Language: Chinese

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find out the latest in world literary news here!

In this edition of weekly dispatches, we remember Argentine author Hebe Uhart, celebrate the continuation of Guatemala’s national book fair, and look to China for news of cultural exchange and literary prizes. 

Sarah Moses, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Argentina:

Argentine author Hebe Uhart passed away on October 11 at the age of eighty-one. Uhart was the author of numerous collections of travel essays, stories, and novellas, and in recent years dedicated herself exclusively to the former, visiting towns in Argentina as well as countries in Latin America and further abroad to document what she saw. Her most recent work was a collection of non-fiction pieces about animals, which included her own sketches.

Uhart was born in the town of Moreno and moved to the capital to study philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, where she later taught. For many years, she also led writing workshops out of her home. She was recognized as one of the greats among both readers and colleagues, and authors such as Mariana Enríquez and Inés Acevedo have written about her work. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

In these dispatches, we see efforts in world literature to feature underrepresented voices.

World literature will be inclusive only through a continuous effort of organizing against the dominant, listening to the underrepresented, and making space for the unheard to bloom. This week our Editors-at-Large report such efforts from Australia, Hong Kong, and Slovakia. Read on to find out how the voices of women, indigenous and local peoples are being amplified around the world.

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Australia:

As part of an effort to resist the colonial systems that are the Australian publishing industry, the Australian media and arts industries, and modern Australia itself, the literary quarterly The Lifted Brow made the decision to hand over the entire production of their December issue to an all-First-Nations team of writers, editors, and ancillary staff. “We at TLB are too white, in all senses of that term,” read the magazine’s official statement on the matter. “[I]t’s way past the time that this should’ve changed. Our job and responsibility now is to push back against these oppressive and harmful regimes-within-regimes, not because we can undo the past, but because we can make better the present and the future.”

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Spring 2018: The Dogged Chase of the Actual After the Ideal

Confronting the most immediate limits on human experience while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market.

On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.

The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede. READ MORE…

Fall 2017: The Last Space For Resistance

Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.

Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.

I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.

As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.

Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then: READ MORE…

Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…

Fall 2015: Taking the Spaceship Back

Time, the fourth dimension of our existence, threads through the whole Fall 2015 issue as its unifying motif.

The third quarter of 2015 is thorny with developments. On July 31, we announce the second edition of our international translation contest judged by Michael Hofmann (Poetry), Ottilie Mulzet (Fiction), and Margaret Jull Costa (Nonfiction—a new category), this time awarding a total of $4,500 in prizes. Technical Manager József Szabo (also one of the editors behind the fabulous Tumblr blog Writers No One Reads) completes a laborious site migration that has taken almost two years. Our website is now both adaptable to mobile devices and optimized for search engines. On October 1, I receive an invitation from The Guardian initiating a partnership that would see Asymptote simultaneously running our blog’s Translation Tuesday articles on their site for 76 weeks, starting from October 27. (Of the 11 Guardian Books Network Members announced on October 21, we are the only magazine dedicated to translation and also—I can’t help noting—the only one from Asia.) This turns out to be the first of three partnerships that we formalize in October (the other two being with PEN America and Lithub), all three of which we announce proudly via our first-ever Fortnightly Airmail, launched on October 29, thanks to then Communications Manager Matthew Phipps and then Graphic Designer Berny Tan (who valiantly turns around a new newsletter design within 24 hours after I veto the first). This inaugural newsletter doesn’t yet spotlight PEN/Heim grant winners (the first boatload of these would arrive on November 13). Instead, it carries Jennifer Croft’s essay “When the Author You Translate [i.e., Olga Tokarczuk] Gets Death Threats,” which Lithub republishes on their website on November 2. (We would also go on to be the first to excerpt Olga Tokarczuk’s 2018 International Man Booker Prizewinning Flights in our Winter 2016 edition before it hit bookstores anywhere.) October 2015 also ushers in our first-ever virtual event featuring Mexican author Albert Chimal’s “The Time-Traveller.” Originally composed in Spanish as a series of tweets, the English translation by George Henson, which also respects Twitter’s character limit of 140, is published twice: first, as a headliner in our Fall 2015 issue, and then via our English Twitter channel as a long string of tweets pushed out (by then Marketing Manager David Maclean) to the world over a span of 40 hours. If you were there for the tweetathon, thank you for being a part of the work. Here to introduce our Fall 2015 issue is Hong Kong editor-at-large Charlie Ng Chak Kwan.

