Posts by Theophilus Kwek

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of the world's literary news brings us to France, Singapore, and the United States.

It’s Friday, which means it is time to catch up on the literary news from around the world, brought to you by our fabulous Asymptote team! This week, we highlight France, Singapore, and the United States. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France:

As previewed in our January dispatch, Paris is getting ready to host its annual Book Fair, starting March 16. The spotlight this year will be on contemporary Russian literature, with thirty-eight guests including Olga Slavnikova, Vladimir Charov, and Alexandre Sneguirev—all previous winners of the Russian Booker Prize. But even before the fair opens its literal doors, another event is organized in Southern France to satisfy those readers that can’t make it to Paris. Bron, a commune of Lyon, will hold its first Book Festival, dedicated entirely to contemporary fiction, between March 7 and 11. The festival celebrates those French authors who showcase the heterogeneous nature of the novel itself, with a spotlight on the works of Jean-Baptiste Andréa, Delphine Coulin, Pierre Ducrozet, Thomas Gunzig, and Monica Sabolo.

March is also Women’s History Month and French publishers have joined in the effort to promote literature by women and on women. Folio, a Gallimard imprint, has launched its “Femmes Prodigieuses” (“Brilliant Women”—a play on Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”) campaign on social media, urging readers to read and share the works of their favourite women authors. Folio’s own suggested reading list include classics and contemporary authors, from Virginia Woolf to Marie NDiaye and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyond just the campaign, publishers are celebrating Women’s History Month by simply publishing more women. Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir “L’age de discrétion” (“The Age of Discretion”), analysing womanhood at sixty and beyond, will be published for the first time as a standalone book. Albin Michel, another major publisher, will publish Susan Rubin Suleiman’s “La question Némirovsky,” a biography of Irène Némirovsky, of “Suite Française” fame, to paint a portrait of a great, and yet forgotten, author.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

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.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2018

The new year kicks off with new releases from Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Every month, our staff members pick three notable new releases in world literature to review. The first month of 2018 brings us short fiction from Japan and novels from Germany and Italy.

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The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie, translated from the Japanese by Geraint Howells, Pushkin Press

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large for Singapore

Mention ‘contemporary Japanese fiction’ to the average reader and bestselling names like Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozeki, and Keigo Higashino might come to mind; or indeed last year’s Nobel laureate, the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. From that perspective, at least, Toshiyuki Horie can be considered one of the modern Japanese canon’s best-kept secrets, happily resurfaced for an Anglophone audience by the ever-intrepid Pushkin Press. A critic, translator, and professor of literature, Horie has garnered numerous accolades for his fiction and essays, and is also—as the three novellas collected here reveal—a masterly prose stylist, a ruthlessly effective narrator, and a seasoned traveller between the real and imagined geographies of experience and history, dream and memoir, and past and present.

The first and longest section of the volume contains Horie’s novella “The Bear and the Paving Stone,” which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2001, and lends this volume its title. The tale opens in a strange, allegorical dream-sequence that ends just as abruptly when the narrator wakes, alone, in a rural farmhouse in Normandy. Drawing on Horie’s own time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne, the story unfolds with exquisite pacing into a long-awaited reunion between two unlikely college pals: the narrator (then a student from Japan, now a professional translator) and Yann, a free-spirited, petánque-playing photographer. As they embark on a breakneck drive to see the sun set over Mont St Michel from Yann’s favourite spot on the coast, we are plunged as if into another dream: this time, comprising the layered narratives of French intellectual history, the Holocaust and its aftershocks, and a post-modern, international friendship. Ghostly historical figures such as Émile Littré, Jorge Semprún, and Bruno Bettelheim haunt these pages with a sense of driving, almost teleological purpose, but the two friends’ conversation somehow remains light, and movingly human, throughout.

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2018: A Year of Reading Adventurously

In 2018, I’ll be making an effort to trace my inheritance as an Anglophone, Southeast Asian poet of faith and colour.

After the recently concluded blog series in which we looked back on 2017’s literary discoveries, we bring you our New Year’s reading resolutions.

