Place: Czech Republic

“Thirst for a Deeper Understanding”: An Interview with the Founders of Absynt

Perhaps the fact that we were amateurs was an advantage: we were willing to take on the risk.

In 2015, two friends, a Pole and a Slovak, took a gamble and ventured into the overcrowded book market in Slovakia. And as if starting a new publishing house wasn’t risky enough, they chose to focus on literary reportage, a genre that was not well-known in Slovakia at the time. Since then, Absynt has published eighty titles and in late 2017 launched a Czech branch. At this year’s London Book Fair, the founders of Absynt, Filip Ostrowski and Juraj Koudela, shared their remarkable success story with Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood.

Julia Sherwood (JS): Reportage is increasingly being recognized as a bona fide literary genre and gaining popularity around the world. What is it about reportage that attracts you and that distinguishes it from ordinary journalism? Why do you think it resonates with readers?

Filip Ostrowski (FO): There is this general thirst for a deeper understanding of events and their context. We get coverage of the whole world from the media and the internet, but what is missing is a detached view, a kind of more universal commentary. For such a text to emerge, some time has to elapse. We feel that online coverage doesn’t respond to this need, but literary reportage can.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Get close up and personal with global literary happenings.

Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.

In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Xi Xi, Bianca Bellová, and Osamu Dazai. Have we got your attention? Read on.

The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.

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

This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.

To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.

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Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

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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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My 2018: Andrea Blatz

August was “Women in Translation” month, so, naturally, I took advantage of this as a reason to buy some more books.

Blog Copy Editor Andrea Blatz’s 2018 reading list was packed with nineteenth-century science fiction and women in translation. In today’s post, she discusses the common themes that unite many of these books, among them the experience of trauma and the role of space and place in our lives, before looking ahead to her reading list for the new year!

Like most book lovers, I buy more books than I have time to read, so my “To Read” list is usually longer than my “Already Read” list. Having so many books to choose from for my next read means I usually pick something completely different than the book I’ve just read. However, this year, it seems as though spaces have been a prominent theme in much of what I’ve read.

I started the year with The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner. After finding a book written in a mysterious script in a bookshop, the narrator begins noticing strange things around him in his home city, Prague. The result is a strange, new reality composed of spaces that are ignored in the daytime. Fish talk to you, tiny elk live on the Charles Bridge, and ghosts appear as the mysterious narrator crosses a boundary into this “other city.”

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Spring 2014: The Space Between Languages

Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible.

By April 2014, Asymptote has snowballed into a team of 60. Though I never signed up to lead so many team members, expansion is a matter of inevitability for a magazine that publishes new work from upwards of 25 countries every quarter (and that prides itself on editorial rigor). After all, if Asymptote section editors only relied on personal connections, it would only be a matter of time before available leads dried up. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge and, more importantly, local networking, since getting the author’s permission to run or translate his or her work is often the hardest part. (For the English Fiction Feature in the Spring 2014 issue alone, I sent solicitations, directly or indirectly, to Rohinton Mistry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Tash Aw, Akhil Sharma, and Tao Lin—all in vain alas.) An entire book could probably be written about how Asymptote wooed author X or translator Y or guest artist Z to come on board as contributor. One particularly memorable (and—I assure you—not representative of the way we operate) episode comes to mind: When her phone call to an author was intercepted and met with a flat rejection by his secretary, a particularly persistent team member signed up for a two-day workshop conducted by said author. At an intermission, she casually makes the ask. The author agrees to discuss the matter the next day, at a restaurant. During dinner, our team member is subjected to intensive grilling before permission is finally granted to run and translate his work. Here to recount how we managed to ask Nobel laureate Herta Müller to come on board as contributor (and to give us permission to translate her moving essay into 8 additional languages) is editor-at-large Julia Sherwood:

I was invited to join the Asymptote team as editor-at-large for Slovakia after volunteering to translate into Slovak Jonas Hassen Khemiri´s Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, which appeared in 20 languages in the Spring 2013 issue of Asymptote. The journal had only been around for two years, but it had already established a reputation for featuring translations from a staggering array of languages and authors who had never been published in English. Slovak, my native language, had yet to make an appearance, so I immediately set out to source suitable texts in high-quality translations. My first success came when “Where to in Bratislava”, a story by Jana Beňová and translated by Beatrice Smigasiewicz, was chosen for the Winter 2014 issue. Soon after that I managed something of a scoop: bringing to AsymptoteThe Space Between Languages,” an essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Print houses and jury panels are busy, autumn is coming.

Fall’s footsteps can already be heard in literary circles. As summer hosts its last open-air festivals, prize organizers and publishers are gearing up for a new season of surprises. In today’s dispatch, our Editors-At-Large from Europe tell us more about what is going on in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France in this transitionary period. Come back next week for this summer’s last dispatch. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

Held from 1 July to 4 August at venues in five cities – Brno, Ostrava, Wrocław, Košice and Lviv – across four countries, Authors‘ Reading Month (ARM) may well be Europe’s biggest literary festival. It is certainly a major logistical feat: now in its 19th year, the festival featured 100 authors from six countries. Turkey alone, this year’s guest country, was represented by more than thirty authors, including Nedim Gürsel,  Murathan Mungan, Ayfer Tunç and Çiler İlhan. A strong Czech contingent featured prize-winning novelists Bianca Bellová and Josef Pánek, bestselling writers Michal Viewegh and Alena Mornštajnová, as well as a plethora of poets.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia.

It is literary prize season and recent news that the Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded this year along with growing excitement for forthcoming award announcements have kept the literary community on our toes! This week we bring you the latest news from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia. Enjoy!