If I were able to travel back to 2013 and meet my younger self, I would enthusiastically tell her that she was about to become part of a community devoted to breaking cultural and linguistic borders in the literary world and that she would never regret joining a journal whose mission was translating and publishing works written by people far and wide. It is unbelievable that I have now been a Hong Kong Editor-at-Large for Asymptote for more than five years. The many issues of Asymptote have seen me face a few life hurdles—graduating from my Ph.D., securing my first job as a translator, and becoming a full-time university teacher—and still I stay with Asymptote. Time definitely changes a lot of things—for good or for bad—but the ever-expanding archive of Asymptote tells me there are some things that remain constant, like the journal’s perseverance.

Time, the fourth dimension of our existence, threads through the whole Fall 2015 issue as its unifying motif. The issue’s pieces transport us to a wide range of times, from the Armenian genocide in Gostan Zarian’s “The Traveler and His Road” to the forensic anthropological investigation of the dead in Leila Guerriero’s “The Trace in the Bones”. We are not restricted by conventional time frames that confine our experience as words allow us to exist in the past, the present and the future simultaneously. The first line of Alberto Chimal’s “The Time Traveller” actually says it all: “Good morning, afternoon, evening, says the Time Traveller when his machine is moody and doesn’t ask him where (or to when) he’s going.” The Time Traveller’s trouble, in other words, is not where to go but rather the lack of a good temporal compass. Chimal’s story—comprised of a series of the Time Traveller’s wild and witty Tweets—portrays a compassionate titular character with ample knowledge of history and literature. Although its protagonist is no Gulliver—he is much more sophisticated than that 18th century traveller—Chimal’s story amuses and fascinates as much as Swift’s, even as it avoids the latter’s satiric bitterness. READ MORE…

Fall 2014: Interlinked Dimensions of Spacetime

The Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote demonstrates an exceptional thematic cohesion across genre, language, location, and time.

Around this time, equipped with a new legal advisor (the extremely efficient Win Bassett), a small group is formally set up within our team to look into the feasibility of Asymptote becoming a non-profit organization in the USA. This makes most sense for tax-deductibility, since our largest readership, outnumbering the second largest demographic by a ratio of three to one, is American. It would take one and a half years for me to reach a definitive decision, but I decide in the end not to take the plunge. To become a non-profit, a board would first have to be formed, and all major decisions about the journal’s direction would have to be run by this board (which would mostly comprise Americans). Had I worked so hard for the magazine’s survival only to surrender its reins to others? Aren’t there already more than enough American mediators of otherness? I’m also wary because of what one board member of another online magazine has told me in confidence: being bound to a board has held that magazine back from reaching its full potential. We do, however, thanks to Win Bassett, Erin Stephens-North, Lynette Lee, and Eric M. B. Becker, succeed in acquiring fiscal sponsorship with Fractured Atlas on August 26, 2014. This is a breakthrough: For the first time, we are tax-deductible for American donors, removing one more barrier standing in the way of support. Here to introduce the Fall 2014 issue is Assistant Editor Erik Noonan.

Published in sync with the release of the inaugural episode of the Asymptote Podcast—whose producer Emma Jacobs suggests that the mythical stories we tell ourselves are really signs of “our inability to map our own minds”—the Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote sets the reader afloat through a tesseract located among the interlinked dimensions of spacetime.

In Shi Tiesheng’s “The Year of Being Twenty-One,” that mapless place masquerades in public life as a monotheistic deity: “I did see God, one day—but he went by a different name, and that name was the mind,” Shi writes. “In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.”    READ MORE…

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

Summer 2013: What a Tentative, Unruly Enterprise Language Is

How miraculous it is when a translator is able to express someone else’s thoughts—it is already so difficult to express your own.

We have organized four IndieGoGo campaigns in all our eight years now, and each of the last three times, it’s sucked so much life force from us that we have, on one occasion, even had to skip an issue (there is no Spring 2015 edition) to recover from it. For some reason, however, it does not take long at all after our first campaign to hit our stride again. A sampling of what we were up to immediately after April 2013, apart from sending ‘thank you’s and perks to 231 supporters: We (1) launched our first-ever translation contest; (2) organized a massive translation project that saw translations into eighteen additional languages of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s brilliant send-up of racial profiling; (3) revamped our website to include a map (thus allowing readers to access our content by geographical region); (4) nominated ourselves for a TED Prize (albeit in vain) and, last but not certainly not least; (5) held our largest recruitment drive ever. The rapid expansion takes a toll: my inbox is invaded daily by check-ins. Fortunately, around this time, we migrate to Trello for issue production work. To give you a sense of how much back and forths are required for just one article (say, Can Xue’s interview conducted by Dylan Suher and Joan Hua, as recounted by Dylan below): Trello records 84 comments by 12 team members spanning the period of May 28 to July 15. Here is Robyn Creswell of The Paris Review on the Summer 2013 issue: “It’s hard to read in a heat wave, but the July issue of Asymptote is so absorbing I hardly notice my sweat drops hitting the keyboard. Even more impressive than the diversity of things translated—book reviews in Urdu, fiction in Bengali, poetry in Faroese—is their quality.

