This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan.
Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature
The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictions—some cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.
In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.
For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.
In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them.
Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin
Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population.
Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock.
Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.
Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?
Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.
I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.
Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City
Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.
In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.
With the arrival of spring comes a new slate of literary translations, festivals, and events all over the world. In Iran, we follow the sprouting of two new literary journals and several translations challenging the country’s censorship laws; in Hungary, we look forward to the 26th Budapest International Book Festival and the season of literary awards; and in Brazil, we discover a range of upcoming events celebrating such topics as independent publishing, the Portuguese language, and International Women’s Day.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Iran
March 20 marked the spring equinox, Nowruz (the Persian New Year), and the celebrations around it. To see the previous year off and welcome the new one, in addition to providing their readers with reading material for the holiday season, Iranian journals have long published special issues, each covering a range of diverse topics including, but not limited to: economy, philosophy, sports, film, and literature.
September 11, for many around the world today, is a date that is filled with images of the horrifying attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. However, in the shadow of that attack is another September 11, one that took place nearly thirty years before the tragedy in America. The murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, marks the establishment of a brutal dictatorship in Chile. It is this date, as well as the latter September 11, that Carlos Soto Román contends with in his book 11. Erasure, algorithmic manipulation, and blank spaces take center stage in this evocative text, as Asymptote‘s Scott Weintraub discovers.
In his book-object 11—the winner of the 2018 Santiago Municipal Poetry Prize—Soto Román develops a material(ist) poetics steeped in absence, nothingness, the palimpsest, censorship, and the erased or altered quotation. He elaborates a profound politics of conceptualism in which no word or line is, strictly speaking, “by” the author himself. Soto Román’s writing, therefore, draws him near to certain North American poets associated with conceptualism in one way or another, such as Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place; his deep engagement with the ludic and the via negativa, however, allows one to associate him with the visual experiments of Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), the carefully cultivated disappearance of the author practiced by Juan Luis Martínez (1942-1993), and the deconstruction of institutionalized discourses employed by Rodrigo Lira (1949-1981).
For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.
Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa
Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.
“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.
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.
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.
In this week’s dispatches, we travel to Hong Kong to remember wuxia writer, Jin Yong, who passed away late in October. More recently, Hong Kong played host to an international literary festival that was unfortunately plagued by controversy. Elsewhere, National Novel Writing Month kicks off in the UK, even as two large publishing houses begin outreach initiatives, and another lands itself in a Twitter controversy.
Charlie Ng, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Hong Kong
In recent weeks, Hong Kong’s literary scene has been clouded by loss and anxiety. On October 30th, the prominent Hong Kong martial arts fiction writer Jin Yong passed away. His oeuvre of fifteen fictional works spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, and even popular computer games widely played by young and old alike in the Sinophone world. The Jin Yong Gallery at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has set up a condolence point for the public to commemorate the wuxia fiction master from November 13th to 30th.
At the same time, this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival took place from November 2nd to 11th. The festival experienced an unexpected setback when the main venue provider, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, abruptly decided to cancel the venues for two talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian, namely “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” and “Ma Jian: China Dream”. The English translation of Ma’s most recent work, China Dream, has just been published by Penguin Random House, while the original Chinese version is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher. The cancellation provoked a fierce reaction from local literary and cultural circles. PEN Hong Kong issued a statement to express the organisation’s concern over Tai Kwun’s self-censorship and its threat to Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Tai Kwun finally withdrew the cancellation and restored the events.
One of the festival’s panels, “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” (moderated by Asymptote’s Editor-At-Large for Hong Kong, Charlie Ng), featured a vibrant conversation between Hong Kong writers Ng Mei-kwan, Hon Lai-chu, and Ma Jian on the current state of Hong Kong literature and its possible future developments. The three writers affirmed the uniqueness of Hong Kong literature as a varied body of creative writing that expresses Hong Kong’s identity and experience and is shaped by special historical and linguistic contexts. In the nearly-cancelled “Ma Jian: China Dream” panel, Ma also engaged in a dialogue with moderator Maura Cunningham about his satirical dystopian novel China Dream, which presents a scathing portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s grand vision of national greatness.
Join us on this edition of What’s New in Translation to find out more about four new novels, from Amsterdam, Colombia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.
Childhood by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2018
Reviewed by Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor
The narrators in Gerard Reve’s Childhood are at that credulous stage of youth where hazy moral lines are easily trespassed, where curiosity and cruelty often intersect. All of Reve’s usual themes are here: taboo sexualities, the illusion of moral categories, the delicate balancing acts that prevent erotic love from teetering into violence. But the two novellas in Childhood transgress in unexpected ways, insofar as children’s very inexperience puts them outside the sphere of sin.
The first novella, Werther Nieland, is told by a boy named Elmer, who bounces between friends’ houses and other neighborhood locales, and whose longing to form a secret club is less a wish than an absolute necessity. After feeling an affinity for local boy Werther Nieland, he decides: “There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.” Why exactly Elmer is attracted to Werther never really gets explained. More confusing is the fact that as early as their first meeting Elmer feels the urge to abuse him.