamanda Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Arundhati Roy, signed a petition demanding an investigation into the death of the activist and civic leader. One of Brazil’s most prominent black women writers, Conceição Evaristo, recited a poem in Marielle Franco’s honor during the days of protest and mourning that followed the murder.
Today we bring you a reflection on the life of Brazilian writer Victor Heringer. Victor’s elegant and thought-provoking non-fiction piece “Notes for a General Theory of the Arriviste” was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Asymptote where we have been long-time admirers of his work. Victor, who would be thirty this week, passed away on March 7, 2018. Today we celebrate his literary work.
Victor Heringer was a multi-genre, multi-faceted artist. It’s not enough to remember him as “Victor, the poet” or “Victor, the writer.” Victor drew and made films and sound installations. He wrote poetry, nonfiction, novels. It was as though the borders between genres were not so fixed or important. Indeed, borders, designed to be crossed and, whenever possible, abolished, were recurrent themes in his oeuvre.
“Being Brazilian, and especially being from Rio de Janeiro, was something I had to learn how to do,” said the writer, born in Rio in 1988, in an interview. “I spent my childhood moving between cities and countries, mostly Argentina and Chile. For a few years, I was sure I would stay in Santiago forever and become a Chilean citizen. When I came back to Brazil as a teenager, it took me a long time to lose the accent. I felt Chilean. In Chile, I’d felt Argentinian; in England, Brazilian; in Peru, where I am now, I’m starting to feel that I am nothing at all, maybe just a stateless person with documents and a few languages mixed up in my head.”
For many of us, this month will be either the coldest or the hottest of the year; luckily, the books we’re focusing on this February are resilient and long-lasting—featuring new titles from Albania all the way to Latin and Central America.
Blood Barrios by Alberto Arce, translated from the Spanish by John Washington and Daniela Ugaz, Zed Books
Reviewed by Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large for Tunisia
Blood Barrios, Alberto Arce’s account of his diverse experiences as the only foreign journalist inside Honduras between 2012 and 2014, gives a platform to voices inside this small Central American country that are seldom heard. From deep within the Mosquitia jungle, where Arce investigated possible American involvement in massacring innocent civilians, to an overcrowded prison farm where over 350 people died in a fire, he makes “[t]he privileges of a foreigner” in Honduras “his obligations,” asking questions that others cannot.
Our weekly news update continues in the dawn of this exciting and unpredictable year, but before we get down to business, Asymptote has some very important news of its own (in case you missed it): our new Winter 2018 issue has launched and is buzzing with extraordinary writing across every literary genre! Meanwhile, our ever-committed Editors-at-Large—this week from Brazil, Hungary and Singapore—have selected the most important events, publications and prizes from their regions, all right here at your disposal.
Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore:
2017 ended on a high note as Singapore’s literary community celebrated the successes—and homecomings—of four fiction writers who have gained international acclaim: Krishna Udayasankar, Rachel Heng, JY Yang, and Sharlene Teo. At a packed reading organized by local literary non-profit Sing Lit Station on December 30th, the four read excerpts from their recent or forthcoming work, from Yang’s Singlish-laced speculative short fiction, to fragments of Teo’s novel Ponti, winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award. The following weekend, Udayasankar and Heng joined other Singapore-based writers such as Toh Hsien Min and Elaine Chiew for two panel discussions on aspects of international publishing, which aimed to promote legal and ethical awareness among the community here.
Other celebrations in the first fortnight of 2018 took on more deep-seated local issues. Writers, musicians and artists from among Singapore’s migrant community presented a truly cosmopolitan evening of song and poetry to a 400-strong audience that included fellow migrant workers, migrant rights activists, and members of the Singaporean public. Among the performers were the three winners of 2017’s Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition, alongside Rubel Arnab, founder of the Migrants’ Library, and Shivaji Das, a prominent translator and community organizer. Several days after, indie print magazine Mynah—the first of its kind dedicated to long-form, investigative nonfiction—launched their second issue with a hard-hitting panel on ‘History and Storytelling’. Contributors Kirsten Han, Faris Joraimi and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow all spoke persuasively about contesting Singapore’s official narratives of progress and stability, and the role of writers in that truth-seeking work.
One challenge of translation is finding a text that appeals to an audience separated geographically and culturally from the author. Finding a nonfiction text with that kind of currency is all the more difficult. The translator of nonfiction is faced with a text tied to local events and often steeped in a historical, social, and political context. Why should the average international reader care about nonfiction in translation? Today, Asymptote sits down with Daniella Gitlin, the translator of the famous 1957 Argentinian reported novel, Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre (Operation Massacre), previously excerpted in our Summer 2013 issue, to discuss her encounters with a masterpiece of nonfiction and outline the urgent relevance of a text six decades old.
Lara Norgaard (LN): Tell me a bit about how you came to translate Operation Massacre.
Daniella Gitlin (DG): I spent the year after college in Buenos Aires working for a nonprofit, Poder Ciudadano, with a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship. I was back in Argentina for a visit and told my friends there that I was applying for the nonfiction writing program at Columbia. Before I left, my friend Dante gave me a copy of Operación Masacre with a dedication in it. He wrote, “Dani my dear, a little ‘Argentinian nonfiction’ will do you good. I hope you like it.” I took the book back with me. I had heard of Walsh, but I didn’t really know anything about him.
It’s time to kick off an annual tradition! From today till the end of the year, Asymptote staff will take turns reflecting on his or her year in reading, revealing the pivots they took in their consumption of literature, and the intimate ways those pivots informed their lived experience. First up, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard.
In the first painful weeks of 2017, I found myself looking to the past to make sense of the present. How did we get here? That was the question that repeatedly echoed through my head, like a drumbeat, during inaugurations, rallies, executive orders, new legislation. How did we get here?
It was on a flight to Buenos Aires during those first painful weeks of January that I gained insight into why this is so difficult a question to answer. I’d packed an old copy of the Argentinian-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990) and, as the plane took off, found myself transported back to the first years of democracy after Pinochet’s fall from power. A woman who had been kidnapped under the dictatorship faces the very man who tortured and raped her: he enters her home, randomly, after helping her husband Gerardo get back home when he is stranded because of a flat tire. She takes justice into her own hands, staging a trial in her living room, while Gerardo, who is a member of the truth commission investigating deaths incurred by the military regime, urges her to follow democratic procedure even if the state might never recognize her story or bring the man to court. In his stunning English-language play about post-dictatorship politics, Dorfman captures a private memory that is at odds with public discourse. Though the fairly recent periods of fascism in South America predate the global bubbling up of right-wing energy in 2017, official narratives of those regimes remain incomplete.