Place: India

In Review: Ismat Chughtai’s Quit India

This varied and beautifully calibrated volume succeeds in sustaining the legacy of one of India’s most radical twentieth-century authors.

Twenty-six years after her death, Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is one of Urdu’s most famous short story writers; among her immediate contemporaries, only Saadat Hasan Manto’s reputation matches hers, and we can confidently say that she has no successor.

The Quilt, the first of her works to be presented to international audiences in the year of her death, was a collection of her short fiction. The title story, which had a lesbian theme, created a scandal and attracted the ire of colonial censors when it was first published in the early forties. Other stories in the volume proved the author to be a storyteller of the finest calibre. In 1995, more than half a century after its original debut, a translation of her magnificent feminist bildungsroman, The Crooked Line (1942), where the heroine’s life paralleled her own, pre-empted and fictionalised many of the ideas from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Although it is still in print in the US with the pioneering Feminist Press, the UK edition has been discontinued. Several more translations of her stories, essays, memoirs, and long and short fiction, accompanied by a slew of biographical and critical studies, have enhanced her reputation year by year and made her one of the most translated writers across the subcontinent. However, they have only been published in India and Pakistan and have not been picked up by Anglo-American publishers.

Chughtai’s fiction ranges from stories for children and reminiscences of her friends and family, to the harrowing low life in Bombay’s slums and drug-fuelled high life in the city’s gaudy film world, to a novel about Islam’s first martyrs—a choice that surprises admirers of this iconic socialist-feminist icon. But even today some critics claim that The Quilt overshadows her other fictions and use the early stories to measure her later work. Others, including myself, would say this is grossly untrue: Ismat, though she preferred to write about what she knew best, was versatile within her chosen range of subversive kitchen sink drama and outspoken social satire, as we can see from the several renditions into English of all her major works by Tahira Naqvi, her most frequent translator, which are published in Delhi by the pioneering Women Unlimited (Penguin India also publishes a handful of translations by Mohammad Asaduddin).

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In Review: Once There Was a City Named Dilli by Intizar Hussain

Delhi is in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.

After our feature on studying language in South Asia on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence, we focus once again on the complex social and linguistic landscape of the subcontinent. Sneha Khaund reviews Man Booker Prize shortlisted author and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awardee Initizar’s Hussain’s loving, nostalgic account of Delhi that has been recently translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah and published by Yoda Press. The Pakistani author (1923-2016) is widely recognized as a great Urdu writer and was a regular literary columnist for Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was created by partitioning colonial era India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Hussain’s acclaimed novel Basti, published in 1979 and later translated into English, addressed the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent. As this review argues, the issues of secularism and language politics are as important in contemporary times as they were during the Partition. 

As I reflect on the themes of the book I wish to dwell on in this review, my attention is interrupted by bits of information pouring in through news channels and the internet. A self-styled godman has been convicted of raping two of his former disciples. His followers are spread across Haryana and Punjab, neighbouring states of Delhi where I am writing from. The judgement has come fifteen years after the charges were made, during which period he has cultivated a flamboyant personal image, complete with movies and music videos. On Friday, the time leading up to the verdict was fraught with tension as the media speculated whether his followers would riot if he was convicted. The police had emergency preparations on stand-by, including three stadiums to hold people after arrests. Violence erupted after the verdict, as feared, and at last count, thirty people have died. Curfew has been imposed on parts of northern India and there has been an internet block-out in certain parts so that rumours don’t spread and incite fresh violence.

The deafening silence in the wake of violence in the modern state—whether it is Darjeeling, Kashmir, Punjab, or Haryana—is with what Intizar Hussain begins Once There Was a City Named Dilli. Hussain starts the first chapter by saying that he had arrived in Delhi “two and a half or three years after Partition” (3) and had headed to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin where he was taken aback by the silence that greeted him instead of the usual hustle and bustle. His surprise will be relatable to modern day readers familiar with the shrine of the Sufi saint in the heart of Delhi that draws throngs of devotees and tourists alike and is located close to one of the busiest railway stations in India. We wonder if a hush has fallen over the city in the aftermath of the violence of Partition, but Hussain draws a larger arc of history.