The Summer 2013 issue of Asymptote is a fine illustration of the principle that translation is just a special subset of the general problem of communication: the problem of trying to relate your experience to someone else, of trying to put something “in other words,” of trying to put something into words in the first place. This principle comes across most clearly in Naoki Higashida’s attempts to relate his experience as an autistic person, and in the visual section’s pieces on asemic writing and Ghada Amer’s use of Arabic script. All three remind us what a tentative, unruly enterprise language is. The shapes shackled into service by the Phoenicians millennia ago long to return to the wilds of visuality; when tasked with expressing the plentitude of the autistic mind, simple words seem as crude a tool as a chert axe.

The problem of referentiality epitomized by these pieces runs throughout this entire issue. The way Banaphool’s “Nawab Sahib” (translated by Arunava Sinha) seems to exist just outside the bounds of reality, its repetitive structure, and its surprising twists all suggest a fable (or a joke), but the moral to which it points remains sublimely hazy. E.C. Belli, translating Pierre Peuchmaurd, repeats the word “glimmer” again and again in a mantra of irreducible images: “The glimmers of lakes, of iron, of girls”; “The glimmers of otters inside their prey.” The insistence of the repetition pounds significance into a non-entity of a word. READ MORE…

Spring 2013: A Singular Experience

I have written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.

To sift through the 1,709 threads generated around our first-ever Indiegogo campaign (held from 16 January 2013 to 30 April 2013) is to relive stomach-churning dread. Money is a garish topic—no one likes to ask for it. Although the team is by now 25-strong, only five or six go out on a limb (for which I’m already extremely grateful). As of 24 April 2013, we find ourselves hovering around 7.5% of our goal (i.e., $1,500)—just enough, then, to cover the cost of the animation I commissioned for the fundraiser (since, ever the introvert, I have declined to appear in a video). Someone leaves a discouraging comment on social media: “Asymptote? More like Asym-nope.” But, suddenly, momentum picks up. With 5 days left, we go from $1,500 to $3,000, then from $3,000 to $6,000; and then, thanks to a single donation of $5,000 from a friend, we achieve the thrilling feat of doubling our monies for the third day in a row. All at once, hitting our goal is looking possible. From our various stations around the globe, we liveblog the last 48 hours, and finally bring it home at $20,184. (This money represents extra lives to stay in the game: Overnight, our bank account jumps from two figures to five.) Back for a visit in Singapore, I meet with a local literary editor I reached out to in the final hours of the campaign. In a cafe, he takes out his check book and writes the number $101, declaring the number meaningful: It is the one and only time he will ever donate to Asymptote. I want to give back the check, but instead I cash it, considering it reparation of sorts: I am a nine-time unpaid contributor to his journal, which, unlike Asymptote, does promote Singaporean writing and is therefore eligible to receive money from Singapore’s National Arts Council to pay its contributors; it doesn’t simply becauseand I know because he told mehe doesn’t want the hassle of administering funds. Here to introduce the Spring 2013 issue is contributor Will McGrath.

To the funding body*:

I am delighted to write in support of Asymptote, which published my essay “Good & Bad Joala” in April 2013. It was a piece of personal significance about the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, and also my first publication. Since 2013, I have published frequently, written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, won the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, and interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.

When Asymptote selected my essay, I didn’t understand how uncommon the journal was, how rare their personal investment in each piece. They commissioned stunning visuals to accompany my work and sought out an internationally lauded translator to bring my essay into Chinese, mediating between us and consulting me on the granular detail of translation. After publication, they nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize and then a Best of the Net Prize. Later still, when I published in other journals, Asymptote continued to support and celebrate my work, striving to foster a global network of writers and readers. All of this attention and effort they lavished on an uncredentialled writer pulled from the slush pile. READ MORE…

Fall 2012: A Whirlwind Blend of Poetry, Fiction, Loud-mouthed Drama, and Phantasmagorical Art

The pieces from the issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny.

