It is difficult to convey just how excited I was when I learned that a festival devoted to Indigenous and culturally diverse Australian writers would be taking place this year. I immediately blocked off the date in my calendar, eagerly followed announcements of the festival’s lineup and official program, and counted down the days. On the long-awaited morning, I cheerfully thanked my spouse in advance for minding our toddler, clambered into my car, and sped off to the western suburbs of Sydney to have my mind blown by the incredible experience that would be Boundless 2017.
"We are the Other with a capital 'O'; we are the back corner of the book shop; we are the addition, we are the afterthought."
Our Guatemala Editor-at-Large interviews Zee Edgell about history and politics seeping into her fiction and Belize as a character.
Zelma Edgell is Belize’s most celebrated writer. Zee, as she’s better known, has also worked as a teacher and journalist. Zee’s first novel, Beka Lamb deals with the relationship between Beka, her best friend Toycie and their conservative community. Published in 1982, Beka Lamb has since become a classic of Belizean literature.
Three novels later, Zee continues her exploration and analysis of Belize’s history, political turbulence, and racial structure. In her second book, In Times Like These (1991), we’re thrown right in the middle of Belize’s independence. In 1997 Zee published The Festival of San Joaquin in which we get a glimpse of the way religion has shaped the country’s traditions and inhabitants. With Time and the River Zee presented yet another facet of Belizean history: slavery.
Zee regards Belize as one of her characters. Belize affects her as a writer and becomes the environmental engine of her protagonists. Belize shapes the community that psychologically cornered Toycie in Beka Lamb; it affects Pavana’s motivations in In Times Like These. Belize is often not only a compassionate and beautiful landscape but also the driving force of the elements that pull at and constrict Zee’s characters.
Formerly known as the British Honduras, Belize is sandwiched between Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea, and is the only country in the isthmus with English as the official language. Zee attributes Belize’s disconnection to Central America’s literary scene to this idiomatic difference. However, her work—and that of her peers—is historically and creatively crucial to the region, defining Latin America’s literary contemporaneity.
—Asymptote Guatemala Editor-at-Large José García Escobar
José García Escobar (JGE): I am curious about your creative upbringing. Can you describe your experience of growing up in Belize, and your relationship with art
Zelma Edgell (ZE): In primary school, I participated in yearly school entertainments. We sang Belizean patriotic songs and listened to marching bands and marimba. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we listened to Garifuna drummers and watched their dances. We also acted out scenes from plays. Also, during the school year, we regularly attended masses at the cathedral. In that sense, yes, I was close to creative activities.
JGE: What were some of the early authors that shaped your reading and writing habits?
ZE: Some of the authors that I read in high school were William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Outside of school, I read a large a variety of writers, including books by Mark Twain.
JGE: Any Belizean or Caribbean writers?
ZE: As a young girl, I read the work of Belizean poets. I started reading the work of Caribbean writers when I was in my late twenties or thirties. READ MORE…
Delhi is in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.
After our feature on studying language in South Asia on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence, we focus once again on the complex social and linguistic landscape of the subcontinent. Sneha Khaund reviews Man Booker Prize shortlisted author and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awardee Initizar’s Hussain’s loving, nostalgic account of Delhi that has been recently translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah and published by Yoda Press. The Pakistani author (1923-2016) is widely recognized as a great Urdu writer and was a regular literary columnist for Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was created by partitioning colonial era India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Hussain’s acclaimed novel Basti, published in 1979 and later translated into English, addressed the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent. As this review argues, the issues of secularism and language politics are as important in contemporary times as they were during the Partition.
As I reflect on the themes of the book I wish to dwell on in this review, my attention is interrupted by bits of information pouring in through news channels and the internet. A self-styled godman has been convicted of raping two of his former disciples. His followers are spread across Haryana and Punjab, neighbouring states of Delhi where I am writing from. The judgement has come fifteen years after the charges were made, during which period he has cultivated a flamboyant personal image, complete with movies and music videos. On Friday, the time leading up to the verdict was fraught with tension as the media speculated whether his followers would riot if he was convicted. The police had emergency preparations on stand-by, including three stadiums to hold people after arrests. Violence erupted after the verdict, as feared, and at last count, thirty people have died. Curfew has been imposed on parts of northern India and there has been an internet block-out in certain parts so that rumours don’t spread and incite fresh violence.
The deafening silence in the wake of violence in the modern state—whether it is Darjeeling, Kashmir, Punjab, or Haryana—is with what Intizar Hussain begins Once There Was a City Named Dilli. Hussain starts the first chapter by saying that he had arrived in Delhi “two and a half or three years after Partition” (3) and had headed to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin where he was taken aback by the silence that greeted him instead of the usual hustle and bustle. His surprise will be relatable to modern day readers familiar with the shrine of the Sufi saint in the heart of Delhi that draws throngs of devotees and tourists alike and is located close to one of the busiest railway stations in India. We wonder if a hush has fallen over the city in the aftermath of the violence of Partition, but Hussain draws a larger arc of history.
