Posts by Lindsay Semel

In Review: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Those who speak out against oppression, especially women, form the foundation of a better future.

The Restless by Gerty Dambury (The Feminist Press, 2018). Translated by Judith G. Miller  

Gerty Dambury’s The Restless, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, takes place in her native Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that has been an overseas department of France since just after the second World War. Guadeloupeans of different ages, genders, and social statuses narrate the events surrounding the violent confrontation between the construction workers’ union and the French prefecture that took place on May 26th, 1967. On this day, as workers gathered outside the building where the union negotiated wage raises with business owners, the French prefect ordered troops to fire on the crowd, and the situation degenerated from there. The lynchpin of the novel is a little girl, Émilienne, who’s waiting for her father to come home so he can explain to her why her teacher has disappeared. While she waits in the courtyard of her home, a chorus of her family members and neighbors (both living and dead) contextualize the two absences and how they relate to the broader experiences of the island.

Though Émilienne acts as the focalizer, the chief narrators are her eight brothers and sisters, who speak with a more-or-less undifferentiated voice. They proclaim themselves the “callers” of the story, which they structure after the Caribbean quadrille, a sort of creolized version of a French square-dance. The caller of the quadrille is conventionally singular and male, but Émilienne’s siblings are happy to innovate. They often hand over the reins to guest narrators, who act as temporary callers. Each section of the narrative has a primary caller, though others often chime in, and corresponds to one of the four quadrille figures in rhythm and mood. Émilienne’s siblings helpfully guide the unfamiliar reader’s expectations of the musical conventions at the beginning of each figure/chapter. The multivocality and musicality of the text, two of its most distinguishing features, could have posed a challenge to Miller’s translation. The differences between the figures and the characters’ voices are discussed more than demonstrated.


What’s New in Translation: November 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Martinique, France, and Hungary. 

The Dancing Other

The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius, Translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellog, Seagull Books

Reviewed by Madeline Jones, Editor at Large, United States

The Dancing Other opens as our anti-heroine Rehvana stumbles out of a dingy apartment in Paris, just barely escaping literal branding by the other members of the Ébonis, or the “Sons of Agar”—an African god. Rehvana wants nothing more than to be included in and loyal to this insular community of Antillean immigrants that tries to emulate traditional Martinique culture—though how authentically they manage this aspiration is debated among some of Dracius’s other characters.

Rehvana’s boyfriend Abdoulaye is the group’s leader, whose temper has more than once manifested itself in blooming bruises across Rehvana’s face and arms. But the kind, protective Jeremy holds no allure for her. Jeremy and Rehvana’s formidable older sister, Matildana, tell her blatantly that a young woman such as her has no business slumming it with this cultish group of wannabes, but Rehvana both resents and resists her smarter, more pretentious, whiter sister’s warnings. She takes her newly enforced identity to its final phase by running away without a word back to the homeland, to Martinique, with another man she just met and who immediately consumes her thoughts and energies.


In Conversation: Cristina Serverius on Teaching and Translation

It is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings.

As a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law, and Society, Cristina Serverius continues her lifelong quest to “understand humans, understand the self, and understand community,” while promoting educational environments that encourage all its participants to thrive. Native to Belgium, she earned an M.Ed in Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches from SFU and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. Cristina currently works as an educational consultant. Asymptote for Educators Lindsay Semel interviews her about the questions driving her interdisciplinary inquiries and how they manifest in the classroom.

LS: From the perspective of a border-crossing scholar (in terms of discipline, country, and language), can you speak about the extent to which education is or isn’t a field/practice rooted in place? How does your foreignness impact your relationships within the schools?

CS: I think it is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings. We do children (and the environment!) a great disservice by denying them an intimate knowledge of their surroundings in favor of studying the world “at arm’s length,” as physicist Arthur Zajonc calls the learning enforced in many schools, which adhere to a rigid barrier between self and object of study. How are we supposed to learn to care for a neighbor or a local marshland when we are taught in a context of separation; how can we examine the far-away before we explore that which is close by? In Belgium, we call secondary school “humaniora,” a place where one becomes a human. Most schools, for a variety of structural, systemic, and societal reasons, have forgotten their role in this process and have been reduced to places where (a certain kind of) knowledge transfer either happens or, frustratingly, doesn’t happen.

Obviously, when looking at place-based education, we have to consider that places (and the communities that inhabit them) change over time. Place-based education in Belgium, for example, must include exploration of the large Maghrebi communities; the village church and the mosque are both opportunities for place-based learning. As such, it is representative of contemporary society for Canadian schools to have staff who did not attend Canadian elementary or secondary schools, and a great deal of the children attending school now are first-generation Canadians. Bringing in staff who do not have a Canadian background can lay bare and put up for debate some of the things we do “because they’ve always been done this way,” and that can only be healthy for any organization. My (or any other foreigner’s) learning about the school system starts a conversation that necessarily leads to self-reflection for those who have been embedded (in this case) in the Canadian system. Those are wonderful conversations that advance learning for both parties.


Recipes for Peace: Arab Cuisine Garnished With a Message Of Coexistence

A bilingual feminist from an Arab village in Israel makes a potent appeal for peace—with food.

In the introduction to her vegan cookbook, Recipes for Peace, Kifah Dasuki describes her mission this way: “This is more than an ordinary cookbook, though. I wrote it in two languages—Hebrew and Arabic—side by side from a place of great love and with a real hope for change. A hope to fight fear and hostility and to nurture love and compassion.” For Dasuki, compassion is unconditional. Person to person, human to animal, language to language, compassion is fundamental to the building of a new world free of the “fear and frustration” she feels have been her lot. And this book is one building block she will contribute to the new world.

As she personalizes her recipes with anecdotes and reflections from her life, Dasuki isn’t shy about the challenges she has faced as a woman from the Arab village of Fureidis (which aptly means “paradise,” she notes, though in her darker moments she also calls it a “hellhole”) in Israel. She attributes her ambition and resilience to such challenges. Possibly her most vivid anecdote describes her first day of university in Tel Aviv, during which she encountered the word “proportzionaly,” a Hebraization of the English word “proportional.” As she didn’t know the word at the time, feeling inferior in her foreignness, she went crying to her dorm room. Later in the semester, she recognized for the first time how a difficult but honest dialogue between Hebrew and Arabic speakers can lead to mutual understanding. With this foundation, she began to actively bring people together for such conversations from all parts of the extremely diverse Israeli society. READ MORE…

My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

In Review: Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

It is imbued with the passionate discontent of the punk movement, thought to be dead, but clearly still bubbling under our collective surface.

‘Volatile’ isn’t a strong enough adjective for Gloria, the protagonist of Virginie Despentes’ novel, Bye Bye Blondie. This post-punk love story shocks and devastates with its disquieting exploration of personhood, womanhood, and human connection through Gloria’s manic gaze.

We meet Gloria in her middle age, newly homeless after the latest in a string of exes becomes fed up with her bottomless capacity for anger and violent outbursts. She begins making her way to the local bar. She’d smashed her phone against a wall in her final fight with her ex, but even if she had some change to call a friend for help, she realizes there are very few left willing to put up with her. But even in these first pages of the novel, her despair doesn’t quite seem isolated. She wanders her dreary town, passing by posters for vapid films and the sterile bubblegum storefronts of international chains. Her ferocity takes on the flavor of rebellion in the context of the anaesthetized materialism of her surroundings.


What’s New in Translation? March 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oaklandreview by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor


Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.

In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”

But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…