As he searches in vain for the nineteenth century Urdu poet Ghalib’s grave while the melancholy scream of a lonely peacock tears through the “dusk of that sad evening” (6), he is struck with amazement at how many times the city has been plundered and resettled. Thus begins Hussain’s quest to write the history of Delhi as a series of plunders, conquests, settlements. “Who were the settlers, who were settled?”, he writes. As scholars such as Romila Thapar have shown, these are complex questions because they carry within them the issue of who is the legitimate citizen of India. Both colonialist and nationalist historiography have been guilty of perpetuating the perception that Islam came to India by way of the sword, through figures such as Nadir Shah and Timur. Hussain then proceeds to draw up a historical narrative of the city from the time of the mythical Pandavas of Mahabharat, the period of Islamic dynasties, the colonial era where India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, ending finally with the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century that eventually led to the creation of two nation states—India and Pakistan.

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Remnants of a Separation: Translating Intangibles into Tangibles

Seventy years after the largest migration in history, a visual artist is recording the objects and languages that tell stories of longing.

Seventy years ago today the British left the Subcontinent, and India and Pakistan became separate sovereign states. The Partition is often represented in terms of numbers—one million people were killed and twelve million became refugees. Visual artist Aanchal Malhotra has been making the migrants visible by recording the stories behind the objects the migrants brought to their new homes. One of the intangibles they carried were their languages. Asymptote Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sat down for a long chat with Malhotra to discuss her latest book that records these remnants. A very happy independence day to our Indian and Pakistani readers!

2017 marks not only seventy years of Independence of India and Pakistan, but also of the 1947 Partition, which saw one of the greatest migrations in human history. Close to fifteen million people were uprooted and had to migrate to or from India and the newly created nation, Pakistan.

In her book, Remnants of a Separation, artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra looks at the Partition narrative through the lens of the objects that the refugees brought with them as they made the journey. These objects were either the first things they could grab when they found themselves suddenly engulfed by communal riots, or things they considered essential or valuable as they prepared to settle in an unfamiliar land. Aanchal has also founded the Museum of Material Memory, “a digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent, tracing family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.”

I meet Aanchal in a café on a rainy afternoon in Delhi to talk about the languages she encountered while undertaking this curatorial project. After moving back to India from her studies abroad in 2013, Aanchal realized that in its race to be modern and in tune with the times, her generation—young, urban Indians in their twenties and thirties—often forgot to care about the items of the past. She started visiting historical sites every weekend and, from those visits and discoveries, extended the Partition project, which she started documenting on her blog. “I wanted to share the things I learned from people,” Aanchal says, when I ask her about the impulse that started it all.

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Translation Tuesday: “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan

I felt that manners were nothing more than knowing to say the appropriate English words at the right times.

Continuing our spotlight on Close Approximations contest winners, we present today the top entry in the fiction category, notable for being the first Asian translation to receive the top award in the history of our contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionJudge David Bellos says: “There were several contenders for second place, but I have absolutely no doubt that the prize itself must go to the charming, wonderful, unusual story of “Periyamma’s Words” by the Tamil writer B.Jeyamohan in Suchitra Ramachandran’s translation. It is a witty and heart-warming tale illustrating the paradoxical position of translation itself, as a way of crossing boundaries and as a way of understanding what boundaries cannot be crossed.”

Come, go, stop, food, clothes, son, daughter, road, house, sky, earth, night, day—these words came rather easily to her. If I said those words in Tamil, Periyamma would reply with the corresponding English words. It was only when Periyamma jumped to say ‘cat’ before I could say poo– that I realized I was quizzing her in order. So I changed the order. But then Periyamma started saying the English words just by looking at my eyes. So I pointed at different animals and asked what they were. Periyamma said naaipoonaikozhi in Tamil and then translated them—‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘hen.’ It was only after Periyamma had mastered a hundred basic words—she would say them even before I could ask—that I moved on to concepts. That was when all hell broke loose.

