Place: South Africa

How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

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 by Will 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.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find the latest in world literature here!

This week, join our wonderful Asymptote staff members, Barbara, Rachael, and Nina, as they bring you literary updates from Albania, Spain, and the United States. From prestigious national literary awards to new and noteworthy titles and translations, there is plenty to discover in this week’s dispatches. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania, reporting from Albania:

December was a productive month for Albanian publishers, a natural result of the conclusion of the Tirana Book Fair and the expected increase in book sales that marks the holiday period. On December 18, 2018, the Albanian Ministry of Culture conferred the National Award for Literature for the best books published in 2017. Henrik Spiro Gjoka won the “Best Novel” award for his work Sonatë për gruan e një tjetri (A Sonnet for Another Man’s Wife), which details the life of a psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his patients. Translator Aida Baro won the “Best Translated Novel” award for her rendition into Albanian of Primo Levi’s The Truce (translated into English by Stuart J. Woolf), the continuation of Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man.

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Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

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Asymptote Podcast: International Blacknesses

Poet and comparatist Aaron Coleman on translation as a tool for making vivid the relationships between Afro-descendants around the world

“I felt myself in translation all the time.”

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James sits down via Google Hangouts with poet and translator Aaron Coleman in this third and final installment of interviews inspired by John Keene’s essay Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness. In October’s conversation with Keene and our previous podcast with Lawrence Schimel, we explored the more radical social possibilities of translation. Our discussion continues with Coleman, a Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the 2017 Philip K. Jansen Memorial Fellowship, awarded to outstanding translators of color. He joins us to talk about his studies in international Blacknesses, interpreting on the red carpet at the MTV Music Awards in Madrid, and playing basketball in Extremadura. Tune in for this and much, much more!

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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 2015: We Almost Didn’t Make It

Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.

If you’re just joining us, we invite you to revisit our first 16 issues via our #30issues30days showcase here. In honor of our milestone 30th edition, we’ll shortly be launching a contest giveaway with a top prize of $200, so watch this space!

2015 was a milestone year for Asymptote: We won a London Book Fair award and partnered with The Guardian. But only Asymptote staff back then know we almost didn’t make it past January. On 15 December 2014, despairing of the lack of progress in fundraising, I wrote the following (lightly edited) email: 

“Hello team, I’ve been reassessing the situation. It seems I underestimated the support for the magazine and it doesn’t look as if we’re going to hit our campaign target by December 19. Therefore, we’ll be extending the deadline to January 29, 2015. Our January issue will be pushed back to January 30, the very date of our debut in 2011, four years ago, so that we’ll have come full circle. If we don’t hit the target on January 29, we will announce in the editorial that the Jan 2015 issue will be our very last. Social media and blog activities (including the podcast, very sadly) shall cease with effect from 1 Feb. The magazine will fold. Planning for all activities after January should be halted with immediate effect. Please respect this. Section editors, please do not communicate any more acceptances, and please be prepared to rescind your acceptances for anything after the January issue on the event of our closure, if it does come to that. As promised, we will break for the holidays. (I’ll hold the fort on social media during this time.) In January, we will prioritize work on the January edition as well as the two January events. As for those who are willing to help, we will keep publicizing the IndieGoGo campaign and sending out appeals. We’ll see if the magazine can be saved. (During a recent discussion with the senior editors, the question did arise about whether to shield all of you from the hard reality in front of us. But I don’t think it’s good to keep mum, for morale’s sake; also, I would not be so cruel as to ask you to continue working on projects that may not see the light of publication, or events that have to be cancelled. The reality is that I am simply out of funds, and also depleted in other ways. If we don’t hit the IndieGoGo target, I would prefer to end on a high note and move on.)”

Here to introduce our Winter 2015 issue, released one day after 287 supporters brought us past the finish line of $25,000, please welcome Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone. 

“I am always trying to push the market very hard,” David Damrosch told Asymptote contributing editor Dylan Suher in an interview included in the Winter 2015 issue. The Harvard professor of comparative literature explained that he strives to bring so-called minor literatures into the canon of world literature by translating, anthologizing, and teaching works from underrepresented regions and languages.

Asymptote has been similarly pushing against the market since Lee Yew Leong founded the journal in 2011. When the Winter 2015 issue was published, I was finishing my doctoral work, which focused on connections between political contexts and translated literature. As I was immersed in the work of critics such as Damrosch, I was also reading Asymptote, and I recognized then that that the journal was doing something different. Rather than reproducing the inequalities of what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters,” Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.  READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news roundup brings us to South Africa, the United States, and Guatemala.

