Place: Guatemala

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week's literary news comes from Chile, Guatemala, and the UK.

This week our writers report on a timely translation of a Chilean novel, a new translation of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince, into Kaqchikel, literary prizes in Guatemala, and grime rapper Stormzy’s pop-up publishing event in London. Read on to find out more!

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Santiago

In a recent op-ed in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera (October 19, 2019; trans. Natasha Wimmer published in The Paris Review), writer Nona Fernández speculates as to the nature of the “big joke” responsible for the massive protests against President Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal policies, among other social and political issues:

The fare hike? The minister of the economy’s advice to take advantage of cheaper early morning fares and get up at 6 A.M.? The pizza that President Piñera is eating right now at an upscale Santiago restaurant, deaf to the voice of the city? The pathetic pensions of our retirees? The depressing state of our public education? Our public health? The water that doesn’t belong to us? The militarization of Wallmapu, the ancestral territory of the Mapuche people? The incidents apparently staged by soldiers to incriminate Mapuches? The shameful treatment of our immigrants? The hobbling of our timid abortion law, due to government approval of conscientious objection for conservative doctors? The ridiculous concentration of privileges in the hands of a small minority? Persistent tax evasion by that same minority? The corruption and embezzlement scandals within the armed forces and the national police? The media monopoly of the big conglomerates, owners of television channels, newspapers, and radio stations? The constitution written under the dictatorship that still governs us to this day? Our mayors, representatives, and senators who once worked for Pinochet? Our pseudodemocracy?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Central America, France, and Peru—our writers bring you this week's latest news from around the globe.

This week, our reporters bring you news of the release of unpublished Proust short stories in France, literary award winners in Guatemala and Panama, and the Lima International Book Fair in Peru.

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

It’s award season in Central America!

In early October, the committee of the Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature (Guatemala) announced that this year’s winner was the poet, fiction writer, critic, and translator Luis Eduardo Rivera. Luis began his career in the seventies, alongside other great Guatemalan writers like Marco Antonio Flores, Ana María Rodas, and Luis de Lión. He’s the author of close to twenty books, and he currently lives in France where he teaches Spanish and Literature. Famed writer Eduardo Halfon received this prize last year.

Guatemalan readers and book lovers also saw the opening of a new bookstore called Kitapenas Books & Bistro, and Editorial Catafixia, one of Central America’s most important indie presses, celebrated its tenth anniversary a few days ago. Catafixia has published the likes of Vania Vargas, Wingston González, Sabino Esteban, Jacinta Escudos, and Alfredo Trejos. READ MORE…

“Guatemala has always produced great writers”: An Interview with Guatemalan Poet and Feminist Ana María Rodas

One day, poetry simply came out of me. One day, I was filled with poetry.

Wearing a thin sweater, a colorful scarf, and a dazzling smile, Ana María welcomed us to her house in Zone 15, Guatemala City. Outside it was pouring, much like when she presented her famed Poemas de la izquierda erótica (Poems from the Erotic Left), forty-six years ago. She offered us tea—“To fight back the cold,” she said, still smiling—and told us we had to do the interview in the living room, not upstairs, because, “There are books scattered everywhere; imagine, a lifetime spent collecting books.” And, yes, one can only imagine.

Ana María Rodas, born in 1937, is a veteran Guatemalan poet, journalist, and teacher. Her career spans more than sixty years. She has released close to twenty books, and her work has been translated into English, German, and Italian. In 1990, she simultaneously won the poetry and short story categories of the Juegos Florales de México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. In 2000, she won the prestigious Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for her life’s work. She is also one of the leading figures of Guatemalan and Central American feminism. She has lived her whole life in Guatemala. And one cannot say this lightly. She grew up during the Jorge Ubico dictatorship (1931–1944), admired how the Guatemalan Revolution toppled Ubico in 1944, thrived during the so-called Ten Years of Spring, lamented the 1954 CIA-backed coup that removed the democratically elected, progressive president Jacobo Árbenz, and witnessed the atrocities of the Civil War (1960–1996). Many of her friends and colleagues were killed during that time. Alaíde Foppa, Irma Flaquer, and her dear friend, Luis de Lión, author of El tiempo principia en Xibalbá—considered one of the cornerstones of contemporary Central American literature. Even if she never picked up a rifle or joined the militarized resistance, her feminist struggle and intellectual defiance have influenced many generations.   

