Posts filed under 'feminism'

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Global literary news for global readers.

We’re back this week with important news and exciting new developments from the world of literature. Our Editors-at-Large in Mexico and Tunisia share the latest prizes, events and details relating to writers based within these regions. Tune in for more global updates next week! 

Sergio Sarano, Spanish Social Media Manager, reporting from Mexico: 

Jorge Volpi, one of Mexico’s most well-known authors, has won the very prestigious Alfagura Novel Prize for 2018. Alfagura is one of the most renowned publishing houses in the Spanish-speaking world, and the prize has previously gone to writers such as Elena Poniatowska (also the recipient of a Cervantes Prize), Laura Restrepo, and Andrés Neuman. The award consists of the publication of the novel and a very hefty sum of money: US$175,000, making it one of the richest prizes for fiction in the world. Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel) is a non-fiction novel in the vein of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; it takes up the notorious case of Israel Vallarta and Florence Cassez, a Mexican man and French woman accused of belonging to a kidnapping gang. The media eagerly covered the case, and it strained Mexican-French relations. Everyone in Mexico knows how the trial ended, but I’m sure the novel will be quickly translated into English—readers will be able to dig into this sordid story that weaves corruption, scandal, and diplomacy.

The Mexican literary community deeply mourned the death of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean antipoet. Numerous writers and poets voiced their debt to Parra and remembered his visits to Mexico in several media outlets. Honestly, very few Latin American writers can claim to have read his 1954 classic Poems and Antipoems and not wanting to become an antipoet. One of them was especially legendary: the time he went to Guadalajara to receive the first Juan Rulfo Prize (now called FIL Prize) back in 1991. There, Parra delivered his famous “Mai Mai Peñi” speech, in which he honored Juan Rulfo but at the same time ridiculed literary awards. One of its famous stanzas says: “The ideal speech / Is the one that doesn’t say a thing / Even though it seems like it says it all.” You can find “Mai Mai Peñi” and other classic mock-speeches in After-Dinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant.


In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.


Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.


Marianne Katoppo: The Frog who Left the Coconut Shell Far Behind

"Katoppo’s novels tell the story of independent women restrained by conservative men."

Writer and world-renowned feminist theologian Marianne Katoppo maintained that theology was rooted in language. Asymptote Indonesia Editor-at-Large and poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu makes the case that with her writing, Katoppo also challenged and defied the systemic injustices of Indonesian society that were inherent in language, too. Enjoy Norman’s beautiful essay in English and scroll down to read it in the original Indonesian. 

From approximately the 500 classic Malay proverbs that I had to memorize as a child, one of the proverbs I loved most was: ‘Like a frog under a coconut shell.’

The illustration is clear: a frog that never surpasses the boundaries of a coconut shell will only view the world as a dark, quiet, and limited place. If anyone were to tell it that there’s another world: a colorful and bright place, with music and an open natural landscape, this frog will say it’s a lie.

—Marianne Katoppo

“After all, language is where theology begins,” Marianne Katoppo writes in her revolutionary book, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology (1979).

She then presents an argument about how sexism and patriarchy in the church are rooted in language. She says that in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit Ruakh is feminine, which evolved into Pneuma, a gender-neutral form in Greek by the Septuaginta translator, and then changed into the masculine in Latin. “Therefore, the Trinity we have now is entirely male,” Katoppo concludes.

Indonesia is a nation where people’s lives are strongly driven by religion. This is clear even in the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state’s foundational philosophy: “Believe in the one Supreme God.” Thus, although the Indonesian language does not have the concept of gender in its grammar, it is unsurprising that the country’s religious institutions—which have been long dominated by men—have also contributed to an unfair system of privileges. Religious institutions often become the first barrier that “the other” has to face in order to be a whole individual.

Marianne Katoppo’s life was a constant battle against such oppressive structures. Born in 1943, Katoppo was raised in a family with feminist values. Her father was the minister of education of the short-lived State of East Indonesia (1946—1950), and he upheld gender equality among all of his ten children. Katoppo pursued her theological education at the Jakarta Theological Seminary before leaving Indonesia and continuing her theological studies in Switzerland, Japan, England, Korea, and Germany while also studying languages. Later, she continued to explore the edges of the world to teach feminist theology.

