Language: Spanish

Blog Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2019

Our editors have you covered with a lovingly picked selection from the Asymptote Summer 2019 issue!

If you have yet to fully traverse the sensational depths of Asymptote‘s Summer 2019 issue: “Dreams and Reality,” you can step out on the roadmap written by our blog editors, who have refined their selections—with considerable difficulty—to a handful of their favourite pieces. Between an erudite Arabic mystery, non-fiction from Romania’s foremost feminist writer and theorist, and a tumultuous psychological short story which delves into our perception of sanity, this reading list is a doorway into the vast cartography of this issue, unfurling into the rich imagination and profundity of the heights in world literature.

Something about summertime makes me want to read detective fiction, so I was excited to learn that Asymptote’s Summer 2019 issue, released this past Thursday, features a murder mystery. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the story in question, “Culprit Unknown” by Naguib Mahfouz, was originally written in Arabic. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy Swedish mysteries just as much as you do—but I think we can all agree that the Scandinavians have had a monopoly on detective fiction in translation for far too long.

“Culprit Unknown,” translated by Emily Drumsta, follows Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari as he tries to solve a series of grisly murders. Muhsin does everything he can, but each killing is a perfect crime: the murderer leaves not a single trace behind, and as the deaths pile up, the tension in the neighborhood becomes unbearable. Besides pacing the story perfectly, Mahfouz infuses “Culprit Unknown” with light humor and unexpected (but welcome) philosophical musings, as in the exchange below:

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The Summer 2019 Issue Is Here!

Dive into new work from 30 countries!

Wake up where the clouds are far with Asymptote’s Summer 2019 edition—“Dreams and Reality” brings you stunning vistas from 30 countries, including new fiction from Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, an exclusive interview with Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and never-before-published translations of Nicole Brossard, recent winner of Canada’s Lifetime Griffin Trust Award for Poetry. In our Special Feature on Yiddish writing, published with the generous support from the Yiddish Book Center, you’ll find everything from Isaac Berliner’s dreams of ancient South America to Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s modern-day America.

In Leonardo Sanhueza’s retelling of intimate life before, during, and after Chile’s Civil War, each poem an unforgettable portrait of a colonist, dreams are harbingers of death. In “A Rainy Tuesday,” Bijan Najdi’s nonlinear journey of grief, on the other hand,  dreams are bulwarks against the almost certain demise of missing loved ones. When the veil breaks, the real returns. Internationally acclaimed Korean poet Kim Hyesoon tackles the reality of violence head-on in her latest collection, reviewed by Matt Reeck. For artist Jorge Wellesley, the emptiness of slogans lies exposed in images of rotting, blurred, or blank billboards. In a candid essay, Fausto Alzati Fernández confesses to the rituals of drug addiction, some of which attempt “to grab hold of reality and strip it.”

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

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. 

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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.

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That Unnameable “Something”: Mario Levrero’s Empty Words in Review

This struggle for clarity through self-regulated therapy-by-writing is what makes the novel so compelling.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019

“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Reporting this week with news from Cambridge, New York, and the UK!

The east coast of the US is thriving this summer season with literary news celebrating new publications by Latin American poets in Cambridge, a reading series at the Bryant Park Reading Room, and many more notable events featuring acclaimed authors. Over in the United Kingdom, writers are also lighting up stages and claiming accolades. Our editors are taking you into this literary landscape.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the USA

On Friday, May 24, the famed Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA hosted a book launch for two spectacular volumes of Latin American poetry in translation, both of which were recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse: Materia Prima, by Amanda Berenguer (eds. Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson; reviewed in Asymptote in April 2019) and The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez (trans. Kristin Dykstra, with Nancy Gates Madsen). Grolier is truly hallowed ground; located on Plympton Street, around the corner from Harvard Square, this specialty bookstore has been in business since 1927 and boasts a collection of over fifteen thousand poetry titles. The launch of these two books took place off-site during the world’s largest conference of Latin American Studies, the Latin American Studies Association’s annual meeting, which featured over five thousand participants. 

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Creating What One Cannot Find: In Conversation with Deborah Ekoka

Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.

In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.

I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.

Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.

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Impossible Technologies: Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations in Review

The characters and plot points can be imagined as stars in the night sky . . . that give the novel its visible, traceable structure.

Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey, Soho Press, 2019

The Incas, according to Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations, didn’t see the night sky as we do: instead of what we might call “connecting the dots,” they focused on the darkness between the stars, the shapes formed by negative space. If true—and it’s hard to know what, exactly, is true in Dark Constellations—it’s an intriguing image, one that informs our understanding of the novel’s structure as well as its content.

