Place: Hungary

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…

Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Summer 2013: What a Tentative, Unruly Enterprise Language Is

How miraculous it is when a translator is able to express someone else’s thoughts—it is already so difficult to express your own.

We have organized four IndieGoGo campaigns in all our eight years now, and each of the last three times, it’s sucked so much life force from us that we have, on one occasion, even had to skip an issue (there is no Spring 2015 edition) to recover from it. For some reason, however, it does not take long at all after our first campaign to hit our stride again. A sampling of what we were up to immediately after April 2013, apart from sending ‘thank you’s and perks to 231 supporters: We (1) launched our first-ever translation contest; (2) organized a massive translation project that saw translations into eighteen additional languages of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s brilliant send-up of racial profiling; (3) revamped our website to include a map (thus allowing readers to access our content by geographical region); (4) nominated ourselves for a TED Prize (albeit in vain) and, last but not certainly not least; (5) held our largest recruitment drive ever. The rapid expansion takes a toll: my inbox is invaded daily by check-ins. Fortunately, around this time, we migrate to Trello for issue production work. To give you a sense of how much back and forths are required for just one article (say, Can Xue’s interview conducted by Dylan Suher and Joan Hua, as recounted by Dylan below): Trello records 84 comments by 12 team members spanning the period of May 28 to July 15. Here is Robyn Creswell of The Paris Review on the Summer 2013 issue: “It’s hard to read in a heat wave, but the July issue of Asymptote is so absorbing I hardly notice my sweat drops hitting the keyboard. Even more impressive than the diversity of things translated—book reviews in Urdu, fiction in Bengali, poetry in Faroese—is their quality.

The Summer 2013 issue of Asymptote is a fine illustration of the principle that translation is just a special subset of the general problem of communication: the problem of trying to relate your experience to someone else, of trying to put something “in other words,” of trying to put something into words in the first place. This principle comes across most clearly in Naoki Higashida’s attempts to relate his experience as an autistic person, and in the visual section’s pieces on asemic writing and Ghada Amer’s use of Arabic script. All three remind us what a tentative, unruly enterprise language is. The shapes shackled into service by the Phoenicians millennia ago long to return to the wilds of visuality; when tasked with expressing the plentitude of the autistic mind, simple words seem as crude a tool as a chert axe.

The problem of referentiality epitomized by these pieces runs throughout this entire issue. The way Banaphool’s “Nawab Sahib” (translated by Arunava Sinha) seems to exist just outside the bounds of reality, its repetitive structure, and its surprising twists all suggest a fable (or a joke), but the moral to which it points remains sublimely hazy. E.C. Belli, translating Pierre Peuchmaurd, repeats the word “glimmer” again and again in a mantra of irreducible images: “The glimmers of lakes, of iron, of girls”; “The glimmers of otters inside their prey.” The insistence of the repetition pounds significance into a non-entity of a word. READ MORE…

Summer 2011: Our First Great Issue

Asymptote issues offer much serendipity and often puzzling amounts of connections, and the Summer 2011 one is no exception.

The Summer 2011 issue is, to my mind anyway, Asymptote’s first great issue—not least because of the sheer embarrassment of riches showcased therein. (To this day, I still regret not being able to find a spot in our list of featured names on the cover for: AdonisPéter EsterházyBrother Anthony of TaizéSagawa ChikaHai-Dang PhanAraya RasdjarmrearnsookAzra Raza & Sara Suleri GoodyearJonas Hassen Khemiri, and, last but certainly not least, Tomaž Šalamun, who enclosed English translations of his poetry in a letter sent to my Singaporean address. A savvier editor would probably have chosen to promote local opposition politician and household name Chen Show Mao; indeed, after he shared it on his Facebook page, my exclusive interview with Chen drew thousands of hits from Singaporean readers, causing an unprecedented spike in traffic.) No, it was our first great issue because despite the adverse conditions under which it was produced—a key editor dropped out, taking Asymptote funds along with him; our guest artist resigned three weeks before the issue launch—we still delivered on time, working into the wee hours of the morning. On a lighter note: Sven Birkerts, whose essay on Roberto Bolaño I solicited, once handed me a crisp five-dollar bill after betting in class that no one would be able to identify an unattributed passage from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Who says you can’t make money from world literature? Here to introduce this issue (and the Hungarian Fiction Feature that I edited in honor of my Hungarian friend Nora, whose wedding I couldn’t attend because of the journal) is Diána Vonnák, editor-at-large for Hungary since October 2017.