She’s not a cynic, though. Or bitter. She’s hopeful. “Even though we have a brute for president,” she says, “I believe in resisting.” And resisting, Ana María has done.

But as much as Ana María is grandmotherly and warm, as much as she’s a jokester and amicable, she is also analytical, astute, and disarmingly agile. She’s a force of nature, a rising tide, and an unmovable object. Her poetry is sensitive, electric, and subversive.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Our wide-ranging literary dispatches this week cover protests, translations, and debuts.

This week’s dispatches report on a four-day literature festival in Italian-speaking Bellinzona in Switzerland, a new podcast dedicated exclusively to Guatemalan and Central American literature, as well as news of the arrest of journalist Hajar Raissouni in Morocco and a theatre group resisting such censorship and freedom of the press violation with a performance of Don Quixote.

Anna Aresi, Copy Editor, reporting from Switzerland

An interest in mapping (often the result of conquests and colonization) and remapping—rethinking what was erased and systematically left out in the mapping process—is at the core of Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel. In Lost Children Archive, mapping is related to sound: “Focusing on sound forced me to hear as opposed to seeing, it forced me into a different rhythm. You cannot consume sound immediately,” she explains, “when focusing on sound, you have to sit with it, let it unfold.” It is within this rhythm, she adds, that English emerged as the language that was conducive to the writing of this novel, which she had begun writing in both English and Spanish simultaneously.

Luiselli reflects on this and other aspects of her writing in an intense conversation with Italian writer Claudia Durastanti, in the intimate setting of Bellinzona’s social theater. 

Every year, Bellinzona—the capital of Swiss Italophone Canton Ticino—hosts Babel Festival, a four-day event entirely dedicated to literature and translation. This year’s fourteenth edition, entitled “You will not speak my language,” explored the limits and boundaries of language and literature, as well as languages that are “imagined, invented, despised, censored, regional, silent, visual, and enigmatic.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

From Olga Tokarczuk to Ana María Rodas, read on for the latest in global literature!

As Italo Calvino said; “Literature is like an eye that can perceive beyond the chromatic scale to which Politics is sensitive.” This week, our editors are spanning Poland and Central America this week to bring you news of literature festivals, celebrations, and renowned writers bringing international regard to their home countries, but also, reports of literature in acts of reclamation, restoration, and freedom. To reinstate humanity into issues that seem beyond individual control is a necessary use of language, and around the world, writers are taking up the responsibility.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Poland

In every corner of Poland, book lovers had a literary festival to choose from this summer. The Borderland Foundation, an international centre for dialogue in Sejny on the Polish/Lithuanian border, hosted a programme of discussions, workshops, and concerts from June through August, with guests including Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, who discussed The Road to Unfreedom with the centre’s director, Krzysztof Czyżewski (photos here). In July, the Non-Fiction festival in Kraków featured acclaimed non-fiction writers of the likes of Małgorzata Rejmer as well as rising new stars of literary reportage, such as Katarzyna Puzyńska, who has made a successful switch from best-selling crime to non-fiction, publishing two books of interviews with Polish policemen. Sopot Literacki, a literary festival in the Baltic Sea resort of Sopot, showcased literature from the UK from August 15 to 18, featuring, among others, novelist Sarah Perry, illustrator and comic book author Katie Green, and Reni Eddo-Lodge talking about her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, as well as a debate among literary scholars on the current readings of the Frankenstein myth. And in the final week of August, Sopot’s sister city Gdynia renames itself the City of the Word, staging a literary festival focusing on Polish writers before the September 1 announcement of the 2019 Gdynia Literature Prize.

