Place: South Korea

Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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What’s New in Translation: March 2019

Reviews of the newest and most exciting fiction from Korea, Denmark, and France, by Asymptote team members.

March brings with it a host of noteworthy new books in translation. In today’s post, Asymptote team members cover two novels set in the early twentieth century—Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time and Marcus Malte’s The Boy—along with Kim Yideum’s Blood Sisters, an exploration of a young woman’s traumatic coming-of-age.

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A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books (2019)

Review by Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor

Weaving together diary entries, poems, letters (both opened and unopened) and song, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a stirring reflection on death and mourning, loneliness, and female identity in a changing 20th century Denmark. Fru Bragge—almost always referred to by her married name—has just lost her husband. During a loveless marriage spanning more than two decades, she endured Vigand’s lack of affection and derisive comments in silence. Although she has finally gained her freedom in losing him, she has also lost all direction in life:

I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to go. There would be no difference: north, south, east, or west, it would be the same wherever I went.

It is in this vast landscape, the heathlands of Denmark, that she begins to sift through her memories, uncovering the girl she was before she became Fru Bragge. During the day, she welcomes courteous visitors who come to pay their respects and packs away her late husband’s belongings for donation; during the evening, after darkness has fallen and the oil lamp in the window of her empty home is lit, she feels most comfortable. Here, surrounded by a “silence greater than silence” she writes in her diary, giving voice to a part of herself she had almost forgotten: “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young school-mistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.”

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Misshapen Shards: Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station in Review

Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019

Tokyo Ueno Station, originally published in Japanese in 2014, is Yū Miri’s latest novel to arrive in English via the efforts of translator Morgan Giles and publisher Tilted Axis Press. Yū Miri was born in Yokohama, Japan, as a Zainichi, or a Korean living permanently in Japan. In 1997, she was awarded Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her semi-autobiographical novel Kazoku Shinema (Family Cinema). Her past writing has explored damaging family relationships and outsider identity in a predominantly homogenous Japanese society.1

In Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s most famous public grounds, the blue tents of homeless communities, or “squatters,” have become an unfortunate icon. A simple Google search of “homeless Ueno Park” will return videos, articles, and even tourist reviews of the park, detailing the homeless camps found there. In Tokyo Ueno Station, Miri tells the story of a homeless man named Kazu who lives in one of these camps. Told from Kazu’s perspective, the novel reflects on the tragic events that landed him finally under the blue tents of Ueno Park. But no story can exist or be told in isolation: Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions, intertwining Kazu’s past, the history of Ueno Park, and the state of modern Japanese society. Tokyo Ueno Station is a shattered mirror of prose, made of misshapen shards that don’t always connect but together reflect an image of a lost life and inevitable misfortune.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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Percentimentality: Kim Sagwa’s Mina in Review

She is but a product of P City’s education system in which “percent-ality,” a person’s grades, is the sole measure of success and personal worth.

Mina by Kim Sagwa, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Two Lines Press

Mina is a novel by the award-winning writer Kim Sagwa, translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton ten years after its original publication—one can tell, because the text mentions MP3 players that are by now quite obsolete. It is the very first of Kim’s novels to be made available in English. Mina is set in “P City,” which sounds like “Blood City” in Korean, and is a harrowing portrait of the horrors of metropolitan life and the Korean education system. The failures of these social orders inflict despair and desolation on adolescents, exemplified by the trio of main characters: Mina, Minho, and Crystal, all high schoolers, ultimately pushing them over to the deep end of irredeemable apathy, grief, and mental illness.

Like the vicious suggestion of its name, P City is built on an unforgiving system of discrepancy and exploitation. The city is split into two parts: a middle-class suburb propagating a “lifestyle that is selfish, ignorant, and irresponsible,” where apartment blocks are “perfectly square box-shaped cement buildings” on gridded streets, and an old part of town hosting “the lives of the losers,” overcrowded and clogged with traffic. Districts are highly gentrified, their streets flanked by franchised restaurants and chain coffee shops. This sterile status quo bleeds over to P City’s educational system, in which the virtues of submission and conformity prevail over a genuine appetite for knowledge—the marking criteria deem it more important that a student can write an essay on Rousseau using correct nouns and tenses, than to contemplate his philosophy. A commentary on South Korea’s hagwon culture, where students spend excruciatingly long hours at cram school to get better scores in examinations, P City puts students under high pressure and competition, causing the suicide of Pak Chiye, a fellow schoolmate and Mina’s childhood friend, jumping from the roof of a school building.

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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What’s New in Translation: December 2018

Travel to Cuba, South Korea, and Russia with these newly translated works.

Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.

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Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018

Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant

“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

Don’t know where to start with our Fall 2018 issue? Here are the stand-out pieces, according to our section editors.

The brand new Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote was released last week and we are still enjoying its diverse offerings from 31 countries, including a Special Feature on Catalan fiction. After the blog editors posted their highlights two days ago, the quarterly magazine’s section editors share their favorites from this season’s haul: 

What good is French today? After years of patient apprenticeship, and years of mastery, perhaps writing in French was only a means of escape, or a way of doing battle. These are the questions that Abdellah Taïa battles with, in ‘To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?’ Beautifully translated by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Taïa’s essay attacks the French language, with great vigor and style, and—of course—in French. In a succinct essay, Taïa adroitly sets out the class politics of speaking French in Morocco, and the satisfactions (and oblivions) of conquering a language and a place, and all the complicated forms of hatred (and self-hatred) that come with it.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction editor

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The 2018 Man Booker International Shortlist: the Subjective Nature of Literary Merit

"Fiction at its finest”, as the Man Booker tagline describes its self-imposed mission.

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.

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The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

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Translation Tuesday: “Concealed Words” by Sin Yong-Mok

Nobody had stolen the sound of my footsteps.

Today we bring you a poem from a lauded South Korean poet, Sin Yong-Mok, in a translation by Brother Anthony of Taizé that is sensitive to the sonorous aspects of Sin’s lines. If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out the poetry section in the Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote.

Concealed Words

God used up all the summer heat trying to sew the sound of rain inside rain. It was morning when, in order to retrieve one raindrop dropped by mistake, mists roamed the ground.

If there’s a leaky roof the water may be an abraded stone.

I enabled that stone to hear a sound of footsteps.

One day at an estuary I happened to pick up one raindrop. Nobody had stolen the sound of my footsteps.

Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé

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Announcing the Winter 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:

In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!

We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!

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In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.

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In Review: “The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo

Emma Holland reviews a disturbing, brilliant, "oddly riveting" novel from South Korea.

Han Yujoo’s debut novel is chilling and surreal, raising questions about deep-seated human violence, and the nature of art-making. A review by Asymptote Executive Assistant Emma Holland.

The Impossible Fairytale pulls readers into its disorienting and brutal world, spinning a dark narrative of the nameless Child and her classmates. Later the perspective shifts into a meta-narrative—questioning and twisting ideas concerning language and the restraints of the novel as a literary form. Korean author Han Yujoo’s debut novel, translated by Janet Hong, The Impossible Fairytale is a wildly gripping page-turner, and ultimately a powerful yet unsettling read.

Through the narrative, Han explores the notion that violence is an ingrained part of society. Speaking at the Free Word Centre in London on July 10 at an author discussion hosted by the UK publisher, Titled Axis Press, Han talked of how “from a young age we are exposed to violence, it becomes normalized, a part of our everyday life…eating away at our minds.”

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