Dark Constellations, translated into English by Roy Kesey, is the second novel from Pola Oloixarac, one of Argentina’s rising literary stars (pun intended). Like her countrywoman Samanta Schweblin, whose story collection Mouthful of Birds has recently garnered considerable attention, Oloixarac tends to blur the line between science and the supernatural, taking a certain kind of pleasure in repeatedly throwing the reader off balance. Dark Constellations, however, has a much wider range than Schweblin’s stories, skillfully handling subjects as varied as botany, world history, and computer programming. The book’s publisher, Soho Press, calls Dark Constellations “ambitious,” and while I agree completely, I would argue that the novel’s ambition is its greatest weakness as well as one of its strengths. 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The glorious fragrance of fresh literary works, hot off the presses from around the world.

It seems that national literatures around the world are shaping their next representatives as we receive further updates of new works by authors from around the globe. From publications by a Guatemalan indie press, to a remarkably young award honouree in Brazil, to a historic list of nominations for the most prestigious literary prizes in Japan, our editors are bringing you a glimpse of what is in yourand your bookshelf’sfuture. 

José García Escobar, Editor-at Large, reporting from Central America 

The biggest book fair in Central America, the Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala (FILGUA) is only a few weeks away. And like every year, on the days leading to FILGUA, the Guatemalan indie press Catafixia has been announcing its newest drafts. Mid-July, Catafixia will put out books by Manuel Orestes Nieto (Panama), Jacinta Escudos (El Salvador), and Gonçalo M. Tavares (Angola-Portugal). 

Additionally, this year’s FILGUA marks the tenth anniversary of Catafixia, which has helped launch the careers of poets like Vania Vargas and Julio Serrano Echeverría.

Last month, Costa Rican press los tres editores put out Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa by Argentine author Patricio Pron, who won the Alfaguara Prize in 2019. los tres editores have previously published books by Luis Chavez, Mauro Libertella, and Valeria Luiselli. 

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Art as Universal Refuge: Ji Yoon Lee on Translating Blood Sisters

We make art so that we don’t forget what our truth is.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Kim Yideum’s novel Blood Sisters, raises profound questions about class dynamics, gender roles, and the power of language to uphold existing hierarchies. In today’s interview, translator Ji Yoon Lee talks with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone about the challenging process of recreating the tones and nuances of the original Korean in English. They also discuss the parallels between Korean political narratives of the 1980s and the current discourse in the USA, as well as Lee’s innovative use of Spanish to translate Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Referring to her work as a whole, Kim Yideum has said (in your translation) that “A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system.” It feels to me as though there’s an echo of that statement when the protagonist of Blood Sisters says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms. . .”Could you say a little about that “default system” that Kim Yideum’s work struggles against? Are there any aspects of the struggle that feel unique to Korea?

Ji Yoon Lee (JYL): I absolutely see the echo there, too. Specifically, the protagonist, Yeoul, is resisting: in Korea, we often address people by the role that they play in our lives, such as “teacher,” “president of the company,” “older lady,” and so on. Once intimacy develops, there is a shift in the form of address, often towards familial terms, even when you are not related: “older brother,” “older sister,” and so on. That is meant to make people feel a closer connection beyond the societal roles they play for one another.

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Asymptote Podcast: That Which is Found and Gained through Translation

Translation as bridge and compulsion

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James reports back from the Unamuno Poetry Festival in Madrid with an excerpt from a panel she moderated, titled “TransAtlantic: Translation as Bridge and Compulsion.” She also explores the dynamic lecture on translation given by Jorge Vessel, poet and translator of Desperate Literature: A Bilingual Anthology—a book highlighting, rather than what is lost, that which is found and gained through the art of translation. Join us for all the happy accidents that can spring forth from this wonderful and sometimes eccentric practice, and get inspired in your own experiments with language.

Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, May 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

STH: The Dinner Guest reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s Shame, which, in spite of being a memoir, is very similar in tone. Ernaux described Shame as an “ethnological study of myself” in which she examined the influence of a particular incident in her childhood on her relationship with shame. But while Ernaux avoided “inventing reality,” you have actively pursued it while employing voice that feels similarly precise and analytical. Did you experiment with the narrative voice, or did you start the project already sure of the tone?

GY: I like what Ernaux says about the ethnological study of herself. I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life. At the beginning of the writing process, I wasn’t sure about the tone, but I found it through trial and error. I felt that the text worked better when the emotions were contained and not too explicit. In earlier versions, it wasn’t like this at all.

STH: How did you approach researching The Dinner Guest? Did your research most often confirm or contradict your imaginings?

