Place: USA

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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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Three continents in a ten-minute read. We're bringing you literary news from Morocco to Poland to the USA.

This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards. 

Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco

The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.

To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Special selections from our Spring 2019 issue!

If you have yet to read our spectacular Spring 2019 issue, what are you waiting for? Maybe for our Section Editors to give you their favourites so you can get off of the right foot—well, we’ve delivered. From the poetry by the hand of acclaimed fiction writers, to century-traversing tales, to contemporary criticism on the role of the translator, here are the highlights, straight from those who have devoted themselves to perfecting this issue.

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Section Editor:

This issue’s fiction lineup is bookended by two Argentine authors (born in 1956) who grapple with Jewish identity in their work. With The Planets shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, Sergio Chejfec is much better known to Anglophone readers, but Daniel Guebel is not exactly an unknown entity—recently the publisher Beatriz Viterbo released an anthology of essays contributed by such writers as César Aira celebrating Guebel’s work. Via “Jewish Son,” Jessica Sequeira’s perfectly pitched translation, English readers are introduced to bits of a weltanschauung that include pilpul (aka spicy thought, a method of interpreting the Talmud), tango singers, readings of Kafka and The Aeneid, all taking place in the last act of a father-son relationship. Yet, it is also very emotional—despite, or perhaps all the more so because of, the philosophical exposition. As with the best fictions, Guebel gestures toward a gestalt beyond the text. I can’t wait for more of this heavyweight to appear in English.

In the poetry section, which I also assembled, two highlights (also bookending the section) are Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the now-international formalist Oulipo movement, and Georgi Gospodinov, acclaimed for The Physics of Sorrow, showing that they have as much talent as poets as they do as fiction writers. An especially exciting discovery is Gertrud Kolmar, nom de plume of Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner, advocated by cousin Walter Benjamin, but only now celebrated as one of the great forgotten poets. Characterized by mystery, the taut but dreamlike poems channeled with elan by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman are fueled by an “ache unnamed”; “a glimmer burning out its flame.” 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On our itinerary are independent bookstores in Boston, a bistro on the Tripoli port, and the curious outskirts of Paris.

This week, we’ve come across a spoil of literary riches! Big international names come to show in eastern USA, cultural collectives take full advantage of the historic wonders of Lebanon, and, in France, the académie Goncourt is always up to something. Our editors at the front are here to share the treasures.

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:

New York may be the undisputed publishing capital of the US, but the nearby city of Boston, just a few hours away by car, is also home to a thriving literary scene. Birthplace of the 19th century American Transcendentalism movement (notable members include Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott), Boston boasts one of the country’s richest literary traditions, and it remains a hub for writers and independent booksellers today.

Early last year, one of the city’s most prominent bookstores, the Brookline Booksmith, launched the Transnational Literature Series in partnership with Words Without Borders and the Forum Network. The series “focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation,” and hosts conversations between writers and their translators. Previous Transnational Literature Series events have featured Ivana Bodrožić with translator Ellen Elias-Bursać, Olga Tokarczuk with translator Jennifer Croft, and Luljeta Lleshanaku with translator Ani Gjika.

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Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Start your weekend with up-to-the-minute literary dispatches from around the world!

This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.

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

The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.

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Translating Zahia Rahmani: An Interview with Matt Reeck

I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.

“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”

In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”

Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?

Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

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We Can All Be Walking Poets: Sauntering Verse and Dada

“Walking artists walk to create something. So actually, you could argue that you are the walking artist.”

Sauntering Verse, a new app for auto-generated poetry, uses Dadaist language to redefine the experience of physical space. In this essay, Lara Norgaard tests the app while reflecting on its implications for our relationship with technology, and the art that it creates. What contexts do we bring to the art we create and consume? What does it mean to be an artist when art is made possible just by taking your phone on a walk?

It is warm and cloudy on the afternoon following the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. The extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro received just over 46% of the popular vote—he would come to win the run-off election just weeks later. It feels like the world I woke up to earlier that morning was not precisely my own, as if a body-snatcher stole my world instead of my skin.

The day is a blur: I walk a few meters from the living room to the kitchen in my apartment. Outside the window, the skyline of nearly identical high-rises in the Brazilian city that I call home glint in clouded sadness, weighed down by more than 186 thousand people who voted for a man whom The New Yorker has called a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Perhaps he will not win in the second round, but perhaps what is already bad will get worse. This eventuality feels so surreal that I focus on boiling water for a calming mug of coffee. I glance down at my phone. It wrote me a poem:

She skipped it

A rear Jesus

They of them

The sagging can retract or sagging sagging

A quirky staging

She pots him

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Winter 2016: Gifts

Set against the highest quality control standards, Asymptote weighs equally the stumbling, daring hunches of experimentation.

Daniel Hahn’s Ask a Translator column, in which he fields questions about his craft posed by Asymptote readers, kicks off at the blog. What should have been a happy occasion (our fifth anniversary, celebrated in New York, London, Hong Kong, Ottawa, Chicago, and Belgrade) is marred somewhat by a quarrel with one of our partner institutions. I should first note that the success of the past year (2015) has been a true double-edged sword: although it has bestowed greater visibility (which has in turn brought us partnerships with hitherto-undreamt-of international reach—all the better, I suppose, to catalyse the transmission of literature), our own team members are more coveted by other organizations as a result. Since these are paying organizations (either non-profits with institutional backing or for-profit companies with commercial viability), Asymptote can’t compete. With success also comes assumption that our coffers are being filled to the brim by sponsors and we should be spreading the wealth around. Yet, we are essentially still going it alone; I’m still working full-time without pay and channelling funds raised into web development costs, translation contests, and marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with. Someone from a partner organization turns down an invitation to moderate our New York event for fear of being interpreted as endorsing our policy of not paying contributors; he demands that we start doing so. Should implies can, but the reality isn’t so. Still, it’s wonderful that translators have such a fierce advocate in this person; I wish editors at publications like ours also had organizations and movements behind them too. Here to introduce the Winter 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel.