Chris Power, Assistant Editor:

I work in French and German, so I’ll start with my French literary resolutions: I’m reading Marx et la poupée (Marx and the Doll) by Maryam Madjidi with my friend and former French professor, the psychoanalytic literary theorist Jerry Aline Flieger. Excerpts of the novel of course appear in our current issue. If it isn’t my favorite work we’ve published, then it stands out for being the one that overwhelmed my critical faculties. I couldn’t write about it in the disinterested manner that I prefer. Instead I wrote a confused, gushing blurb listing my favorite scenes and describing how it brought tears to my eyes. An emphatic “yes” was all I could muster. Next on my list is Réparer le monde (Repair the World) by Alexandre Gefen, to which Laurent Demanze dedicated a beautiful essay in Diacritik in late November. I’m looking forward not only to an insightful survey of contemporary French literature, but also to a provocative anti-theoretical turn in the history of literary theory, namely a theory of the utility of literature (to repair the world) which cites pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. Gefen introduces this theory enticingly through a reading of Barthes in his lecture “A quoi bon ? Les pouvoirs de la littérature (La tentation de l’écriture)” / “What’s the use? The powers of literature (the temptation of writing)” which is available online, but I must admit that I’m reminded of a Baudelaire quote dear to me: “Être un homme utile m’a toujours paru quelque chose de bien hideux.” (“To be a useful man has always appeared to me to be particularly hideous.”) In 2018 I’ll also continue exploring the work of Sarah Kofman, who seems to me to be a diamond in the rough of historical amnesia and a potential dissertation topic. She’s exactly the kind of Nietzschean, Parisian philosopher-poet of the 1960s who worked at the intersection of philosophy and art that we’ve grown so comfortable labelling a “theorist,” but she hasn’t (yet) acquired the cult following of her dissertation advisor Gilles Deleuze or colleague Jacques Derrida.

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A “People’s Literature” of Southeast Asia? 

Attending to this tradition might remind us that the present is not unique, and that the task of imagining other futures is one for the long haul.

Two Singaporean writers have recently provoked state opprobrium with their attempts to present and preserve alternative histories of the city-state. Familiar to many is graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which has swept prizes at home and abroad, including three Eisner’s Awards this year. Liew’s fictional biography of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” the eponymous Charlie Chan, is notable not only for its “thrilling postmodern style” but also how it retraces the hopes (and ultimately, the disappointments) of progressive activism in Singapore, from the heady days of post-war collective action to betrayal and repression under a new political establishment. By weaving the stories of real-life activists into Chan’s recollections, Liew leaves us with a tantalizing “what if”: what if something of this history still lives and breathes under the surface of the modern city?

Jeremy Tiang’s novel, State of Emergency (released earlier this year by Epigram Books) takes a different tack. It incorporates fastidiously-researched vignettes from several turning-points in the political history of Singapore and Malaysia–from the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 to the “Marxist conspiracy” of 1987–into the multi-generational narrative of a single Singaporean family. Tiang, also an award-winning translator (and five-time Asymptote contributor), is remarkably successful at re-animating these forgotten episodes. Moreover, by allowing a different acquaintance or relative to narrate each event, he explores how entire communities must live with the echoes of arbitrary detention, harassment and censorship. And just as in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, what comes to light is an unbroken genealogy of those who have dared to hope against these circumstances.

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What’s New in Translation: September 2017

Looking for reading recommendations? Here are three releases—a book-length essay about translation, a German novel, and an experimental anthology.

Summer is drawing to a close and our bookshelves are groaning with the weight of new releases. Asymptote team members review three very different books—a genre-bending meditation on the practice of translation, a German bestseller about African refugees in Berlin, and an anthology of monologues that were once performed on the streets of Quebec City. There is much to delve into. 

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This Little Art by Kate Briggs, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, Singapore.

It is in 1977, as he begins lecturing as Professor of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, that Roland Barthes realizes he is no longer young: an “old and untimely body,” on a “new public stage.” But to speak to the students gathered—with their “new concerns, new urgencies, new desires”—he will have to “fling [himself] into the illusion that [he is] contemporary with the young bodies present before [him]”; he must, in Kate Briggs’s memorable words, forget the distances of age and time, and be “carried forward by the force of forgetting, which is the forward-tilting force of all living life.”

Briggs’s new book-length essay on translation, published this month by Fitzcarraldo (who surely must produce some of the most elegant books around) joins the ranks of treatises that ponder how we, as practitioners, should “properly register what’s going on with this—with [our]—work.” It’s an important question, she argues, not only because translation is a little understood (and hence undervalued) enterprise, but also because the process of translation itself sheds light on what it takes to make meaning, and art. Her answer, pursued over seven interlocking chapters, runs parallel to Barthes’s realization. Just as the old professor must “be born again,” translation is the work of making new: of bridging time and language to “make [literature] contemporary with [our] own present moment.” READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

You can't end the week without being up to date with the latest in the world of literature!

