Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

In this week’s dispatches, literary highlights from Romania, Singapore, and the United States!

This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova

The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.

While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.

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Announcing our January Book Club Selection: Night School by Zsófia Bán

Night School is a textbook like no other.

With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.

We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!

Zsofia Ban Night School

Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.

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The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation

“Only by picking up a magnifying glass and taking a close look at things can you see the truth about yourself and others.”

Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.

Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?

Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.

JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?

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Translation Tuesday: “At Least Here, It’s Warm” by Guram Rcheulishvili

“There was the sound of smacking lips: he threw the blanket over his head, but still, he heard it. His heart ached.”

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, Guram Rcheulishvili tells the story of Vaja Jandieri, alone, in an unfamiliar environment, as he attempts to ski in Bakuriani, Georgia. Excitement and then ennui set in amongst the snowy slopes where the people speak Ossetian, and are from another world unlike Vaja’s . . .

Vaja Jandieri was now sitting in a small, warm room. He could hardly ever find such a room. This year, Bakuriani was extremely cold. Thin walls were unable to stop these freezing chills. Vaja was sitting, pleased that he had found such a warm room. The housekeeper set the tea to boil as a small boy memorized his algebra formulas. The door suddenly flew open, as a woman, his Ossetian neighbor, burst in.

“This year is so cold,” she said.

“Yes, woman, the walls aren’t able to stop it,” said the housekeeper.

“Mom,” said the boy as he closed his work, “in school it’s so cold, tha-”

“At least here, it’s warm,” said Vaja.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2019

Explore the Winter 2019 issue with our section editors!

Not sure where to start with the brand new Winter 2019 issue of Asymptote? At 35 countries represented, this issue is our most diverse yet, and marks the eighth anniversary of Asymptote. Here, our Section Editors recommend some of their favourite pieces from their respective sections.

The writing of María Sánchez tracks close to the ground; she hunts experience. In “The Next Word,” compellingly translated by Bella Bosworth, we accompany Sánchez in her truck, as she drives around the Spanish countryside, working as a field veterinarian. There is a great slowness to her prose, born of hours of careful observation of people and things. The letters that composed this piece read like prayers, written to an unknown God, in praise of those small moments in which, as Sánchez writes, “life stands still and nothing happens.” There is a delicate empiricism at work here—an empathy with the world and its rhythms that Sánchez reads by looking at her, as if she were the geiger counter of existence. “Sometimes”, she writes, quoting Gabriella Ybarra, “imagining has been the only option I have had to try to understand.”

— Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Editor

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From doublespeak in São Paulo and migrant caravans in El Salvador to a very British dystopia, catch up on the latest in world literature!

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…

“US” Poets Foreign Poets: A Computationally Assembled Anthology

Identities are analysed. Close neighbours may not be connected. Distant poems may be connected by one edge or less.

Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.

What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.

But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.

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An Interview with Alexander Dickow

I think poetry and translation have always been intertwined.

Alexander Dickow has been Asymptote’s Communications Manager since April 2017. He is also a talented translator: in 2018, he received a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest, and was a runner-up in Asymptote’s 2013-2014 Close Approximations Translation Contest. As a scholar at Virginia Tech, Alexander Dickow specializes in French and Francophone literatures and cultures. And as if all of these activities didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a respected bilingual poet. He published his very first book, Caramboles, a French/English bilingual poetry collection, with publisher Argol in 2008, and a French poetry collection, Rhapsodie curieuse, with Louise Bottu in 2017. His first poetry collection in English, Trial Balloons, appeared in 2012 with Corrupt Press, and his latest work, Appetites, has just been published in 2018 by MadHat Press. As a bilingual poet herself, Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic wanted to know more about his views on multilingualism, poetry, and the creative process.

Lou Sarabadzic: Your latest collection, Appetites, has just been published by MadHat Press. In a 2016 interview, you said that you were “fatally allergic to titles.” However, with such a strong theme connecting your poems, eloquently announced by a single word, “Appetites,” I have to ask: what came first? Was it the collection’s title? The idea? Or individual poems which happened to share this common theme?

