Interviews

In Conversation: Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart

International literature famously offers a window on the world—a much-needed window, these years.

‘I want to buy my way to everything’: halfway through Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (excerpted in the Asymptote Fall 2015 issue), the shape-shifting, double-tongued voice declares yet another sweeping and futile desire. Translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, this collection is a text much like the many-chambered place that is third-millennium heart, with intersecting meditations on the human body and its connection to the natural world, which evolve into a solid critique of late capitalism, especially in relation to reproduction. Throughout, there is a disconnect between necessity and excess, the architecture of human consumption, a tussle between the body’s need and desire for more. During this email interview, Olsen makes me a list of Danish words for the parts of the body, and the etymology is fascinating. Moderkage, Danish for ‘placenta’, would literally translate into ‘mother cake’; livmoder, the word for ‘uterus’, into ‘life mother’. Following is the interview between Ursula Andkjær Olsen and her English translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen.

Sohini Basak: I want to begin with names and naming and the body, because that’s where the book (and our language, for that matter) begins. When you were young, Ursula, what language did you learn about the body? Science, especially medical science, uses the English language (and Latin, for nomenclature), so I’m curious to know . . . what were the first names you learnt for the heart, its ventricles, chromosomes, all of which form the structure of this collection?

Ursula Andkjær Olsen: My mom was a doctor, so I think the naming of the body for me was a mix of Danish and Latin. I was always very fascinated with the scientific approach to the body (in fact I studied medicine for almost two years before changing to musicology and philosophy), and I remember, as a little girl, poring over a book of photographs of the body’s insides, beautiful pictures by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. And doing it again and again. All these cavities, canals, soft corners, bridges, chambers! It was a kind of architecture, in fact.

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A Conversation with Norwegian-to-Azerbaijani Translator Anar Rahimov

There was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

As a translator of Norwegian, I travelled to the Gothenburg Book Fair in September to meet with Scandinavian authors, publishers, and fellow translators. One of the translators I met there was Anar Rahimov, a translator of contemporary Norwegian prose into Azerbaijani.

I was intrigued by Anar’s story as one of only two translators of Norwegian in Azerbaijan. I translate into English, probably the world’s most dominant language, and I was curious about the exchange between two relatively small languages, Norwegian and Azerbaijani. I wanted to ask Anar a little more about his work as a translator and how it fits into the literary culture of Azerbaijan. 

David Smith (DS): How did you come to learn Norwegian and what inspired you to translate literature?

Anar Rahimov (AR): Well . . . it was quite accidental, I have to admit. I was working at the University of Languages in Baku as an English language teacher. Then an event took place that changed my whole career, priorities, and future standing in life. In 2010, I heard about an interview that included financing two and half years’ study in Oslo. Ever since childhood, Norway has appealed to me as a northern, far away, and very cold land. Besides, studying in the prestigious universities of Europe was tempting in itself. After a little hesitation, I applied and was selected.

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In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have held...is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.

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An Interview with 2017’s Neustadt International Prize Winner Edwidge Danticat

Even when we are not writing about death, we are in some way writing about it.

In a riveting interview with the world-renowned writer Edwidge Danticat—announced just yesterday as next year’s recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature or the “American Nobel”—Romie Desrogéne poses incisive questions about life and death, and how art attempts to make sense of them. Danticat’s works have earned her a long list of awards and have been translated into numerous languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Swedish. Her most recent novel, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, was released via Graywolf Press this past July.

Edwidge Danticat’s work creates spheres where the natural and the supernatural, the “isit” (here) and the “lòt bò” (elsewhere), the evil and the good, the historical and the fictional, the personal and the political, are in perpetual contention and symbiosis.

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Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

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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.

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In Conversation: Natasha Wimmer on Teaching Translation

Teaching translation feels like I’ve been lifting weights, and then I go to my own translation and it's like, whoa, these weights are so light!

What does it mean to teach translation? Many translators are self-taught, having honed their skills in careers as writers or editors, academics or language experts. But some universities in the United States also offer seminars in the craft of translation. The teacher-translator, then, takes on the unique challenge of developing new pedagogy for a field in flux, one that exists at the intersection of language study, theory, and the instructor’s own experiences in the creative practice of translation.

Today, translator Natasha Wimmer sits down with her former student and Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, to discuss her approach to teaching translation. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you begin teaching translation? What made you interested in education?

Natasha Wimmer (NW): Princeton approached me, actually. I had never taught a class. Not only that, but I also only have an undergraduate degree, so I had never even taken a graduate class. I was a little bit nervous about taking the job. A few years later I started at Columbia. In that case, I did a panel discussion with the other Bolaño translator, Chris Andrews, and the department heads enjoyed the discussion, so they asked me to teach.

