On this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, we dive once more into the archives to tune into some of the riches that Asymptote has offered readers over the last 30 (now 31!) issues. Pick up where Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle left off in his last episode to listen to recordings from 2014 up to the present issue. Hear a thought provoking essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller on the space between languages, along with an experimental translation of poetry by Nenten Tsubouchi that fully embraces this space. A fragmented, anonymous love poem in Old English translated by Christopher Patton and an electric reading by poet Steven Alvarez in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl round out the episode. Take a listen, and revel in the riches.
Access some of Asymptote's most iconic recordings from the last four years alongside Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle
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…
Each step is a return: towards death, towards life
From the humorous to the profane and the sacred, Náhuatl poet Martín Tonalmeyotl’s poetic work is firmly rooted in the mountains of his native Guerrero (Mexico) and reflects his commitment to his culture and his language. Far from idealizing his home state, however, Tonalmeyotl’s work frequently takes an unflinching look at a sociopolitical situation where, in addition to the 2014 kidnapping and murder of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa amidst increasing violence from drug trafficking, Guerrero’s citizens have gone so far as to organize independent civil defense groups for protection. In “The Train,” the poet takes up another aspect of life in contemporary Mexico, human migration, in the series of freight trains otherwise known as La bestia (the Beast) or El tren de la muerte (the Death Train) that transport migrants from Central America to the US border.
Each step is a return: towards death, towards life
Each train is a nightmare: of blood, of hunger, of cobwebs
Each child is a piece of fruit: rotten, sweet, bitter, what does it matter
At any rate life is sold to the scavengers
To the rancid wolves who’d like to eat us whole
Because if they don’t devour our stick-thin bones
Their potbellies will become hollow
And they won’t have any shit to feed their own parasites
We should get drunk, I tell you,
So we forget that on this earth
Day by day we are hunted down like rabid dogs
Translated from the Náhuatl into Spanish by Martín Tonalmeyotl
Translated from the Spanish into English by Paul Worley
You can't end the week without being up to date with the latest in the world of literature!
Need another reason to welcome the weekend? We heard you! We’ve got literary scoop from three continents—literary prizes, festivals, and much besides to help you travel the world through books (is there really a better way?)
From Singapore comes a dispatch from Editor-at-Large, Theophilus Kwek:
Celebrations were in order last month as graphic novelist Sonny Liew became the first Singaporean to win—not one, but three—Eisner Awards for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, originally published by Epigram in 2015 and later released in the US by Pantheon. The volume, which narrates an alternative political history of Singapore through the life and work of a fictional Singaporean artist, also received the most nominations in this year’s awards, which were presented at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 22. The National Arts Council (NAC), which had previously drawn criticism for withdrawing Liew’s publishing grant on the grounds of ‘sensitive content’, came under fire once again for its brief (and some argued, half-hearted) congratulatory remarks on Facebook which did not mention the title of the winning work. Liew’s forthcoming projects include a take on the story of Singapore WWII heroine Elizabeth Choy.
Just a week after Liew’s win, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, responded to a parliamentary question over another NAC grant decision, this time concerning a novel by Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency—also published by Epigram this year. According to Fu, funding was withdrawn from Tiang’s novel, which traces the lives of several fictional political activists and detainees, because its content had “deviated from the original proposal”—a statement which immediately drew mixed responses from Singapore’s literary community. At around the same time, fellow novelist Rachel Heng joined the ranks of Singaporean authors gaining recognition abroad as her forthcoming dystopian title, Suicide Club, was picked up by both Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and Henry Holt & Co. in the US.
Finally, on the eve of National Day (August 9) just this week, twenty-four writers and poets from Singapore presented a marathon 4-hour reading at BooksActually, which also runs an independent publishing arm, Math Paper Press. In addition to the literary delights on offer, the bookstore also served up another spicy and flavourful local favourite—fried chicken wings.
Never miss a world literature update again.
We are back with literary news you simply cannot miss! This week we will take you to Romania where MARGENTO will help you discover the intricate networks of performance art. Also reporting from Europe is Fiona Le Brun who discusses the eclectic list of recent French literary prize winners, while subtly underlining the theme of migration that cuts across the various literary events. Far away from Mexico, Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn will highlight the increasingly important role of translation in its contemporary cultural landscape.
Editor-at-Large from Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, provides us with an insider’s view of the exciting world of Romanian artistic experimentation:
The Bucharest International Poetry Festival featured last month an impressive line-up of international writers and performers, among whom were Christian Bök from Canada, LaTasha Nevada Diggs from the US, Steven Fowler of the worldwide prolific Enemies Project, Max Höfler (the tireless organizer of the yearly Text-World—World-Text Symposium in Graz, Austria), the multilingual performance vocalist Maja Jantar of Belgium, the Bucharest-based American poet and translator Tara Skurtu, and many more, alongside local poets such as Claudiu Komartin and Razvan Tupa. Organized by London-based Romanian poet and curator Simona Nastac, this annual event has grown more and more visible and central in a country where the tradition of performance poetry going at least as far back as Tristan Tzara’s DADA seems to be thriving more than ever, with festivals thrown from Craiova in the south to Brasov and Sibiu in Transylvania to Cluj and Iasi up north (some of them performance-driven events, other more standard literary ones with a strong reading or performance section).