Jacek Dehnel, one of the authors appearing at the Gdynia festival this week, presented his latest book, Ale z naszymi umarłymi (But Together With Our Dead), a viciously funny and chilling apocalyptic satire in which Polish zombies go on the rampage and take over the world. The novel is appearing at a time in which rabid anti-LGBT propaganda, spread by the ruling PiS party in the run-up to the general election this coming October, is receiving vocal support from the Catholic Church, which has compared the LGBT movement to a ‘plague’, and a conservative weekly, Gazeta Polska, recently went so far as to print “LGBT-free zone” stickers. This summer saw a record number of Gay Pride parades held in twenty-three cities across the country in defiance of the hate campaign, and while most of the parades went off peacefully, march participants in Białystok, in the east of the country, came under violent attack from far-right protesters. Dehnel, who travelled to Białystok from his home town of Warsaw to address the crowd and has vividly captured the events in this harrowing report, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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Collective Memory: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter: A Fiction in Review

An exercise in the resilience of human memory, the novel integrates a broad swath of literary and global cultural touchstones . . .

Human Matter: A Fiction by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Eduardo Aparicio, University of Texas Press, 2019

As noted over the years by scholars such as Arturo Arias, Central American cultural production remains largely at the margins of academic study. As Arias points out in Taking Their Word, because popular knowledge of the region is so sparse, and because geographic ignorance (particularly in the United States) is so widespread, Central American immigrants will often identify Mexico as their country of origin, both for reasons of Latinx solidarity, and to protect themselves from discrimination and prejudice. This erasure is not even a recent phenomenon: the protagonists of the 1983 film El Norte, the Guatemalan-Maya brother and sister Enrique and Rosa Xuncax, are told to tell people that they are from the heavily Indigenous state of Oaxaca, Mexico, to avoid being taken advantage of in both Mexico and the US. However, from the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century to the practices of Canadian mining companies, and even US president Donald Trump’s facilitating, in the words of the Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman, “organized crime” in Guatemala’s 2019 presidential elections, global forces have always played, and continue to play, an outsized role in the region.

Despite its apparently marginal status, the region has made a number of enduring contributions to world literature. Foremost among them is one of the fathers of Latin American modernism, the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, and the Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, not to mention one of the most important works of Indigenous literature in the Americas, the K’iche’ Maya Popol Wuj. Outside of these points of reference, however, much of the region’s vast, rich literature remains untranslated, which makes Eduardo Aparicio’s translation of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s El material humano as Human Matter all the more important.

Rey Rosa, perhaps Guatemala’s most important living novelist, has had an eclectic literary trajectory. Having gone to New York in the early 1980s, he eventually became the protégé of the US-expatriate author Paul Bowles, spending a good deal of time with the author in his adopted home of Tangier, Morocco, and even becoming executor of Bowles’s literary estate upon the author’s death in 1999. Tellingly, one of Rey Rosa’s previously translated novels, the magnificent The African Shore, deals with the intersection of tourism, privilege, and migration in the border zone not between Guatemala and the US, or even between Guatemala and México, but between Morocco and Spain.

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Translation Tuesday: “I fell in love with a poet . . . ” by Manuel Tzoc

I fell in love like you fall in love with silence / and darkness (fears I’ve never conquered)

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of the Indigenous/Queer poet Manuel Tzoc. “I fell in love with a poet” comes from Tzoc’s theatrical poetry El jardín de los infantes locos y la escafandra de oro (The Garden of Insane Children and the Golden Diving Helmet). The poem, imbued with a strong, imaginative voice that comes through even in translation, is a love address to a poet—a poet that exists only within Tzoc’s address itself. This imagined lover/poet is a pastiche of Guatemalan and international attributes, past and future stories, and complex desires. Identity is woven together from what the addressed poet does and does not do, what he wears. To a certain extent, the poet as the subject of address in Tzoc’s poem is an ideal subject, but not an idyllic or stereotypical one. Desire is expansive, and by imagining and versifying the poet/lover, Tzoc is able to birth the ideal made possible in poetry to encompass the specificity and the variety of a intersectional Indigenous Central American/urban/Queer poetics.

