Place: Central Europe

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Catch up on this week’s latest news in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Romanian authors around the world.

This week, our reporters tell us about the literary response to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and the translation of protest poetry by The Bauhinia Project, book fairs in Vietnam, as well as guiding us through the many Romanian writers performing at the largest Central European literary festival, the Author’s Reading Month festival. 

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

The extradition bill demonstrations in Hong Kong have been ongoing for four months and show no signs of stopping. There has been countless speculation over the city’s standing as a financial and trading center, but what has happened for certain is the plethora of art created in response to the movement. In an interview on the subject of contemporary art, a museum curator placed her bets: “The greatest art is going to be produced in Hong Kong.”

The same could be said for its literature. Since June, Hong Kong’s literary scene has actively documented current happenings through poetry, fiction, and criticism. Numerous local literary magazines, including Fleur des lettres, Voice & Verse, and Formless, are running issues dedicated to the protests, and the activity is not restricted to within the city’s borders. In particular, there is an initiative to translate protest poetry from Hong Kong for an international audience. In July, The Bauhinia Project was launched by an anonymous Hong Kong poet in Berkeley, California. Named after the city’s flower emblem, the project gathers poetry submissions and testimonials in text or audio from anonymous sources. The submissions are then translated into English and made into postcards. So far, the postcards have been displayed in a series of exhibitions held in Germany as well as different cities in California. The Bauhinia Project is also curating events on the extradition bill movement. On September 25, a panel discussion on misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the protests abroad were held at Moe’s Books in San Francisco and featured six speakers, among them Hong Kong poet Wawa, previously interviewed on Asymptote on her medium-pure poetry, and writer Henry Wei Leung.

I will also moderate a discussion on civil society and literature between writer Hon Lai Chu, who spoke about politics and literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year, and playwright Yan Pat To, whose latest play, Happily Ever After Nuclear Explosion, premiered in German at Munich’s Residenz Theater and subsequently in Cantonese at Tai Kwun, an arts and heritage site in Hong Kong, and South Korea’s Asia Playwright Festival. The event is part of Goethe-Institut Hong Kong’s wider series on civil society and art, which previously covered independent films, LGBT, and moving images. READ MORE…

Spring 2018: The Dogged Chase of the Actual After the Ideal

Confronting the most immediate limits on human experience while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market.

On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.

The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede. READ MORE…