Language: Chinese

The Harmony of Normalcy: Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping in Review

In the patchwork format by which this novel takes its shape, the reader is as involved and intimate with the surroundings as one of the characters.

Fu Ping by Wang Anyi, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Columbia University Press, 2019

First, do not create extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary characters. Second, do not use too much material. Three, do not over-stylize the language. Four, do not aspire to be singular.

These strange and somewhat alienating pillars of writing philosophy are passed on to us by Wang Anyi, one of China’s most accomplished and notorious authors. Famed for her meticulous portrayals of female tenacity, ordinary citizens, and everyday minutia, she is both stylistically audacious and devoted to her subjects. Fu Ping, her most recent novel to be translated into English, and taken into a wonderfully equal rendition by Howard Goldblatt, exemplifies the thematic and aesthetic constants prevalent in her oeuvre, while simultaneously creating an illumination of city and community that leaves remarkably deep impressions by way of its quietude. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The latest in world letters from Beijing, Oklahoma, and the UK.

Three superpowers this week compete for our attention with their respective updates in the realm of national literature. Our editors bring you news this week from the Beijing Literature Summit, the results of the Neustadt Prize in Oklahoma, and the continued fallout of the 2019 Booker Prize award in the UK. Read on to find out more!  

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting for China

“Beijing is the country’s literary mecca,” articles enthusiastically parroted this month as the nation’s capital held the 4th Beijing Literature Summit on October 18. Though the multifold of equally rich literary cities in this vast country could dissent, the summit and forum nevertheless overtook headlines as well-established members of the Beijing literati took the stage in the square at Zhengyangmen, the immediate heart of the city. Attendees included preeminent novelists Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声 and Liu Qingbang 刘庆邦, and the poet Yang Qingxiang 杨庆祥 (a leader of “new scar poetry”), as well as an assembly of Beijing’s foremost scholars, critics, and publishers.

The talks concentrated around three predominant themes: the past, present, and future of Beijing literature. Throughout the seventy years of the People’s Republic of China, literary culture in Beijing remained at the forefront of the country’s social and cultural reality, thereby receiving the most immediate impact from the tumultuous chronology of the country as a whole. In discussing the tremendous weight of history, Liang stated that the past is not overbearing but exists in a continuous exchange with the present. The question is, he said: “How should we use the text to state it?”

READ MORE…

Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2019

Our Section Editors pick their favorite pieces from the Fall 2019 issue!

Eleven days after its launch, Asymptote’s Fall 2019 issue continues to capture the zeitgeist. Many of its pieces, drawn from a record thirty-six countries, simmer with polyvocal discontent at the modern world, taking aim squarely at its seamy underbelly: the ravages of environmental degradation, colonial resource extraction, and media sensationalism of violence, in particular. If you’re still looking for a way in, perhaps our Section Editors can be of some assistance. Their highlights from the edition follow:

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction, Poetry, and Microfiction Special Feature Editor:

Via frequent contributors Julia and Peter Sherwood, an excerpt from Czech writer and dramaturg Radka Denemarková’s latest Magnesia Litera Prize-winning novel, Hours of Lead, brings us into the bowels of a Chinese prison, bearing witness to a dissident girl’s defiance of state repression and censorship. Inspired by Václav Havel, the protagonist’s struggle is entirely private and self-motivated, untethered from any broader democratic collective or underground movement. Her guards are driven mad by her equanimity and individuality in the face of savage interrogation: “Even her diffident politeness is regarded as provocative. As is her decency. Restraint. Self-control. Humility. . . The guards find her very existence provocative.” Renounced by her parents and rendered persona non grata, “a one-person ghetto,” by the state, her isolation is both liberating and the ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice.

Meanwhile, poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the Uruguayan frontier with Brazil—revels in an act of presence just as radical and defiant of the mainstream, resisting the state’s attempted erasure of his language. Laura Cesarco Eglin and Jesse Lee Kercheval’s translation sings: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the dictionary/ dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” Don’t overlook the luminous poems of prolific French and Martinican Creole writer Monchoachi, whom Derek Walcott has credited for “completely renewing our vision of the Creole language.” “The Caribbean could be considered a workshop for the modern world,” he conveys in Eric Fishman’s English translation, “with its deportations, its exterminations, and also its ‘wildly multiple’ side, its ‘ubiquity of voices and sounds.’” READ MORE…

Our Fall 2019 Issue Is Here!