I fell in love with a poet
a boy poet
with the attitude of a horrible little prince
I fell in love like you fall in love with silence
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“From a madhouse to a monastery”: Twenty-Five Years of Guatemala’s Magna Terra Editores

We turned into a McDonald’s of books . . . It was madness!

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guatemala’s longest-lasting publishing house, Magna Terra Editores. Founded in November 1994 by poet and novelist Gerardo Guinea—and now run by him and his son Paolo—Magna Terra has published more than two thousand books and has propelled the careers of writers across three generations. As the press nears its bodas de plata, early this month I sat down with the two editors to talk about Magna Terra’s beginnings, the press’s many houses, and transitioning from a hectic McPress to a much more Zen indie house that boasts some of the best books produced in the country. Its author list is undoubtedly proof of this.

—José García Escobar

In the early 1990s, when Magna Terra was nothing more than a dream, its founder, Gerardo Guinea, and his family were exiled to Mexico City by the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). He was one of many. Other famed Guatemalan writers, such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón and Raúl Leiva, also chose to live abroad given the local political climate. After all, the government often persecuted writers. Otto René Castillo, Luis de Lión, and Alaíde Foppa are just a few of the many intellectuals the government and army killed during the war. While in Mexico, Gerardo had the chance to visit and become familiar with local publishing houses. He met with Joaquín Diez-Canedo of Joaquín Mortiz Editorial, now part of Grupo Planeta, and Carlos López of Editorial Praxis. As he watched the editors working, the books piling up on the shelves enthralled him. He wondered, as the talks of peace in Guatemala became more frequent, if he could create something similar at home. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Close-up on Brazil, Guatemala, and Hong Kong in this week's dispatches.

Between the pages of beloved books some sunlight gathers, as writers and readers from the various corners of our world gather to greet, honour, and celebrate one another. Crowds gather in search for literature in Rio de Janeiro, a Guatemalan favourite is shortlisted for a prestigious Neustadt International Award, and genre fiction takes the spotlight in Hong Kong. Travel with us between cobblestone and concrete, as our editors bring you the close-up view on global literary news.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

One can hardly say it’s been winter here in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with the sun shining over the 17th edition of FLIP, the International Literary Festival of Paraty, from July 10 to 14. The festival—one of the world’s largest, and certainly Brazil’s most anxiously awaited—brought thousands of readers and writers to the cobblestone streets of Paraty in celebration of world literature. The main programming welcomed internationally acclaimed writers Grada Kilomba (Portugal, author of Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism), Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Nigeria, author of Stay with Me), and Kalaf Epalanga (Angola, author of Também os brancos sabem dançar), among others, with events in various languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Libras (Brazilian Sign Language). But the magic of this year’s FLIP certainly wasn’t confined to the mainstage: the “houses” of Paraty’s historic center were transformed into venues for book readings, signings, and endless conversation; a parallel “Flipinha” brought the literary festival alive for children of all ages; and the first-ever FLIP international poetry slam packed the main plaza for an unforgettable night, featuring poets from Cabo Verde, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, the US, and the UK. Anyone looking for a recap of the main events can head to FLIP’s YouTube page to check out the action!

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2019

Standout pieces from the Summer 2019 issue of Asymptote, as selected by section editors!

