How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?
Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho byWill McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018
To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.
But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”
I have written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.
To sift through the 1,709 threads generated around our first-ever Indiegogo campaign (held from 16 January 2013 to 30 April 2013) is to relive stomach-churning dread. Money is a garish topic—no one likes to ask for it. Although the team is by now 25-strong, only five or six go out on a limb (for which I’m already extremely grateful). As of 24 April 2013, we find ourselves hovering around 7.5% of our goal (i.e., $1,500)—just enough, then, to cover the cost of the animation I commissioned for the fundraiser (since, ever the introvert, I have declined to appear in a video). Someone leaves a discouraging comment on social media: “Asymptote? More like Asym-nope.” But, suddenly, momentum picks up. With 5 days left, we go from $1,500 to $3,000, then from $3,000 to $6,000; and then, thanks to a single donation of $5,000 from a friend, we achieve the thrilling feat of doubling our monies for the third day in a row. All at once, hitting our goal is looking possible. From our various stations around the globe, we liveblog the last 48 hours, and finally bring it home at $20,184. (This money represents extra lives to stay in the game: Overnight, our bank account jumps from two figures to five.) Back for a visit in Singapore, I meet with a local literary editor I reached out to in the final hours of the campaign. In a cafe, he takes out his check book and writes the number $101, declaring the number meaningful: It is the one and only time he will ever donate to Asymptote. I want to give back the check, but instead I cash it, considering it reparation of sorts: I am a nine-time unpaid contributor to his journal, which, unlike Asymptote, does promote Singaporean writing and is therefore eligible to receive money from Singapore’s National Arts Council to pay its contributors; it doesn’t simply because—and I know because he told me—he doesn’t want the hassle of administering funds. Here to introduce the Spring 2013 issue is contributor Will McGrath.
To the funding body*:
I am delighted to write in support of Asymptote, which published my essay “Good & Bad Joala” in April 2013. It was a piece of personal significance about the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, and also my first publication. Since 2013, I have published frequently, written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, won the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, and interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.
When Asymptote selected my essay, I didn’t understand how uncommon the journal was, how rare their personal investment in each piece. They commissioned stunning visuals to accompany my work and sought out an internationally lauded translator to bring my essay into Chinese, mediating between us and consulting me on the granular detail of translation. After publication, they nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize and then a Best of the Net Prize. Later still, when I published in other journals, Asymptote continued to support and celebrate my work, striving to foster a global network of writers and readers. All of this attention and effort they lavished on an uncredentialled writer pulled from the slush pile.READ MORE…
The latest literary news from Tibet, North America, and South Africa.
Friday, as you well know, is world literature news day here at Asymptote. This week, we delve into news from three continents. In Asia, Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been following the Tibetan literary discussion, while in North America, Blog Editor Nina Sparling is keeping a close eye on post-election developments. Finally, we go to South Africa where Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs has plenty of awards news.
Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sends us this fascinating report on the Tibetan literary scene:
Some very interesting work on Tibetan literature is in the pipelines, as we found out from writer and researcher Shelly Bhoil Sood. Sood is co-editing two anthologies of academic essays (forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2018) on Tibetan narratives in exile with Enrique Galvan Alvarez. These books will offer a comprehensive study of different cultural and socio-political narratives crafted by the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950s, and will cover the literary works of writers such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsewang Pemba, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue as well as look at the cinematographic image of Tibet in the West and the music and dance of exile Tibet.
Speaking to Asymptote, Shelly expressed concern for indigenous Tibetan languages: ‘It is unfortunate that the condition of exile for Tibetans, while enabling secular education in English and Hindi, has been detrimental to the Tibetan language literacy among them.’ She also pointed towards important work being done by young translators of Tibetans like Tenzin Dickie and Riga Shakya and UK-based Dechen Pemba, who is dedicated to making available in English several resistance and banned writings from Tibet, including the blog posts of the Sinophone Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (who is prohibited from travelling outside Tibet), on highpeakspureearth.com.
At Himal magazine, which Asymptote reported in an earlier column will suspend operations from November due to “non-cooperation of regulatory state agencies in Nepal”, writer and scholar Bhuchung D Sonam has pointed to another facet of Tibetan literature, in what could be one of the last issues of the magazine. In his essay, Sonam looks at the trend in Tibetan fiction to often use religion and religious metaphors as somewhat formulaic devices which ‘leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring’. He sees this trend being adopted by several writers as a challenge to locate themselves ‘between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs.’ READ MORE…