Place: Argentina

Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2019

Our Section Editors pick their favorite pieces from the Fall 2019 issue!

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…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary awards and festivals abound in this week's news from Argentina, Sweden, and the UK.

This week our reporters bring you news of Sweden’s reaction to last week’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement by the Swedish Academy, the FILBA international festival in Buenos Aires, as well as the surprise of the Booker Prize winner(s!) in the UK.

Eva Wissting, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Sweden

Since the announcement of the 2018 and 2019 Laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, the subsequent debate shows no sign of receding. Before the announcement, literary Nobel Prize discussions within Sweden focused on whether awarding a 2018 prize was good for the world of literature or bad because it would smooth over the Swedish Academy’s connection to misconducts.

After the announcement of Polish Olga Tokarczuk (“Flights”) and Austrian Peter Handke as the two most recent literary Nobel Prize Laureates, however, the pros and cons of announcing a 2018 laureate has waned in the shadow of the controversial choice of Handke. The disagreement in Sweden centers on whether Handke’s political standpoint is misunderstood—if he has simply been naive and used by others, if he is an apologist of war crimes—or if awarding Handke is correct on solely literary merits and that disregarding politics is possible. READ MORE…

Our Fall 2019 Issue Is Here!

Featuring Radka Denemarková, Sylvia Molloy, Monchoachi, and a Spotlight on International Microfiction

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…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week, news of trans literature in Argentina, an inaugural book fair in Patagonia, and awards season in India.

Our editors report on literature’s integral role in political resistance and in supporting underrepresented voices, as feminist and trans theory workshops are organized in Buenos Aires and fuegino literature is promoted in Patagonia. In India, our reporter leads us through the awards season successes, celebrating many translated titles.

Allison Braden, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Argentina

Last month, a primary election that predicted a decisive win for the opposition in Argentina’s upcoming presidential elections sent the economy into convulsions, and the peso’s precipitous drop in value made headlines around the world. Amid the debate around the country’s future, the candidates have been conspicuously quiet on an issue important to many Argentine women: abortion, which remains illegal in most cases. But where the politicians are silent, Argentina’s women are not. Anfibia, a digital magazine of literary journalism launched by the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, is offering a workshop to challenge dominant ways of knowing and to provide women with tools to narrate experiences of violence. Also in this year’s lineup is a four-part workshop and practicum on trans theory, which seeks to answer whether it’s possible to develop a collaborative theory of the trans experience to guide, not only personal creativity, but also policy. Trans literature has won acclaim in Argentina recently. Rising literary star and trans writer Camila Sosa Villada, for example, unites literature and performance. According to a recent profile, “Camila is poetry onstage and puts her body on paper” (my translation). Her book Las malas was showcased at this year’s Feria del Libro in Buenos Aires, the largest book fair in Latin America. READ MORE…

All That Makes a Life: Jennifer Croft on Writing Her Memoir

Translation requires striking a balance between two people’s voices that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

From being the co-winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside the writer Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft has just been announced as a judge of the 2020 International Booker Prize. Croft works across Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, and is currently translating The Book of Jacob, a nine-hundred-page epic by Olga Tokarczuk. She is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize.

In Homesick, Croft’s memoir, words and their meanings shift and shine through in unusual, tender, and life-transforming ways as the subject moves from a family home, to being the youngest person to be enrolled in her undergraduate class, to going through tragic heartbreaks. A most engaging read, the memoir itself has shape-shifted in interesting ways, having started as a Spanish novel and as a blog. The English-language version (Unnamed Press, September 2019) too is accompanied by photographs, which operate as their own language system, bringing, by turns, softness and sharpness to the storytelling. On the occasion of the release of Homesick, poet and previous Social Media Manager of Asymptote, Sohini Basak, spoke to Jennifer Croft over email.

Sohini Basak (SB): I want to start with the photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about the role of photography in childhood and consequently in your memoir?

Jennifer Croft (JLC): Although photography played an enormous role in my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t really remember that until I started writing Homesick. Because I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I wrote the book, I wrote it in my strange Spanish, which is both foreign (since I started learning Spanish only in my late twenties) and very local (since I’ve only ever studied and spoken porteño Spanish in Buenos Aires). In that first Spanish-language version (called Serpientes y escaleras, coming out next year with Entropía), that language provided a sense of suspense about where this character from Tulsa, Oklahoma was going to go next, and how she was going to end up speaking the way she did. READ MORE…

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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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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Meet the Publisher: Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press

It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?

Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Special selections from our Spring 2019 issue!

If you have yet to read our spectacular Spring 2019 issue, what are you waiting for? Maybe for our Section Editors to give you their favourites so you can get off of the right foot—well, we’ve delivered. From the poetry by the hand of acclaimed fiction writers, to century-traversing tales, to contemporary criticism on the role of the translator, here are the highlights, straight from those who have devoted themselves to perfecting this issue.

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Section Editor:

This issue’s fiction lineup is bookended by two Argentine authors (born in 1956) who grapple with Jewish identity in their work. With The Planets shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, Sergio Chejfec is much better known to Anglophone readers, but Daniel Guebel is not exactly an unknown entity—recently the publisher Beatriz Viterbo released an anthology of essays contributed by such writers as César Aira celebrating Guebel’s work. Via “Jewish Son,” Jessica Sequeira’s perfectly pitched translation, English readers are introduced to bits of a weltanschauung that include pilpul (aka spicy thought, a method of interpreting the Talmud), tango singers, readings of Kafka and The Aeneid, all taking place in the last act of a father-son relationship. Yet, it is also very emotional—despite, or perhaps all the more so because of, the philosophical exposition. As with the best fictions, Guebel gestures toward a gestalt beyond the text. I can’t wait for more of this heavyweight to appear in English.