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to South Africa, the United States, and Guatemala. 

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, reporting from South Africa:

An anticipated event on the Cape Town literary calendar, the annual Open Book festival,will take place from September 5-9. The inclusive festival, at which spoken-word performances and bookmaking classes are added to the program alongside interviews with international authors and panel discussions on feminism, appears to have a particular focus on migrancy and notions of place this year, with several talks hosted by the African Centre for Cities.

The attendance of influential urbanist, researcher, and author AbdouMaliq Simone points to this unofficial theme. Simone’s enduring optimism with regards to city spaces and the possibilities they hold for producing new forms of trade, particularly in the context of those inhabitants who are forced to adapt for reasons such as crumbling infrastructure or illegal residency, is a trait that looks to carry over to the rest of the festival.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

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

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to El Salvador, South Africa, and Tunisia. 

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large, reporting from El Salvador:

It was announced in early June that Centroamerica Cuenta awarded writer and LGBT+ activist Alejandro Córdova the 6th annual Central American Prize for the Short Story. At 24 years old, Córdova is the first Salvadoran to win the prize for the Central American region. His short story “Lugares Comunes” (“Common Places”) took him 2 years to finish and is narrated from the perspective of a son attempting to reconstruct the events of how his parents met during the Salvadoran Civil War. Córdova was born just at the end of the war but commented in an interview with InformaTVX that fiction was a marvelous way of trying to comprehend a history that was not his. Córdova also comments on the status of Salvadoran literature and how it is alive and well, not necessarily because of support from the state or from various literary circles, but due to the collective suffering of a complex society in El Salvador. Those complexities can be seen in the country’s literature, which Córdova likens to a strange flower born in the desert, a type of rarity that makes Salvadoran literature even more alluring than other Central American regions.

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My 2017: Lara Norgaard

I think about how collective memory—that living, ever-shifting phenomenon—shapes the stories we tell ourselves today.

It’s time to kick off an annual tradition! From today till the end of the year, Asymptote staff will take turns reflecting on his or her year in reading, revealing the pivots they took in their consumption of literature, and the intimate ways those pivots informed their lived experience. First up, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard.

In the first painful weeks of 2017, I found myself looking to the past to make sense of the present. How did we get here? That was the question that repeatedly echoed through my head, like a drumbeat, during inaugurations, rallies, executive orders, new legislation. How did we get here?

It was on a flight to Buenos Aires during those first painful weeks of January that I gained insight into why this is so difficult a question to answer. I’d packed an old copy of the Argentinian-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990) and, as the plane took off, found myself transported back to the first years of democracy after Pinochet’s fall from power. A woman who had been kidnapped under the dictatorship faces the very man who tortured and raped her: he enters her home, randomly, after helping her husband Gerardo get back home when he is stranded because of a flat tire. She takes justice into her own hands, staging a trial in her living room, while Gerardo, who is a member of the truth commission investigating deaths incurred by the military regime, urges her to follow democratic procedure even if the state might never recognize her story or bring the man to court. In his stunning English-language play about post-dictatorship politics, Dorfman captures a private memory that is at odds with public discourse. Though the fairly recent periods of fascism in South America predate the global bubbling up of right-wing energy in 2017, official narratives of those regimes remain incomplete.

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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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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our editors choose their favourites from this issue.

Asymptote’s new Fall issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

As writer-readers, we’ve all been there before. Who of us hasn’t been faced with that writer whose words have made us stay up late into the night; or start the book over as soon as we’re done; or after finally savoring that last word, weep—for all the words already written and that would never to be yours. The feeling is unmistakeable, physical. In her essay, “Animal in Outline,” Mireia Vidal-Conte describes this gut feeling after finishing El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol: “What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?” There are the books that make you never want to stop writing, and the books that never make you want to write another word (in the best way possible, of course). Vidal-Conte reminds writers again that none of us is without context—for better or for worse. Her essay is smart, playful, honest, and a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

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

This week, our Editors-at-Large bring us up to speed on literary happenings in South Africa, Central America, and Brazil.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, South Africa: 

South Africa has eleven official languages, a fact not often evident in local literary awards and publications, which generally skew towards English and Afrikaans as mediums. However, the announcement of the 2017 South African Literary Awards (SALA) has done much to change this perception.