GY: I imagined as I researched. There were many things that I didn’t know, so I couldn’t have imagined them before beginning my research. When I invented things, I always tried to stay true to what I knew of the characters and situations. During the writing of the first part of the book—the part about my grandfather—I was always trying to come closer to my father. Although this is not explicit in the text, it was very shocking for me to see my father’s grieving face in the newspapers; it also impressed me to realize that my father lost his father when he was about the same age as me when I lost my mother. When I saw all the photographs and the news, I couldn’t deny that the murder of my grandfather was true. I always think of The Dinner Guest as a ritual of grief and an exercise of truth in which I use fiction to help me assimilate the deaths of my mother and grandfather.

STH: I find it wonderfully destabilizing the way the narrative frequently cross-examines itself. For example, chapter three begins with a passage which discounts a particular story about your family that is presented as fact in the previous chapter. What inspired you to do this?

GY: In memory, and in most investigations, there are contradictions. I found them constantly in the newspapers.

 STH: Can you speak about your choice to include real documents, including photographs, newspaper articles, and Google search results in the narrative?

GY: I included documents that I felt were important for the story. In the case of the picture of my father with the handcuffs, for example, I tried to describe it, but I thought that it was more powerful to attach the original document. It gives more veracity to the text, I think.

STH: You refer to Robert Walser several times in the book; quoting from The Walk, including the infamous image of Walser on his snowy death-bed and imaginings of Walser’s final walks. How are Walser’s writing and experience in conversation with The Dinner Guest?

GY: Walser’s picture was very inspiring for me. The three deaths narrated in the book seem terrible: my mother died too young at a hospital, my grandfather was kidnapped, and Walser spent his final years in a mental hospital, but I feel that the three of them had—or I like to think that they had—the possibility to die as they lived. My mother was able to die lightly, my grandfather found refuge in his faith, and Walser died walking; that is what he most enjoyed doing. It impressed me to know there is a freedom that is impossible to snatch even when you are in captivity.

STH: Was the experience of “imagining” Walser easier than writing free reconstructions of events involving your family and friends?

GY: It was easier. I think it was the part of the book I enjoyed writing the most.

STH: Are you interested in further examining any of the themes and ideas explored in The Dinner Guest in your future writing projects?

GY: Yes, writing The Dinner Guest has started some very interesting conversations with my father, and I’m thinking a lot lately about how terrorism affected my childhood in the Basque Country. I’m currently writing another book that combines fiction and non-fiction. I’m once again a detective of my own life!

STH: In The Dinner Guest, your narrator mentions writing every Sunday until either being exhausted or running out of ideas. Is this also true for you? What is your usual writing routine?

GY: Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wish I could have an entire day to write. Now I have a 17-month-old baby, and I need to coordinate my working schedule with the kindergarten. The Dinner Guest was written during weekends and very early in the morning, mostly in bed, before showering and going to the office. When I was living in New York, I would often wake at 5:30am in order to get in two hours of writing before work.

STH: Were you involved in the translation of the novel? And how was the process for you?

GY: For me, it’s always painful to reread The Dinner Guest. It is hard to go through my mother’s illness and my grandfather’s death again, and every time that I read the novel, I have the desire to rewrite the whole story. However, it was a pleasure to work with my translator, Natasha Wimmer; she is very sensitive and talented. 

STH: Have English-language readers responded to the book in the same way as Spanish readers have or were there differences?

GY: When I went to London for the book launch, I was impressed to see that most of the people in the audience were women. This wasn’t the case in Spain.

Gabriela Ybarra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1983. She currently lives in Madrid, where she writes and works in social media analysis. The Dinner Guest is her first novel and was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016, and in the UK, where it was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She occasionally writes for El País.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.

*****

Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog:

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Francisco Layna Ranz

If there’s any heart left to swear on, I do it to sue for innocence.

To write seems a common salve for grief, and in this week’s Translation Tuesday, we’re reminded of why, in times of darkness, we turn to the written word for solace. Francisco Layna Ranz’s words are rife with the sharpness of new sorrow, clean and stark, yet with a keen eye he turns toward the motion that is an inevitable consequence of living. With language we may continue, and the action of admittance in poetry is a good thing, a good thing that results from continuing.

A Friend’s Son Died

A friend’s son died.
I pay my respects.
It’s Tuesday, cold between the stones, and I come back by Daroca Avenue.
Brick wall.
The bricks always look old. I don’t know: I think I’d start smoking again if I could.
It’s also too soon for sound. The proof is in the frost on the weeds and garbage.
It’s a question of innocence in the reading of what happens: soon and late
are words of now.
And all I can do is babble excuses for what’s left of my life, and everybody else’s life.
Of course a written letter is a sign that you’re getting old. For paper and for you it’s already much too late.
I know it makes no sense, but maybe I should go back to that crematorium and stay for what’s left of the morning.
Sitting on those benches, thinking of nothing.
Hear the traffic and think of nothing, the way the cold does.

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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.

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