Michael Henry Heim, the translator who introduced to English readers Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—and my personal favorite, The Joke—dies on 29 September 2012. Not only do we mourn his passing, we regret not being able to publish the interview Heim agreed to months before. Michael Stein of Literalab, who has been researching interview questions for Asymptote when news breaks of Heim’s death, writes a tribute instead, which we publish on Tumblr (this being before the arrival of our blog). On the other hand, Yiyun Li—whom I have been courting since the beginning of Asymptote—finally agrees to grace the pages of our eighth issue (listen to a snippet of her conversation with Clare Wigfall here). Haven’t read Li? Start with “Love in the Marketplace” from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Sometimes, in my more indulgent moments as editor, I think of that story and channel the question that the narrator asks of her mother, who prides herself on the care she takes to make the very best hard boiled eggs that she has been selling for forty years: Who even notices?

The Fall 2012 issue was the first issue of Asymptote that I encountered when I decided to reconnect with literature after a long hiatus. And I’ll be perfectly candid: as a skeptic who has never been afraid of ghosts, I was somewhat bemused by the Halloween-tinged theme of fear and the supernatural. But when I delved a little deeper I found no Disneyfication of the old pagan ritual but rather an exploration of fear that encompassed both the everyday and the extraordinary. In a whirlwind blend of poetry, fiction, loud-mouthed drama, and even phantasmagorical art, readers encounter the ghosts of of memory, AIDS, old age, Alzheimer’s, lost cultural identity, and so much more.

The pieces from this issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny. Afzal Syed Ahmed’s poem, which begins “In your language every line begins from an opposite end,” responds to Aamer Hussein’s fear of returning to a ‘home’ that no longer feels like home—and not simply because both are translated from Urdu. As Hussein explains, “I’m losing my mother tongue. I’m a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Now I shall turn this foreign tongue into a whip and lash them with their words.” When discussing in her interview why she doesn’t feel ready to be translated into Chinese, Yiyun Li demonstrates a similar fear of losing one’s language, of being misinterpreted, of being pushed out or forgotten. READ MORE…

Summer 2012: A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Editing a Journal of World Literature

I had no interest in replacing a perfectly serviceable translation with a bad one.

“World literature” often gets a lot of attention in the months leading up to each year’s Nobel Prize announcement, but what do we really mean by it? Is it simply all the literatures of the world? Is it a status that applies to texts that circulate in a certain way? As the editor-in-chief of an international journal, I see “world literature” as a shifting aggregate of the literatures that have been translated into any given language. It’s clear to me, writing from Taipei, that an English “world literature” is vastly different from a Chinese one. Upon his passing in June 2012, for example, I discovered that Ray Bradbury had never been translated into Chinese — an omission made more perverse by the fact that translations make up an impressive 50% of all books published in Taiwan, compared to the woeful 3% in the United States. And if Taiwanese readers had been denied the genius of so well-loved an author, one can only imagine what American readers are missing out on.

This asymmetry was what motivated me in May 2012 to initiate a translation project that would introduce to Anglophone readers the newest crop of Chinese writers—a “20 Under 40,” if you will, of the Chinese-speaking world. Such a feature, modeled after Granta’s “Best British Novelists,” consisting of 20 medium-length essays introducing 20 of the most promising authors not only from China — but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia — had just been published that month by the leading Taiwanese journal Unitas and I thought Asymptote would be uniquely positioned to showcase it in English. Leveraging a connection, I made a few enquiries; the response from Unitas was positive. Tapping volunteer translators from the And Other Stories Chinese Reading Group and, crucially, proceeding with Unitas’ assurance that we would have free rein in editing the texts, my team and I decided to commit to turning the translation project around in five months: the first ten essays would appear in our Summer 2012 issue, followed by the other ten in the Fall 2012 issue. READ MORE…

Winter 2012: A Giant Nipple on the Cover

Six months in its making, a showcase of contemporary Taiwanese art and letters sans pareil

“When I’m having trouble writing something, I often close the document and compose the passage as email. I imagine I can feel the tug at the other end of the wire, and this creates in me a needed urgency. The letter always arrives at its destination.”

—David Shields, excerpted in our Winter 2012 issue

Dear indignant scholar concerned that Taiwanese literature is always overlooked in favor of Mainland Chinese authors (e.g. when Mo Yan took the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012),

This issue, spotlighting Taiwanese Fiction, is for you. Six months in its making, it is a showcase of contemporary Taiwanese art and letters sans pareil. In addition to fiction, there is nonfiction by Jing Xianghai that I rolled up my sleeves to translate five days before the issue launch. There is Antonio Chen’s roundup of Taiwanese novels in 2011 (for which I had to painstakingly format and upload image files for 26 book covers). There is even a fabulous piece of noise art accompanying poetry by Hsia Yü, the most acclaimed Taiwanese poet of her generation. Famously reclusive, Hsia Yü had only ever agreed to two interviews in a career that spanned thirty years, and we would go on to publish her third interview, conducted in Chinese and translated into English, in our Spring 2012 issue.

READ MORE…