Need another reason to welcome the weekend? We heard you! We’ve got literary scoop from three continents—literary prizes, festivals, and much besides to help you travel the world through books (is there really a better way?) 

From Singapore comes a dispatch from Editor-at-Large, Theophilus Kwek:

Celebrations were in order last month as graphic novelist Sonny Liew became the first Singaporean to win—not one, but three—Eisner Awards for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, originally published by Epigram in 2015 and later released in the US by Pantheon. The volume, which narrates an alternative political history of Singapore through the life and work of a fictional Singaporean artist, also received the most nominations in this year’s awards, which were presented at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 22. The National Arts Council (NAC), which had previously drawn criticism for withdrawing Liew’s publishing grant on the grounds of ‘sensitive content’, came under fire once again for its brief (and some argued, half-hearted) congratulatory remarks on Facebook which did not mention the title of the winning work. Liew’s forthcoming projects include a take on the story of Singapore WWII heroine Elizabeth Choy.

Just a week after Liew’s win, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, responded to a parliamentary question over another NAC grant decision, this time concerning a novel by Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency—also published by Epigram this year. According to Fu, funding was withdrawn from Tiang’s novel, which traces the lives of several fictional political activists and detainees, because its content had “deviated from the original proposal”—a statement which immediately drew mixed responses from Singapore’s literary community. At around the same time, fellow novelist Rachel Heng joined the ranks of Singaporean authors gaining recognition abroad as her forthcoming dystopian title, Suicide Club, was picked up by both Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and Henry Holt & Co. in the US.

Finally, on the eve of National Day (August 9) just this week, twenty-four writers and poets from Singapore presented a marathon 4-hour reading at BooksActually, which also runs an independent publishing arm, Math Paper Press. In addition to the literary delights on offer, the bookstore also served up another spicy and flavourful local favourite—fried chicken wings.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

A literary jaunt around the globe!

The literary world is having a buzzing summer—or winter, depending on your hemisphere. From literary festivals in Singapore, non-traditional methods of distributing poetry by indigenous poets in Mexico to daring theatre in Austria, there is a lot to discover his week. 

First stop—Singapore, with Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek:

Singapore’s literary scene is gearing up for its annual Poetry Festival held for the third time this year over the last weekend of July. The festival incorporates a full-day conference jointly organized by the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and PoetryWalls, a cultural non-profit. The winners of this year’s National Poetry Competition will also be announced on Saturday afternoon, kicking off a day and a half of readings, book launches and discussions featuring both new and established names— from Cultural Medallion-winner Edwin Thumboo to Pooja Nansi, recipient of the Young Artist Award for 2016. READ MORE…

What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

A behind-the-scenes scoop on what our team members have been up to!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado’s forthcoming collection, Some Beheadings, is available for pre-order from Nightboat Books. Her translation of Fariq Tali’s Prosopopoeia was recently reviewed by Jill Magi.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich‘s piece, Carthage, will be performed at TheatreLab in New York from 19 to 21 July, by Signdance Collective. She is also on the editorial board of Global Performance Studies, a new journal which has just launched its first issue, Fluid States—Performances of unKnowing.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has translated some poems by Enrique Winter, which are appearing in a bilingual chapbook called Suns, published by Cardboard House Press on 25th July.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu a.k.a. MARGENTO will be presenting a paper on “Metaphor Detection in a Poetry Corpus” at the Association for Computational Linguistics Conference in Vancouver. The paper is co-authored with Vaibhav Kesarwani, Diana Inkpen, and Stan Szpakowicz, and is a part of the GraphPoem research project he conducts on graph theory applications in poetry.  Earlier this month, MARGENTO co-edited a Romanian Poetry feature in Plume together with Tara Skurtu.

UK Editor-at-Large Megan Bradshaw has a new short story, Tigre, in the most recent issue of Litro Magazine. 

India Editor-at-Large Poorna Swami‘s essay, Wonder Woman, the Fierce Superhero Feminists Deserve, was published by The Wire. 

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has new poems in Hyphen Magazine and the Asia Literary Review. He also read at the 21st Anniversary Showcase of the Ledbury Poetry Festival alongside Fiona Sampson, A E Stallings, Tony Hoagland, and other featured poets.