Periyamma was not my periy-amma, big-mother, a name usually reserved for one’s maternal aunt. But everybody in our town called her that. Her house, they called the Big House. Situated in the town centre, that bungalow was built by Periyamma’s grandfather Thiruvadiya Pillai a hundred and fifty years ago. The word about town is that when it was built, the glass for the house sailed in from Belgium, the teak came from Burma, the marble from Italy, and the iron from England. The people who came to grind limestone for its walls stayed on permanently in our town, and as a result our town acquired a Lime Street. Our carpenters also moved in during that period. Periyamma’s wedding took place in that bungalow. That was the first time a mottaar came to our town. The newlyweds were paraded about town in that Ford motor car. Periyamma was not to step foot into that car ever again.

It has been forty years since Periyamma’s husband passed away. Her only son Arumugam Pillai had been a lawyer in Madurai, and he died there. His four sons were variously placed in Chennai and Delhi and Calcutta. None of them are alive now. A daughter of the oldest grandson is a doctor in America. She is the only person who has some semblance of a relationship to Periyamma. Periyamma went on living in that town, an ancient relic in the eyes of its fourth-generation inhabitants. In the olden days their family had six thousand acres of land to their name. Over the years, it had shrunk in various ways to a hundred acres. Those hundred acres had been neatly partitioned and sold over thirty years ago. In the end, all that was left over for Periyamma was that house, two acres of land around it, a good sum in the bank, and her jewelry. But that was more than enough for her to live in state.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

A behind-the-scenes scoop on what our team members have been up to!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow translated Guillaume Apollinaire’s celebrated “Song of the Unrequited Lover” for the Spring 2017 issue of Metamorphoses.

Assistant Blog Editor Aurvi Sharma was awarded the 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in Nonfiction Literature.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich’s play Iphigenia Crash Land Falls On the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart was performed on 30 July at Bread and Roses Theatre in South London and by London-based company Clumsy Bodies from 4 to 12 August at theSpace on Niddry Street in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her essay, “Riding Uphill on a Red Bike,” based on her play Red Bike, is featured as the closing reflection on the making of the Stages of Resistance series.

Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova MARGENTO a.k.a. Chris Tanasescu will be presenting with his team a paper titled “Access(ed) Poetry. The Graph Poem Project and the Place of Poetry in Digital Humanities” at the 2017 Digital Humanities Conference in Montreal. Chris also recently presented a paper on automated metaphor detection in poetry at the Association for Computational Linguistic Conference in Vancouver.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones was awarded one of the 2017 ALTA Travel Fellowships to attend this year’s conference in Minneapolis.  She, like Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin, has written an essay for the upcoming anthology “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online,” published by OR Books.  

Contributing Editor Howard Goldblatt has published an essay in Korean Literature Now discussing the issue of translating fiction and creating fiction as two distinct literary genres.  

Editor-at-Large for Indonesia Norman Erikson Pasaribu is showcased as an emerging Indonesian writer in Kill Your Darlings, a cultural magazine based in Melbourne, in partnership with the upcoming Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali.  

Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin wrote about the rise of female literary magazines for LitHub and reviewed a response to George Eliot’s ‘Silly Women Novelists’ for the Times Literary Supplement. She also published essays on Italian director Antonioni’s first color film and the designer Salvatore Ferragamo in AnOther magazine. It’s also her birthday today so please joining us in wishing her a very happy birthday!

Editors-at-Large for Singapore Theophilus Kwek and Tse Hao Guang have launched UnFree Verse, an anthology of formal verse from Singapore, co-edited with poet Joshua Ip. Theophilus was also featured last week in an episode of the new BBC4 series ‘Mother Tongue’, which focuses on poetry in translation.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2017

From an essay investigating a literary hoax to new art responding to Trump's xenophobia, our editors share their favorites from the new issue!