I was recruited as one of Asymptote’s Educational Arm Assistants in January of 2016, just around the time this issue launched. What I want to share now is a story about my first weeks with the journal and my reckoning with the Winter 2016 issue that is ultimately a defense of inefficiency and the impostor syndrome.

Even two-and-a-half years later, I still know this issue more intimately than any other, because when I came aboard as a recent undergrad (it’s not atypical for Asymptote team members to be a bit green) I felt I’d been given two unique gifts. The first, bafflingly, was the complete confidence of our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong. As far as the Educational Arm was concerned, I was free to take on whatever naïve dreams I could imagine—as long as the final product met the standards of the journal. My first spicy taste of impostor syndrome—now a familiar one when negotiating Asymptote assignments—came from the simple fact that I wasn’t a teacher. I could identify with Yann Martel when he said in his interview: READ MORE…

Fall 2014: Interlinked Dimensions of Spacetime

The Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote demonstrates an exceptional thematic cohesion across genre, language, location, and time.

Around this time, equipped with a new legal advisor (the extremely efficient Win Bassett), a small group is formally set up within our team to look into the feasibility of Asymptote becoming a non-profit organization in the USA. This makes most sense for tax-deductibility, since our largest readership, outnumbering the second largest demographic by a ratio of three to one, is American. It would take one and a half years for me to reach a definitive decision, but I decide in the end not to take the plunge. To become a non-profit, a board would first have to be formed, and all major decisions about the journal’s direction would have to be run by this board (which would mostly comprise Americans). Had I worked so hard for the magazine’s survival only to surrender its reins to others? Aren’t there already more than enough American mediators of otherness? I’m also wary because of what one board member of another online magazine has told me in confidence: being bound to a board has held that magazine back from reaching its full potential. We do, however, thanks to Win Bassett, Erin Stephens-North, Lynette Lee, and Eric M. B. Becker, succeed in acquiring fiscal sponsorship with Fractured Atlas on August 26, 2014. This is a breakthrough: For the first time, we are tax-deductible for American donors, removing one more barrier standing in the way of support. Here to introduce the Fall 2014 issue is Assistant Editor Erik Noonan.

Published in sync with the release of the inaugural episode of the Asymptote Podcast—whose producer Emma Jacobs suggests that the mythical stories we tell ourselves are really signs of “our inability to map our own minds”—the Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote sets the reader afloat through a tesseract located among the interlinked dimensions of spacetime.

In Shi Tiesheng’s “The Year of Being Twenty-One,” that mapless place masquerades in public life as a monotheistic deity: “I did see God, one day—but he went by a different name, and that name was the mind,” Shi writes. “In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.”    READ MORE…

Winter 2012: A Giant Nipple on the Cover

Six months in its making, a showcase of contemporary Taiwanese art and letters sans pareil

“When I’m having trouble writing something, I often close the document and compose the passage as email. I imagine I can feel the tug at the other end of the wire, and this creates in me a needed urgency. The letter always arrives at its destination.”

—David Shields, excerpted in our Winter 2012 issue

Dear indignant scholar concerned that Taiwanese literature is always overlooked in favor of Mainland Chinese authors (e.g. when Mo Yan took the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012),

This issue, spotlighting Taiwanese Fiction, is for you. Six months in its making, it is a showcase of contemporary Taiwanese art and letters sans pareil. In addition to fiction, there is nonfiction by Jing Xianghai that I rolled up my sleeves to translate five days before the issue launch. There is Antonio Chen’s roundup of Taiwanese novels in 2011 (for which I had to painstakingly format and upload image files for 26 book covers). There is even a fabulous piece of noise art accompanying poetry by Hsia Yü, the most acclaimed Taiwanese poet of her generation. Famously reclusive, Hsia Yü had only ever agreed to two interviews in a career that spanned thirty years, and we would go on to publish her third interview, conducted in Chinese and translated into English, in our Spring 2012 issue.

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A Counter-Interview with Heriberto Yépez

A (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

I am not experimental

By Will.

English is not my mother

I cannot be but experimental

Inside Empire.

— “2001”

If an interview is a polite conversation wherein the interviewer thoughtfully poses questions and the interviewee eagerly answers, not unlike a racquet sports match, a (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

A regular interview won’t do, especially if the knife-thrower is none other than Heriberto Yépez. Yes, his name is struck out, indicating recently deleted information, in this case, traditional authorship.

pez was born in Tijuana, the world’s busiest land border crossing, in 1974. During his teens, he worked in a maquiladora and later studied under German philosopher Horst Matthai Quelle. Since the early 90s, pez has been on the frontline of experimental writing and radical politics on both sides of the border.

His ruthless criticism has brought him admirers and detractors in English and Spanish. Controversies include the Olson Affair, in which Il Gruppo (Benjamin Hollander, Amiel Alcalay, et. al.) accused him of deliberately misreading Charles Olson in The Empire of Neomemory (ChainLinks, 2013), and regular Twitter-based confrontation with members of the American and Mexican cultural establishments.

When his weekly column of cultural journalism, Archivo Hache, was shut down, he finished off by saying: “I was critical in all directions. If I did not critique someone, I apologize for the oversight.” Ever since, Heriberto has favored blogs, social media, and other alternative options to traditional publishing. Last year, he worked on Mexiconceptual, a month-long project that involved him posting a different poem reflecting on the museum as an institution every day on a website. The texts would disappear 24 hours after being displayed and could only be read afterward through links shared on social media. It is now available in book form.

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