Posts by Sam Carter

Summer 2014: The Tip of a Vast Iceberg

The best writing does not mirror something we already know but rather offers a new view.

Is world literature racist? (By ‘world literature,’ I refer specifically, of course, to agents in the world literature industry, say, programmers of literary festivals or those who disburse funds.) An unhappy episode looms in my recollection of Asymptote-related work leading up to the Summer 2014 issue. I have only ever brought it up once, and briefly, two years ago, in a blog post about editing a literary journal as a person of color. With Asians in America reclaiming their visibility recently, it may not such be a bad idea to ride the wave. So here is the story: Five years into helming a magazine as its only full-time team member, I came to know about an invitation sent to a part-time team member. This invitation, issued by a White person, to represent Asymptote at an international conference with an offer to be flown in from anywhere, was sent directly to the White female Assistant Managing Editor who’d been with Asymptote for less than seven months, and who actually lived farther away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. Appalled by the blatant racism, I told her that I would not authorize her appearance on behalf of Asymptote—if I couldn’t defend myself against the racist, at least I wouldn’t be complicit in his invisibilization. What surprised me was how incomprehensible this decision was to another White senior team member, who took it upon himself to sway my mind. Forced as a person of color to “accept offense and facilitate its reconciliation,” I chose to shut down the conversation instead, as Maya Binyam would have recommended. Since then, I’ve observed an interesting pattern: people will often rush to the aid of one marginalized group without realizing how it occurs at the expense of other marginalized groups—groups that don’t even have anyone else flying a flag for them, be it Asians or editors (more on this later). Here to introduce the Summer 2014 issue is Senior Editor Sam Carter.

This issue graced the Asymptote homepage when I was applying to join the journal back in August of 2014. As I put the finishing touches on a cover letter—and as I later drafted my responses to a series of follow-up questions—I came back to the contents of this edition again and again to explain why I wanted to contribute to such an impressively expansive, incredibly inclusive, and somehow still remarkably cohesive literary project. Greeting me each time was Robert Zhao Renhui’s stunning cover featuring a man leaping from an iceberg juxtaposed with a polar bear swimming in presumably icy waters. Amid a stillness that nevertheless captures a sense of imminent movement, both remain cool and collected despite the unknown that lies ahead. I soon followed suit, plunging into a new position that, as often happens with sudden immersion, proved instantly invigorating.

If you’re looking for an ice-breaker—or a place of your own to dive into the issue—you probably couldn’t do better than the excerpts from Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Ice, translated by Daniel Borzutzky. Yet unlike the cover photographs, ice here freezes time, recording the past rather than providing any sort of springboard into the future: “You then look at the giant wall of ice and you feel you were once there, perhaps hundreds, thousands of years ago, and you curl up in a ball as if wanting to save yourself from that memory.” The five prose poems have a decidedly chilling effect, one that the poet has been exploring his entire career. READ MORE…

Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2018

Our Section Editors pick their favorite pieces from the Summer 2018 issue!

The brand new Summer 2018 edition of Asymptote is almost one week old and we are still enjoying the diverse offerings from 31 countries gathered therein. Today, our section editors share highlights from their respective sections: 

2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago” is a powerful meditation on the US-Mexico border, compellingly written by Cristina Rivera Garza, and beautifully translated by Sarah Booker. Rivera Garza writes gracefully about sculptures made by Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago and his team. Each of these clay vessels contains the spirit of a migrant who, having tried their luck at crossing the border, now stands in mute testimony to the absences and deaths that striate both America and Mexico. In this essay, Rivera Garza explores the multi-faceted meanings of these sculptures and uses them to explore the intricacies of the border-condition—the nostalgia of those who leave Mexico, and the melancholy of those who remain. At this juncture in American history, I can think of no more valuable essay to read today than this one.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Editor

The King of Insomnia, who first appeared as graffiti on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, has now become a central character in the fictional world of the Insomnia people, a creation of artist Tomaz Viana—known as Toz. Life-size three-dimensional Insomnia figures, with a history and traditions drawn from Brazilian and African sources, inhabited the Chácara do Cée Museum and its grounds in 2017. Lara Norgaard, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large in Brazil, introduces the imaginary culture of Insomnia and interviews the artist who discusses his influences, including the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé, and explains the evolution of these “fictional people with connections to the night, to the big city, but also to the jungle and the forest.”