As he searches in vain for the nineteenth century Urdu poet Ghalib’s grave while the melancholy scream of a lonely peacock tears through the “dusk of that sad evening” (6), he is struck with amazement at how many times the city has been plundered and resettled. Thus begins Hussain’s quest to write the history of Delhi as a series of plunders, conquests, settlements. “Who were the settlers, who were settled?”, he writes. As scholars such as Romila Thapar have shown, these are complex questions because they carry within them the issue of who is the legitimate citizen of India. Both colonialist and nationalist historiography have been guilty of perpetuating the perception that Islam came to India by way of the sword, through figures such as Nadir Shah and Timur. Hussain then proceeds to draw up a historical narrative of the city from the time of the mythical Pandavas of Mahabharat, the period of Islamic dynasties, the colonial era where India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, ending finally with the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century that eventually led to the creation of two nation states—India and Pakistan.
A review of the first novel translated from Lingala, an African language spoken by between 7 and 10 million people.
Richard Ali A Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It begins curiously enough with a list of items that its protagonist, Ebamba, and his family must procure as a bride price to obtain the hand of his girlfriend, Eyenga. Over the opening pages, the goods range from the mundane (three bags of rice), to the supposedly traditional (baskets of kola nuts), and the extravagant (two three-piece Versace suits). As negotiations carry on and break down, with the would-be bride questioning the need for this process altogether, a rain-storm recalling the one that wipes Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo off the map in Cien años de soledad forces everyone inside to conduct business inside the house. Everyone decides to pause for a while as due to the leaky roof “people [run] out of dry places to sit” and “The rain is coming down as if someone had opened a giant faucet and the family is frantically putting out more and more buckets to protect the carpet” (12).
Despite the optimism one may glean from this inauspicious opening’s relation to the work’s title (Mr. Fix-It being a stylized translation of Ebamba’s name, which literally means “mender” in Lingala), the rain stands in for the larger structural problems faced by the people of Kinshasa at home and within the world economy. For example, “the Chinese” paved the now flooded street and put in the stopped-up sewers, and the residents themselves are at a loss to explain the failed development project. Some blame poor Chinese workmanship, others the neighborhood’s witches. Whatever the explanation, the roads are flooded and the sewers broken. And what about that roof? The astute reader of African literature will thus find the novel taking up colonialism’s inescapable structuring of the present as found in novels such as Chinua Achebe’s often overlooked No Longer at Ease (1960). As with the main character of Achebe’s novel, the orphaned Ebamba obtains an education but enters a broader economy where power relations, colonial and otherwise, shape one’s destiny regardless of one’s talents or intents. The mayor, the president, and the director of a company where Ebamba applies for a job all lack names, suggesting the utter dehumanization connected to dealing with them. Yet the novel reminds us that, these difficulties aside, Ebamba, the mender, remains the master of his own fate, and the choices that lead to his destruction are his alone.
Jessie Stoolman on the first book ever to be translated to English from Wolof, an indigenous language of Senegal.
Doomi Golo is the first book to be translated into English from Wolof, an indigenous language widely spoken in Senegal. In its interesting linguistic journey, the Francophone author Boubacar Boris Diop has also personally translated the novel from Wolof to French.
The protagonist Nguirane Faye’s six notebooks written for his grandson compose the heft of the novel. One of the many iconic passages in the book tackles a central question facing the decolonizing world:
I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death. It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing. Life, after all, is not born out of the void.
Every aspect of Diop’s masterpiece, from its content to choice of language to its translation, addresses this struggle to preserve marginalized identities in a globalized context. It is unsurprising that this pioneering novel was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award 2017, founded by Three Percent.
Interestingly, Diop decided to translate Doomi Golo from Wolof after being “inundated with requests,” according to Vera Wülfing-Leckie, one of the two translators of the English version. Adding intrigue to the situation, Wülfing-Leckie notes in her captivating introduction that some scholars argue that the French version, entitled Les petits de la guenon, “was a new novel that merely bore close similarities to the original.“ As for the English translation, Wülfing-Leckie mainly worked with the French version. However, El Hadji Moustapha Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop’s son and the second person in the translating duo, consulted the Wolof version as well.
“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”
In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness.
This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997), launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.
A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).
Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.
"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.
Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.
Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.
During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.
Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?
Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time. Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.
It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.
Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics. I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world. I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.
I would advise that a reader approach Finnegans Wake like a work of art—a composition of sounds and colors, music and painting...
Can Finnegans Wake be translated into another language? As the joke well-known amongst Joyceans goes, “Which language are you translating it from?”
If it is possible to translate Finnegans Wake, the next question might be: who on earth is willing and able to undertake such a task? Who even has the time to translate this work Joyce spent 17 years writing?
The Wake has been translated into French twice. Philippe Lavergne translated the book in the early 1980s, but unsatisfied with this edition, Hervé Michel has spent the last two decades working on a translation of his own.
Michel was born to French parents, in 1950s Morocco. He spent his youth “wandering across Europe, America, Africa and the Near East.” From 1979 until 1984 he lived in Casablanca, studying Arabic. Michel joined the French civil service in 1986 and eventually attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). With an annual acceptance rate of only 6%, ENA is an extremely elite graduate school for French government administrators and officials. After a decade of varied work ranging from finance to international relations, in 1996 Michel accepted a high-ranking position within the French Ministry of Defense.