LN: Was there a particular class you took or text you read that influenced the way you approached teaching for the first time?

NW: I actually imagined the course as the class I wish I’d taken before I became a translator. I had no formal education in translation at all. I had never taken a translation class and, in fact, I hadn’t even read anything about translation until about eight years into my translation career. When I was asked to give a talk about translation, I realized I had avoided reading about translation because I was afraid that I would discover that I had been doing it wrong, or that maybe I would mess with the instinctive approach that had somehow been successful so far. But then I found reading about translation really stimulating. I discovered that, not surprisingly, there was a conversation about the questions I had and about the things that I hadn’t articulated but had been working through as a translator.

I worked really hard the first year I taught the Princeton class. I spent a few months just reading translation theory and translation essays for material that I thought was interesting and put together a reading list. The first semester I taught at Princeton was very experimental. In retrospect, I’m surprised I survived. The format of the class changed a lot from the first year to the second.

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In Conversation: Annaliza Bakri on the Politics of Malay Language and Literature in Singapore

I consider translation to be a key to understanding and elevating humanity.

Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. She believes that literary works can be the subliminal voice that cultivates greater understanding, awareness and consciousness of the past, present and future. An ardent advocate of works that are beautifully penned in Singapore’s national language, she strongly believes in the divine art of translation where shared heritage and mutual discovery promote humanity. Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, recently caught up with Annaliza about her work and about the politics of language and literature in Singapore.

Tse Hao Guang (HG): You teach, write papers, translate Malay texts into English, and organise programmes and panels on Malay culture, language and heritage. What is the driving force behind all this work? What first got you interested in this? You seem to be one of a few people here doing what I’d call literary activism.

Annaliza Barki (AB): There’s a lot of commitment and responsibility when you call yourself an activist. I don’t think it’s as much about activism as it is about sharing ideas and knowledge. In class, I use literature to teach the Malay language. Grammar and syntax can make for a dry learning experience. With literature, however, you examine ideas, explore culture, and enrich your worldview. Literature reveals intricacies of the human identity to us, and, I believe, reignites in us a flame of humanity. This is also one of the many reasons why I translate literary works. What I gain from the interweaving of cultures in my translation work allows me to better understand humanity and human predicaments.

I was part of the organising team that initiated the cultural-literary seminar series CITA@The Arts House in 2012. We provided a platform for the sharing of Malay culture, in both English and Malay, to both adults and students. Part of CITA involved inviting our older writers to speak about their work, writers who were active in the 1970s and still continue to write today. The kind of honour and gratitude we have for them made younger people curious to attend and listen, as it had been a while since we last heard from them. It was interesting for me too, as a teacher who had read and even taught their books, but had no idea who they were apart from their role as writers, or what their aspirations were. Beyond giving these writers prizes like the Cultural Medallion or the Tun Sri Lanang, I think we, as a nation, honour them by giving them a chance to engage an audience in person once again.

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Meet The Publisher: Antares Press’s Margarita Feliciano on Publishing from Spanish, French, and Indigenous Languages

I’m interested in bringing to the attention of readers in the world the fact that there are other languages—not known languages.

ANTARES Publishing House of Spanish Culture is a trilingual press located at York University’s Glendon Campus in Toronto, Canada. ANTARES aims to bring literary and scholarly works from the Spanish-speaking world to North American readers. With this in mind, the press publishes non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and theater either written in or translated from Spanish, English, and French. In recent years, ANTARES’s interests have expanded to include the literature of indigenous languages such as Quechua and Ojibwe. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, met with director Margarita Feliciano to chat about ANTARES’s catalog and their commitment to publishing translations of works written in Spanish and indigenous languages.

Sarah Moses: How did ANTARES get started?

Margarita Feliciano: The press started in the year 2005, but officially we started to publish in the year 2006. I’ve been a professor at York University since 1969 and I’ve always taught literature. In 1989, I started to publish a magazine called Indigo—before Indigo the store; I didn’t have a chance to register it. The subtitle of the magazine was The Spanish/Canadian Presence in the Arts. Things were not done in translation but published in their original language—it could be Spanish, English, or French.

