Place: Korea

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…

Winter 2018: A Treasure Hunt Without A Map

That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations.

Thanks to the hard work of Duncan Lewis, Jacob Silkstone, József Szabo, Marina Sofia, Emma Page, Kyrstin Rodriguez, Giorgos Kassiteridis, Tiffany Tsao, Alexander Dickow, and myself, November 2017 sees the launch of the Asymptote Book Club, a sustainability initiative meant to support independent publishers of world literature while also helping Asymptote stay afloat. By January 2018, after an intensive marketing campaign (e.g., I answer some questions about the Book Club here), we succeed in attracting more than 120 subscribers. In addition, our seventh anniversary is greeted by two important milestones, both to do with the number 100: We cross the 100 mark for number of team members on our masthead, and, with the addition of Amharic and Montenegrin in the Winter 2018 edition, we have gathered work from exactly 100 languages in our archive of world literature! In his interview with Asymptote that we ran in this issue, Lithuanian editor Marius Burokas laments that, as with many peripheral literatures, Lithuanian writing “can only speak of a one-way influence” from English at the moment; that said, Lithuanian literature is by no means a “small [one].” “There are only writers who are not good enough,” he observes wryly, “or writers who are not publicized enough.” This speaks to the very heart of Asymptote’s mission, which is why we have whole teams (from social media to graphic design) set up for the purpose of marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with, as detailed in an earlier post where I released this publicity report. Where we direct our efforts applies to where we direct our funds as well: For instance, by January 2018, the money we’ve cumulatively thrown at Facebook promotion alone has exceeded $10,000 USD. It’s not only money that I’ve staked personally; in our eight years, I’ve supported almost every single Facebook post in order to encourage other team members as well as our own readers to engage with Asymptote’s feed, all so that we can be a more powerful advocate for so-called “small literatures.” Cruelly, then, around this time, because of the backlash from Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, Facebook deprioritizes social media pages like ours, hurting our ability to connect authors with new readers. I know because I was still supervising the new English Social Media Managers (as well as the Assistant Director of Outreach—whose day job was in social media analytics—I was hoping to install as a permanent team member) from the hospital ward where I was quarantined after radioactive treatment, anxious as much about our falling social media engagement as my own Geiger counter reading (which on the other hand refused to fall as quickly as the doctor and I had hoped, thereby prolonging my hospitalization and resulting in a larger medical bill). Here to introduce the Winter 2018 issue is Brazil editor-at-large Lara Norgaard.

Two parallel snapshots of everyday scenes spliced by double-circle frames form the cover image of Asymptote’s Winter 2018 issue. A woman calmly pushes a stroller on the left, mirroring a different woman on the right who wears dark sunglasses and stares directly into the camera, allowing us to only guess at her penetrating gaze. In these cover photographs, the edition’s guest artist, Elephnt, captures one of its central components: the way each contribution takes a powerful approach to perspective. The authors in this issue all write with a particular and intense gaze that confronts or perhaps commiserates with the reader.

I decided to look back at the woman on the right as I prepared to write this reflection. It is not just her staring back at me that catches my eye; she seems to recognize the camera, to acknowledge how the image representing her was created. The Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote was my first as part of the magazine’s team. I witnessed—and participated in—the compilation of so many voices into one unified whole. READ MORE…

Fall 2017: The Last Space For Resistance

Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.

Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.

I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.

As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.

Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then: READ MORE…

Winter 2017: Intimate Strangers

Who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?

January 2017: I have turned 40. Though I no longer remember when exactly I set down the rule for team members to refrain from sending me email over weekends, it is likely the embargo originated from this time. Entering a new decade is an occasion to take stock, to insist on a proper work-life balance. But 40 has always felt like an especially significant milestone, possibly because, as a teenager, I’d read an essay in which the narrator wonders obsessively if he’d land on the “right side of forty,” the obsession guiding his every life decision. Then his fortieth birthday comes, and with it the realization, like thunder, that he has lived life wrong. I’ve not lived life wrong, but I have certainly lived against the grain. Around this time I notice, for example, that I am spacing out more and more in gatherings with former classmates when talk turns to acquiring a second property. I stumble upon David Williams’s devastating essay in World Literature Today and can’t tear my eyes away from the line: “I couldn’t see it at the time, and I certainly refused to acknowledge it, but when my parents’ overeducated, thirty-something child chooses to sell his labor well below a living wage, they can be forgiven for thinking that their blue-eyed son is engaged in a sophisticated form of self-sabotage.”  Perhaps, this is why our sixth anniversary issue comes with what Australia editor-at-large Tiffany Tsao calls below a “frankly [desperate]” editor’s note; still, as she says, “who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?”