Alexander Dickow: The poems came first—I wrote a whole slew in a short period, maybe a month, with the culinary themes. It occurred to me at some point that more or less everything I’ve done is related in some way to eating: my first book was Caramboles, which designates the starfruit, among other things, and it contains a culinary poem or two also, and Rhapsodie curieuse, in French, is based around the central emblem of the persimmon. My first publisher found the title Caramboles, but the others were my choice. So I guess what came first was the obsession—then the poems, and then the actual title. Of course, food is what I refer to elsewhere as a “paravent” topic—i.e. it’s a vehicle for talking about something else, much like love or politics as subjects of poems.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from The Lobster by Monique Proulx

The world froze for a fraction of a second; the cashier hurriedly sponged the counter as she leant towards Marceau: “What would you like, Monsieur”

Tensions in the family bubble and boil over in this excerpt from The Lobster by the award-winning Monique Proulx, translated by Frances Pope. What happens when Marceau brings home a lobster he can’t afford? Read on to find out.

“Are you mad? What d’you expect me to do with those? How d’you even eat them?”

As always, Laura’s first words were recriminations. It has to be said that the creatures were no less threatening for being quite dead; amongst the tangle of legs, claws, and feelers which now filled the sink, you could make out here and there the glimmer of a small, black, malevolent eye—more alive than the others, you’d swear—peeking at you with belligerent hate. Marceau had stopped twice on his way home, hearing the wind flap against the big plastic bag, worriedly checking to make sure that the contents weren’t still wriggling, and that his hand wasn’t about to be sliced clean off by a claw.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2019

Our blog editors provide a tasting menu of the literary feast that is Asymptote's Winter 2019 issue

Featuring work from twenty-three languages and a record-breaking thirty-five countries, there’s plenty to choose from in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue! Today, our three blog editors share their favorite pieces, from Icelandic, Slovak and Latvian poetry to Brazilian Portuguese social commentary and Bengali short stories.

From the Fiction section, the ever-intensifying “The Meat Market,” translated from the Bengali, takes one unexpected turn after another in a thrilling prose adventure. Set a week before Eid, what should be a celebratory, communal affair quickly turns sour in East Rajabazar. This is a city where transactions are tainted by the potential for danger, just as the meat sold is tainted by false advertising. Aminul Islam faces the full consequences of these circumstances that he fails to fully understand, culminating in a shocking conclusion carefully set up by Mashiul Alam’s artful prose, switching deftly between first- and third-person at crucial moments in the narrative.

If you are looking for exciting poetry freshly translated into English, don’t miss out on Steinn Steinarr’s “Time and Water.” Hailed as Iceland’s greatest modernist poet, Steinarr’s ethereal poetry combines Icelandic poetics with modernist free verse and imagism to create gems like:

And the sorrow I hid
nearly found your own,
like a fjord-blue sea.

In this sequence on a failed and flawed relationship, the distance between the speaker and the other is quite nearly but not quite ever bridged. Equally impressive are the complex rhythms of Monta Kroma’s extract from Lips. You. Lips. Me., a larger collection of experimental modernist poems. The Latvian poet plays on the use of refrains and repetition to create a circular, almost obsessive monologue. These poems are ones that I’ve been returning to, and ones you might love too! READ MORE…

Behind the Scenes with Barbara Halla

There is happiness in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers.

Enjoying our latest issue? You can be a part of the next one if you apply to our recruitment drive. (Just bear in mind that the application deadline is just two days away!) Some of you may wonder what drives us to do what we do, so today, in a special post, we are sharing a testimonial by Editor-at-large Barbara Halla, who tells us why she decided to take the leap and send us her application in September 2017.

121A few months ago, I was discussing a pitch for an essay with one of the blog editors at Asymptote. The idea was to explore the way Albania—almost thirty years after the fall of Communism—is trying to preserve the memory of life under the dictatorial regime through interactive museums and privately-owned hipster cafés. The issue at hand is this: to understand how we might be able to translate memory into a physical space, and in doing so preserve the past. I had began listing all the resources I was going to use—historical books on the nature of memory, space, and the ever-present danger of glorifying dictatorships.

In fact, I had barely hit “Send” for my latest email on the topic when I received in my inbox our Fortnightly Airmail. Included in the “In Transit” section for this issue was a recommendation for Karl Schögel’s In Space We Read Time translated by Gerrit Jackson, a book on the materiality of space. I keep thinking now that even if I had done extensive research for weeks I might have never stumbled on this book that may as well have been tailor-made to help solve the issue I was wrestling with.