Featuring Radka Denemarková, Sylvia Molloy, Monchoachi, and a Spotlight on International Microfiction

Welcome to our spectacular Fall 2019 edition gathering never-before-published work from a record-breaking 36 countries, including, for the first time, Azerbaijan via our spotlight on International Microfiction. Uncontained, this issue’s theme, may refer to escape either from literal prisons—the setting of some of these pieces—or from other acts of containment: A pair of texts by Czech author Radka Denemarková and Hong Kong essayist Stuart Lee tackle the timely subject of Chinese authoritarianism. In “The Container,” Thomas Boberg performs the literary equivalent of “unboxing” so popular on YouTube these days, itemizing a list of things in a container shipped from Denmark to the Gambia—all in a withering critique of global capitalism.

The container lends itself to several metaphors but none as poignant or as on point as—you guessed it, dear Asymptote reader—the container of language itself, as suggested by London-based photographer Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee’s brilliant cover highlighting the symbolism of the humble rice grain. This commodity has, like language, been exported, exchanged, enhanced, and expressed in various forms from its various origins across the planet. Even when a state attempts to erase language, resistance remains possible, as poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the country’s frontier with Brazil—demonstrates: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the / dictionary,” he sings, “dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” In one of Argentine writer Sylvia Molloy’s many profound riffs on the bilingual condition, Molloy claims that “one must always be bilingual from one language, the heimlich one, if only for a moment, since heim or home can change.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Du Ya

He recalls darkness: changes in earth over hundreds of millions of years / It astounds him: black, plummeting, set in motion eons ago

This week’s Translation Tuesday features two labour-centric poems by Du Ya. “The Coal Miner” could be construed as a multivalent metaphor aligning the work of a coal miner with an unbearable lack of clarity regarding one’s position in the world. On another register, however, “The Coal Miner” shows how one’s occupation and environment can be written on and in the body, as well as the mind. “Copper” looks at the quality of the sub-strata itself. It is an homage to the hidden beauties and forms that underpin all that happens upon a surface. Copper’s stability, its cycles, and their accumulations might be related to translation itself, a conceptual attitude that recalls the archaeological cultural exercises of Walter Benjamin and the re-working of source materials to gain new insight or expression. Time can be read in the changes in striation and the different iterations of copper, constantly moving beneath the surface and in the hands of artisans, as a poem or thought too changes—and stays the same—as it moves.

The Coal Miner

He means to tell people about the light
but each part of his body revolts
disobeys the center, speaks only of darkness

Having gnawed so long on that mighty seam, he has no idea
that his lungs, liver, and intestines are now made of coal
The textbooks teach this: “change in quantity leads to change in quality”

His body is such a fitting exhibit, it needs no explanation
It wears pitch black shadowless silk
like a government official donning a tailored uniform

Yet he still speaks of light—and for light
he daily lowers himself underground (and time flows unchanging)
Not even the nightfish has seen such darkness

Sometimes, in the subterranean depths, he is frightened
He recalls darkness: changes in earth over hundreds of millions of years
It astounds him: black, plummeting, set in motion eons ago

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Lebanon, Hong Kong, and France as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

From the town nestled in the peaks of Lebanon, to the recent surge in Hong Kong streets, to the crystal waters of the Occitanie coast, our three literary destinations of the week bring forth an array of Lebanese love stories, reimaginings of home, and the rich culture of Mediterranean poetry. In the words of the great Sufi poet Yunus Emre, “If I told you about a land of love, friend, would you follow me and come?”

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Lebanon

The mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon should see an increase in tourism following the Lebanese debut of a musical adapted from Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Broken Wings, published in 1912. Born in Bsharri in 1883, Gibran’s book The Prophet, published in the United States in 1923, is still one of the best-selling books of all time after ninety-six years and 189 consecutive print runs. Showing at Beit El Din Palace, a nineteenth century palace which hosts the annual Beiteddine festival, the musical tells of a tragic love story which takes place during the turn of the century in Beirut.

