Place: Mexico

Snichimal Vayuchil: Writing Poetry in an Endangered Maya Language

They insist that they be allowed to express themselves, above all else, in Tzotzil and as Tzotziles.

As outlined in the controversial fall 2013 editorial from n +1, concepts of “World Literature” or “Global Literature” in translation are continually haunted by circuits of colonial power. Must we begin with Goethe and his Weltliteratur? Must translation practices always be subject to market forces and so dominated by economically powerful languages like English? What is the role of individual multilingual readers who communicate in multiple languages? These questions become all the more pressing in the cases of so-called minoritized languages. Possessing limited access to education and formal literary training within their respective nation states, minorizited languages are by definition disadvantaged with regard to publication and the dissemination within their respective national confines. Indeed, whether the context is the United States, China, or Colombia, despite the tireless activities of linguistic activists, one of the overriding concerns of publication in minoritized languages is who, exactly, constitutes the audience for a text that, more often than not, will be accompanied by a translation into the dominant language anyway?

These are a few of the topics that came up in conversation with the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Tzotzil Maya literary collective Snichimal Vayuchil (“The Flowery Dream”) when I sat down with a few of its members recently. Consider, for a moment, the untranslatability of the group’s name. What sounds like an overwrought cliché in English is actually the adaptation of a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican difrasism or semantic couplet, in xochitl in cuicatl (“my flower my song”) in Náhuatl, which reflects an aesthetic conceptualization linking poetry with the natural world as well as entrée into a distinctly non-European set of literary and aesthetic values.

According to Xun Betan (Venustiano Carranza), the group’s founder and coordinator, the group’s mission is to produce a Tzotzil literature that originates from Tzotzil understandings of the world. That’s why, both in their first anthology and in an upcoming English translation of the group’s work in the North Dakota Quarterly, they label themselves “a poetic experiment in Bats’i K’op (Tzotzil Maya).” Betan noted that, unlike Maya K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, languages whose pre-Hispanic literary traditions were recorded in the colonial Popol vuh and the Books of the Chilam Balam, respectively, there are no Tzotzil language colonial documents that reflect what we would call a Tzotzil literary tradition. The group sees its work as being more “experimental” and much less proscriptive than the traditional literary workshop setting, as they explore Tzotzil language as a medium for literary expression. For readers already well-versed in US Native American literature, this situation is not unlike the one described by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko when she asks, “What changes would Pueblo writers make to English as a language for literature?” with the key difference here being that these writers are undertaking this work in their mother tongue. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Train” by Martín Tonalmeyotl

Each step is a return: towards death, towards life

From the humorous to the profane and the sacred, Náhuatl poet Martín Tonalmeyotl’s poetic work is firmly rooted in the mountains of his native Guerrero (Mexico) and reflects his commitment to his culture and his language. Far from idealizing his home state, however, Tonalmeyotl’s work frequently takes an unflinching look at a sociopolitical situation where, in addition to the 2014 kidnapping and murder of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa amidst increasing violence from drug trafficking, Guerrero’s citizens have gone so far as to organize independent civil defense groups for protection. In “The Train,” the poet takes up another aspect of life in contemporary Mexico, human migration, in the series of freight trains otherwise known as La bestia (the Beast) or El tren de la muerte (the Death Train) that transport migrants from Central America to the US border.

—Paul Worley

The Train 

Each step is a return: towards death, towards life
Each train is a nightmare: of blood, of hunger, of cobwebs
Each child is a piece of fruit: rotten, sweet, bitter, what does it matter
At any rate life is sold to the scavengers
To the rancid wolves who’d like to eat us whole
Because if they don’t devour our stick-thin bones
Their potbellies will become hollow
And they won’t have any shit to feed their own parasites
We should get drunk, I tell you,
So we forget that on this earth
Day by day we are hunted down like rabid dogs

Translated from the Náhuatl into Spanish by Martín Tonalmeyotl
Translated from the Spanish into English  by Paul Worley

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly report on the latest in the world of literature.

Following on the heels of exciting news about our recently-launched Book Club and amidst end-of-year lists highlighting the best of 2017, we are back with another round of literary news from around the world! First up, Sarah Moses brings us the latest on literary festivals and awards as well as updates on children’s literature. Sergio Sarano is up next with a preview of the Guadalajara International Book Fair.

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Argentina and Uruguay:

In early November, Argentinian author, essayist and literary critic, Silvia Molloy, returned to her native Buenos Aires for a series of talks and workshops around the topic of language and translation, held at the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), and then at the Goethe-Institut, where she was interviewed during the Buenos Aires Literary Translator Club’s final get-together of the year. At the latter, Molloy discussed her recent book, Vivir entre lenguas (Eterna Cadencia, 2016), which weaves together anecdotes, memories and stories on multilingualism.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most important literary news from Slovakia, the UK, Mexico and Guatemala.