This is not the first time that working for Asymptote has serendipitously led me to sources and people who could help me better understand and serve in my role as an editor. Often, I will write about something for the blog and be contacted by another editor who is working on a similar topic, or knows about a book or article I might be interested in. Our community of editors and translators feels at times like a physical extension of my own mind.

All these advantages are the lucky by-product of my joining Asymptote back in October. What led me here was another experience all-together. The final impetus for my decision to apply was a visit in June 2017 to Daunt Books, a landmark bookstore in London known for its collection of titles from all over the world. At Daunt, despite said extensive collection, I could find no books about Albania or by Albanian writers. There is a good reason for that: beyond Kadare and some sporadic voices here and there, few Albanian writers are actually translated into English.

Working as an Editor-at-Large for Albania, I am slowly making my way through a list of voices I hope to feature in future issues, to bridge this gap. This has led me to venture into the world of literary translation myself. Through translation, I am re-discovering, after years of living through and studying in other languages, the beauty and singularity of my own native tongue. It is frightening to realize the struggles and limitations that underpin the work of a translator. I often find it very frustrating, how incredibly difficult it is to properly transmit into English the history that lends colour to our words and phrases. But there is happiness there, too, in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers. It is their interest, their support, that ultimately makes the work worthwhile.

If you’re inspired to join our team after reading Barbara’s essay, check out some newly available openings (including Editor-at-Large) at our Recruitment page here. We look forward to receiving your application!

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world, all in one convenient package.

Awards, new translations, and a poet working to help the homeless—all this and more awaits in today’s dispatches! From Hong Kong, Hungary, and Indonesia, our editors-at-large have the latest updates.

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

In the last few months of 2018, Hong Kong saw the deaths of several literary greats, but with January comes commemoration and activity. Martial arts novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung, or “Jin Yong,” passed away on October 30, 2018, just half a year after the publication of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, the English translation of one of his emblematic wuxia series set during the Song Dynasty. A Bond Undone, the second volume of the quartet, will be published at the end of this month in Gigi Chang’s translation. Its release is likely to gain even more traction in the aftermath of the writer’s passing.

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Our Winter 2019 Issue Is Here!

Featuring Etel Adnan, Maggie Nelson, and Close Approximations winners, among new work from 35 countries!

We are proud to present “Body Memory,” our most diverse issue ever, featuring new work from a record-breaking 35 countriesEtel AdnanSteinn Steinarr, and Argonauts author Maggie Nelson join us in celebrating our eighth anniversary and the six winners of our international translation contest picked by Edward Gauvin and Eugene Ostashevsky. Top honors go to two translators of underrepresented languages this year: Olivia Hellewell, who works with Slovenian fiction, and Daniel Owen, Indonesian poetry. Who else won a slice of USD3,000 in prizes? Find out here.

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If you believe in our work, help us spread word of it in the physical realm with our Winter 2019 flyer (pictured above), or join us on Facebook and Twitter over the next two weeks especially as we push the glorious art and writing entrusted us out into the world. If you’re inclined to tweet, here’s a suggestion:

NEW ISSUE! Please RT @asymptotejrnl’s Winter 2019 “Body Memory” feat. Maggie Nelson, Etel Adnan, and Steinn Steinarr, among new work from 35 countries! Find out who took home $3,000 in prizes in the magazine’s annual translation contest, unveiled here: http://asymptotejournal.com/jan-2019

On social media, many have been posting before and after photos in response to a ten-year challenge. At Asymptote, we take this ten-year-challenge to mean something else altogether: the challenge is see through what we’ve done for a full ten years, at least. It may beggar belief that we have done all that we’ve done in the service of world literature (events, educational guidespodcastsblog postsnewsletter dispatches, and even a Book Club) on little to no institutional funding. Truth is, it has been every bit as hard as you suspect it to be behind the scenes, as we recounted in last year’s #30issues30days showcase. Although we are one of the most generous resources for out there for world lit, chronic ineligibility for nation-based grants means we’re stranded without support. High-visibility literary festivals apply for and receive sponsorship all the time, but who will support the very private act of literary discovery on a computer screen? As we enter our ninth year, the last leg of this challenge, we hope you’ll stand with us and sign up either as a sustaining member or a masthead member. We need your support more than ever. Become a part of our global movement—join the Asymptote family today!

How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?

Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018

To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.

But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”

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