. . . you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else . . . This phrase hails from Amanda DeMarco’s brilliant rumination on life as a translator, Foreign to Oneself. Published in our Winter 2017 issue, the essay is composed entirely of excerpts from other texts (this particular quote is taken from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby). As I reread these words while writing this essay, my vision began to get a little blurry. I’m being maudlin, I know. But where else is one entitled to get weepy if not in a retrospective that invites writers to indulge in nostalgia? And the truth of this observation about being a translator sang out all the more because this was also the issue in which my translations of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry made their debut.

At that point, I was Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large (my country of focus is now Australia, where I reside), and a few months earlier, I’d come across some of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry. Having heard that he’d recently won the Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript Competition, I reached out to him via Twitter to ask if I could work with him to translate his poems for our poetry editor’s consideration. This issue marked the start of an ongoing and very fruitful translator-writer partnership with Norman, who later came on staff and is our current Indonesia Editor-at-Large. English-language versions of Norman’s other poems were subsequently published in various magazines, and awarded both a prize and a grant from English PEN. The collection from which these poems are excerpted will be published by Tilted Axis Press in March 2019. If it weren’t for Asymptote, I’m not sure if Norman and I would have ever started working together. READ MORE…

Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Woman in Tula” by Kang Unkyo

"the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully"

Kang Unkyo is a veteran Korean poet whose poetry, like all great art, has evolved in response to the times. From nihilistic political verse to “People’s Poetry” of abstractions, she has refreshed many traditional forms. Known for her lyrical touch, the poet here creates a sensory pastiche of the woman in Tula. 

That woman in Tula who used to blush,
that woman in Tula who used to ask the menu carefully,
that woman who used to put on a red-apple-patterned apron
and make red salad,
the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully,
the woman in Tula who used to turn over and wipe the reddened tables,
that woman, red glasses, red curtains, red calculator

READ MORE…

Recipes in Translation: Traditional Southeast Asian Soups for New Mothers

Postpartum recipes have been passed down orally for generations in Asia. Now a multilingual cookbook is attempting to preserve them.

In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.

Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Three poems by Choi Seung-ja

Last night’s dreams, sins of the past, unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.

Relentless time is the subject of these poems by Choi Seung-ja, an iconic figure in Korean literature, so influential that she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” But the existential despair captured in broad bravura strokes here transcends both culture and era.

 

Two Kinds of Death

Like a rumor or drifting cloud
the lodger in Cheongpa-dong passes away
and morning’s black phone call rings.
Suddenly at the edge of the dining table
the species of mothers and fathers
melt into the longing spirit of water and fire
the rice and soup in a chorus
recite the deceased’s prehumous words:

Wishing to die
yet going mad

A black boat appears from the blue sky.
Full of cosmic humidity
transmitting an extraterrestrial Morse code
on and off
Death sends us a message.

Someday in Manhattan
John Lennon dies and
the voice of the dead is floating.

Mama don’t go
Daddy come home

 

At the End of the Deserted Street

The smell of sin, the smell of sin, ruins of sadness,
still lingering in my soul.

Every day I wake up at the end of the deserted street.
Last night’s dreams, sins of the past,
unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.
In the dark of last night
the clock that measured all of me
keeps ticking in the same countdown.

Run, time, run
putting on my frail weight
made of only dream and sin
speed like a bullet.
I want to watch my bones shatter.
I want to snigger in the windblown
dust of my bones.

 

Fearful Green

The earth emits mysterious heat.
The chirping of birds withers midair.
While the ashen sky retreats
aching leaves turn.
The thirsty verdure grows by degrees.
At last green’s fearful chaos pours out.
Everything will be over.
Time will come to rest.
In the air, the sneer of green afire.