Closer to sea level, an evening of poetry in Beirut celebrated Lebanese poet Hasan Abdulla.  Born in Southern Lebanon, Abdulla was inspired by its natural beauty, and infused his poetry with observations of nature. His work, spanning over forty years, has been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian. 

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Close-up on Brazil, Guatemala, and Hong Kong in this week's dispatches.

Between the pages of beloved books some sunlight gathers, as writers and readers from the various corners of our world gather to greet, honour, and celebrate one another. Crowds gather in search for literature in Rio de Janeiro, a Guatemalan favourite is shortlisted for a prestigious Neustadt International Award, and genre fiction takes the spotlight in Hong Kong. Travel with us between cobblestone and concrete, as our editors bring you the close-up view on global literary news.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

One can hardly say it’s been winter here in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with the sun shining over the 17th edition of FLIP, the International Literary Festival of Paraty, from July 10 to 14. The festival—one of the world’s largest, and certainly Brazil’s most anxiously awaited—brought thousands of readers and writers to the cobblestone streets of Paraty in celebration of world literature. The main programming welcomed internationally acclaimed writers Grada Kilomba (Portugal, author of Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism), Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Nigeria, author of Stay with Me), and Kalaf Epalanga (Angola, author of Também os brancos sabem dançar), among others, with events in various languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Libras (Brazilian Sign Language). But the magic of this year’s FLIP certainly wasn’t confined to the mainstage: the “houses” of Paraty’s historic center were transformed into venues for book readings, signings, and endless conversation; a parallel “Flipinha” brought the literary festival alive for children of all ages; and the first-ever FLIP international poetry slam packed the main plaza for an unforgettable night, featuring poets from Cabo Verde, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, the US, and the UK. Anyone looking for a recap of the main events can head to FLIP’s YouTube page to check out the action!

READ MORE…

The Opening Is Where the Light Comes In

Within [this publication], we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

Spittoon is a literary and arts collective born in Beijing, China, with the aim of bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, and creators. Consisting of monthly events, poetry-music intersections, and literary and artistic publications, Spittoon has set down roots in Beijing, Chengdu, and Gothenburg, Sweden. In June 2019, Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 5, a bilingual publication that translates and publishes China’s best contemporary voices, was published. Xiao Yue Shan, Managing Editor of the magazine and Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote, writes from Beijing about the days leading up to the launch. 

Drivers here love talking politics, my aunt says to me after my hour-long ride into Xiaotangshan, the oddly idyllic suburban town in northwest Beijing. Really? I reply. They’ve been telling me the stories of their lives

Beijing is brimming to burst with stories, occasionally startling, occasionally brilliant, told in voices bred by an immense variousness, from the sandy waters of the Yellow River to the steaming skies of Hunan, the stillness of Heilongjiang winters to glittering Kunming greens. It is a city that collects and bounds the language of its citizens, between circling highways and sky-bound apartments. So it is that one is never beyond the reach of a story, told as regularly as the hour tells the clock.

The literature of contemporary China is represented in the contours of Beijing—a place you must visit a great number of times, an ongoing landscape impossible to traverse by foot alone, wayward beginnings which speak nothing of ending. Any attempt to define it would be a disservice, as it openly resists definition; one is only able to catch at its hems, glancing, in search of openings that allow light to come in, any small light that would lend sense to the vastness. So it is with this knowledge that we, at Spittoon Literary Magazine, set out to compile a selection of China’s most engaging and original literatures, carving a door by which one can visit again and again. This publication is an entryway toward something lasting, a portrait of a national body that refuses to stay still. Within it, we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Untitled” by Song Lin

your evening battles with a certain angel / until stars become bones

This week’s Translation Tuesday proffers a poem by Chinese poet Song Lin. This poem, “Untitled,” translated with a certain sublimity by Dong Li, offers a haunting vision that places the reader into a fleeting and gilded world, where the symbols of poetry invert and exhaust themselves upon being observed. Within this short poem, a whole lifetime quivers under the strain of thought and composition. “A belated meeting beckons” to the readers of the poem who become themselves the poetic voice, simultaneously offered and denied the splendor of traditional lyric. Dong Li’s translation captures the sparsity of language and the depth of tableau expected of traditional Chinese lyric poetry, while also capturing a sense of alienation from these stereotypical themes and imagery. The language of this poem leaves a lasting impression as it ignites and etches feelings and impressions. We are glad to be able to feature this innovative and compelling translation. 