Katoppo’s interest in theology was entwined with her passion for languages. She published her first short story at the age of eight. Besides her seminal work, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology, Katoppo also published five novels: Dunia Tak Bermusim (A World with No Season, 1974), Raumanen (1977), Anggrek Tak Pernah Berdusta (The Orchid Never Lies, 1977), Terbangnya Punai (The Green Pigeon Flies Away, 1978), Rumah di Atas Jembatan (The House on the Bridge, 1981). She won the prestigious Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition in 1975 for Raumanen and became the first woman to win the SEA Write Award in 1982. Fluent in twelve languages, she translated Knut Hamsun, Nawal El Saadawi, and Elie Wiesel into Indonesian—all of which were published by Obor, a Catholic publishing house in Jakarta. Given the enormity of her achievements, I—born and raised in Indonesia—seriously believe that no Indonesian man has matched Katoppo’s accomplishments. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly roundup of global literary news and intrigue.

Ever get the feeling that even with all the news happening right now in the world, you’re still not getting enough? Well, that’s what we’re here for, keeping you covered with the latest in global literary news from our Editors-at-Large who are on the ground as we speak. This week we have reports about censorship and activism from Singapore and Mexico, as well as important news about festivals and prizes in the UK, and much, much more. 

Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore: 

The Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA)―launched in 2014 to revive the Singapore Arts Festival, a landmark event in Southeast Asia’s arts calendar―drew to a close this week, concluding a month of theatre, film, music, and visual arts shows. These included a number of international partnerships such as Trojan Women, a Korean retelling of Homer’s epic directed by the SIFA’s founding festival director Ong Keng Sen; as well as Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Australian theatre practitioner Edith Podesta and Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Sonny Liew, who previously had his funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council for his alternative political history of Singapore.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian to mark his final year as festival director, Ong (who has previously spoken out against the censorship of SIFA’s programs by the government) lamented the “restrictive” attitudes of state funding agencies towards the arts, and said that he felt “drained by the fighting” of the past four years. His successor, fellow theatre practitioner Gaurav Kripalani―currently artistic director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre―struck a more conciliatory position earlier this year, saying that he would opt for increasingly “mainstream” programming.


Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.

Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in literary news around the globe, all in one place.

If, like us, you can’t start the weekend without knowing what the literary world’s been up to this past week, we’ve got your back. We have dispatches from Central America, the United States and Indonesia with a real tasting board of talks, events and new publications. Wherever you’re based, we’re here to provide you with news that stays news. 

Editor-At-Large for Guatemala, José García, reports on events in Central America: 

Today Costa Rica’s book fair, the twentieth Feria del Libro 2017, kicked off in San José. During its nine days, CR’s fair will offer concerts, book readings, release events, and seminars. This year’s Feria will have the participation of writers like Juan Villoro (Mexico), Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica), Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner Rita Dove (United States), Horacio Castellanos Moya (El Salvador), and Mayra Santos-Febres (Puerto Rico), among others.

Some of the books to be presented or discussed during the fair are Larisa Quesada’s En Piel de Cuervos, Alfonso Chase’s Piélagos, Carlos Francisco Monge’s Nada de todo aquello, Isidora Chacón’s Yo Bruja, and Luis ChávesVamos a tocar el agua. Also, the renown Costa Rican writer Carlos Fonseca, famous for his first novel Coronel Lágrimas that was translated into English by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books, will talk about his sophomore book, Museo Animal on September 2.

In Guatemala, the indie press Magna Terra continued the promotion of many of its titles released during this year’s Guatemalan Book Fair. On August 17 they officially presented Pablo Sigüenza Ramírez’s Ana es la luna y otros cuentos cotidianos. Also, they continue to push Pedro Pablo Palma’s Habana Hilton, about the most personal side of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, during his time in Guatemala and his early years in Cuba.

Fellow Guatemalan indie press, Catafixia Editorial recently finished a local tour that included their participation in FILGUA, the international poetry festival of Quetzaltenango FIPQ, and a quick visit to Comalapa, for the presentation of Oyonïk, by the twenty-two-year-old poet, Julio Cúmez. Additionally, Catafixia is preparing for their participation in the IV Encuentro de Pensamiento y Creación Joven en las Américas in Habana Cuba next month. And recently they announced the inclusion of writer, poet, and guerrilla leader Mario Payeras to their already impressive roster; they have yet to share which of Mario’s books they will republish.

Finally, Guatemalan writer, Eduardo Halfon, has a new book coming out August 28 titled Duelo (Libros Asteroide).