I was forced to retire in 2005 because at the time we had lost a strike and one of the requirements was mandatory retirement for people aged sixty-five. The law is now gone but I unfortunately fell in that category. So in view of that, I decided to create ANTARES—to continue to do what I was doing and at the same time keep me at university because in my life all I’ve done is either be a student or a teacher. So I wanted to continue my work.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Anca Roncea

On translation as an impossible object, and the possibility of a direction.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with poetry runners-up Keith Payne and Sarah Timmer Harvey, we are thrilled to bring you poetry winner Anca Roncea in a short but illuminating conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Anca Roncea is a poet and translator. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently attending the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program in literary translation. In 2012–2013 she was a Fulbright visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She was born and raised in Romania and now lives in Iowa City where she writes and translates poems. She is working on translations of Romanian poetry, an experimental translation of Tristan Tzara, as well as her first book of poetry. She explores the space where language can create pivots in the midst of displacement while incorporating the aesthetics of Constantin Brancusi. She is the 2017 winner of the Omnidawn Single Poem Broadside Contest. Her work can be found in Omniverse, Berkeley Poetry Review, Beecher’s Magazine, and The Des Moines Register.

Close Approximations poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu writes, “I’m thrilled to have selected this year’s winner for poetry: “wrong connections” by Andra Rotaru, in Anca Roncea’s excellent translation from the Romanian. I love how this work reads like a film that can only take place in the mind of the reader. The scenes (I read them like scenes) carry you through a changing landscape that can be menacing, historical, scientific, or downright violent—all in torqued connection with each other like the “incorrect connections” of the tribar.

“Ms. Roncea brings to our attention a new voice in contemporary Romanian poetry: Ms. Rotaru’s work has already been translated into numerous European languages, but very little has been translated into English so far—though this is soon to be remedied, I believe.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note you refer to the tribar, or “the geometrical concept of an impossible triangle whose three sides do not connect but still exist in the form of a triangle, creating a direction for movement.” What are some ways you see Andra Rotaru’s work embodying the “wrong connections” of this impossible shape, and how have you recreated those moments in English?

Anca Roncea (AR): I think that in some ways Andra’s “wrong connections” in her tribar here are speaking to the interesting ways that poetry works to create human experience. It made me think of one of Lyn Hejinian’s lines in her book My Life that says: “You put two things next to each other they start resembling each other.” In Andra’s poems there are strong tactile images next to visual memory next to literary quotes and even descriptions of chemical elements and they all connect and speak to each other even though they technically shouldn’t, but together form an experience. In the translation process, I tried to make the images as visceral as possible because I knew the connections would come through the more the reader could experience these different elements.

CJ: Can you talk about the shifting format of these poems? Moving from citation to almost-prose to definition and back to free verse, how did you maintain the threads of connection between these disparate elements?

AR: That was one of my favorite things about this poem in the Romanian—the fact that the text felt free enough to move through all of these different formal gestures to express what it needed to. One of the biggest challenges was that in Romanian there were quotes in English, and the question was whether to show that and how to do it. In Romanian, the quotations sounded to me like an external voice that comes in the text and is somehow able to be inhabited by the speaker and become part of the tribar, and in English the graphic gesture of leaving them in quotes and citing the author in addition to the change in tone in those moments came through in a very similar way.

CJ: Do these citations—among them Bruno Ernst, Aldous Huxley, and Anne-Marie Blanchard—have significance to a Romanian readership? How does this linguistic and cultural cross-pollination affect the way these poems are perceived?

AR: I couldn’t speak for every Romanian reader but I think it’s different for every one of them. Aldous Huxley might be more recognizable than Susan Howe in Romania, but what I found interesting about these citations is the fact that it shows a poet who is influenced by and in conversation with a range of genres and discourses across time and space from 20th century fiction to 21st century poetry to psychology. You really get to see how the poem is in conversation with what the poet is reading and thinking about.

CJ: You write in your translator’s note, “The poems shift from the movement and breath of a child’s body—the powers and limits of her movement—to those of a dead, ghostly body—its visibility and invisibility.” How do these images interact and overlap throughout the work?

AR: These antithetical images I think connect through how visceral they are. You really see and hear what the child is going through even if you don’t get a narrative of these scenes they play out in the senses—it’s almost an inner perspective which then shifts to an outer perspective when death comes in the poem, but the speaker is still using senses to connect by hearing and feeling their way through. I think it gives the whole work presence in a different way than what I have seen before in Romanian poetry, and it ultimately felt much more haunting to me.

*****

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Read more interviews with Close Approximations winners:

In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

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Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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In Conversation: Zee Edgell on Belize, and Writing About Home From Afar

Our Guatemala Editor-at-Large interviews Zee Edgell about history and politics seeping into her fiction and Belize as a character.

Zelma Edgell is Belize’s most celebrated writer. Zee, as she’s better known, has also worked as a teacher and journalist. Zee’s first novel, Beka Lamb deals with the relationship between Beka, her best friend Toycie and their conservative community. Published in 1982, Beka Lamb has since become a classic of Belizean literature.