Asymptote’s glorious Summer issue is chockablock with gems. Some of our section editors share their highlights:

“To assert that Tove Jansson’s invention of the Moomin world may be partially rooted in ancient lore is, for this writer, to fear performing an act of sacrilege,” confesses Stephanie Sauer in her essay on renowned Finnish author-artist, Tove Jansson. This confession is the crux of Sauer’s questionings. Journey with Sauer from the moment the Moomins were conceived, to its unlikely, subversive evolution. Hold tighter still as she dives into Jansson’s personal life, her questions of war, artistry, womanhood, and sexuality, and the fearless, unconventional course she cut through history.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

This issue features excerpts from two plays that deal with aspects of “disappearance” and surveillance. In Blanca Doménech’s The Sickness of Stone, translated from the Spanish by William Gregory, we take a look at a cold, dark world where random pieces of text read from discarded books become a kind of key to unlocking society’s ills or sickness. Gregory’s eloquent, tart translation finds the humor, bite and despair in this fascinating play.

In Hanit Guli’s Orshinatranslated from the Hebrew by Yaron Regev, a father must decide how he will disappear from his family’s life and what he will or will not tell them. An odd, compassionate family drama, Regev’s translation of Guli’s one-act is evocative and clear.

—Caridad Svich, Drama Editor

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Asymptote Podcast: In Conversation with Suchitra Ramachandran

Dominick Boyle talks to the winner of our 2017 Close Approximations contest (fiction category)!

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast we feature an interview with translator Suchitra Ramachandran. Her translation of the short story, Periyamma’s Words by B. Jeyamohan, won Asymptote‘s 2017 Close Approximations Prize in Fiction. Ramachandran and Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle delve into the rich world of language that the two main characters of Periyamma’s Words find themselves in, which is filled with symbolism that reaches epic proportions. Ramachandran says that this creates a text both incredibly challenging to translate, but also incredibly rewarding.

They also discuss her own journey of linguistic discovery, which motivated her to become a translator. Frustrated by the inadequacy of Indian literature written in English to speak to her own experience, Ramachandran turned to literature in Tamil. Now, she hopes that translation can bring it to a wider audience. She says that translations of Tamil literature, surprisingly, are helping other Indians, and even native Tamil speakers, to discover the tremendous wealth of stories available in their own backyard.

Podcast Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle

Music is “Divider” by Chris Zabriskie and “El Tranva” by Jenifer Avila. Used under a Creative Commons License from the Free Music Archive.

(Editor’s Note: Ramachandran would like to add that it is incorrect when she says in the podcast that students of English read translations of Mulk Raj Anand—Anand was an Indian author who wrote in English.)

Meet the Publisher: Seagull Books and the Value of Independence

The idea of target readers out there is a myth: no one can know for certain what people will read.

In a globalized publishing landscape Seagull Books, based primarily in Kolkata, India, stands out as having uniquely made a mark as a world publisher. In its thirty-five years of existence, Seagull has primarily concentrated on publishing literature in translation with a particular emphasis, from its early years, on Indian theatre and cinema from different regional and linguistic backgrounds. Seagull has introduced Indian readers to the joys of literature from different world languages — writers such as the Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imri Kertez, Ellfride Jellinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Operating with a small team to produce and design books distinguished by superior literary content and exquisite aesthetic appeal, each Seagull book is a collectible that is also reasonably priced for the Indian buyer. While Asymptote has previously covered Seagull books, Sneha Khaund caught up with Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder, to know more about how the publishing house continues to support translation and shape world literature. 

 Sneha Khaund (SK): Can you tell me a bit about how Seagull was conceived?