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week, we’re talking about poetry in Transylvania, storytelling in Marrakech, and LGBT literature in Taipei.

It would be difficult for even the most hardened of cynics to bemoan the state of literature after having read the news coming from around the globe this week. Our editors report on a stunning international festival of poetry in Transylvania, the determined literary representation of an “unofficial” language in Morocco, and an abundance of musical, literary, and theatrical events taking place under the open skies of Taipei.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the Z9Festival in Sibiu, Romania

The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.

Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.

READ MORE…

Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

READ MORE…

Recovering What Is Missing: In Conversation with C.J. Anderson-Wu

The collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, the far-right exists, and inequality prevails.

Chieh-Jane Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese author, translator, and publisher of Taiwanese literature in translation. She is partly inspired by the white spots of Taiwan’s recent history, namely the White Terror, a forty-year period of martial law which began in 1949 and witnessed systematic repression within the nation, particularly targeting intellectuals. Pervasive censorship during the White Terror affected literature, but also the lives of many families at a time when secrecy and denial turned into a survival strategy for many. Anderson-Wu has written several works, including the story collection Impossible to Swallow and “Life Looked at From A Single Window,” and is currently working on a new novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Today Taiwan is one of the freest societies in Asia, yet martial law only ended in 1987, almost forty years after it was first imposed. This period, known as the White Terror, witnessed tremendous political violence: over one hundred and fifty thousand people, including many intellectuals, were arrested, and several thousands were executed. It is also the theme of your collection of short stories called Impossible to Swallow. What has led you to find inspiration in this particular period of Taiwan’s history?

C.J. Anderson-Wu (C.J. A-W): There are several causes, but one of them is my sense of guilt. I did not understand it until I had written several stories. After the Formorsa Incident in 1979, posters of the so-called rebels were everywhere. I was a kid and really believed that they were bad people, that they should be arrested and put in jail. Years went by and as more historical materials were released after the abolishment of martial law, I gradually realized what lies we had lived in. I feel so grateful to those who never backed down and sacrificed so much for the freedom we are enjoying today, and resent my gullibility.

Another thing is that we never had transitional justice. We never had a Nuremberg Trial-type that conducted thorough investigation on what had really happened, why it happened, and who should be responsible. Thus we don’t know how we can prevent it from happening again. Today the past dictators are still worshipped, the days under authoritarian rules are still commemorated, and lies are still believed. I was shocked, in despair, and infuriated. How can people stay ignorant when all the evidence is presented in front of their eyes? How can people feel okay sacrificing the rights that were earned by blood, tears, and sweat?

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

June is a month of commemoration and celebration from opposite sides of the Pacific.

Literature has always been at the forefront in movements for societal change, and, in the efforts to continually push for action, we perceive the bold literary markers that fulfill art’s role to pay tribute, to inspire, and to call for attention. It’s been thirty years since the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 in Beijing. It’s been over fifty years since the Latin American Studies Association was founded in the spirit of building civic engagement. It’s been fifty years since the Stonewall Riots began on June 28th, 2019 in New York City. From commemorations in Hong Kong, joyous displays of pride in the US, and unprecedented exchange of Latin American academic dialogues occurring in Boston, our editors bring you news that show a valiant, ongoing endeavour towards justice.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, also called the June Fourth Incident, for which it is tradition among different parties in Hong Kong to hold annual commemoration. In light of the anniversary, the city’s literary journals are organizing special features and events to take stock of the cultural, political, and social changes the incident has caused in Hong Kong, China, and beyond.

Cha, Hong Kong’s resident literary journal in the English language, is publishing a special edition of original English and translated works, photography, and art exploring the incident and its aftermath. The issue will include a selection of translated works by Chinese poets Duo Duo (featured in Asymptote’s Summer issue last year, also translated by Lucas Klein), Meng Lang, Lin Zhao, Xi Chuan, and Yian Lian, as well as a translation of “One Family’s Story” by Ding Zilin, co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers. Alongside the Tiananmen issue, Cha is also collaborating with PEN Hong Kong to hold a remembrance reading with local writers at Bleak House Books on June 3.

READ MORE…