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.
Room in Rome, by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, translated from the Spanish by David Shook, Cardboard House Press, 2019
That are not knots
And knots that are only
- Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson once said of César Vallejo: “There is no superfluousness in Vallejo’s poetry, just as there isn’t any in Christian mysticism, although for opposite reasons”. This reason, according to Eielson, is that Vallejo’s poetry, as opposed to Christian mysticism that supposes a martyrdom of the body, is “a descent of the body—fleshly and social—into hell, that supposes another martyrdom, that of the soul.”
- Eielson writes the fleshly and social descent of the body into the Eternal City. Just looking at the title of the opening poem confirms Eielson’s commitment to the body: “Blasphemous Elegy for Those Who Live in the Neighborhood of San Pedro and Have Nothing to Eat.” Room in Rome was written in 1952, shortly after he had left Peru for Italy, where he would settle until his death in 2006. Vallejo, his hero, would also leave Peru for France. Despite this, Eielson’s book was widely available until 1977. During this period, he produced the novel El cuerpo de Gulia-no (The Body of Gulia-no). Again, its title suggests a rigorous investigation of the body and its descent into the worldly. Eielson would write, in 1955, Noche oscura del cuerpo (The Dark Night of the Body)—a shout-out to the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross.)
- “i have turned / my patience / into water / my solitude / into bread”
“here i am headless and shoeless”
“our father who art in the water”
“love will be reborn/ between my parched lips”
Mars by Asja Bakić, translated from the Croatian by Jennifer Zoble, Feminist Press, 2019
From a journalist reporting from inside a cult village to children who are convinced their neighbor is a forest monster, the characters portrayed in Mars, the debut short story collection by Bosnian poet, writer, and translator Asja Bakić, are forced to figure out how to survive in their strange realities. Bakić, playing a role reminiscent of Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone,” carefully pushes aside the curtain on these parallel universes to underscore the uncanniness of everyday life. Each story in the collection takes place in a world that looks and feels familiar at first, but becomes stranger and more foreign the longer you spend in it.
Bakić was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, where she obtained a degree in Bosnian language and literature, two themes deeply explored in the collection. Mars, originally published under the same title in 2015, was shortlisted for the Edo Budiša Award. The stories shift seamlessly in genre from science fiction to dystopian horror, and Bakić deftly combines aspects of speculative fiction and realism to form a cohesive collection that explores universal issues. Bakić has a unique, perceptive voice and was selected as one of Literary Europe Live’s New Voices in 2017. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia. READ MORE…
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
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”
The April Asymptote Book Club selection sends us to Lebanon for the first time, trailing the footsteps of protagonist Samir as he searches for his father and “struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity.”
Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel, The Storyteller, “does for Lebanon what Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan, [pulling] away the curtain of grim facts and figures to reveal the intimate story of an exiled family torn apart by civil war and guilt.” The English version of the novel, co-translated by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, is available thanks to World Editions.
Our Book Club, catering to subscribers across North America and the EU (still including the UK!), has now published titles from seventeen different countries and thirteen different languages, and there’s still an opportunity to sign up for next month’s title via our website. If you’re already a member, join our online discussion here.
The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan, translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, World Editions, 2019
Reviewed by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
The protagonist of The Storyteller, Samir, is born in Germany to Lebanese parents who fled their country’s civil war in the 1980s. Like many of his real-life contemporaries, he struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity. Grazing liberally from various cultures for its influences and allusions, Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel weaves between a past that feels too recent to be considered one, a present that feels too immediate to be already written about, and a future too intangible to trust.
Looking for new books to read this April? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Thai, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. Read on to find out more about Clarice Lispector’s literature of exile, tales of a collection of eccentric villagers, and a comic book adaptation of Bertolt Brecht.
Tales of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht and Ulf K., translated from the German by James Reidel, Seagull Books, 2019
Review by Josefina Massot, Assistant Managing Editor
If Brecht’s bite-sized, biting tales of Mr. Keuner can be thought of as a corpus, it isn’t by virtue of their “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how”: they deal with everything from existentialism to Marxist politics, have often hazy settings, and run the gamut from parable to poem; it’s the titular “who” that pulls these sundry musings together.
Until recently, their fellowship was purely formal: Mr. Keuner (also known as Mr. K) was practically nondescript, a mere “thinking man” whom Walter Benjamin traced back to the Greek keunos and the German keiner—a universal no one. This seemingly baffling figure would have made sense given the original tales’ fifth W, their “why”: since they were meant to edify general audiences, they would have gained from as null a champion as possible. After all, a man stripped of his traits is stripped of individuality, untainted by bias; he is the ultimate thinker, the voice of global truth. READ MORE…
In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love.
Forbidden to pass by and stay
My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music
You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream: I don’t like what you say!
Looking for new books to read this year? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Kurdish, Dutch, and Spanish. Read on to find out more about Abdulla Pashew’s poems written in exile, Tommy Wieringa’s novel about cross-cultural identities, as well as Agustín Martínez cinematic thriller.
Dictionary of Midnight by Abdulla Pashew, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Phoneme Media (2018)
Review by Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong
Dictionary of Midnight is a collection of several decades of Abdulla Pashew’s poetry as he recounts the history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence. Translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, the work includes a map of contemporary Iraq and a timeline of Kurdish history for those unfamiliar with the plight of the Kurds, something Pashew, one of the most influential Kurdish poets alive today, has taken upon himself to convey and to honor.
The Asymptote Book Club enters its second year with a first African title: Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago, is a moving tribute to the author’s mother, one of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide.
After visits to Turkey and Croatia in the previous two months, we again find ourselves confronting “the dark and bloody face of history” through the mirror of prose. Mukasonga’s homage to her mother, though, “radiates . . . with warmth and affection,” in the words of our reviewer. “This slim memoir,” says Alyea Canada, “is a haunted and haunting love letter.”
Head to our online discussion page to add your voice to the discussion on The Barefoot Woman. All the information you need to subscribe for future Book Club selections is available on our Asymptote Book Club site, together with a full overview of our first twelve months.
This November, we’re celebrating the first full year of the Asymptote Book Club. Over the last twelve months, the Book Club has brought its subscribers newly-translated fiction from twelve different languages, taking readers on a journey from the Arctic Circle down to the forests of Bengal, from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century to Bangkok in the postmodern era.
For our November Book Club selection, we’re excited to be showcasing one of the most powerful novels written since the independence of Croatia: a breathtakingly original coming-of-age story set in the aftermath of perhaps the most shocking massacre in recent European history.
For more information on Ivana Bodrožić’s The Hotel Tito, published in English by Seven Stories Press, read Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone’s review below or head to our online discussion group. If you’re not a Book Club member yet but would like to join us as we head into our second year, all the information you need is available on our Book Club page.
The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Seven Stories Press, 2018
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone
Literature, according to Ahmet Altan, is our best method of confronting “the dark and bloody face of history.” The Hotel Tito, which follows the first volume of Altan’s Ottoman Quartet as an Asymptote Book Club selection, spotlights a particularly dark and bloody episode of Europe’s recent past. Its chosen method of confronting history is no less courageous for being characterised by an impressively original subtlety and a surprising lightness of touch. While the earliest novels about the Yugoslav Wars (Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There perhaps foremost among them) seethe with raw energy and anger, Bodrožić’s equally harrowing stories are interspersed with moments of humour: the comedy serves to enhance the tragedy.
On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.
The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede. READ MORE…
Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing.
Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?
Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.