Into the deep, deep earth, the sap drains.
The barren background sways.
The sun comes to a halt forever.
Like a ghost only green remains in the world.

 

Translated from the Korean by Lei Kim

 

Choi Seung-ja was born in 1952 and made her literary debut in 1979. Shortly afterwards, she became the icon of youth and freedom in Korean literature. She lived through the 1980s, the Dark Age in modern Korean history, both in political and social aspects, and she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” For her the time was “time… feeding me shit / yet ruthlessly leaving me alive” (“Unforgettableness or Oblivion”) and “never-ending period.” She declared herself “the priest of void” and executed poems that manifested the indignity of the period. Among her poems, the expression of assumed evil, masochism, self-contempt, and stark vulgarism signal the advent of a new style of poetry. Women in the patriarchal society are bound to live with self-abuse as a pathetic defense to overcome the crisis of self-existence. Her works show how far she has pushed the bar set by the male dominant system, and in some point, she made her own escape from the conventional women’s poetry. In consequence, she is reputed to have started “feminist poetry” for the first time in the history of Korean poetry, so it is nonsense, without consideration of her impact on others, to talk about Korean women’s poetry. Her works include The Love Of This Age, A Merry Journal, The House Of Memory, My Green Grave, and Lonely And Faraway.

Lei Kim is a literary translator. She has translated Lee Jangwook’s poetry collection, Request Line at Noon (Codhill Press, 2016), and received the Modern Korean Literature Translation Commendation Award.

 *****

Read More Translation Tuesdays:

 

 

My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

From today through Saturday, select Asymptote staff will be continuing our annual tradition of looking back on the year—specifically through the lens of literary discovery. First to go is Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who recently placed Second in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. 

It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago: on the brink of a nuclear deal in Iran, standing firmly in Europe, and with a cluster of literary titans—including Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Max Ritvo and Leonard Cohen—to light the road ahead. The intervening months have taken us around blind corners that will, undoubtedly, take many more months to comprehend.

For many, however, that tumultuous journey has been more than metaphorical. From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.

Or can we? My 2016 has brought—along with border-crossing award-winners like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation—a selection of powerful work bearing witness to the refugee experience, both by refugees themselves, and those involved first-hand in the asylum process. More than before, I am convinced that there are ways that we, as readers and writers, can know and share in these journeys. And in a publishing climate that remains overwhelmingly first-world, settled, and white, the least we can do (with our wealth and our words) is choose to look outside those brackets. READ MORE…

“They Cannot Be Pigeonholed”: Julie Koh on Racial Nepotism and Asian Writing

I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center.

This month sees the launch of BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—the first edition of a new annual anthology comprising what indie Singaporean bookstore BooksActually considers to be the best short fiction from cult writers of East and Southeast Asia, and the diaspora. Most significantly, the anthology is overtly political: a protest against how Asian writing is curated in the West and an effort to establish a new center for Asian writing within Asia.    

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Julie Koh, the inaugural editor and co-founder of the Gold Standard. I’ve long been troubled by the problems that arise from editors and publishers outside Asia curating Asian writing (a topic I explored at length here). I was naturally excited when Koh invited me both to translate for and contribute to the anthology, but it was only through our conversations that I got a fuller sense of the passion fueling the anthology’s creation and goals.

                    Tiffany Tsao, Indonesia Editor-at-Large, Asymptote

Tiffany Tsao (TT): In its promotional matter, the BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology describes an attempt at a literary reformation: an effort to “redefine how Asian voices are promoted—providing a counterweight to the often tokenistic way in which Asian writing is curated in the West.” In your opinion, what is wrong with how Asia is currently promoted and curated in the West, and how exactly does the anthology counter it? 

Julie Koh (JK): The best way to begin to explain the rationale behind BooksActually’s Gold Standard is with reference to the controversy surrounding The Best American Poetry 2015, where the editor Sherman Alexie discovered that one of the poems picked for publication, by a “Yi-Fen Chou,” was in fact by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting his work under a pseudonym—more specifically, a name he had stolen from a former high school classmate. Hudson was trying to make a point about how the political correctness of contemporary literary culture unfairly favors Asian writers. Alexie ultimately decided to retain the poem, along with the pseudonym, admitting “racial nepotism” as a major reason for his choice.

