If you have yet to fully traverse the sensational depths of Asymptote‘s Summer 2019 issue: “Dreams and Reality,” you can step out on the roadmap written by our blog editors, who have refined their selections—with considerable difficulty—to a handful of their favourite pieces. Between an erudite Arabic mystery, non-fiction from Romania’s foremost feminist writer and theorist, and a tumultuous psychological short story which delves into our perception of sanity, this reading list is a doorway into the vast cartography of this issue, unfurling into the rich imagination and profundity of the heights in world literature.
Something about summertime makes me want to read detective fiction, so I was excited to learn that Asymptote’s Summer 2019 issue, released this past Thursday, features a murder mystery. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the story in question, “Culprit Unknown” by Naguib Mahfouz, was originally written in Arabic. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy Swedish mysteries just as much as you do—but I think we can all agree that the Scandinavians have had a monopoly on detective fiction in translation for far too long.
“Culprit Unknown,” translated by Emily Drumsta, follows Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari as he tries to solve a series of grisly murders. Muhsin does everything he can, but each killing is a perfect crime: the murderer leaves not a single trace behind, and as the deaths pile up, the tension in the neighborhood becomes unbearable. Besides pacing the story perfectly, Mahfouz infuses “Culprit Unknown” with light humor and unexpected (but welcome) philosophical musings, as in the exchange below:
It seems that national literatures around the world are shaping their next representatives as we receive further updates of new works by authors from around the globe. From publications by a Guatemalan indie press, to a remarkably young award honouree in Brazil, to a historic list of nominations for the most prestigious literary prizes in Japan, our editors are bringing you a glimpse of what is in your—and your bookshelf’s—future.
José García Escobar, Editor-at Large, reporting from Central America
The biggest book fair in Central America, the Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala (FILGUA) is only a few weeks away. And like every year, on the days leading to FILGUA, the Guatemalan indie press Catafixia has been announcing its newest drafts. Mid-July, Catafixia will put out books by Manuel Orestes Nieto (Panama), Jacinta Escudos (El Salvador), and Gonçalo M. Tavares (Angola-Portugal).
Additionally, this year’s FILGUA marks the tenth anniversary of Catafixia, which has helped launch the careers of poets like Vania Vargas and Julio Serrano Echeverría.
Last month, Costa Rican press los tres editores put out Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa by Argentine author Patricio Pron, who won the Alfaguara Prize in 2019. los tres editores have previously published books by Luis Chavez, Mauro Libertella, and Valeria Luiselli.
On the bicentenary of her birth, Polish writer Narcyza Żmichowska is more relevant than ever. Though only one of her novels has been translated into English, her poetry, letters, and prose influenced feminist thinkers for generations after her death. Read on to learn about Żmichowska’s portrayals of same-sex relationships and her forward-thinking views on womanhood and religion.
Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876), author of novels, other prose including educational tracts, poetry, and a vast lifelong correspondence, is regarded by feminists and literary historians as the first Polish woman writer to focus on women’s experiences and issues that particularly affected women’s lives. Often referred to as a “proto-feminist,” she was in fact a feminist by any standard, that is, someone who analysed discrimination against women on grounds of their gender and fought against it, in her case with the pen. She was not a “suffragette” fighting for political rights. The political context of the nineteenth-century Polish lands, divided since 1795 between three partitioning empires, where Polish men also had no political rights, is crucial to understanding the emphasis of her struggle; free-thinking women of her generation were confronted not only by a conservative, predominantly Catholic society with its ideologically entrenched ideals of womanhood, but also by political censorship that suppressed any mention of Polish political independence. That said, many of the issues Narcyza Żmichowska addressed were, in broad terms, similar to those addressed by women across Europe. Well-read in French but also other literatures in French translation and abreast of major developments in European science, including Darwinism, Żmichowska was a European writer par excellence, a fact generally unappreciated thanks to the relative obscurity of nineteenth-century women writing in Polish and other “periphery” languages, caused by their marginalisation by traditional mainstream literary criticism in their own countries and by the lack of translations.
