Essays

Courage and Turmoil: the Story behind Nuevo Signo

This essay traces the history of one of the first and most important literary groups in Guatemala.

2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of Nuevo Signo, arguably the most influential literary group in Guatemala. Formed during a time when the country was ridden by war, writers didn’t have access to publishing houses and artists and political dissidents were targeted continuously to the point that many sought refuge in neighboring countries. The work done by the members of Nuevo Signo was nothing short of monumental.

In three years the group funded, edited, and published over ten books of poetry, including a “greatest hits” entitled Las Plumas de la Serpiente (The Serpent’s Feathers) that stirred the local art scene. The group disbanded in 1970, after the disappearance of one of its members, poet Roberto Obregón. Roberto is just one of the many writers disappeared during the internal war (1960—1996). Except for Obregón, Antonio Brañas—who died in 1988—and José Villatoro, all of the other members went on to receive the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for their life’s work.

Last year, Luis Méndez Salinas and Carmen Lucía Alvarado from Catafixia Editorial rereleased Las Plumas de la Serpiente. With a cover designed by Odiseo del Silencio, this new edition of Las Plumas captures the intensity, sensitivity, poetic beauty, commitment, and ferocity of its authors. For this piece, the author spoke with former Nuevo Signo’s editor, Francisco Morales Santos and Luis and Carmen from Catafixia Editorial.

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There is Nothing Anymore: Auden in the Saint Lucian Countryside

No end also to loss, yes, but no end to our tragic struggle against despair.

In this personal essay, a young poet attends a funeral in his native Saint Lucia, where a spontaneous funeral chant puts him in mind of a poem by Auden. To Vladimir Lucien, the funeral chant and the Auden poem constitute different approaches to the finality of death. In their juxtaposition, we learn something not only about the language and customs in the Saint Lucian countryside, but about the universal human yearning for the transcendence of our finitude.

Alloy’s funeral was packed. It had to be. In the village of Mon Repos, Saint Lucia, he had been everything: head of the local “friendly society,” choir member, bus driver, community organiser and activist, folk singer. The church, however, was an unusually small and claustrophobic Catholic Church with a low ceiling; it felt like a house converted into a church and hurriedly sacralised. Alloy’s daughter—who was a lecturer, my colleague—delivered the eulogy.

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An Inventory of Resistance: Notes on Catalan Language Politics in Literature

Perhaps part of the uniqueness of Catalan comes from this awareness of its influence on and disconnection from Castilian and European traditions.

Part I: The Nineteenth Century

At first, I was hesitant to write an article on the uses of the Catalan language in literature throughout recent history. After the referendum for Catalan independence held this past October 1, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, and the subsequent episodes of violence that occurred in the region, the topic has come to be a sensitive matter for any national. However, where there is a language, there is a literature, and the history of Catalan is one of stubborn resistance. It is my contention that the history of a language is somehow lived out in those who speak it, insofar as a sentiment of ambiguity still informs contemporary critical debates on the usefulness and adaptability of Catalan literature. “Is Catalan literature diverse enough? Can it cultivate all genres? Is it economically viable?” are questions that have resonated among critics and the public alike. Catalan literature inherits a sense of shame from its own fruition, and it is this feeling that I want to explore with this genealogy of usages.

This is not a history of Catalan literature and the texts featured here have not been selected according to an aesthetic canon. This is an archive of perceptions of Catalan language and literature as experienced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the literary resurgence known as La Renaixença in Catalan literary history (parallel to which political Catalan nationalism as we know it unfolds) to the relatively normalized literary field in existence today. While certainly not the only appropriate approach, in what follows I present a succession of events from the nineteenth century that Catalan historiography has employed to explain the evolution of the uses of the language.

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Tracing Szilárd Borbély’s Poetry in The Dispossessed

To lay bare the inarticulate self as it is thrown into the violent mould of the world—and to uphold the captured encounter without commentary.

Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.

from “On the wings of freedom”

The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel, was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of ageing that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.

This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.”[1] For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.

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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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Roberto Piva, a Living Library

When a library such as Roberto Piva’s is reborn—especially through each reader bringing his legacy to the present—, a shaman is reborn with it.

It’s four in the afternoon and I step out to walk through the streets of downtown São Paulo, looking for what is left of a city I have not actually experienced but have imagined from Roberto Piva’s books. With a sense of nostalgia, I identify mythic street corners, revamped bars, buildings, parks, and statues, but time keeps grinding on and it weighs heavily on the landscape. That boy walking through Praça República, listening to that song “Deu Onda” for the umpteenth time, looks nothing like the kids who wandered around here sixty years ago, always carrying with them a book by Lorca, Artaud, Ginsberg, or Jorge de Lima. In a final, delirious attempt, I pause on a detail of the landscape: I look up, to the top of Edifício Copan, but Polén and Luizinho, spewing all the semen in the universe, aren’t there, either. The little that remains of that nostalgic delirium borne of reading a book may perhaps be found in the place where I’m headed, the second floor of number 108 on Avenida São João: the Roberto Piva Library. There they assemble the books, manuscripts, and other traces of an important poetic oeuvre that is more widely known because of its eccentric author’s cult status than because of a systematic study of his texts.

If we try to insert him in the history of Brazilian poetry beginning in the 1960s, Piva resists, a dissonant voice. But perhaps the silencing of his work ought to be reevaluated. When we read much of the bibliography about the author, we are left with the impression that the reception following the launch of Paranoia turned out to be a fairly isolated case: first, in the 1960s, there was a moralizing silence from critics in which they agreed to read him in direct association with Surrealism. Later, in the 1970s, there was the strange inclusion of his writing in the anthology organized by Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda with twenty-five other poets. In the following decades, there was the “co-optation” of his poetry by homoerotic literature. Finally, he would come to occupy his current position with the launch of his “Collected Works” by Editora Globo, which won over a far wider public and continues to be rediscovered.

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Unfinished Business

It’s basically a test of endurance—how long can I go without completing it?

Happy New Year! To ring in 2018, we’re showcasing staff members’ New Year’s resolutions. Caitlin O’Neil, Chris Power, Claire Jacobson, and Theophilus Kwek have already submitted theirs to our special New Year edition newsletter (subscribe here if you’re not already on our mailing list). Today, South Africa Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reckons with the unfinished books on her shelf, resolving to read them before the year is out.

There they stand, with bookmarks at various points of incompletion, like paper tongues sticking out in gentle but persistent mockery: the books on the shelf that I have bought but never read or, to be precise, never finished reading.

It is at least a universal trait, this type of unfinished business, judging by the many part-read books in secondhand stores, marked with a receipt from a now-closed chain of stores, or a faded family photograph, a bubblegum wrapper, or a dog-eared page. Once, midway through a secondhand Elmore Leonard, I even found an airplane ticket—it was from 1982 and marked “non-smoking”.

Why don’t we finish books in which we’ve invested money and time? Why stop halfway like that non-smoking Leonard dabbler? Or on page 120 of 388, like I did with Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan‘s Frog? Well, in this case, I packed Frog, a present from Christmas 2014, into a box and only recently rediscovered it, along with several other half-read novels. Is this really an excuse, though? What about the many very visible reads-in-progress on my shelf? I decided to get them out, stack them up, and take their measure. READ MORE…

My 2017: Jacob Silkstone

Perhaps the fitting thing to do would have been to throw the book into the water and let the waves close over it...

Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.

* * *

“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”

The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.

In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”

This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my lifehaving finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…

My 2017: Diána Vonnák

“Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great.

Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own. 

I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.

I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.

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My 2017: Poupeh Missaghi

We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.

Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.  

I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.

I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.

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My 2017: Rachael Pennington

This year has brought me Japanese titles that disarm despite very little happening in their pages.