As an Australian writer of Chinese-Malaysian descent, my reaction to this controversy was one of shame. It cast a different light on the curation of work by writers of East and Southeast Asian descent across the West. To me, the decision suggested that achievements by such writers were attributable to some external agenda, not to the quality of our writing.

There was also the egregiousness of Hudson’s claim—that Asian-Americans get ahead of white male writers because of their race. This is patently untrue. Any writer of color in the West knows the difficulties inherent in trying to ascend the literary ladder. In the Australian context, for people of East and Southeast Asian descent, the “bamboo ceiling” exists across many sectors—the literary industry being no exception. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many good experiences with Australian publishers, the fact remains that there are generally few people of color in positions of power in the literary game, and this has a direct impact on the type and quantity of work by writers of color that makes it to publication, how writers of color are promoted, and how their work is understood. This in turn can influence what writers of color believe they must write to get published.

In considering the logic of Alexie’s decision, I came to the conclusion that “racial nepotism” was a jolly good idea, and that it should be taken even further—that there was a clear gap in the market for an edgy “best of” collection originating in Asia and transparently curated by “nepotists.”

I decided it was important to question whether we, as writers of Asia and the diaspora, should always to look to the West for cues on how literature should be read, what kinds of literature should be valued, and what our place is within it.

And I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center which doesn’t rely on others to curate us—and the BooksActually’s Gold Standard is an effort to contribute to the work already being done in Southeast Asia to create this new center.

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Dig Deeper into Our Fall 2016 Issue

Selected highlights in the new issue from Asymptote section editors!

Last week, we launched “Verisimilitude,” our star-studded Fall 2016 edition. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the critical reception: A Public Space called the issue “a gold mine of work from 31 countries” while The Chicago Review of Books proclaimed it “f**ing gorgeous.” Among the never-before-published work by both well known and emerging translators, writers, and visual artists we presented in this quarterly issue, Anita Raja’s essay on translation made The Literary Hub‘s Best of the Week roundup. Thank you so much and do please keep spreading the word so we can connect our authors with even more readers! This week, to guide your exploration of the new issue, some of our editors contribute highlights from their respective sections. Follow them from Ireland to Iraq to Mexico to Korea and back again.

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Tactile Translations, Stefana McClure. Review: Eva Heisler, Visual Editor.

Using sources as various as a Japanese translation of The Little Prince, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, or a U.S. government redacted report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” artist Stefana McClure slivers printed matter and re-employs it as material with which to construct her enigmatic objects: stones wrapped in paper; a ball wound of the paper shreds of a novel; a nearly black “drawing” knit from redacted texts. Carmen Hermo’s conversation with McClure delves into the thinking and process behind the artist’s “tactile translations.”

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Hwang Jungeun on Seoul, noodles, and gentrification

In South Korea, things don't get verbalised properly or are distorted linguistically.

One Hundred Shadows, the debut novel of Hwang Jungeun, is a tilt toward the borderlines of society, where the disconnected and the dispossessed attempt to make a home; it is a ferroconcrete dream version of Seoul with a wistful languor, desperate to prove that even in the murkiest crannies of the city, there are surges of fellow-feeling, or snatches of shared joy, that can suddenly break through the hard-bitten top layers and bloom.

Working as an assistant at a repair shop in a sprawling, cavernous electronics market, Eungyo finds herself drawn into an idiosyncratic community of Seoul’s twilight periphery. There is Mr. Yeo, her boss, who works until the crack of dawn and adores sweet red beans with shaved ice; there is the itinerant and rambling Yugon, who puts his faith in the lottery rather than in other people; and there is Mujae, who, like Eungyo, abandoned his formal education and also works as an assistant. Eungyo and Mujae meet occasionally to eat noodles and drink beer, and as the demolition of the electronics market looms alongside the regeneration of the neighborhood surrounding it, the two come to develop a timid intimacy which leans clumsily into a love formed from the outside looking in, and they discovered themselves synced into one orbit—and on the edges of observing their shadows rise.