Naveen Kishore (NK): Overnight. Very specifically, the event that marks our “birth,” as it were, was a festival of grassroots theatre I produced in 1982. Around that time there were a lot of theatre groups working with original themes and using their bare bodies with no props or costumes. Their plays dealt with the human condition around them and the dailyness of survival. Working in a 40km radius around Calcutta, these groups were more interested in going into villages and the interiors of the state rather than trying to perform for an urban city audience. At this event I noticed someone in the front row of benches madly sketching the body movements of the performers. So I turned to a theatre scholar, Samik Banerjee, who was also at the time an editor at Oxford University Press, and I said what a pity there is no way to capture this moment. We were not familiar with words like documentation and there was no digital photography and so on at the time. It was Samik da who suggested that a specialist niche publisher focusing on the arts could be a good way of documenting these evolving movements not just in theatre but also in cinema and fine art. We already had a name! Seagull! So Seagull Books was waiting to happen. We decided to explore the possibility of a theatre publishing programme that would do theatre scripts from different Indian languages in translation and document the vibrant New Indian Cinema movement: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jabbar Patel, Goutam Ghosh, to name a few. We would not focus on anything but the performing and the visual arts. So after thirty-five years, in fact after the first twenty-six years—that’s how long it takes sometimes—all the s, a lot of the Tendulkars, a lot of the Mahaswetas, a lot of these plays have now become textbooks. Classics of Indian drama like Ghasiram Kotwal, Charandas Chor. The irony is that even after thirty five years because it’s not a great commercial thing there’s still no other dedicated theatre publisher. It just doesn’t pay enough. So that was the first lesson for a non-publishing person stepping overnight into publishing — that you have to build a back-list because that’s how publishers survive. You can’t produce one book, sell it, recover, then re-invest because the way a publishing chain works is that you are expected to keep producing the books. Regardless. No single book is a profit centre. Small numbers selling across a list of say 500 books is how the numbers begin to make sense. Sometimes there are spikes and you sell certain titles very well. These then support the ones that don’t sell that well! Who said it is easy?!

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

A behind-the-scenes scoop on what our team members have been up to!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado’s forthcoming collection, Some Beheadings, is available for pre-order from Nightboat Books. Her translation of Fariq Tali’s Prosopopoeia was recently reviewed by Jill Magi.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich‘s piece, Carthage, will be performed at TheatreLab in New York from 19 to 21 July, by Signdance Collective. She is also on the editorial board of Global Performance Studies, a new journal which has just launched its first issue, Fluid States—Performances of unKnowing.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has translated some poems by Enrique Winter, which are appearing in a bilingual chapbook called Suns, published by Cardboard House Press on 25th July.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu a.k.a. MARGENTO will be presenting a paper on “Metaphor Detection in a Poetry Corpus” at the Association for Computational Linguistics Conference in Vancouver. The paper is co-authored with Vaibhav Kesarwani, Diana Inkpen, and Stan Szpakowicz, and is a part of the GraphPoem research project he conducts on graph theory applications in poetry.  Earlier this month, MARGENTO co-edited a Romanian Poetry feature in Plume together with Tara Skurtu.

UK Editor-at-Large Megan Bradshaw has a new short story, Tigre, in the most recent issue of Litro Magazine. 

India Editor-at-Large Poorna Swami‘s essay, Wonder Woman, the Fierce Superhero Feminists Deserve, was published by The Wire. 

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has new poems in Hyphen Magazine and the Asia Literary Review. He also read at the 21st Anniversary Showcase of the Ledbury Poetry Festival alongside Fiona Sampson, A E Stallings, Tony Hoagland, and other featured poets.

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Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

All you the news updates you need—right here at Asymptote

Lots of things have been happening in the world of literature, but don’t worry—as always we’ve got you covered with news from far and wide. Maíra Medes Galvão serves up a rich helping of literary festivals and events around Brazil (and New York), including a celebration of Bloomsday. Sneha Khaund gives us the who’s who and the what’s what of India’s literary scene right now, including recently published authors and the most exciting literary readings and events. Stefan Kielbasiewicz provides some tragic, but at the same time uplifting news, and gets into the thick of prizes and festivals that have already happened and all that are yet to come. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.