Another issue of Asymptote means another dazzling array of voices, languages, and genres in translation. If you’re not sure where to begin, look no further than these recommendations from the editors who compiled this spectacular issue

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Editor:

This issue’s Fiction section is memorable for being the first fiction lineup in an Asymptote issue (and there are now 34 of them!) that does not include a single European author. Naguib Mahfouz and Bernardo Esquinca have already been singled out by the blog editors last week, so I’ll touch briefly on works by Bijan Najdi and Siham Benchekroun—two ambitious short stories that are remarkable in different ways. Showcasing the acclaimed narrative technique for which he was known, Najdi’s heartbreaking story “A Rainy Tuesday” (translated beautifully by Michelle Quay) unravels the thin seam between memory and reality, leading us on a nonlinear journey through grief. Benchekroun’s “Living Words,” on the other hand, is also a personal essay that exults in the very richness of language. Kudos to translator Hannah Embleton-Smith who masterfully tackled a text that leans so heavily on French phonetics to make synaptic leaps—and gave us something in English that preserves the delight of the original French. My personal favorites from the Poetry section this issue are the new translations of The Iliad by James Wilcox, which inject vigor into an ancient classic, and Tim Benjamin’s introduction of Leonardo Sanhueza, 2012 winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for career achievement. Benjamin’s evocative translations bring into English for the first time an extraordinary poetic voice that deserves to reach a wider audience.

From Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Section Editor:

Personal Jesus” by Fausto Alzati Fernández is a visceral study of the self that drugs make. Ably translated by Will Stockton, the prose slows down time, as we wait on the side of the highway, hoping for a fix, and then, finally, time stops, in the infinite space of the hit. Fernández explores an enchanted world, in which of all the dumb sad morass of the human animal is given the possibility of transcendence, and yet—cruelties of cruelties—it is this very transcendence that produces the animals living half-lives that stumble around his dealer’s living room. “Personal Jesus” is a love letter, written to a cleansing balm that leaves us only more pitiful than before.

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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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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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Philosophical Thriller: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Chaos: A Fable in Review

Chaos might have the pace of a thriller, but it has the timely relevance and pointed insight of many a great novel.

Chaos: A Fable by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, AmazonCrossing, 2019.

Imagine finding yourself in an unknown country, with no understanding of how you got there and the taste of dread in your mouth, and you’ll have a good sense of how it feels to read acclaimed Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novella Chaos: A Fable. According to the publisher’s synopsis, Chaos sets out to be both a “provocative morality tale” and a “high-tech thriller,” and, indeed, it seems to land somewhere between the two: think John le Carré “espionoir” meets Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, Chaos is Rey Rosa’s nineteenth novel (the seventh to be translated into English). It follows Mexican writer Rubirosa as he reconnects with an old friend in Morocco and, by agreeing to a seemingly simple favor, finds himself drawn into an international plot to end human suffering by bringing about a technological apocalypse. Chaos indeed.

For a novel titled Chaos, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found the reading experience itself disorientating; so much so, in fact, that as soon as I read the last line, I had to flick back to page one and read it all again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (Fortunately, at only 197 pages, you can pretty much do so in one sitting.) Starting—mundanely enough—at a book fair in Tangier, the novella takes the reader on a breath-taking ride via the United States and Greece to Turkey. And I’m sure that, even on a second read, there were allusions and references that went far over my head.

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Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes

Characters can take on a life of their own as you write them, and that can hold a great amount of interest and suspense for me.

In late 2016, the Guatemalan publishing house SOPHOS put out Rodrigo Fuentes’s literary debut, entitled Trucha panza arriba. The book follows, sometimes closely and at other times tangentially, Don Henrik, a white landowner living in Guatemala, and the way his decisions and economic and emotional downfall affect those around him. The book includes intense dramas like “Dive—available in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 Issue—and “Ubaldo’s Island”; vibrating suspense stories like “Whisky”; and profound character explorations like “Henrik.” And all of them are wrapped in exquisite dialogue, like “Terrace,” my favorite story. I told Rodrigo it was my favorite.

“Really?” Rodrigo said, somehow confused.

“Sí,” I told him, and said it was a tight story. “Apretada,” I said, “elegantly condensed, effective, quick as a flash.” READ MORE…