Ahead of her UK tour, Hwang Jungeun sat down with Asymptote to discuss One Hundred Shadows, which was translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon and published by Tilted Axis Press on 3 October.

Hwang Jungeun’s replies appear below both in the Korean and in English translation by Deborah Smith.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

M. René Bradshaw (MRB): One Hundred Shadows takes place largely in an electronics market in central Seoul—an impoverished area targeted by rapid regeneration efforts. Which specific locations of the city inspired the novel’s settings? The electronics market is so pervasive, its function and internal dynamics so important to the main characters’ lives, that it almost acts as a character itself within the story. Is there a personal anecdote attached to a similar electronics market?

Hwang Jungeun (HJ): There are two locations which form the background to the electronics market which appears in this novel. One is a large electronics market in Yongsan, an area in central Seoul. In the process of this area’s redevelopment, there was an incident in which five evicted residents and one armed policeman were killed. This happened on the morning of January 20, 2009. The conglomerate that was heading the redevelopment construction employed civilians known as ‘construction thugs’. They entered the building earmarked for demolition, whose residents had been protesting their eviction, en masse. While the residents were trapped on the roof, they lit a fire on the ground floor and fired water cannons. Though the police of the South Korean government were there in the hundreds, they protected the ‘thugs’, and actively encouraged the illegal actions committed by them. In the final moments, they implemented something known as the ‘Trojan horse operation’, used to suppress protests. It was an operation which used a crane and container to demolish the lookout tower which the residents had constructed on the roof. The moment armed police swarmed onto the roof, a huge conflagration broke out in the tower. Six people who were unable to escape from the tower died. This was all broadcast on the news and many people witnessed the moment of the fire breaking out in real time. I was one of them.

After the incident, the place became known as Namildang. I wrote this novel from summer to autumn 2009. I wrote before the sun went down, then around sunset I went and held a protest in front of Namildang. After the fire, the bereaved families gathered at the building and almost every day a violent altercation occurred due to the use of police force. That place, and the things that happened there, were so miserable, I wanted to make something warm. I thought that it was the only thing I could do. And so I wrote this.

Secondly, there is a place called Sewoon Electronics Market in Jongno, which is both the old and current centre of Seoul. Its eight long buildings were completed in 1968, and stretch from Jongno to Toegye-ro, and the first of these buildings, which is the modern market, was demolished in 2008. Even when the disaster occurred in Yongsan in 2009, demolition was still going on. My father has been repairing audio equipment for forty years in the second of Sewoon Market’s buildings. The setting around the electronics market which appears in the novel, including Mr Oh’s repair shop, Omusa, and the transformer workshop where Mujae works, are all descriptions of places that were there or still are.

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What’s New in Translation? June 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation

The Clouds by Juan José Saer, tr. Hillary Vaughn Dobel, Open Letter Books. Review: Hannah Berk, Digital Editor

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The Clouds begins with the destruction of a mental asylum and ends with an arrival at its threshold. Its central journey takes place across a vast expanse of flatlands, every horizon so much the same that progressing and doubling back lose their distinction. This is a novel of contingent geometries. In some respects, it is linear: there is a journey in which a doctor leads a crew of five mental patients, two escort soldiers, and a guide across a desert to a mental hospital. At the same time, it carves layer upon layer into itself. The manuscript we read is a file on a floppy disk being read by one Pinchón Garay in a Paris apartment, haphazardly annotated by the man into whose hands the thing haphazardly fell.

Our narrator is Dr. Real, who works under a psychologist renowned for experimental treatment methods that mostly seem to entail allowing the mad live their lives just like anyone else. He is tasked with leading a group of patients on a long journey to a mental health facility in 1804 Argentina. His charges include a delusional narcissist, a nun convinced that the only way to approach consummate divinity is by consummating as many earthly relationships as possible, two brothers as incapable of communication as they are of silence, and a distraught philosophy student unable to unfurl his fists. Dr. Real promises a scientific account of their ailments at the outset, but the moment their journey begins, we are forced to question whether their responses are so outlandish for their circumstances, or, at their core, much different from our own.

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