Duanwad Pimwana is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Thai literature. As enigmatic as she is celebrated, Pimwana is known for her incisive social observation. Having built her career initially as a journalist and short-story writer, she’s now published nine books in Thai, spanning a variety of genres. Two of these, the novel Bright and the short-story collection Arid Dreams, will be published by Two Lines Press and the Feminist Press respectively this April. Both texts were translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
Pimwana’s narratorial perspective is that of a fly on the wall, but one with a loud, pumping, mammalian heartbeat. She is a master of conveying the melancholy contradictions that characterize human existence. Her characters often frustrate the readers’ sympathy, blurring the boundaries between such facilities as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “supporting character.” We take on their coexistent hope and despair, accompanying them as they’re tossed to the mercy of chance and fortune.
In Bright, six-year-old Kampol Changsamran gets left behind by both of his parents when an episode of violence and infidelity drives them both to flee their village and reestablish their lives elsewhere with other partners. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how young little Kampol is; he steps into his newfound freedom with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and wisdom that transcends his age. But in other moments, it’s all too clear that his maturity is a function of necessity. His dearest wish is to be once again embraced by the love and security of family. His neighbors, meanwhile, most of them hardly able to fill their own bellies, show a full spectrum of responses to their new collective charge.
Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.
Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?
Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.
Awards, new translations, and a poet working to help the homeless—all this and more awaits in today’s dispatches! From Hong Kong, Hungary, and Indonesia, our editors-at-large have the latest updates.
Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong, reporting from Hong Kong
In the last few months of 2018, Hong Kong saw the deaths of several literary greats, but with January comes commemoration and activity. Martial arts novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung, or “Jin Yong,” passed away on October 30, 2018, just half a year after the publication of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, the English translation of one of his emblematic wuxia series set during the Song Dynasty. A Bond Undone, the second volume of the quartet, will be published at the end of this month in Gigi Chang’s translation. Its release is likely to gain even more traction in the aftermath of the writer’s passing.
In this week’s dispatches, we cover Salvadoran literary news and a special Asymptote event! We begin in London, where members of the Asymptote Book Club came together to chat about our fall book selections—and much more. From there, we delve into updates from El Salvador, including the death of a renowned poet and a women’s literary gathering.
Marina Sofia, Marketing Manager, reporting from the UK
One of the downsides of working for an international literary journal is that our volunteers and readers are scattered all over the world, so in-person gatherings are a rarity. It was therefore all the more special to see members of the Asymptote Book Club in London on November 29 at our first ever meet-up. Designed to be an informal drop-in event to celebrate our first anniversary, it included a quick tour of the current Rights for Women exhibition at the Senate House Library, followed by a discussion over drinks at the recently-opened Waterstones bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. Although we had to compete with a parallel (and noisy) event, our spirits were undampened as we discussed the surprisingly pulpy historical fiction of Ahmet Altan (October’s title) and the acrobatic linguistic challenges of translating Thai writer Prabda Yoon (September’s title). It was a great opportunity to see what readers thought we were getting right (diverse selection of genres, languages and countries; high literary quality) and what they would like to see more of (questions for online discussion; face-to-face events, perhaps including publishers). Thank you to all who ventured out on a windy and rainy evening and contributed to the lively debates!
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.
Greetings from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), which has just concluded its second day. Here’s a bit of historical background: founded in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, the festival celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Since then, UWRF has successfully surmounted several challenges: In 2015, the local government censored festival discussions of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia; last year, volcanic activity took a toll on festival participation, with many attendees and speakers canceling their flights. This year, we (Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao) were both invited to speak at the festival in our capacity as writers, and we thought we would share some of our impressions so far.
On Wednesday, the festival held a press call immediately before the festival’s official opening gala event. The press call featured festival founders Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana, as well as some of the festival’s speakers, including Hanif Kureishi, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Avianti Armand, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu (hooray!). Ketut Suardana spoke about how they coined this year’s theme, Jagadhita – the world we create, and how we should live life according to dharma (goodness) and strive to attain ultimate happiness. When Norman was asked what he expected his writing to achieve, took the opportunity to observe that perhaps “goodness” and “happiness” shouldn’t be so universalized. Quoting a line from Marianne Katoppo, that “language is where theology begins,” he noted how we rarely refer to either concept in plural form. Such language places limitations on what it means to be happy and good, pressuring queer communities in Indonesia to conform to society and engage in self-erasure. Reni, when asked what advice she had for Indonesian feminists, humbly answered that she isn’t in a position to suggest anything to them without listening to them first since their experiences are very culturally specific and very different from hers as a British-Nigerian woman.
From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!
Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:
The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.
Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.
Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?
Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!
This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.