Today, Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, who joined us in October this year, tells us about her year of reading Japanese literature—and how it gave her a heightened appreciation for the smaller details of life.

When asked to review my year in reading, my initial reaction was to think back to my most significant moments—travelling to Japan, getting a new job, seeing my best friend getting married—and to recount what I was reading at the time. But on second thought, remembering Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture, which celebrated “the small and private”, I decided to look past 2017’s more momentous occasions in search of the quiet moments of revelation. Asking myself, when nothing seemingly important was happening around me, what books was I reading in what Ishiguro described as “quiet—or not so quiet—rooms”? In the times I was caught up in the monotony of everyday life and lost to my daily routine, which books had tided me over and heightened my appreciation for the minutiae of life?

I read Nastume Sōseki’s The Gate (translated by William F. Sibley) on several Sunday mornings throughout September. Here, cradling a hot cup of coffee and basking in the first rays of the day peeking through the window of my downtown Barcelona flat, I came to understand why Sōseki declared it his favorite amongst his works. The novel captures the intimacy of life through a minimal plot, tracing the magnificently undramatic existence of a middle-aged couple, old before their time. With this relationship as the anchor, people come and go, seasons flourish and wither, yet the patience with which Sōsuke trims his toenails and the grace with which Oyone carries the loss of their children never once falter.

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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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My 2017: Lara Norgaard

I think about how collective memory—that living, ever-shifting phenomenon—shapes the stories we tell ourselves today.

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.

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Snichimal Vayuchil: Writing Poetry in an Endangered Maya Language

They insist that they be allowed to express themselves, above all else, in Tsotsil and as Tsotsiles.

As outlined in the controversial fall 2013 editorial from n +1, concepts of “World Literature” or “Global Literature” in translation are continually haunted by circuits of colonial power. Must we begin with Goethe and his Weltliteratur? Must translation practices always be subject to market forces and so dominated by economically powerful languages like English? What is the role of individual multilingual readers who communicate in multiple languages? These questions become all the more pressing in the cases of so-called minoritized languages. Possessing limited access to education and formal literary training within their respective nation states, minorizited languages are by definition disadvantaged with regard to publication and the dissemination within their respective national confines. Indeed, whether the context is the United States, China, or Colombia, despite the tireless activities of linguistic activists, one of the overriding concerns of publication in minoritized languages is who, exactly, constitutes the audience for a text that, more often than not, will be accompanied by a translation into the dominant language anyway?

These are a few of the topics that came up in conversation with the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Tsotsil Maya literary collective Snichimal Vayuchil (“The Flowery Dream”) when I sat down with a few of its members recently. Consider, for a moment, the untranslatability of the group’s name. What sounds like an overwrought cliché in English is actually the adaptation of a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican difrasism or semantic couplet, in xochitl in cuicatl (“my flower my song”) in Náhuatl, which reflects an aesthetic conceptualization linking poetry with the natural world as well as entrée into a distinctly non-European set of literary and aesthetic values.

According to Xun Betan (Venustiano Carranza), the group’s founder and coordinator, the group’s mission is to produce a Tsotsil literature that originates from Tsotsil understandings of the world. That’s why, both in their first anthology and in an upcoming English translation of the group’s work in the North Dakota Quarterly, they label themselves “a poetic experiment in Bats’i K’op (Tsotsil Maya).” Betan noted that, unlike Maya K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, languages whose pre-Hispanic literary traditions were recorded in the colonial Popol vuh and the Books of the Chilam Balam, respectively, there are no Tsotsil language colonial documents that reflect what we would call a Tsotsil literary tradition. The group sees its work as being more “experimental” and much less proscriptive than the traditional literary workshop setting, as they explore Tsotsil language as a medium for literary expression. For readers already well-versed in US Native American literature, this situation is not unlike the one described by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko when she asks, “What changes would Pueblo writers make to English as a language for literature?” with the key difference here being that these writers are undertaking this work in their mother tongue. READ MORE…