Start out 2018 right by taking a listen to our favorite readings published over the last year.
Perhaps the fitting thing to do would have been to throw the book into the water and let the waves close over it...
Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.
* * *
“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”
The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.
In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”
This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my life—having finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…
We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.
Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.
I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.
I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.
Hefny boldly punctures Saudi biases with a taboo-shattering love story.
This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.
A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.
However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.
Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. READ MORE…
The worst thing a ewe can do: / Seek refuge amidst the flock.
In these poems, published in the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar under the overarching title “An Incomplete Diary”, the renowned Syrian poet Nazih Abu Afash dissects the benign indecisiveness of human nature by seeking refuge in the quietness and silence of words, his words, in the face of the noises generated daily by the ongoing war in Syria.
Abu Afash, like a lonely shepherd, counts his flock with no intention of committing remembrance to the act of existence per se, but to remind us of one thing: I am returning to die in the forest. The following are translations of this vulnerability into another form of vulnerability where contemplation can be as valid as involvement.
All were human: some returned disfigured, with incomplete eyes, incomplete shoulders, and incomplete dreams. Some still clutched their wilted flags envying themselves for the kisses, tears and garlands awaiting them. Some stopped in the middle of the road to stare at the buses, the processions and the women inhaling air outside the cage of chastity. Some were overcome by tiredness. Some despaired of everything and believed in nothing. Some blamed themselves for falling for hope. Some realised they had been betrayed. Some said: So we were told. And we believed. Some watched over the front lines hoping to witness peace break out of the remnants of their lives and the piles of their enemies’ empty cartridges. Some sat weeping. Some, who were apt only for forgetfulness, the dustmen buried under the sand of their trenches, as though returning a lost child to his family, in the hope that they might one day return to the arms of their old life with the simplest of reasons and the lowest of costs…
Imagine Dallas’ Amos Hunt on Thematic Analysis through Identifying Choices
Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!
Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
By paraphrasing a poem, we discover other choices the author could have made. If a paraphrase is possible, then the author could have said the same thing a different way. Why did they choose to say it the way they did? When we focus on this question, analyzing the effects of the author’s choices and considering how these choices contribute to the meaning, we get closer to the art of the poem. By doing so, we have the opportunity to recognize that poetry does not divide so evenly into form and content. The poem’s way of saying is essential to what it says.
This lesson plan is a rung on the ladder toward that insight. Pedagogically, we have to draw lines between form and content in order to draw attention to their special interrelationship in poetry.
Course Level: Middle School
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone
One copy for each student of
- “Origin Stories” and “The Drought,” by Edil Hassan
- “In the Foreign Land,” by Omar Youssef Souleimane
A projector or Promethean board
For homework, ask students to read all three poems and complete brief, written paraphrases of their literal content. (This assignment assumes that they have already been trained in literal interpretation of poetry). Encourage students to infer the meanings of words they don’t know from context clues.
Be prepared to divide the students into groups of three or four.
Be prepared to explain the terms jilal (a severe, arid season in Somalia from December to March), tusbax (Islamic prayer beads), guntiino (traditional Somali dress), and jinni (a supernatural creature in Arab and Islamic traditions). Though you have assigned students to infer what they can from context for homework, you should share this information with them as the need arises.
Review of Literal Interpretation (5-10 minutes)
Before discussing the theme, meaning, and tone of a poem, it is important to have a common interpretation of its literal content. Tell the students you’re going to do the same thing together with Edil Hassan’s “Origin Stories” that you’ve practiced before in previous lessons: read it one line or sentence at a time, paraphrasing its direct, surface meaning. They can and should refer to the written work they have done to prepare.
For each line or sentence, ask one student to tell the class what they think it says. Another student paraphrases this reading. As needed, address questions to the class to elicit closer reading. Be clear that no one is entitled to speak to these questions who cannot show that they have listened to what the other students have said. You can even ask them to repeat or paraphrase previous remarks before they speak. This requirement helps to ensure that everyone has the same basic read of the poem and reinforces the understanding that interpretation is a communal activity.
Some difference of opinion is possible, but everyone should at least agree that the speaker is telling the story of how her parents met, and that the afternoon light colors the mother’s skin with the gold of her earrings. (It’s not melting them down her neck; a likely misreading!)