This week brings us some exciting news from Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and Mexico, thanks to Editors-at-Large Julia Sherwood, Paul Worley, and Kelsey Woodburn as well as Senior Executive Assistant, Cassie Lawrence. Here’s to another week!

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Slovakia:

Two festivals concluded the hectic literary festival season in Slovakia. LiKE 2017, a contemporary literature and multimedia festival was held in Košice, the eastern metropolis, running parallel with the 14th Žilina Literature Festival in the country’s north. The latter, held from September 28 to October 8 in the repurposed New Synagogue and entitled Fakt?Fakt! (Fictitious Truth or Truthful Fiction?), focused on the alarming spread of disinformation, pre-empting the decision by Collins Dictionary to declare “fake news” the official word of the year 2017. The programme featured student discussions, workshops on how to distinguish fact from fiction, as well as readings and meetings with literary critics and writers. Michal Hvorecký discussed his latest novel, Trol (The Troll), a dark dystopia set in the murky world of Russian fake news factories, which has acquired a frightening new relevance far exceeding what the author had anticipated when he set out to write his book a few years ago.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are again with literary updates from around the world. This week we bring you news on cultural responses to the earthquakes in Mexico and the latest on indigenous writers via Editors-At-Large for Mexico Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn. UK-based Executive Assistant Cassie Lawrence brings us up to speed on the latest from the UK, including recent prizes and publications. Finally, contributor Julia Chien and Editor-At-Large for Taiwan Vivian Szu-Chin Chih discuss the latest poetry and film initiatives in Taiwan.

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-At-Large, Mexico:

This week on Thursday, October 12, the 17th Annual Book Fair opened in México City’s Zócalo (main square downtown), and will run through October 22. As reported by Mexico’s Cultural Secretary, under the hashtag #CulturaSolidaria, the event will explore the role that the arts and culture play in rebuilding a city devastated by the September 19 earthquake that took over two hundred lives and left parts of the city in ruins.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Formaldehyde by Carla Faesler

​"There is a human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar."

This glimpse into a new work by Carla Faesler offers an intriguing portrait of a married couple’s life and the spectre of their daughter, memories of a deceased mother, and a heart preserved in a jar. This excerpt seems to almost represent a cross-section of the story, focusing on one particular, seemingly normal day, yet with flickers of the past as well as into the future. The ending leaves us unsettled, but wanting more—we’ve become witness to a family’s mysterious secret, and we won’t be let go just yet. 

Excerpt from Formaldehyde

“The heart, if it could think, would stop.”

—Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

Febe, Larca’s mother, swallows her pills in the morning. Her circulatory system pumps the pharmaceuticals in minutes. Only then can she cook breakfast. When the effect peaks, she’s finishing her second cup of coffee. Larca walks to school hand in hand with Celso, her father, while Febe, engrossed like a hen, perches in her armchair, purveying a section of foliage out the window, a bit of sky, the fraction of a lamp post, to wonder how her husband, after dropping off their daughter, can walk to the hardware store and hoist the storefront’s heavy curtain under the constant watch of the guards. The physical force flushes red Celso’s face, supplied with blood by a network of fine veins. Then Febe, pallid, stands to fix her hair and slip something on in time for her husband to come home. Once he’s climbed the stairs, they greet one another with the warmth of a hand resting on a shoulder or the idle motion of clothes settling. Immediately then, two mannequins long out of fashion go down the white wood stairs. They drive to the market to buy food, and they check up on grandma’s house, which is really the house of Cristina, Celso’s dead mother, where everything remains unchanged thanks to Aurora who, despite her ponderous age, has held to her thrifty ways. They leave behind some groceries and the daily request that she resist the cloisters that have her walled in, consumed. It’s not that there are ghosts, with the family legend there would be enough dead to populate a country, it’s Aurora who frightens herself, the terrible appearance of her varicose veins, her wearied insides burdening her with the notion that she won’t ever disappear.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly roundup of global literary news and intrigue.

Ever get the feeling that even with all the news happening right now in the world, you’re still not getting enough? Well, that’s what we’re here for, keeping you covered with the latest in global literary news from our Editors-at-Large who are on the ground as we speak. This week we have reports about censorship and activism from Singapore and Mexico, as well as important news about festivals and prizes in the UK, and much, much more. 