I started writing about Hungarian literature in translation in 2012, right after I moved away from Budapest. In a way, this was a coping mechanism, a strategy to handle the sudden absence of both shared references and the immediacy of lived language. It was a half-serious attempt  to not only recreate the context I had been immersed in back home but also weave it into the much larger and more diverse literary world I encountered in a UK university full of students from overseas.

These new encounters fascinated me, and I found myself immersed in world literature more than ever before. But I realized that if I wanted to write about it, I needed to explore Hungarian literature in English translation and the platforms where it could be found. This journey soon led me to what was then a rather young journal: Asymptote. In 2013, I stumbled upon the journal’s third issue, from July 2011, and was astonished to find the special feature on Hungarian fiction. Yet as I read through the rest of the issue I was mesmerised by the many hidden links between the other pieces, particularly the subtle hints to Odysseus and his many literary heirs as well as modernism in its divergent traditions. If there had been a Greek god overseeing the birth of this issue, it would have certainly been Hermes. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: ‘So Long, Adolescence!’ by Réka Mán-Várhegyi

We’ll leave our mum and dad behind, we’ll leave their poverty and their slothfulness, their gestures and their misery all behind.

Full of dark humor and vibrant details, today’s Translation Tuesday, by Réka Mán-Várhegyi and translated by Owen Good, shows the inner workings of a Hungarian family. Dealing with obesity, sibling relationships, and emerging sexuality, this gripping story captures that uncomfortably liminal time known as adolescence.

‘It’ll be beach weather at the weekend,’ our mum squeaked. ‘Get your swimming costumes ready, we’re going to the lake. Dad, have you checked the batteries in the cooler bag? Does it still work? We’ll not miss it if we don’t buy a new one. No point in wasting money.’

Panni was staring at her hand. I was counting the strips in the rotting wainscot on the dining room wall. We didn’t put up any protest but we didn’t want to go to the lake and they knew it. We didn’t want to lie in the sun in swimsuits, we didn’t want to soak in the water, and, most of all, we didn’t want to gawp at jet-skis. Every summer, jet-skis tore up and down the puddle-sized lake with pornstar-esque girls and boys on them, our classmates, but at least in school they didn’t shriek all day long.

I was born into a fat, hemorrhoidal family as the younger member of fraternal twins. By our teenage years, Panni and I had turned into sluggish potato sacks, we’d become our own parents one size smaller. Later on it became clear that our features weren’t overly similar, but the differences between us were hidden by the fat, just like our parents. When I was seventeen the spare pounds didn’t hurt so much as the fact that I didn’t have any distinguishing features. After class Panni and I often went to the wood, we sat on our coats at the foot of a tree, smoked a cigarette each and scratched our faces with thorns. We both wanted a proper scar. But these were just pathetic thin scratches. They healed in half a day. Especially on my skin—which was positively brown compared to Panni’s milky white—when I wiped the blood off you couldn’t even see them.

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Transcending Language Through Sports: Football Writers

Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

We are well into the World Cup, which means endless amounts of football (or soccer, depending on your location) for the serious fans and a chance to dabble in that world for those less-serious fans of the sport. The group stage is coming to a close and there have been more than a few surprises, including Iceland’s humbling of Messi and Argentina, Poland going down against the tenacious Senegalese team—and Germany? Really?