—Eva Heisler, Visual Editor

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What’s New in Translation: July 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

For many, summertime offers that rare window of endless, hot days that seem to rule out any sort of physical activity but encourage hours of reading. While these might not be easy beach reads in the traditional sense of online listicles, we are here with a few recommendations of our favorite translations coming out this month! These particular books, from China, France, and Argentina, each explore questions of masculinity, death, and creativity in unexpected ways while also challenging conventional narrative structures. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month. 

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Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Open Letter (2018)

Reviewed by Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

The “second life” in the title of this scintillatingly satirical novel alludes to how we live on in fictions as well as to how fictions sometimes take on a life of their own. Partially published in 1941 simply as Ma Bo’le, Xiao Hong’s late work was in the process of being expanded, but the throat infection and botched operation that cut her life short at age thirty left further planned additions unfinished. Fortunately for English-language readers, though, it’s now been capably, inventively, and gracefully completed by Howard Goldblatt in an exemplary instance of a translation demanding—as do all renderings into another language—that we attend to its twinned dimensions of creativity and craft. Previously the translator of two Xiao Hong novels as well as a quasi-autobiographical work, Goldblatt was undoubtedly the perfect person to carry out what he fittingly calls “our collaboration,” which is the result of “four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong.”

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In Review: Twist by Harkaitz Cano

Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.

Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.

Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.

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My 2017: Sam Carter

As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! This week, our staff continue to take turns looking back on 2017 through the lens of literature. Next up, Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.

One of the highlights of my reading year was the entirely unplanned—and unexpectedly delightful—move between translations and originals within a series not once but twice. Early in the summer, I had the chance to review the third volume of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari that Seagull Books brought out in July. Some years ago I had read in the original Spanish much of what constitutes the first two volumes in English translation, yet, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I never made it to these discussions that display a Borges who, despite being 85 years old at the time, remains a consummate conversationalist with a voracious intellectual appetite. He moves effortlessly from an unabashed Anglophilia—Joyce, Whitman, and Wilde are just some of the figures he enjoys reflecting on—to a more global concern. As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

It was with another Argentine author—cosmopolitan in his own right—that I ended up moving in the opposite direction: from translation to original. A few months before Restless Books was set to publish it in November, a friend handed me a galley of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Unwilling to wait to get my hands on a Spanish copy, I devoured it in the course of a few hours. (You can find an excerpt of this title, which was released in November, in our October 2017 issue.) There are two more volumes of these diaries, the last of which was released in Spanish in September, and I was thrilled to finish this masterful trilogy that traces the vicissitudes of the writing life with a unique intelligence and unmatched willingness to reflect on what different forms might offer. In Piglia’s view, for instance, a diary is a place where “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.” He elegantly explores those limits in this record of how a great reader struggles to become a great writer by drafting versions of a novel that will only appear decades later, defining himself both with and against dominant influences, and spending what little money he has on books. The first volume is also, somewhat miraculously, both a great starting point for anyone who has yet to read any Piglia and a welcome addition to those who already familiar with much of his work.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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In Review: Across the China Sea by Gaute Heivoll

"Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined."

Across the China Sea explores an unconventional family in rural Norway coming together during the weakening German occupation of the country. A review by Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter. 

It begins with the discovery of a contract, but Gaute Heivoll’s Across the China Sea, translated by Nadia Christensen, is ultimately the story of a community that generously insists on inclusion over exclusion. First published in Norwegian in 2013 and recently released by Graywolf in Nadia Christensen’s consistently elegant translation, this novel is Heivoll’s second to appear in English after Before I Burn, a partly autobiographical work that explores an incident of arson. In Across the China Sea, however, loss assumes a rather different form—one less concerned with spectacle and more attuned to the small gestures that often make all the difference.

A young family moves from Oslo to a small town near the coast in order to start anew. They’ve come not to flee the city but to build a better version of something they already understand: an asylum. The parents—both of whom are trained nurses—decide their newly-built house can accommodate more than just biological children. Soon afterward, in addition to caring for three grown men, they take in five siblings the state had taken away from mentally unfit parents. At this new home, the children, who are also variously disabled, live in a fully furnished attic, yet they’re hardly out of sight or mind. They begin to interact with other members of this curious collective, including the narrator and his younger sister—the only two members of the household biologically linked to the nurses.