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

The Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA)―launched in 2014 to revive the Singapore Arts Festival, a landmark event in Southeast Asia’s arts calendar―drew to a close this week, concluding a month of theatre, film, music, and visual arts shows. These included a number of international partnerships such as Trojan Women, a Korean retelling of Homer’s epic directed by the SIFA’s founding festival director Ong Keng Sen; as well as Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Australian theatre practitioner Edith Podesta and Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Sonny Liew, who previously had his funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council for his alternative political history of Singapore.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian to mark his final year as festival director, Ong (who has previously spoken out against the censorship of SIFA’s programs by the government) lamented the “restrictive” attitudes of state funding agencies towards the arts, and said that he felt “drained by the fighting” of the past four years. His successor, fellow theatre practitioner Gaurav Kripalani―currently artistic director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre―struck a more conciliatory position earlier this year, saying that he would opt for increasingly “mainstream” programming.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in literary news around the globe, all in one place.

If, like us, you can’t start the weekend without knowing what the literary world’s been up to this past week, we’ve got your back. We have dispatches from Central America, the United States and Indonesia with a real tasting board of talks, events and new publications. Wherever you’re based, we’re here to provide you with news that stays news. 

Editor-At-Large for Guatemala, José García, reports on events in Central America: 

Today Costa Rica’s book fair, the twentieth Feria del Libro 2017, kicked off in San José. During its nine days, CR’s fair will offer concerts, book readings, release events, and seminars. This year’s Feria will have the participation of writers like Juan Villoro (Mexico), Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica), Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner Rita Dove (United States), Horacio Castellanos Moya (El Salvador), and Mayra Santos-Febres (Puerto Rico), among others.

Some of the books to be presented or discussed during the fair are Larisa Quesada’s En Piel de Cuervos, Alfonso Chase’s Piélagos, Carlos Francisco Monge’s Nada de todo aquello, Isidora Chacón’s Yo Bruja, and Luis ChávesVamos a tocar el agua. Also, the renown Costa Rican writer Carlos Fonseca, famous for his first novel Coronel Lágrimas that was translated into English by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books, will talk about his sophomore book, Museo Animal on September 2.

In Guatemala, the indie press Magna Terra continued the promotion of many of its titles released during this year’s Guatemalan Book Fair. On August 17 they officially presented Pablo Sigüenza Ramírez’s Ana es la luna y otros cuentos cotidianos. Also, they continue to push Pedro Pablo Palma’s Habana Hilton, about the most personal side of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, during his time in Guatemala and his early years in Cuba.

Fellow Guatemalan indie press, Catafixia Editorial recently finished a local tour that included their participation in FILGUA, the international poetry festival of Quetzaltenango FIPQ, and a quick visit to Comalapa, for the presentation of Oyonïk, by the twenty-two-year-old poet, Julio Cúmez. Additionally, Catafixia is preparing for their participation in the IV Encuentro de Pensamiento y Creación Joven en las Américas in Habana Cuba next month. And recently they announced the inclusion of writer, poet, and guerrilla leader Mario Payeras to their already impressive roster; they have yet to share which of Mario’s books they will republish.

Finally, Guatemalan writer, Eduardo Halfon, has a new book coming out August 28 titled Duelo (Libros Asteroide).

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

You can't end the week without being up to date with the latest in the world of literature!

Need another reason to welcome the weekend? We heard you! We’ve got literary scoop from three continents—literary prizes, festivals, and much besides to help you travel the world through books (is there really a better way?) 

From Singapore comes a dispatch from Editor-at-Large, Theophilus Kwek:

Celebrations were in order last month as graphic novelist Sonny Liew became the first Singaporean to win—not one, but three—Eisner Awards for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, originally published by Epigram in 2015 and later released in the US by Pantheon. The volume, which narrates an alternative political history of Singapore through the life and work of a fictional Singaporean artist, also received the most nominations in this year’s awards, which were presented at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 22. The National Arts Council (NAC), which had previously drawn criticism for withdrawing Liew’s publishing grant on the grounds of ‘sensitive content’, came under fire once again for its brief (and some argued, half-hearted) congratulatory remarks on Facebook which did not mention the title of the winning work. Liew’s forthcoming projects include a take on the story of Singapore WWII heroine Elizabeth Choy.

Just a week after Liew’s win, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, responded to a parliamentary question over another NAC grant decision, this time concerning a novel by Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency—also published by Epigram this year. According to Fu, funding was withdrawn from Tiang’s novel, which traces the lives of several fictional political activists and detainees, because its content had “deviated from the original proposal”—a statement which immediately drew mixed responses from Singapore’s literary community. At around the same time, fellow novelist Rachel Heng joined the ranks of Singaporean authors gaining recognition abroad as her forthcoming dystopian title, Suicide Club, was picked up by both Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and Henry Holt & Co. in the US.

Finally, on the eve of National Day (August 9) just this week, twenty-four writers and poets from Singapore presented a marathon 4-hour reading at BooksActually, which also runs an independent publishing arm, Math Paper Press. In addition to the literary delights on offer, the bookstore also served up another spicy and flavourful local favourite—fried chicken wings.

