Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019
“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.
Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.
Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?
Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.
As a theatre translator and researcher working in London, the work that I create is motivated by a desire to enable British audiences to engage with a particular voice, author, theme, perspective, or situation from another country and culture. I seek to facilitate this in multiple ways through academic scholarship, through study in the classroom, and through rehearsal and performance. My translation decisions are informed by a process of in-depth analysis in which I ask the following questions: how might a text resonate in a local context, for example, in Britain today? What are the links between source and target culture that enable a play to become mobile? How can dialogue begin on stage and then extend into the audience, sparking new conversations, in a new context?
In 2017 I completed the translation of two plays; Ready or Not (Punto y Coma) by Uruguayan dramatist, Estela Golovchenko, and Summer in December (Verano en diciembre) by Spanish dramatist, Carolina Africa Martín. In Ready or Not, a young girl is separated from both of her parents during the period of intense military repression (1973-1985) in Uruguay and then later reunited with her father, who is a political activist turned Senator. They clash over their political views, their ways of remembering the past, and their roles in the present. In Summer in December, a family of six women is faced with seemingly small everyday dilemmas of worrying about what their neighbours might think about them, whether the food in the fridge has passed its sell-by date, and the latest diet fad. However, the play goes on to address much more significant concerns about new and old relationships, unplanned pregnancies, and what should happen to an ageing relative with dementia.
Since 1970, Feminist Press has made it its mission to publish marginalized voices and authors writing about issues of equality and gender identity. From the start, founder Florence Howe focused on publishing works in translation from around the world alongside feminist classics by local writers. Almost fifty years later, the press’s catalogue continues to reflect these priorities. Senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook spoke to Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, about the press’s approach to publishing in the current political climate, acquiring works from different countries, and titles in translation that readers can be on the lookout for.
Sarah Moses: How did Feminist Press get started?
Lauren Rosemary Hook: We were founded in 1970 by an English professor named Florence Howe. It was very much a reaction to the few women’s studies courses that were popping up at the time. I feel like that’s something we take for granted—women’s and gender studies—now that programs are available at every university. But I can count on only one hand how many there were across the country then, so it was a very tight-knit group. There was a lot of talk about how there weren’t many texts available by women—besides Emily Dickinson—especially in literature, and Florence was a part of this dialogue. A lot of feminist professors and activists at the time met up and Florence went away on vacation and came back and she had all these checks in her mailbox made out to the Feminist Press, and she was like, “I’m doing this?” It’s a really fascinating story.
The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude, Feminist Press, 2018.
What could freedom from the pressures and expectations of society mean for a woman in Uruguay in the 1950s, and what might the impact of this freedom be on others? These questions are explored by Uruguayan author, scholar, and feminist Armonía Somers in The Naked Woman. Written in 1950, this is the first of Somers’ books to be translated into English. The novel tells an energetic and enthralling story through which Somers articulates a pressing need in society for people to find ways to escape prescribed roles, express desire, and renew one’s sense of self. The narrative focuses on the experience of the female protagonist, Rebeca Linke, and sheds light on the repressive context of 1950s Uruguay when, according to scholar Maria Olivera-Williams, “middle-class social mores proved particularly suffocating to women.” Somers explores the effects of these constraints on women and creates a subversive protagonist who creatively and successfully challenges these expectations by allowing herself to release her natural instincts and understand new forms of intimacy. Whilst the female experience is the focus of the book, Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men. She achieves this by depicting male violence against women and the harmful effects of a lack of freedom of choice.
The Naked Woman begins with Rebeca Linke’s revelation of the failed hopes that she had pinned on her thirtieth birthday. This sense of disillusionment is the driving force behind her decision to abandon her everyday existence and move to the countryside: she is desperate to break the daily monotony of her life, to embrace freedom and to live in the present. She takes a train to a small cottage in a remote part of the Uruguayan countryside where she casts off her one remaining item of clothing, her coat, having abandoned everything else. As a result, her break with the past and her commitment to the here and now becomes urgent: “[s]he was beholden to the present, like water held in the palm of a hand.” When she ventures out into the night, she is immersed in a natural environment that she has never before experienced so intimately. This then extends to her own body: she discovers its uniqueness by touching it and she remarks upon changes that she had not previously noted. It is Somers’ focus on the present, the protagonist’s physical experience of each moment, and the centrality of the female body that make the book so compelling, exciting and enticing for readers today.
We are well into the World Cup, which means endless amounts of football (or soccer, depending on your location) for the serious fans and a chance to dabble in that world for those less-serious fans of the sport. The group stage is coming to a close and there have been more than a few surprises, including Iceland’s humbling of Messi and Argentina, Poland going down against the tenacious Senegalese team—and Germany? Really?
The World Cup, an event that very much goes beyond the ninety minutes of twenty-two players and a ball, generates an endless amount of controversy, discussion, national pride, rivalry, and politics from all sorts of people, including our favorite writers. With that in mind, today we bring you a special treat as Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.
From Austria: Elfriede Jelinek
Already, the 2018 World Cup has delivered its quota of surreal moments. Some have been joyfully surreal—the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision video leaping to keep out a penalty from one of the greatest players of all-time; Iran’s failed attempt at a somersault throw-in during the final seconds of a crucial game against Spain—but others have had a more sinister edge. Among the defining images from the opening match was the handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, two star players for the Axis of too-wealthy-to-be-evil.
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.
Here we are with this week’s news on exciting developments in the world of literature! Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, updates us on new translation initiatives and experimental literary events. Sarah Moses, our Editor-At-Large for Argentina and Uruguay, fills us in on recent literary festivals and on an event honoring everyone’s favorite cartoon cynic. Finally, Tomás Cohen, our Editor-At-Large for Chile, tells us about some exciting new publications appearing in the region.
Tse Hao Guang, Editor-At-Large, with the latest updates from Singapore:
In the spirit of experimentation, stalwart independent bookstore Booksactually devised a Book Prescription Day (Sep 30) in conjunction with #BuySingLit, inviting the public to meet seven authors one-on-one as they administered literary balm to all manner of ailments. Literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station put on a zany, rave-reviewed, pro-wrestling-meets-spoken-word spectacle Sing Lit Body Slam (October 6-7), selling out on opening night. Sing Lit Station also announced the 2018 Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry, awarding the best poems published by SEA-affiliated journals to a combined tune of SGD$2500 (USD$1800). Finally, Singapore played host to the 2nd Asian Women Writers’ Festival (September 29-30), with Singaporean novelists Balli Kaur Jaswal and Nuraliah Norasid speaking alongside other writers from the UK, the Philippines, Pakistan, and India.