The World Cup, an event that very much goes beyond the ninety minutes of twenty-two players and a ball, generates an endless amount of controversy, discussion, national pride, rivalry, and politics from all sorts of people, including our favorite writers. With that in mind, today we bring you a special treat as Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

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From Austria: Elfriede Jelinek

Already, the 2018 World Cup has delivered its quota of surreal moments. Some have been joyfully surreal—the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision video leaping to keep out a penalty from one of the greatest players of all-time; Iran’s failed attempt at a somersault throw-in during the final seconds of a crucial game against Spain—but others have had a more sinister edge. Among the defining images from the opening match was the handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, two star players for the Axis of too-wealthy-to-be-evil.

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Translation Tuesday: “Provided we have a soul” by Zsuzsa Takács

We stand under the surveillance / cameras with a starved look, but will not eat.

Jelenkor is one of the most prestigious literary journals in Hungary. As often happens with small languages, literary prestige does not quite translate to a very wide reach: apart from the print version, Jelenkor‘s poems and short stories are read by a few hundred people at best. As the end of 2017 was approaching, journalist Péter Urfi set out to find the closest Hungarian equivalent to the success of “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s short story that took the internet by surprise. To Urfi’s astonishment, the winner was not only a poem instead of prose, it was not written by a writer with a significant online presence. It was Zsuzsa Takács’s “Provided we have a soul,” published in Jelenkor. More than 70,000 people read the poem and over 1,200 liked it without any significant publicity effort. The humanism, measured dignity, and accuracy of the poem might account for some of this popularity. It also speaks of the frustration many feel at the gradual, relentless dismantling of democratic institutions in the country, at once experiencing it and able to adopt the slight condescension of the token catastrophe tourist. Ultimately it is not incredibly important to pin down the reasons, as resonance is an elusive matter. The sheer power of the poem shall speak for itself.

Provided we have a soul

He’s not known to have one shape. That’s the rub.
Can we trust the one who keeps constantly changing
his appearance—Blind Hope? Now a beggar
on the corner, now a young woman, the servant who
follows her masters to Auschwitz, the Danube
Delta, Vorkuta, serving them even there: digging
up with her bare nails the roots from under
the snow, or scavenging in the dumpsters
for them. A decrepit old man telling stories to keep
our body and soul together, provided we have
a soul, and are not copulating animals only.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The best in the international literary scene right here at Asymptote

Welcome back for a fresh week of literary news from around the globe, featuring the most exciting developments from Hungary, Norway, Spain and the Caribbean. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary: 

A major literary event, the 25th International Book Festival was held in Budapest between 19-22 April. The annual festival is not only a feast of newly published Hungarian literature with roundtable discussions, speeches, and meet-ups, but also a hub for translated literature. This year, Serbia was the guest country, with invited authors such as Milovan Danojlić, Laslo Blasković, Dragan Hamović, Igor Marojević, Radoslav Petković, Dragan Velikić, and Vladislava Vojnović. Authors discussed the place of Serbian literature in the broader European context, and their Hungarian translators talked about the translation process.

A highlight of the Festival was guest of honour Daniel Kehlmann’s discussion of his recent book Tyll, a chronicle of the Thirty Years War, featuring the archetypical German trickster Till Eulenspiegel. Kehlmann received the chief award of the Festival, the Budapest Prize, previously awarded to Jorge Semprún, Orhan Pamuk, Günter Grass, and Michel Houellebecq, among others.

The International Book Festival was not the only place where great news about translated literature could be shared these weeks. The Hungarian Books and Translations Office of the Petőfi Literary Museum announced the list of subventioned books for the first half of 2018. Asymptote contributor and Close Approximations winner Owen Good received support for Krisztina Tóth’s Pixel, soon to be published by Seagull Books. We can also look forward to Peter Sherwood’s translation of The Birds of Verhovina by Ádám Bodor, supported by the same agency.

András Forgách’s No Live Files Remain has just been published by Simon and Schuster in Paul Olchváry’s translation. The book narrates Forgách’s reckoning with his mother’s past as an informant of the Kádár regime. Facing family histories and friendships compromised by agent activities is a peculiar genre in Hungarian literature—and literary traditions of virtually every country that experienced intense state surveillance. No Live Files Remain is a crucial addition to this thread, a mother’s story that could serve as a counterpart of Péter Esterházy’s account of his father in Revised Edition.