In the poetry section, which I also assembled, two highlights (also bookending the section) are Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the now-international formalist Oulipo movement, and Georgi Gospodinov, acclaimed for The Physics of Sorrow, showing that they have as much talent as poets as they do as fiction writers. An especially exciting discovery is Gertrud Kolmar, nom de plume of Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner, advocated by cousin Walter Benjamin, but only now celebrated as one of the great forgotten poets. Characterized by mystery, the taut but dreamlike poems channeled with elan by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman are fueled by an “ache unnamed”; “a glimmer burning out its flame.” 

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Join our blog editors as they explore everything the Spring 2019 issue has to offer!

The Spring 2019 issue of Asymptote, “Cosmic Connections,” features work from 27 countries and 17 different languages. If you’re not sure where to begin, our blog editors have you covered with recommendations for some of their favorite pieces, including an essay about an adventure in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a story that jumps from medieval Jewish theology to the relationship between an Argentine father and son, and poems that offer us a glimpse into intimate moments in the city of Shanghai.

Asymptote’s newest issue is one of the journal’s best to date, meaning that it was nearly impossible to choose just one piece to highlight. In the interviews section, I found Dubravka Ugrešić’s comments on literary activism and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s discussion of the role of Marxism in his work particularly illuminating, while, in the special feature, Nancy Kline’s essay stood out for its focus on the often-overlooked role of the writer’s (and the translator’s) accent and spoken voice in the translation process. But I’d like to devote my highlight to an essay by a somewhat lesser-known writer, one who might otherwise get lost among the many big names that appear in this issue.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From the contemporary to the ancient, this week's roundup of literary news covers Argentina, Latin America, and Hong Kong.

This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:

On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…

Barbeque for Underground Poetry: Death and Life in the Subaltern Circles of the Buenos Aires Literary Scene

It was a space where anyone could perform anything, where anyone could consume anything, where the bathroom was not for the faint of heart.

Image credit: Andrés Toledo Margalef

It was hard to say goodbye to El Pacha. Tomorrow is the day, they would say, and then they’d say the same thing the next day, until half a month had passed. Finally, one day, they went into the patio and looked up at the unusual tree, its old roots amassed in concrete, and tore it to the ground. Anyone who wanted to could take a limb. Later, they returned to take chunks out from the wall in the library. On the final day—at least, what is remembered as the final day—they started throwing all of El Pacha’s innards out onto the street: decrepit couches, decorative broken TVs, pieces of wood, empty cases of beer, everything, out into the tiny alley that lies on the border between the neighborhoods of Villa Crespo and Almagro. They sat on the couches and, as in a cremation or medieval execution, lit the pile of debris on fire. They took out sausages and large cuts of meat from their bags and began to roast them over the licking flames. With the exception of that unusual feast, they spent the rest of the funereal night doing what they always had done: they drank, played guitar, and took turns reading their poetry aloud.

El Pacha was an important space in the Argentinian underground poetry scene until it closed roughly one year ago, in March 2018. It had operated illegally out of the second floor of a spindly residential apartment building; participants would be informed of weekend events through an email listserv, Facebook pages, or word of mouth. Though the space passed away, El Pacha still serves as an example of how writing is a community process and provides a window into how politics and economics mold the unique structure of Buenos Aires’ literary scene.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Physiology of Memory” by Ricardo Lísias

The most torturing memories aren’t necessarily images, frozen, but films of about three minutes each.

In this haunting short story by Ricardo Lísias, the narrator contends with multiple stubborn memories, around which his narrative revolves. From an injured taxi driver in Buenos Aires, to overwhelming loneliness in Krakow, these memories are strung together to create a potent, overwhelming mixture.

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I have determined why I am so upset by writers of clear sentences: they don’t struggle with memory. Their transparency denounces a simplistic intelligence. If someone cries because they are not able to render trauma into words then that person is a deep person.

I identified the root of my issue with clear-writing writers when I was in Poland. It is a very stark memory. I felt, standing more or less five hundred metres away from a small bus terminal in Krakow, the most intense loneliness I have ever experienced.

A year later, when I decided to dig up the loneliest moment in my life, I realized that it is not a bad feeling. It doesn’t hurt me or make me suffer.

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Meet the Publisher: Feminist Press’ Lauren Rosemary Hook on Feminist Writing in Translation

Now that Trump is president, people are like, “of course we need a feminist press.” But five years ago people were really questioning why.

Since 1970, Feminist Press has made it its mission to publish marginalized voices and authors writing about issues of equality and gender identity. From the start, founder Florence Howe focused on publishing works in translation from around the world alongside feminist classics by local writers. Almost fifty years later, the press’s catalogue continues to reflect these priorities. Senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook spoke to Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, about the press’s approach to publishing in the current political climate, acquiring works from different countries, and titles in translation that readers can be on the lookout for.

Sarah Moses: How did Feminist Press get started?

Lauren Rosemary Hook: We were founded in 1970 by an English professor named Florence Howe. It was very much a reaction to the few women’s studies courses that were popping up at the time. I feel like that’s something we take for granted—women’s and gender studies—now that programs are available at every university. But I can count on only one hand how many there were across the country then, so it was a very tight-knit group. There was a lot of talk about how there weren’t many texts available by women—besides Emily Dickinson—especially in literature, and Florence was a part of this dialogue. A lot of feminist professors and activists at the time met up and Florence went away on vacation and came back and she had all these checks in her mailbox made out to the Feminist Press, and she was like, “I’m doing this?” It’s a really fascinating story.

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