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

April 4 saw the announcement of the winners of the most celebrated Czech literary prize, the Magnesia Litera. For the first time in four years the title “book of the year” went not to a work of fiction but to an analysis of contemporary Czech politics against the backdrop of recent history, Opuštěná společnost (The Abandoned Society) by journalist Erik Tabery. The fiction prize was awarded to Jaroslav Pánek for his novel Láska v době globálních klimatických změn (Love in the Time of Global Climate Change), the story of a scientist  forced to confront his own prejudices while attending a conference in Bangalore.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from Mexico, the Czech Republic, and France!

Still happily reading through all the amazing pieces included in the brand new Winter 2018 issue, we bring you the latest literary news from around the world. Up first is Paul Worley with news about recent publications and translations. Julia Sherwood then fils us in on the latest from the Czech Republic. To close things out, Barbara Halla reports from France. 

Paul WorleyEditor-at-Large, Reporting from Mexico:

From Quintana Roo, Mexico, The Maya cultural site La cueva del tapir (The Tapir’s Cave), announced the forthcoming publication of a new Maya arts and culture magazine, Sujuy Ts’ono’ot: El arte de los territorios en resistencia. The unveiling of the issue will be held February 3 at 7 PM in Bacalar’s International House of the Writer. According to the information released on Facebook, contributors to the first issue will include Maya writers from the region, in addition to writers from Guatemala (Walter Paz Joj) and Bolivia (Elías Caurey).

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most important literary news from the US, Australia, and the Czech Republic.

In addition to our usual roundup this week of the latest and most exciting prizes and competitions, our Editor-at-Large in the USA, Madeline Jones, shares some important news about sexual harassment in the nation’s media and publishing industry; Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao draws our attention to the online harassment of an Indigenous poet, just over a week before the start of Australia’s first Indigenous literature festival; Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood fills us in on the most exciting new works being released in Czech Republic, and pens a short obituary for a legendary and fearless translator who rubbed shoulders with some of the mid-century’s greatest authors and defied the Czech Soviet authorities. We hope you find this week’s news informative, and we express our solidarity with all women around the world who are standing up to abuse.

Madeline Jones, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the USA: 

The American publishing and media industries have been rocked by an outpouring of sexual harassment and assault accusations against powerful men who have used their standing and infl-uence—and in some cases millions of dollars—to silence women’s complaints. The New York Times and The New Yorker reported the first stories implicating Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in a number of harassment and assault charges on October 5th, which sparked a revolution. Over fifty women have since come forward with complaints about Weinstein’s behavior, he has been fired from his own company, and Hachette Book Group promptly shut down Weinstein Books. The hashtag #metoo sprung up in the wake of these first accusations, demonstrating the sweeping extent of harassment across all areas of work and life, and a list started circulating among women in journalism and media called “Shitty Media Men” where women shared specific names of male perpetrators who had made unwanted advances or offered quid pro quos and who are still employed at prominent magazines and newspapers.

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Editors in Slovak Publishing Houses: An Endangered Species?

It cannot be repeated often enough that the editor’s work on a book is as important as the work of those responsible for its physical production.

No longer plagued by censors and paper shortages since the end of communism, the publishing industry in former Czechoslovakia has faced other kinds of constraints that it shares with much of the commercially-driven world in which we live. Literary scholar and critic Ivana Taranenková shares with Asymptote’s Slovak editor-at-large Julia Sherwood the findings of a survey comparing editorial practices in Czech and Slovak publishing houses before and after 1989. The survey was carried out by the web journal Platform for Literature and Research, which Taranenková runs together with her colleagues Radoslav Passia and Vladimír Barborík.

Recent publications of new literary works by Slovak authors as well as works in translation have exposed a trend that is trivial yet irksome. While the number of published books continues to grow and their visual quality is improving, pundits have increasingly noted the declining standard of manuscript editing. This is a problem not just for literary reviewers, but also for those who judge literary awards when they assess each year’s literary output.

Editorial standards are often so dismal that these poorly edited manuscripts can no longer be seen as just isolated instances of incompetence or failure on the part of individual editors (as some reviewers have suggested), but rather as a systemic issue. Other than in some major publishing houses, the profession of editor appears to be waning, a victim of the drive for “increased efficiency” in publishing, and a growing reliance on outsourcing that requires a smaller investment of time and money per book, ultimately resulting in dilettantism. The same also applies to emerging independent publishers.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Lost” by Jan Čep

“Quite a detour,” said the old man shaking his head. “You must have gotten lost.”

Today we’re thrilled to present a story by Jan Čep, a Catholic Modernist whose stories depict characters lost both spiritually and geographically. Weaving together deep mysticism and delicate realism, his style of writing has earned him a reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century Czech prose.

That afternoon the house emptied out, the voices in the neighboring rooms fell silent, the wagon of a child stood overturned in the yard, and inside the half-open gate peeked someone’s goat. Clouds covered the sky and hills encircled the ravaged and vindictive countryside; the trails led nowhere and the steel surface of the pond shimmered with hostility.

Petr Kleofáš left the house and set out on the first trail he found without meeting a single soul. On a marshy meadow with dry grass, stumps of old willows stood over black pools. Grey groves, blasted by the breath of age and death, bit maliciously into the barren hillsides. Past the pond on the other side, crooked roofs from the village hunched beneath the dismal sky.

Petr Kleofáš found himself in a grassy ditch below an empty stubble field with two stunted pine trees. A bit further stood a forest, full of dry needles and fallen cones. The only sounds were the rustle of dry grass and the bloodless whisper, like fire consuming paper, inside Petr Kleofáš. He half-knelt, half-lay on the cold earth; eyes closed, he silently counted the beat of his slowing heart. The sense of sheer nothingness and the proximity of death caused a poisonous and grotesque sweetness to spring inside him. Damp and cooling colors flowed before his eyes…

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