Petrila is a one-of-a-kind venue among all of the above, both in Romanian and international terms. The derelict milltown riddled with condemned coal mines and shutdown falling-apart factories has been transformed over the last two decades by visual artist, political caricaturist, and curator Ion Barbu into a mecca of non-conformist festivals (initially thrown in his own backyard), eclectic or scandalous arts events, and improbable post-communist absurdist or faux-kitsch museums (including one that has resonantly revived the memory of once-censored outstanding dissident writer I.D. Sirbu). A competitor—or rather concurrent event—has been the CUCA Festival organized over the past couple of years in Cartisoara, up in the mountains of Sibiu County, where cutting-edge and indie performances and installations converge with Romanian traditional architecture restoration work done by international volunteers. A long-feature documentary titled Planet Petrila casting Ion Barbu in the lead role and portraying his eclectic personality and work against the background of the (post)communist history of his hometown has recently been widely praised and awarded at the international film festival TIFF.
Your Friday update from Argentina, Mexico, and Taiwan
TGIF because we have so much to tell you about the literary goings-on around the world! From book fairs in Argentina to new electronic media in indigenous languages from Mexico, to touring documentary screenings in Taiwan, this week has been packed with exciting news.
Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, reports on upcoming events:
On March 22, The Museo del Libro y de la Lengua launched “Déjalo Beat. Insurgencia poética de los años 60,” an exhibit that seeks to bring attention to the beatniks porteños, a group of Buenos Aires authors and poets who embodied 1960s counterculture through works that were genre-bending and anti-academic. Open until July, the exhibit showcases magazines, photographs, early editions of novels, and other audiovisual material from writers including Reynaldo Mariani, Poni Micharvegas, Sergio Mulet, Ruy Rodríguez, and Néstor Sánchez. “Celebración Beat. La belleza de lo roto,” a multidisciplinary work of theatre based on texts from fifteen of the authors included in “Déjalo Beat” will be performed at the museum on April 7.
Bar Piglia, located in Buenos Aires’s Library of Congress, was inaugurated on March 31. The café commemorates Ricardo Piglia, who passed away on January 6; its walls are decorated with a mural and photos of the writer, and its shelves contain copies of his books. Piglia knew of the homage and, hours before his death, completed a piece tracing a history of the library and the role it had played in his life. The text was read by actress Cristina Banegas on the first night of “Palabras Vivas,” a reading series that will take place at the café.
I wrote whenever anything struck me. As I started to write, I began to revive little by little, from my fingernails to my hair.
Happy Friday, readers! The Asymptote team has some exciting news: starting this week, we will be replacing our Friday literary news round-up with a more diverse and decidedly international column, brought to you by our team members around the world. We’ll have the latest and most pertinent updates on the literary scenes from various regions each week, from national trends to local events. This is your one-stop, world tour!
Starting this week in India, Poorna Swami, Editor-at-Large for India, updates us by region:
Noted Assamese poet Nalinidhar Bhattacharya passed away on September 2 in Guwahati at the age of 95. The Sahitya Akademi Award winner’s books include five poetry collections, five essay collections, and even a translation of Dr. Zhivago into Assamese.
But while the country lost a literary great, it also regained one. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan ended his self-determined literary exile on August 22. His reentry in to the literary world comes a year and a half after he publicly declared to quit writing because his book, Madhorubhagan [One-Part Woman], faced attacks from Hindu fundamentalist and caste-based groups. He had said on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.”
Readers must ask themselves whether they are entitled to a full understanding —or indeed if such a thing is ever possible.
The past two Mondays here at the Asymptote Blog, we’ve brought you highlights from the July 2016 issue, THE DIVE. This week we’re back with Ellen Jones, editor of the vibrant and provocative multilingual writing section.
The Asymptote July issue special feature on multilingual writing is the second of its kind. The more than two hundred pieces of original poetry and fiction received in response to last year’s call for submissions—many, many more than we were able to publish—opened our eyes to the wealth of new writers who are experimenting with language mixing, and persuaded us that it was necessary to run the feature again.
What I love most about this work is its variety. There are seven contributions, from writers as far afield as Peru, South Africa, and India that, between them, incorporate English, German, Spanish, French, Romanian, Sanskrit, Afrikaans, Italian, Nahuatl, and Arabic. But more importantly, they also make use of the spaces in between these languages: unique cross-lingual sound combinations and associations, and spoken varieties that are thriving but have yet to be documented. There is some poetry, some prose. Some written by well-established literary figures and some by poets who are only just finding their voices. Some pieces for readers of only English, others best left to the true polyglots among us.