Three novels later, Zee continues her exploration and analysis of Belize’s history, political turbulence, and racial structure. In her second book, In Times Like These (1991), we’re thrown right in the middle of Belize’s independence. In 1997 Zee published The Festival of San Joaquin in which we get a glimpse of the way religion has shaped the country’s traditions and inhabitants. With Time and the River Zee presented yet another facet of Belizean history: slavery.

Zee regards Belize as one of her characters. Belize affects her as a writer and becomes the environmental engine of her protagonists. Belize shapes the community that psychologically cornered Toycie in Beka Lamb; it affects Pavana’s motivations in In Times Like These. Belize is often not only a compassionate and beautiful landscape but also the driving force of the elements that pull at and constrict Zee’s characters.

Formerly known as the British Honduras, Belize is sandwiched between Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea, and is the only country in the isthmus with English as the official language. Zee attributes Belize’s disconnection to Central America’s literary scene to this idiomatic difference. However, her work—and that of her peers—is historically and creatively crucial to the region, defining Latin America’s literary contemporaneity.

Asymptote Guatemala Editor-at-Large José García Escobar

José García Escobar (JGE): I am curious about your creative upbringing. Can you describe your experience of growing up in Belize, and your relationship with art

Zelma Edgell (ZE): In primary school, I participated in yearly school entertainments. We sang Belizean patriotic songs and listened to marching bands and marimba. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we listened to Garifuna drummers and watched their dances. We also acted out scenes from plays. Also, during the school year, we regularly attended masses at the cathedral. In that sense, yes, I was close to creative activities.

JGE: What were some of the early authors that shaped your reading and writing habits?

ZE: Some of the authors that I read in high school were William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Outside of school, I read a large a variety of writers, including books by Mark Twain.

JGE: Any Belizean or Caribbean writers?

ZE: As a young girl, I read the work of Belizean poets. I started reading the work of Caribbean writers when I was in my late twenties or thirties. READ MORE…

Meet the Publisher: Simon Dardick, Co-Publisher of Véhicule Press, on Publishing Translations of Francophone Literature and Social History

It’s wonderful working with translators. I love the whole complex process and appreciate how translators must have a foot in two cultures.

Véhicule Press is a Canadian publisher of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Located in the city of Montréal, where French is predominantly spoken, Véhicule has been publishing francophone authors in translation since 1980. In recent years, half their catalog has been dedicated to works translated from the French. Véhicule started out in 1973 on the site of the artist-run gallery Véhicule Art Inc. with a printing press and equipment inherited from one of its members. In 1975, they became the only cooperatively owned printing and publishing company in the province of Québec. Nowadays, the press is run by Simon Dardick, who stayed on when the coop broke up in 1981, and archivist Nancy Marrelli. From the beginning, Véhicule has focused on titles that celebrate and examine Canadian culture and society. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, stopped by Véhicule’s office in Montréal to chat with Simon Dardick about publishing francophone literature in translation and some of the titles he’s excited about. 

Sarah Moses (SM): I’d like to begin by asking you about the origins of Véhicule Press.

Simon Dardick (SD): It grew out of an art gallery called Véhicule Art. It was at a time when artists were renting large spaces—for performance art and for large-scale colour field paintings. Véhicule Art was an artist-run gallery—the second one in Canada; the first was in Vancouver.The artwork was interesting—it was very international but also showed work from local people from Montréal and Québec. The press was situated at the back of the gallery. One of the artists had bought a huge printing press and printed, I think, one or two copies of a magazine called Beaux-Arts. The apocryphal story is that the printer got his hand caught in the press and it stood silent for many months until some people gravitated around it and decided to learn how to use it.

That was six months before I arrived in 1973. I became typesetter and general manager. We were all middle class kids, lots of long hair, who were involved in literary stuff. We were painters, writers, dancers, and video artists who came together. There was at various times seven or eight of us. We were incorporated in Québec as a cooperative printing and publishing company. We really wanted just to publish, but we would print our books on offcuts, the paper left over from jobs we had printed for other folks. We were the popular grassroots printer in town. We printed posters and invitations for artists and flyers for demonstrations and community groups. So essentially we started publishing more and more books of our own although near the end we still did jobs printing for people. The end was really 1980, 1981. The technology was changing—printing was becoming more electronic, rather than lithographic. We did low-end printing, except for our own books. We didn’t envision committing to a life of commercial printing. So we dissolved the printing company and my wife, Nancy, and I continued the publishing end of things. In 1981, we moved to a greystone in central Montréal—we live above the office—and immediately eliminated tremendous overhead in terms of rent.

Our approach has been very much influenced by visual arts—I was a painter. So for me the look of a book is important: the cover art and the text of the book has to work together. To this day I still typeset all our books, with the odd exception. We’ve been doing it here since 1981. We have a poetry editor and a fiction editor. My wife and I do the non-fiction.

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