Bonds, in other words, are not limited by blood, and an early tragedy not only puts that belief to the test but also brings into sharper relief the contours of this unusual community nestled into the Norwegian countryside. Any separation between the groups of children is rendered meaningless at a time when comfort cannot be sought selectively. Indeed, the delicate balance proves resilient enough to deal with another loss that, while only temporary, still takes an emotional toll. Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined, exhibiting a link that their etymological affinity can only begin to capture. READ MORE…

In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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What’s New in Translation? July 2017

We review three new books from France, Turkey, and Switzerland that are available in English for the first time.

 

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My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press

Reviewed by Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

Think: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper meets Han Kang’s The Vegetarian meets Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; then for good measure, throw in a bit of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In defies categorization. And yet, the novel’s crux lies in the unspoken categorization of its main characters—the schoolteacher couple, Nadia and Ange—who the townspeople have inexplicably (and violently) turned against. Not long after the reader arrives in this novel, Ange sustains a critical injury and Nadia must find a way to live in this new, hostile world. Told entirely from Nadia’s limited perspective, this forced intimacy between reader and paranoid narrator leaves us feeling curious, suffocated, and unsettled.

French literary star, NDiaye, has been my writer crush ever since Ladivine, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. She published her first novel when she was just eighteen years old and has since received the Prix Femina and the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Written in NDiaye’s distinctive, phantasmagorical style, My Heart Hemmed In is an unrelenting look inward in a world where the psychological manifests itself externally. Whether it’s the food Nadia devours or Ange’s mysterious, gaping wound, we are confronted with things that are consumed and the things they are consumed by; the things left for dead, and the things they birth. NDiaye’s details are so seductive and unforgiving, lavish and grotesque, it leaves you reeling.

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What’s New in Translation? February 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Kannada, and Danish.

 

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Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophie Yanow, New York Review Books

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, translated by fellow cartoonist Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author, immediately recalls the best work of those figures like Alison Bechdel, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware, who have done so much to insist on both the relevance and elegance of the graphic narrative form in the Anglophone world. Fortunately, New York Review Books is dedicated to showcasing the many voices contributing to an ongoing, worldwide comic conversation, and its latest contribution is this Belgian memoir. Originally titled Faire semblant c’est mentir, it centers on the experiences of Dominique—a fictionalized version of the author herself—as she navigates fraught relationships with her parents, including with her looming lush of a father. Also sketched out is a romantic relationship where Dominique attempts to grapple with that most fundamental question of heartbreak: why did he leave me?

A certified electrician and plumber, Goblet clearly understands a thing or two about the necessary connections running through structures to make them work, and her illustrations carry this skill into Pretending is Lying, her first work to appear in English. Image and text perform an intricate choreography, reveling in an aesthetic that frequently slips between the easily imitated and the utterly remarkable. If the easy analogy for reading comics is the process of examining a series of film stills—and even if we might be tempted to label parts of the construction of this work cinematic—I would instead suggest that Goblet offers something that more closely resembles a well curated series of photographs, each of which could easily stand on its own, given each frame’s clarity of vision and attention to detail.

In illustrations that move from Rothko-like explorations of pure color to nuanced collections of penmanship that gradually reveal a series of ethereal forms, the melancholia that we often find in other works emerges here as well—maybe there’s something about the form that lends itself well to expressions of such emotions in its ability to match words with alternatively visceral and measured strokes. The muted color palette of Pretending is Lying is also remarkably expressive. READ MORE…

New Year Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote team! (Part I)

From reading more small presses to children's literature in translation, here are our reading resolutions for 2017!

Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Rather than focusing on a single region in the coming year or trying to rectify one of my many reading deficiencies (such as an embarrassing lack of familiarity with Chinese or Arabic literature, to name just two), I will dedicate 2017 to exploring the work of those folks who are so dedicated to bringing us the best of world literature in book form: publishers. Not just any publishers, of course, but the small presses who tirelessly seek out the new voices that make the global literary conversation an exciting and ever-expanding one.

These small presses spread the wealth of work from across the globe, and my small contribution for the coming year will be to spread my meager wealth by monthly rewarding one of these risk-takers with the purchase of a recent release. This supplement to my regular habits will not only contribute a greater degree of diversity to my readings but also allow me to become better acquainted with the frequently impressive catalogs of these forward and outward looking publishers.

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To guide my exploration, I’ll be adding a further constraint by starting with those presses located close to home and working outward. Because I’m based in Ithaca, NY, I’ll turn to nearby Rochester’s Open Letter Books for my January pick, which will be Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House. A friend and inspiration to Clarice Lispector, Cardoso’s novel incorporates letters, diaries, and a variety of other documents from the characters in this sprawling tale of a family’s downfall.