Introduction to Thematic Analysis (5-10 minutes)
Tell the students you’re now going to read the poem again, this time with a new question: not just “what does it say?” but “what is it doing?” Be explicit about the interpretive strategy you are about to demonstrate: you’re going to think about other choices the author could have made, other ways they could have said the same thing, and try to see how the choice they made has a unique effect.
Read “Origin Stories.” As you read the title, and each line or sentence, stop to point out to the students the choices the author has made and to briefly consider them. (e.g., why not “How My Parents Met?” How does the allusion to superhero stories tell us what to expect?) Keep each choice and its effects in mind as you analyze the next choice, and reach a conclusion about what the poem is doing as a whole.
It may be helpful to use a graphical organizer to represent the choices and their effects. For example, in a table, you can list interesting choices in one column, and analyze their effects in a second column. (Variant: an additional column with the heading “Alternatives,” presenting other choices the author could have made, can help to highlight the choice as a choice.)
In this part of the lesson, do not allow the children to interject or ask questions until the end. Just politely ignore all those eager raised hands.
Check for Understanding (5 minutes)
Ask a volunteer to explain the meaning of the poem and the theme to the class. Encourage them to use the choices identified earlier to support their interpretation of the theme. If they make an error in literal interpretation, do not correct them but ask questions based on the text. If they present a thematic analysis different from yours, encourage this exploration.
On the other hand, if other students want to help the volunteer, this should be permitted.
Don’t allow this segment to continue for too long.
Small Group Practice (25 minutes)
Tell the children that they will repeat the same exercise in small groups of three or four, with the longer poem “The Drought.”
Each group should work through the poem to identify decisions made by the author, and analyze the effects of those decisions. If you demonstrated a graphical organizer for this process, they should use a similar organizer. You don’t need to hand it out. It’s better if they draw it up themselves.
Tour the classroom, checking in with each group. If students are struggling to analyze a particular choice, ask them to compare it to the alternatives. What difference does it make?
Independent Practice (in-class or homework)
Ask the children to read Omar Youssef Souleimane’s “In the Foreign Land,” and write two or three paragraphs addressing the following prompt:
What is the tone of this poem? What effect does that tone have on the way we read the poem? What choices does Souleimane make to create this tone? Refer to particular lines, describing the effect of the word choices.
You can continue the discussion of student analyses by having representatives of each discussion group report their results and allowing other students to pose questions and comments about any of the poems. Encourage students to support their conclusions by providing textual evidence.
Students may wish to respond to each other’s analyses of “In the Foreign Land.” You can act as a facilitator in this discussion and avoid interfering too heavily, except to insist, that the students demonstrate diligent attention to each other.
Amos J. Hunt‘s mission in life is to cultivate a discerning mainstream readership for poetry. As the founder and executive director of Imagine Dallas Literary Arts [imaginedallas.org], he designs and delivers in-class poetry appreciation tutorials for public schools in Dallas County. He also edits the literary magazine Grub Street Grackle [grubstreetgrackle.com].
Asymptote for Educators wants to see your students’ creations! Submit them to email@example.com for the opportunity have them published in a follow-up to this blog post.
Spread the word!
Thanks to the 77 backers of our Indiegogo campaign who’ve contributed $12,736 so far, there’s already enough for us to launch a call for a Feature on Literature from Banned Countries. As new work from these affected countries will have to be specially commissioned as well as promoted, we will be directly constrained by what we manage to raise. If you’d like to see a huuge showcase to answer Trump’s new travel ban, due to be released any day now, please pitch in with a donation of whatever amount you can afford or help us spread the word about our fundraiser!
Here is the official call, taken from our submissions page:
Asymptote seeks hitherto unpublished literary fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry from the seven countries on Trump’s banned list (i.e. from authors who identify as being from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) that have been created in response to Trump’s travel ban, or can be interpreted as such. If selected for publication, the work will run either in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian or in our Spring 2017 quarterly edition (or both). Submissions of original English-language work will only be considered for publication in our Spring 2017 edition. For works in English translation, the decision as to where the work will be placed rests entirely at the discretion of our editor-in-chief, who curates Translation Tuesdays at The Guardian and who will be assembling this Special Feature.
While other guidelines from our submissions page apply, contributors to this Feature only will be paid at least USD200 per article.
To make sure that the articles from this Feature are circulated widely, we will leverage on our eight social media platforms in three languages, and, depending on whether our crowdfunding campaign meets its target, paid ads in high-profile media outlets to promote them for maximum impact.
