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…
Another issue, another record broken: Asymptote’s Fall 2019 issue features work from an unprecedented thirty-six countries. Looking for a point of entry? Consider our blog editors your guides. Their selections here, which range from Korean poetry to Russian drama, will set you off on the right foot.
“Why do I think October is beautiful? / It is not, is not beautiful.” So goes a poem by the late Bill Berkson. It is not—as we know when the grey settles and looks to stay—a particularly delightful month, but if all the poems featuring October attests to something, it is that this time, its late and sedate arrival, is one that enamors poets. So it is that a vein of poetics runs through our Fall 2019 issue, and the poetry section itself is one of tremendous artistry and vitality. From the stoic and enduring lines of Osip Mandelstam to a brilliant translation of Sun Tzu-Ping’s strikingly visual language, Asymptote has once again gathered the great poets from far reaches.
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…
A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019
Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor
Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…
For this week’s Translation Tuesday, Anastasia Afanas’eva constructs a world of shapes, shadows, and sensations that thematize dread and longing. The poem raises up images from the page in a maelstrom—a deluge of realizations that impress themselves on the reader like a flood. But the images’ actions are unreal; they are strung together in uncanny ways. In this poem, language acts absurdly, mirroring the unmistakable confusion of loss and of reckoning. The Hedgehog and its shadow are central, and show, in verse, how the most innocuous of things can become sutured with the weight of the universe.
For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.
In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them.
Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin
Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population.
From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan.
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019
Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.
During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.
Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.
He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.
Reported Speech by Pavel Arseniev, Cicada Press, 2018
Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large
I tell my students that literature does things, but I prefer to do so in even less polished terms. From a more abstract perspective, I see current attacks on the humanities (especially literature) in the United States and elsewhere as being so vicious precisely because of the fact that literature does do things. It changes how we, as humans, relate to and understand others, as well as ourselves.
That said, there are moments when I profoundly doubt this. For example, I was recently discussing the fabricated crisis at the US-Mexico border and Trump’s wall with someone I had just met. During our discussion, this person informed me that Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s nonfiction All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, a work that gives a nuanced, highly sensitive portrait of the US-Mexico border, actually serves to justify that border’s further militarization. It was like being told by someone with a very serious face that Shelley’s “Ozymandius” is a laudatory poem on the subject of indelible human achievement or that Swift’s A Modest Proposal provided a brilliant roadmap for the betterment of the Irish economy. And yet, even when my doubts about literature and its power dominate my thoughts, events like the murder of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub snap me back to reality. Literature matters, so much so that in other parts of the world literature can get you killed, even as I safely type this up in my home in the United States. Perhaps this will soon be the case here, too.
We’re back this week with dispatches from three countries where literature and politics have been interacting in unexpected ways: Brazil, El Salvador, and the UK. In response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Central American migration to the US, and the Brexit negotiations, museums and literary communities in these countries have been producing thoughtful exhibitions, fiction, and criticism that reflect on national identity and uncertain political futures.
Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, reporting from Brazil
It is hot and humid in Brazil, and long summer days provide opportunities for new authors and space for reflection about writing as political resistance. Early career authors have an opportunity to submit their work for the SESC Prize for Literature, which is open for submissions from January 9 through February 14, when unpublished authors can submit their manuscripts; the Record Publishing Group will release winning texts.
For Brazilian writers interested in producing their own literature beyond the traditional market, 2019 also offers new opportunities. Graphic artist Rodrigo Okuyama hosts a series of free workshops on zine-making at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. On Saturdays from January 12-26, participants can learn about format, illustration techniques, and how to marry narrative content with visual form. These workshops allow new voices to join a growing independent publishing scene in Brazil, where small collectives like PANTIM work at the intersection of literature and the visual arts. READ MORE…
It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.
Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”
Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective. READ MORE…
In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists.
What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.
Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.
Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”
Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018
Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant
“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.
Xenia Emelyanova’s luminous “A golden cloud goes to fetch / the evening star” is dedicated to Russian punk singer Yanka Dyagileva who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1991. Dyagileva’s final recording, “Pridyot voda” (The Water is Coming), includes the refrain “The water is coming / I will sleep.”
In this poem, as in her other work, Emelyanova explores what it means to be a woman, mother, and artist alienated from her surroundings and, at the same time, inextricably bound to them. Emelyanova’s poems resonate with an inner spirituality tied to nature, motherhood, and a certain faith in eternity and rebirth that shines through even the deepest suffering. For the translator, these poems present particular problems of register because their simplicity, sincerity, and spirituality are qualities difficult to render in contemporary English, where so much of our poetic discourse is highly self-conscious and skeptical.