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Translation Tuesday: Five Poems by Benito del Pliego

Destruction/satisfaction: everything is a question of measurement.

Openly encouraging an oracular approach in which readers pose questions to a series of poems and identify either themselves or others through the answers they obtain, Fable showcases Benito del Pliego’s familiarly deft touch as he places puns alongside paradoxes and striking images next to penetrating insights in moving explorations of isolation and recollection. Continuing a career-long commitment to fostering meaningful interactions between a text and its interlocutors—whether readers, accompanying illustrations, or other poems in the collection—this Spanish poet highlights the unfamiliar in the familiar and makes poetry about the everyday seem anything but ordinary. These poems are taken from the collection Fable / Fábula, recently launched at McNally Jackson Books in New York.

 

THE SALMON

—It’s hard to move forward when you only want to go against the current.

Later you discover that nothing remains, that the future has countless origins.

Sometimes you feel like a shipwrecked sailor; sometimes you think anyone who wants to flee never goes further than herself.

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What’s New in Translation? November 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Swedish, and German.

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Cabo de Gata, by Eugen Ruge, tr. Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor, US

First published in German in 2013—when his In Times of Fading Light appeared in EnglishEugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, out this month from Graywolf Press, might strike a familiar note for readers who have witnessed a surge in autobiographically-inflected works that frequently take the production of fiction as a subject worthy of novelistic exploration. Hailing from both the Anglophone world and beyond, such novels record the process of their creation or the struggles to even begin them, and Ruge quickly aligns himself with this approach in his tale of a writer’s attempt to get away from it all in the hope of figuring something out. “I made up this story so that I could tell it the way it was,” declares the dedication to this slender volume, and a more precise formulation arrives soon after as the narrator recalls a period in which “I was testing everything that I did or that happened to me at the same moment, or the next moment, or the moment after that, for its suitability as a subject … as I was living my life, I was beginning to describe it for the sake of experiment.”

While in Cabo de Gata, a small town on the Andalusian coast, the narrator quickly settles into routines designed to simultaneously distract him from blank pages and provide him with some inspiration to fill them. The local fishermen, whom the narrator visits on his daily stroll, can empathize with such difficulties: ¡Mucho trabajo, poco pescado! A lot of work for only a little fish—it’s a piscatory philosophy that applies just as well to the writing life. Ruge, however, proves to be an exceptionally gifted angler as he reels in catch after catch in what would seem to be difficult waters, namely a single man’s short trip to this seaside village.

Serving as a metronome marking out the rhythm of memories that constitute the novel, a refrain of “I remember” begins many of the paragraphs that have been expertly rendered by translator Anthea Bell. Far from repetitive or reductive, such a strategy instead seems somehow expansive, particularly when we are reminded that, “fundamentally memory reinvents all memories.” Both the vagaries and the vagueness of memories—“I remember all that only vaguely, however, like a film without a soundtrack,” remarks the narrator in a line that will be hard to forget—serve as the subjects of reflection that find their counterpart in the rhythms of the sea and the surrounding Spanish countryside.

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What’s New in Translation? July 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation.

 

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The Blue Blood by Oddný Eir, tr. Philip Roughton, Amazon’s Day OneReview: K.T. Billey, Assistant Editor

The Blue Blood seems simple: a woman wants to have baby. Motherhood has always been “in her cards.” She has found a partner who is game, and they love each other. They try everything, including multiple artificial inseminations from donors selected for their blue eyes—hoping the baby will approximate the father. Disappointment and hope begin to frame the narrator’s consuming obsession: finding someone who can help with ‘their problem.’ Her search for a donor expands into the world, as heartbreak and determination test the limits of her relationship. The reader is privy to the narrator’s pseudo-diary “As if recounting a clever story gives my life purpose…”

In a series of titled vignettes, The Blue Blood does more than chronicle the toll of dreams and bodily realities on our relationships. Blue is everywhere—signs, names, auras, eyes, oceans—a mystic slice reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, revolving around fertility and the windows to the soul. The reader experiences the writer’s symbology and suffers along with the woman struggling to read into and ignore them. We feel the weight of their accumulation, the damaging pressure. Desire and action are not enough. When is trying trying too hard? The nature of coincidence gets tangled with intimacy, confronting us with the what we cannot know, will, or hope into being. Of course the couple’s vacation to Argentina finds them in a mountain village with a Nazi past and many blue eyed specimens. Of course they cannot neuter the dog. READ MORE…