Submissions can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header: SUBMISSION: BANNEDLIT (Country/Language/Genre). Queries, which can be directed to the same email address, should carry the subject header: QUERY: BANNEDLIT
Deadline: 15 Mar 2017
Refugees and gods always compete for the same place.
Born in Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a Palestinian poet and translator who currently teaches Arabic at Oxford University. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Arabic in An-Nahar and Al-Ghawoon, and in English in journals including Critical Quarterly, GeoHumanities, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Much of his recent research, as the Writer in Residence for the Refugee Hosts Project, focuses on ‘writing the camp’ and the dialectics of hospitality in both life and death.
Last year, Qasmiyeh collaborated with the Oxford University Poetry Society, the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford University PEN to translate Arabic-language poems pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis for a small anthology, Flight, subsequently sold to raise funds for the Oxfam Refugee Appeal and an Oxford-based charity, OXPAND. It was in this capacity that I first met Qasmiyeh. The following exchange took place in late January, 2017.
—Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote
Theophilus Kwek (TK): You’ve just returned from Oxford to Lebanon for several weeks over the winter, visiting the refugee camps while you were there. Each of these journeys must involve a complex set of changes: not least in your immediate linguistic and cultural context. Was there an aspect of this most recent journey that was most compelling to you as a writer?
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (YMQ): These journeys have become regular since I obtained my British passport in early-2012. Their regularity is largely initiated by a combination of familial and research commitments. I mainly visit Baddawi camp (my place of birth) and the Nahr Al-Bared camp in North Lebanon. We might say that I go to the camps ‘through Lebanon’ and never ‘to Lebanon’. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in my and Elena’s research with new [refugee] arrivals in Baddawi, in so far as refugees’ “arrival in the camp” has become the ultimate dynamic that has punctuated many refugees’ understanding of the occurrence of arrival [in Lebanon].
For me, as a person born in Baddawi, my arrival in that place has always been contingent on the presence of the camp. You may also say these are seasonal pilgrimages to one’s memories and traces, as I have argued in a co-authored piece titled ‘Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation.’
When I am there I try to spend time with my elderly parents, my siblings and their families, but I also try to observe the changes that are occurring in the camps. The camps are no longer the same nor are their residents the same people. In order to acknowledge both the humane and inhumane repercussions of such places we have to see the faces in their absolute gift—the features and cuts that never lie about what is happening around them. These are the faces of those who are unsure about the definition of a place or the tenets that make a place a place. Everything in the camps seems to move both horizontally and vertically at the same time. People enter the place to contribute to the mass or masses therein but also to the verticality that has embodied itself in all these fragile buildings that are being (or in the process of being) built. Other refugees are entering their archetypal place, one might say. The city (at least in Lebanon) is no longer the only destination for all these new refugees.
In this process, I think the linguistic and dialectal dimension has become strikingly obvious. The dialects that are heard are now what avows the faces. Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi dialects are now uttered in the same space, in camps that have transcended the “gathering” sign to become the “gatherer”; the active participle, the doer whose main presence is dependent on being occupied and used. We hear the dialect to observe the face. This (dis)order has always attracted me to my camp. It attracts me for it is the dialect that we at times suppress to conceal who we are. It attracts me when such dialects are exaggerated or perhaps elongated to occupy a place that is neither theirs nor ours. The shibboleth has never been clearer.
Help us bring you literature from the seven countries Trump intends to ban!
Johnny Depp was reported to have spent three million dollars firing Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a canon; our endeavour is modest by comparison: we are aiming to raise at least $30,000 for an urgent showcase of marginalised voices to happen both in our Spring 2017 edition and at The Guardian (here’s an example of what you can look forward to). 20% of all proceeds will be donated directly to ACLU or Refugees Welcome. The more we raise the more we can do: e.g. a printed anthology of the work, a large-scale free event featuring these authors.
But wait, there’s more: support our campaign and you’ll receive specially autographed books by Junot Díaz, Yann Martel and George Szirtes, among others! Apart from the wide selection of books below, we’ll also give away, among our wide range of Asymptote memorabilia, a newly designed AsympTOTE—featuring artwork by the guest artist of our current issue, Dianna Xu. If you’re a loyal Asymptote supporter, you’ll certainly want to add this AsympTOTE to your collection. Don’t wait—donate to our fundraiser today!
Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt.
In solidarity with the refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries recently barred from entering the US, we spotlight today the work of Syria-born Ghayath Almadhoun, the poet to whom Jazra Khaleed dedicated his “The War is Coming” poem three weeks ago in this very showcase. Especially in the second poem, “Massacre,” the stark and brutal reality of war is driven home.
Shaken by the developments coming out of America in the past few days, we at Asymptote have been working around the clock to try to fundraise for a Special Feature spotlighting new writing from the seven banned countries in our next issue, in an attempt to offer a high-profile platform for those newly affected by the fallout of those developments. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at email@example.com.
How I became…
Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.
“On the 7th of January 2014, the United Nations stopped counting Syria’s dead.”
In this sobering poem, Chechnya-born Greek poet Jazra Khaleed vividly depicts a war “so trite and pedestrian, filled with similes and ornate adjectives, its history is written in the font Comic Sans.” For most of us in the settled world unable to imagine what it is that Syrian refugees go through, these words encompass a different but now less unknowable spectrum of the human experience.
The War is Coming
For Ghayath al-Madhoun
and his million Arab poets
I decided to leave Syria the day a stray bullet passed in front of my eyes. That day I realized my homeland was not my homeland, my blood not my blood, and my freedom belonged to a freedom fighter who didn’t think to ask my permission before he shot me: a lack of courtesy we encounter often in war time.
If they are going to kill me, better to kill me in a foreign language.
On the road from Damascus to Berlin I met an old soldier from Dara’a who couldn’t carry his nightmares anymore. I wrapped them and put them in my suitcase; at the airport I paid the fine for excess baggage.
Whoever is not afraid to cross the border carries the war on his back.
Swap your best shirt for a bulletproof vest, your poems for the first chapter of the Koran and your house in Athens for a throne atop Mount Aigaleo so you can survey from on high the coming war.
This war is trite and pedestrian, filled with similes and ornate adjectives, its history is written in the font Comic Sans, violence so limitless the war doesn’t know where to put it, one grave for every thousand corpses, one shadow for every thousand survivors, it’s an indelicate war, barrels vomiting explosives, steel cylinders filled with accessories for washing machines and car parts, the death that disseminates is an earthy death, this war is rightfully ours because in it we have buried all our loved ones.
On the 7th of January 2014, the United Nations stopped counting Syria’s dead. This decision certified mathematics as the science of quality, not quantity, of living labor, not shapes, of time, not space—in other words, mathematics is the science that studies the material relations among all countable objects.
By the end of 2015, according to Facebook, 311 friends of mine had died since the start of the war. I decided to shut down my account: death must have a beginning, middle, and end. I can’t spend my life in its wake.
I, Ahmed, son of Aisha, although nothing more than a humble migrant, wish to apologize on behalf of the Syrians to Greek men and women for filling their televisions with our deaths as they eat their dinners and wait for their favorite shows, I wish to apologize to the municipal authorities for leaving our trash on their beaches and polluting their shores with tons of plastic, we are uncivilized and we have no environmental awareness, I wish to apologize to the hotel owners and tour operators for damaging the island tourist industry, I wish to apologize for shattering the stereotype of the miserable migrant with our mobile phones and clean clothes, I wish to apologize to the coast guard who have the thankless task of sinking our boats, to the police for standing in disorderly lines, to the bus drivers who have to wear surgical masks to protect themselves from the diseases we carry, I also wish to make a most humble apology to Greek society for exceeding the capacity of their detention camps and for sleeping in their squares and parks—finally, I wish to apologize to the Greek government who had to request additional funds from the European Union in order to pay the purveyors who stock the detention camps, as well as the bus drivers, the police, the coast guard, the tour operators, the hotel owners, the municipal authorities, and the television stations.
“Don’t worry,” said the bullet, “I’ll go in and out.” I explained to her that I couldn’t allow it since when she left she was bound to take some of my memories—like the face of the girl I loved in the fifth grade, the voice of the imam the first time my father took me to pray, the smell of the freshly baked bread in my grandmother’s house, the fingers of my teacher as she taught me to write the word الحرب and Van Basten’s final goal in the Euro of ’88.
It’s well known that no organization can buy arms on the black market without American authorization. This is one of the reasons I never managed to understand the difference between enlightenment and genocide.