Maíra Mendes Galvão, Editor-at-Large, reports from Brazil:

As a plea to encourage people to acquire the habit of reading—famously said to be lacking in Brazil—four literature and entertainment blogs from Belém, capital of the State of Pará, have put on a literary festival dubbed a ‘Cultural Marathon‘, which started on June 17 and goes on until the 25th. There will be talks around themes such as sci-fi, the detective & crime genres, new Brazilian literature and others. The festival is hosted by the bookstore chain Leitura and supported by publishing houses Intrínseca, Pandorga and DarkSide.

Bloomsday did not go by unnoticed in Brazilian territory. The city of São Paulo traditionally holds its June 16 celebrations inspired by the initiative of brother poets and translators Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, who first brought the festive date over to São Paulo thirty years ago. Casa das Rosas, a cultural venue and museum dedicated to Haroldo de Campos, and Casa Guilherme de Almeida, dedicated to the eponymous translator and poet, have come together again this year with a program that included a festive wake (Finnegan’s wake, naturally) with live Irish music as well as conferences, talks and readings.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Today we delve into the literary goings-on in USA, UK and Singapore

New week, new happenings in the world of literature. President Trump continues to make headlines (read our Spring Issue for an exploration of literature in the Trump era). Madeline Jone, Editor-at-Large for USA reports how it has affected the publishing industry. Across the Atlantic, Cassie Lawrence, Executive Assistant at Asymptote, relays heartening news about women in publishing and the buzz of literary festivals in London this weekend. Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek reports how Singapore’s novelists are fighting back, and more.  

Editor-at-Large Madeline Jones gives us the round-up from USA:

US media narratives have been deluged with news of presidential catastrophes. No surprise, then, that this is reflecting in the publishing world, from book publishers struggling to understand how to talk about Trump to children, to books about the electoral process. With timing that seems ominous, in the light of the very popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the book has edged its way between a Danielle Steel and a James Patterson on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Another notable that has been on the list is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

Speaking of which, the annual Book Expo America, popularly known as the BEA, is scheduled from May 31 to June 2, and Hillary Clinton is one of its top draws this year. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors in New York City, the Book Expo is the biggest event of its kind in North America.

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Anita Gopalan on the Joys of Translation

These references are woven inside the text, sometimes explicitly, sometimes covertly. They pulsate with meaning...

Anita Gopalan, a Bangalore-based translator, received the 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of the Hindi novella Simsim by Geet Chaturvedi. Despite India producing a wealth of literature, Gopalan is only the second Indian to have received this grant. Over email, Poorna Swami asked Gopalan about Hindi literature and translating Chaturvedi.

Poorna Swami (PS): So you have a rather unconventional literary background, and even worked for many years in the banking sector. How did you find your way into translation? What do you enjoy most about it?

Anita Gopalan (AG): Although I don’t have a conventional literary background, I am striking out on a new path that is only natural to me. You see, when I was young I wanted to become a writer. Our house in Pilani was filled with books and I had access to all kinds of texts. At age eleven, I started on unabridged Dickens, by thirteen, it was Bonjour Tristesse and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I had already written a whole book of poems (in Hindi, English, and Marwari). I read my poetry out loud to all our house maids and they were the ones who lovingly listened to it. But something happened that even I can’t fathom—my last poem was about suicide, and that was that. I did not become a writer. Rather, I thrived doing math—Hilbert spaces, isomorphisms—and moved on to banking technology and had a wonderful career in that field.

Years later, I had to cut down on my hectic work schedule due to a health condition and suddenly there was a vacuum. “To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life,” Czesław Miłosz said, and that fit my condition perfectly. I again turned to writing, and Facebook became the medium for me to post my writings and music. Here, I became acquainted with the wonderful writer Geet Chaturvedi. Interestingly, his first work that I read was not poetry or fiction—the genres he is famous for—but a short essay on music. His splendid poetic prose and sharp insights were evident even in that post. I fell in love with his writings. It was his poems that enchanted me most. A couple of years ago, he suddenly asked me to translate them. I was taken aback. I hadn’t translated anything before, but at the same time I was thrilled.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

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