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Read more dispatches from around the world:

What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Awards, publications, and readings—our team members have been keeping busy!

Writers on Writers Section Editor Ah-reum Han’s fiction, The Blind Bride, published in Okey-Panky, was recognized in The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2017.

Assistant Blog Editor Aurvi Sharma was interviewed by Wasafiri. She was also awarded a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship and her essay, Hymns for the Drowning appeared in Pleiades Magazine.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones published a review of Juan Carlos Márquez’s novel Tangram, translated by James Womack, in the Glasgow Review of Books. 

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In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at www.lesleysaunders.org.uk

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Today we delve into the literary goings-on in USA, UK and Singapore

New week, new happenings in the world of literature. President Trump continues to make headlines (read our Spring Issue for an exploration of literature in the Trump era). Madeline Jone, Editor-at-Large for USA reports how it has affected the publishing industry. Across the Atlantic, Cassie Lawrence, Executive Assistant at Asymptote, relays heartening news about women in publishing and the buzz of literary festivals in London this weekend. Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek reports how Singapore’s novelists are fighting back, and more.  

Editor-at-Large Madeline Jones gives us the round-up from USA:

US media narratives have been deluged with news of presidential catastrophes. No surprise, then, that this is reflecting in the publishing world, from book publishers struggling to understand how to talk about Trump to children, to books about the electoral process. With timing that seems ominous, in the light of the very popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the book has edged its way between a Danielle Steel and a James Patterson on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Another notable that has been on the list is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

Speaking of which, the annual Book Expo America, popularly known as the BEA, is scheduled from May 31 to June 2, and Hillary Clinton is one of its top draws this year. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors in New York City, the Book Expo is the biggest event of its kind in North America.

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What’s New in Translation? May 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Yiddish and Hebrew poetry to an extraordinary Russian account of exile.

 

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The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated by Douglas J. Weatherford, Deep Vellum

Reviewed by Nozomi Saito, Senior Executive Assistant

Juan Rulfo’s prominence within the canon of Mexican and Latin American authors has been undeniable for some time. Regarded by Valeria Luiselli as one of the writers who gave her a deeper understanding of the literary tradition in Mexico and the Spanish language, and depicted by Elena Poniatowska as a figure deeply rooted in Mexican culture, it is clear that modern Mexican and Latin American literature would not be what they are without Rulfo. Indeed, Rulfo often has been credited as the figure to whom the Latin American boom of the 1960s and ‘70s is indebted, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was because of Rulfo’s works that the former was able to continue writing and ultimately produce One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Yet for all the recognition that Rulfo’s works have so rightly earned, there has been a persistent misconception that he only published two works of fiction, The Plain in Flames (El Llano in llamas, 1953) and Pedro Páramo (Pedro Páramo, 1955). The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro, c. 1956) for too long remained excluded from Rulfo’s oeuvre, even being miscategorized as a text originally intended for the cinematic screen. To reclaim and secure its position in Rulfo’s canon, Douglas J. Weatherford has brought forth The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, which provides deep insight into the work, ruminations, and personal life of the legendary writer.

The result is a text that is refreshing and diverse. The titular story follows the rise and fall of Dionisio Pinzón, an impoverished man whose crippled arm prevents him from farm labor, the only viable work in the town, and whose destiny changes when someone gives him a golden cockerel that has been badly beaten, having comprised the losing side of a cockfight. While the majority of the story follows Pinzón’s migration in pursuit of wealth, his path eventually intersects with that of the singer Bernarda Cutiño, familiarly called La Caponera, whose own migratory wanderings lead them from one town to the next, to various cockfights throughout Mexico.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

From launching journals to winning literary prizes, our team has had a wonderful month!

Incoming Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has recently received tenure from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of French.

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has launched the second issue of Latin American Literature Today, a new journal where he serves as Managing Editor and Translator.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich has been named one of 2017’s O’Neill Finalists at the National Playwrights Conference for her play, Town Hall.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) has launched a book titled poetryartexchange, co-authored with 8 other British and Romanian poets and artists, at the Birmingham Literary Festival. The project is a collaboration between University of Bucharest Press and Centrala, and will see more events in London and Birmingham in May through early June.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac will speak alongside poets Athena Farrokhzad and Noemi Jaffe, and fellow translators Jennifer Hayashida and Julia Sanches, on a panel entitled ‘Corrosive Power’ at PEN America’s World Voices Festival.

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