If you don’t want to be canon fodder, if you don’t want the war to catch you with your pants down, put on that thinking cap, double down the class struggle, get organized, triple down the class struggle, fight, fill your pockets with rocks, stick to your guns.
Out with the Left! Bring back the Spartacists!
Out with the NGO’s! Bring back Garibaldi’s brigades!
Out with the Humanists! Bring back the Italian Autonomists!
The slaughter is about to begin.
Translated from the Greek by Karen Van Dyck
Jazra Khaleed (Born Chechnya, 1979) lives in Athens, writes exclusively in Greek, and is known as a poet, editor, and translator. His works are protests against the injustices in contemporary Greece, especially the growing xenophobia and racism. His poems have been widely translated for publications in Europe, the US, Australia, and Japan. As a founding co-editor of the poetry magazine Teflon, and particularly through his own translations published there, he has introduced the works of Amiri Baraka, Keston Sutherland, Etel Adnan, and many other political and experimental poets to a Greek readership. His debut collection Grozny was published in spring 2016, while his newest short film “Gone is Syria, Gone” has been selected for the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, the Kasseler Dokfest, and L’Alternativa . His poetry blog can be found at jazrakhaleed.blogspot.gr.
Karen Van Dyck is Professor of Modern Greek Literature in the Classics Department at Columbia University. She writes and teaches on issues of gender, diaspora, and translation. Her books include Kassandra and the Censors (Cornell, 1998), The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding (Wesleyan, 1998), The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2009), and The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (Graywolf, 2009). Her bilingual anthology Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (Penguin, 2016), a New Statesman Book of the Year pick, will be published by the NYRB in the US in March. She discusses the anthology as well as this new poem by Jazra Khaleed in her essay “What’s Found in Translation” (forthcoming, PN Review 234).
Sign up to be a sustaining member today at just $5 a month! We’re still short of hitting our target by several members; each additional membership takes us closer to being able to operate beyond April 2017.
To reward your support, we have a whole range of Asymptote memorabilia—don’t forget to check them out!
Read More Translation Tuesdays:
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…
Sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.
It’s been a fantastic year for literature and, consequently, not such a stellar year for my bank balance as all these purchases have begun taking over my apartment. I recently discovered that there is a word for this condition in Japanese, “tsundoku”; letting books pile up unread as you buy new ones to add to the literary Tower of Babel rising ever higher in your apartment. But sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was one such book, a lucid and meticulously researched biography of the late poet, who also acted as a champion of translation and literary internationalism through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own efforts at translation. Most notable of these efforts were his translations of Hungarian poets during the 1960s and 1970s, living in ‘the Other Europe’ of the Cold War era.
In what might well be a q-memory, I recall coming across Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ at an early age within an anthology of British poetry owned by my great-granddad. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, The Hawk in the Rain would later become a touchstone during my teenage years in rural North Yorkshire. Coming from a similarly unremarkable background, Hughes was someone who didn’t forget his countryside roots, but was in fact sustained by them; in short, he was one of us. Though there has been a huge amount of press around the book for its more scurrilous content, an unavoidable consequence of the ever-profitable ‘Plath industry’, Bate successfully puts Hughes over as someone who lived and breathed for his art; contained it within the marrow of his bones, and pursued an unwavering, unforgiving dedication to his art that brought terrible costs to his life off the page.
After featuring in our summer issue, I quickly snatched up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth when Christine MacSweeney’s wonderful translation hit the shelves of my local bookstore in September. Shortly after beginning the novel, it becomes obvious that Luiselli is sitting comfortably on the edge of greatness; uproariously funny and scathing in its critique of the absurdities and banalities of modern life, the book was just a delight to read from beginning to end. For lovers of the adroit wordplay of Joyce and the ironic farces of Ionesco, this book will make a perfect stocking filler.
Another translated work that has stuck with me throughout the year, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the ongoing debates around military action against the self-styled Islamic State, has been Mary McCarthy’s translation of Simone Weil’s seminal essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’. A meditation on the nature of war and violence, it shows, on the one hand, why the classics are still relevant to our understanding and navigation of the issues thrown at us in the modern world. On the other, it reaffirms warfare and violence as a dehumanising force that strips both victim and aggressor of all humanity. Written on the eve of war in 1939, it remains one of the most moving literary essays ever written.
David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.