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In Conversation: Len Rix on Translating Hungarian

"Translation is itself an artistic enterprise, an act of co-creation, relying on empathy, intuition and imaginative insight."

Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.

Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?

Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!

This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.

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The 2018 Man Booker International Shortlist: the Subjective Nature of Literary Merit

"Fiction at its finest”, as the Man Booker tagline describes its self-imposed mission.

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most exciting world literature news—all in one place.

It’s Friday and that can only mean one thing at Asymptote: reports of exciting developments in the world of literature. This week our focus falls on a diverse set of countries, including Tunisia, Hungary, and Hong Kong. 

Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Tunisia: 

In just a few short weeks, the 34th edition of Tunis’s annual Book Fair will begin, where numerous prize winners will be announced, including the winner of the newly created Prize for Literary and Intellectual Creativity, or prix de la créativité littéraire et intellectuelle.

However, if you’re itching for activity now, don’t fret, there are numerous literary events taking place throughout Tunisia in the meantime, with a special focus on young writers and readers. Specifically, the 10th annual Festival of Storytelling, organized by the Tahar Haddad Cultural Association in Tunis, has already begun and will continue until March 25th. The festival is dedicated to preserving Tunisian oral traditions, as each day it presents a storyteller, or حكاوتي, who brings to life tales taken from regional oral literature. Similarly, the literary association “Above the Wall” (فوق السور), created for young writers, will host its 10th annual assembly on March 20th and 21st in Benzart, one of the northernmost cities in Tunisia.

Further south, in Sousse, on April 1st, the Book Lovers Association of Sousse will hold a discussion at Le Paradoxe, a local cultural café, to discuss the Tunisian writer and poet Shafiq Tariqi’s award-winning novel, Lavazza (لافازا,) which questions the full realization of the Tunisian revolution. In 2015, the novel was awarded a monetary prize for creativity by the journal, Culture Dubai (دبي الثقافة). READ MORE…

The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

Our weekly news update continues in the dawn of this exciting and unpredictable year, but before we get down to business, Asymptote has some very important news of its own (in case you missed it): our new Winter 2018 issue has launched and is buzzing with extraordinary writing across every literary genre! Meanwhile, our ever-committed Editors-at-Large—this week from Brazil, Hungary and Singapore—have selected the most important events, publications and prizes from their regions, all right here at your disposal. 

Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore:

2017 ended on a high note as Singapore’s literary community celebrated the successes—and homecomings—of four fiction writers who have gained international acclaim: Krishna Udayasankar, Rachel Heng, JY Yang, and Sharlene Teo. At a packed reading organized by local literary non-profit Sing Lit Station on December 30th, the four read excerpts from their recent or forthcoming work, from Yang’s Singlish-laced speculative short fiction, to fragments of Teo’s novel Ponti, winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award. The following weekend, Udayasankar and Heng joined other Singapore-based writers such as Toh Hsien Min and Elaine Chiew for two panel discussions on aspects of international publishing, which aimed to promote legal and ethical awareness among the community here.

Other celebrations in the first fortnight of 2018 took on more deep-seated local issues. Writers, musicians and artists from among Singapore’s migrant community presented a truly cosmopolitan evening of song and poetry to a 400-strong audience that included fellow migrant workers, migrant rights activists, and members of the Singaporean public. Among the performers were the three winners of 2017’s Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition, alongside Rubel Arnab, founder of the Migrants’ Library, and Shivaji Das, a prominent translator and community organizer. Several days after, indie print magazine Mynah—the first of its kind dedicated to long-form, investigative nonfiction—launched their second issue with a hard-hitting panel on ‘History and Storytelling’. Contributors Kirsten Han, Faris Joraimi and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow all spoke persuasively about contesting Singapore’s official narratives of progress and stability, and the role of writers in that truth-seeking work.

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Tracing Szilárd Borbély’s Poetry in The Dispossessed

To lay bare the inarticulate self as it is thrown into the violent mould of the world—and to uphold the captured encounter without commentary.

Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.

from “On the wings of freedom

The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of aging that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.

This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.”[1] For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.

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