In addition to including five contributors to narratives in the extinct !Xam and !Kun languages (drawn from the Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd archives), a biography in Sepedi (Tšhutšhumakgala by Moses Shimo Seletisha) and poetry collections in isiXhosa (Iingcango Zentliziyo by Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu) and the Kaaps dialect (Hammie by Ronelda S. Kamfer) have been shortlisted.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly dose of literary news

A quick zip through the literary world with Asymptote! Today we are visiting Iran, Brazil, and South Africa. Literary festivals, new books, and a lot more await you. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, fills you up on what’s been happening in Iran:

The Persian translation of Oriana Fallaci’s Nothing and Amen finding its way into Iran’s bestsellers list almost fifty years after the first publication of the translation. The book was translated in 1971 by Lili Golestan, translator and prominent Iranian art gallery owner in Tehran, and since then has had more than a dozen editions published. The most recent round of sales is related to Golestan giving a TEDx talk in Tehran a few weeks ago about her life in which she spoke of how that book was the first she ever translated and how its publication and becoming a bestseller has changed her life.

In other exciting news from Iran, the Tehran Book Garden opened its doors to the public recently. Advertised as “the largest bookstore in the world,” the space is more of a cultural complex consisting of cinemas, cultural centers, art galleries, a children’s library, science and game halls, and more. One of the key goals of the complex is to cater to families and provide the youth with a space for literary, cultural, scientific, educational, and entertainment activities. The complex is considered a significant cultural investment for the the Iranian capital of more than twelve million residents and it has since its opening become a popular destination with people of different ages and interests.

Finally, a piece of news related to translation from Iran that is amusing but also quite disturbing. It relates to the simultaneous interpretation into Persian of President Trump’s speech in the recent U.N. General Assembly broadcasted live on Iranian state-run TV (IRIB). The interpreter mistranslated several of his sentences about Iran and during some others he remained silent and completely refrained from translating. When the act was denounced by many, the interpreter published a video (aired by the IRIB news channel and available on @shahrvand_paper’s twitter account) in which he explained that he did not want to voice the antagonistic words of Trump against his country and people. This video started another round of responses. Under the tweeted video, many users reminded him of the ethics of the profession and the role of translators/interpreters, while others used the occasion to discuss the issue of censorship and the problematic performance of IRIB in general.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This just in—the hottest news in the literary world from the corners of the globe!

Who said being an armchair traveller is no fun? It’s Friday, which means it’s time for a literary trip around the world with Asymptote! From a digital archive of poetry and innovations in Afrikaans literature to Brazilian literary festivals and summertime opera in Austria—our correspondents have lots to fill you in on!

Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports from South Africa:

Badilisha Poetry X-change—an online archive and collective of African poets—has announced a tour aiming to document poets who write and perform their work in languages indigenous to South Africa. A previous tour in 2015 visited cities in Botswana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and South Africa, and recorded material from 186 poets, of which 100 are featured on the Badilisha website. Tour dates will be announced imminently on social media.

Another literary event to look forward to is the Open Book Festival (September 6 to 10, Cape Town). The program list covers topics ranging from small publishers to sci-fi, writing urban spaces, the politics of tertiary institutions, and activating queer spaces in Africa. Top local writers speaking at the event include Achmat Dangor (Bitter Fruit), Etienne van Heerden (30 Nagte in Amsterdam), SJ Naudé (The Alphabet of Birds), Damon Galgut (The Good Doctor), Gabeba Baderoon (A Hundred Silences) and Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese (Loud and Yellow Laughter), as well as award-winning translator Michiel Heyns and playwright Nadia Davids. 2016 Man Booker winner Paul Beatty (The Sellout) will also participate, along with Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Tram 83), European Union Prize winner Carl Frode Tiller, Nigerian author Yewande Omotoso (Bom Boy) and 2017 Caine Prize winner Bushra al-Fadil.

Nthikeng Mohele has been awarded the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English for Pleasure, his fourth novel, while Mohale Mashigo picked up the debut prize for The Yearning. Previous UJ Prize winners include Zakes Mda in 2015 and Ivan Vladislavić in 2011.

Three new publications are making waves in Afrikaans publishing. Acclaimed novelist Eben Venter’s Groen Soos Die Hemel Daarbo (soon to be published in translation) explores modern sexuality and identity. It is the author’s first offering since Wolf, Wolf (2013, translated by Michiel Heyns). Radbraak, a debut poetry collection by Tjieng Tjang Tjerries author Jolyn Phillips, presents a new approach to writing Afrikaans, while Fourie Botha’s second (at times surreal) collection, Krap Uit Die See, addresses masculinity, using the sea as metaphor, and medium—that is, a channel between states of being.

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