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Translation Tuesday: “Suicide of the Fish” by Agustín Cadena

A school of suicidal fish. A lonely poet. A jilted wife.

A desperately unhappy woman pining for her ex-husband visits a solipsistic, lonely poet. In turns funny, intriguing and menacing, today’s story translated by Patricia Dubrava is a surreal love triangle. 

“Forgive the mess. I didn’t know…” Lopez said to his guest after switching on the light.

She observed the room while he closed the door and locked it with his key.

“No worries.”

The living room was full of household objects and cardboard boxes of all sizes, some big file cases. There was a computer, many CDs scattered on the rug, a CD player, a black sofa, an exercise machine and a stationary bike. A large aquarium with a variety of fish commanded the top of one cabinet.

While he took his sport coat and her jacket and purse to the bedroom, she continued looking around: in contrast to the floor, the walls were bare; a bookcase stood beside the sofa; topping a stack of magazines was one about fish.

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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join us for a spin across the literary world!

Another week full of exciting news! Paul and Kelsey bring us up to speed on what’s happening in Mexico and Guatemala. We also have José García providing us with all the updates about Central American literary festivals you could wish for. Finally, we are delighted to welcome aboard our new team-members, Valent and Norman, who share news from Indonesia. 

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodbury, Editors-at-Large for Mexico, report:

In conjunction with partners such as the Forum of Indigenous Binational Organizations (FIOB) and the Indigenous Community Leadership (CIELO), the LA Public Library in California, US, recently announced that it will host the second annual Indigenous Literature Conference on July 29 and 30. As stated on Facebook, the conference’s “first day will be dedicated to the indigenous literature from (the Mexican state of) Oaxaca,” with “the second (being) broader in scope.” Among those slated to participate are the Oakland, California-based Zapotec writer and artist Lamberto Roque Hernández, Zapotec poet Natalia Toledo, and Me’phaa poet Hubert Matiuwaa, whose Xtámbaa was recently reviewed here in Asymptote.

On July 14 in Guatemala, K’iche’/Kaqchikel Maya poet Rosa Chávez announced the publication of a new poetry fanzine entitled AB YA YA LA. Limited to 40 in number, each copy is unique and contains different details.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

A literary jaunt around the globe!

The literary world is having a buzzing summer—or winter, depending on your hemisphere. From literary festivals in Singapore, non-traditional methods of distributing poetry by indigenous poets in Mexico to daring theatre in Austria, there is a lot to discover his week. 

First stop—Singapore, with Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek:

Singapore’s literary scene is gearing up for its annual Poetry Festival held for the third time this year over the last weekend of July. The festival incorporates a full-day conference jointly organized by the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and PoetryWalls, a cultural non-profit. The winners of this year’s National Poetry Competition will also be announced on Saturday afternoon, kicking off a day and a half of readings, book launches and discussions featuring both new and established names— from Cultural Medallion-winner Edwin Thumboo to Pooja Nansi, recipient of the Young Artist Award for 2016. READ MORE…

In Review: Xtámbaa—Piel de Tierra by Hubert Malina

Paul Worley reviews the first volume of poetry to be published in the Me’phaa language of Mexico.

In a 2015 Washington Post article on the state of world languages, Rick Noack and Lazaro Gamio note that of the roughly 7000 languages currently spoken on the planet, almost half that number—some 3500—are expected to die out by 2100. Although the authors themselves do not make such a connection, when they state that “Linguistic extinction will hit some countries and regions harder than others,” the areas they designate as those that stand to be hardest hit (Native American reservations in the Western and mid-Western US, the Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceana, Australia, and Southeast Asia) coincides roughly with a map of where global capitalism has increasingly sought to expand its reach into indigenous communities during the first few years of the 21st century. As evidenced by conflicts such as #NoDAPL in the US and the dynamiting of a sacred Munduruku site to make was for a dam in the Brazilian Amazon, the extinction of languages and cultures all too frequently goes hand-in-hand with state sponsored development projects that forcibly eject indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in the name of national progress. When one comes to an understanding that language death is as much an economic as it is a cultural phenomenon, where do indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages fit within 21st century nation-states, if at all?

In comparison with many other countries in Latin America and the rest of the world, contemporary indigenous literatures from Mexico are notable precisely for this delicate dance between the Mexican state, a major sponsor of indigenous literatures since the late 1970s, and indigenous authors whose literary, linguistic, and political aims tend to diverge from those of their state-sanctioned patrons. In particular, the bilingual format of virtually all indigenous literatures published in Mexico during the past 40 years speaks to the realities of a complex relationship in which authors seek to represent themselves to themselves and their communities in their native languages, while simultaneously making these same selves intelligible to non-indigenous outsiders living in their same country.

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