In his spare time, Michel reads the Wake. He first encountered the book in 1980 and began translating the text in 1997. He has tried at various times to find a publisher for his translation, but the audience for Finnegans Wake translations is limited. In 2004 Michel decided to publish his translation as Veillée Pinouilles online, a format that allows him to make ongoing updates and revisions à la Leaves of Grass.
As Michel prepared to retire from his career in the civil service, he graciously took the time to speak with me about this longstanding fascination with the Wake. The interview was conducted over email, a format allowing for conversation as well as textual elucidation and analysis.
Derek Pyle (DP): How did you first get interested in Joyce?
Hervé Michel (HM): My interest first went to Finnegans Wake, not to James Joyce. By 1985, I had returned to Paris from a five-year sojourn in Morocco—a country where I happened to be born and raised from 1950 to 1962 and where I had returned with my newly-met wife Constance Hélène in 1980—where I had spent a jolly good time studying Arabic and reading the Qur’an. Back in Paris I felt compelled to go to the Galignani English bookshop on Rue de Rivoli to buy Finnegans Wake, on the back cover of which I discovered the man-in-the-street allure of James Joyce which was a sort of a shock. For me, Finnegans Wake was the Sacred Scripture of the Modern Era. I was not to be deceived by a text displaying all the phatic function I expected and smearing a thick semiotic matter, so I immediately felt the need to have it rendered in French.
DP: So you began with Finnegans Wake. Did you go the bookshop specifically seeking out the Wake? Or did it just one day catch your eye, while you were in the bookshop? Can you also explain a bit more what you mean that this was a text ”displaying all the phatic function… and smearing a thick semiotic matter”?
HM: Reference to James Joyce was paramount in the French literary critique between 1960 and 1980, people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, all drove me to consider Finnegans Wake as the nexus of the modern literary fabric, which I, with my gross ignorance of the finesse of the English language and of the encyclopedic richness of Joyce’s culture, took at first as the thick material somebody like Jackson Pollock smeared on his canvasses, but eventually I craved to emulate this latter Indian creation dance myself with the French language.
Sawad Hussain reviews part 1/12 of Ahmed Fagih's compelling, complex epic of the heart.
It has been a while since I have come across a novel that not only keeps me spellbound but educates me thoroughly. Maps of the Soul, written by Ahmed Fagih and brilliantly translated by Thoraya Allam and Brian Loo, is such a work.
Set during the early 1930s in a Libya ruled by Italian colonialist Italo Balbo, Fagih introduces the reader to the louche neighborhoods of Tripoli alongside the glamorous lives of the prosperous (mostly Italian) elite. Tripoli, its architecture, markets, residents and nightlife are described in such vivid and palpable detail that it lends the novel a cinematic feel. A piece of historical fiction, Maps of the Soul is actually the first three installments of a much larger, twelve-part body of work.
The book opens with the gripping scene of the protagonist Othman al-Sheikh waiting to be executed. To his right, fellow Italian army soldiers are having their heads methodically chopped off by an Abyssinian warrior armed with a knife the length of a sword. As heads roll and blood spurts across the narrator’s face, we are transported back into time to supposedly understand how Othman al-Sheikh comes to end up with neck exposed, primed to be severed. The author’s decision to write in second person endows the novel with a personal sense of urgency that swiftly pulls the reader into the action, and propels the story forward effortlessly, and the translation has skillfully rendered an otherwise difficult form in English. READ MORE…
Shadab Zeest Hashmi wonders if language is "luggage," borrowed—or her very own
Home and flux mean the same in a land named after a severance, or the great “partition” of the subcontinent: a paradox of freedom-and-loss, umbilical-cord-and-scissors. Born in Pakistan, a country that emerged on the world map after the collapse of the British Raj and the largest mass migration in human history, “permanence” is forever in the shadow of exile.
If poetry seeks who we are, I’ve found myself searching in language, not land. Land, in its aspects worth remembering, becomes language. If I carry language, I carry land. What is exile, then, if not a road paved for poets, permanent wayfarers?
I came to America as a college student. In Passage Work, the first series of poems I completed as my senior thesis at Reed, I wondered: why write in English, the language of the colonist? Have I taken language as a loan for poetry? Have I betrayed Urdu? In these earliest poems, I call language “luggage,” a historical-personal luggage, both burden as well as reason for being. READ MORE…
A racist tradition is cherished in the Netherlands
When you think of the Dutch contributions to pop music, you might find yourself drawing a blank, albeit perhaps one decorated with some tulips, marijuana leaves, and gay marriage. There’s no reason to, really, you only have to listen to the Van Halen boys (who share my hometown, as I recently found out), the fantastic “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, or Morrissey favorites Shocking Blue, a 1960s combo whose songs were made famous by bands as diverse as Bananarama (“Venus”) and Nirvana (“Love Buzz”). READ MORE…