Camila von Holdefer on the State of Literary Criticism in Brazil

The critic, as a general rule, is someone who must know how to take a beating and how to hit back.

Camila von Holdefer, 28, is a Brazilian literature critic and philosophy academic. She publishes her reviews on her own website, in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, and on the Moreira Salles Institute blog and the Carambaia Publishing House’s blog, among others. In this interview, building on her ten-piece series on literary criticism in Brazil, she elaborates on some of the issues surrounding the literary readership in Brazil, as well as Brazilian book publishing in general and the role of the critic.

Maíra Mendes Galvão (MMG): As an opener to this interview, I’d love it if you could give us a brief description of the present Brazilian literature scene, from your point of view and a panorama of literary criticism in Brazil: who are the critics, where do they publish, where does the readership go in search of references?

Camila von Holdefer (CvH): Brazilian literature, it seems to me, is in a much better position than its criticism. Not long ago, writer Sérgio Sant’Anna published a piece in the newspaper Estadão insinuating that there’d been an explosion in the number of authors. Many people scoffed at his statement, but that is more or less what’s happening, I mean, Sant’Anna is right. There is a large number of published authors now. This happened because of an increase in both the number of small, quality publishing houses and the availability of self-publishing platforms and services that have little to no concern at all about the quality of the work.

So, what transpires is that it isn’t very difficult to get published. Actually, it’s never been easier. Consequently, the critics are faced with an amount of new books that they will never get around to reading. If there are three or four truly exceptional writers among the newcomers, it is unlikely that we’ll manage to get to them. And this is because there is a huge demand that reviewers can no longer meet. I get around ten e-mails a week from authors asking me to review their books. There isn’t the least chance that I will manage one third of that. Even with a joint effort by the critics, there wouldn’t be enough outlets where we could publish those reviews. There are few supplements, independent or in newspapers, that are still printing (or posting) reviews. The Ilustrada supplement of Folha de S.Paulo is one of them, perhaps the one that’s most attuned to diversity. O Globo and Estadão also include some reviews from time to time. There is Suplemento Pernambuco, with good articles and reviews, and Jornal Rascunho, of mixed quality (some collaborators are excellent, some are terrible: it’s all or nothing).


In Conversation: Ottilie Mulzet on Multilingualism, Translation, and Contemporary Literary Culture: Part II

But his was a mind that never stopped questioning and was exquisitely attuned to the pain of the world.

Here to relieve the unbearable suspense we left you in after part I are Julia Sherwood and Ottilie Mulzet, picking up where they left off in their chat about Mulzet’s translations from Hungarian and Mongolian, and more! 

JS: Not all translators take on both fiction and poetry, but you have also translated Szilárd Borbély’s poetry for Asymptote, and your revised and expanded collection of his Berlin-Hamlet came out in the US last year. In what ways is your approach different when translating poetry and prose?  And given that in Hungary, Szilárd Borbély was primarily known as a poet, there is a whole treasure trove out there waiting for the English reader—are you planning to tackle any more of his poetry?

OM: I’ve actually already translated two other volumes by Borbély: Final Matters: Sequences, and To the Body: Odes and Legends. Final Matters has been described as a monument to his mother, who was murdered by thugs who broke into her home in a tiny village on the night before Christmas Eve, 1999. She was murdered brutally in her bed, Borbély’s father was left for dead but survived. (He passed away in 2006.) Borbély was the one who found them, and well, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to picture the unspeakably deep trauma this must have occasioned.

Final Matters is like a three-part memorial to her, although it doesn’t address her murder directly; instead, Borbély employs allegorical language—he drew his inspiration for the first part from central European Baroque folk poetry about Christ and the Virgin Mary, in particular the poetry of Angelus Silesius—to talk about death and the body. There’s a lot of brutally direct detail and philosophical language at the same time. In reading The Dispossessed, though, you see exactly where this comes from—the little boy is confronted with brutal details all day long, but in his own mind, he is preoccupied with abstraction, his love for prime numbers. In the second part of Final Matters, Borbély turns to the myth of Amor and Psyche to explore questions of physicality and immateriality. And in the third part, he reworks another part of Hungarian religious-poetic culture that’s been largely forgotten: the legends and parables of the Hungarian-speaking Szatmár Hassidic Jews from Hungary’s rural northeast. (Now, of course, the Szatmár region is mostly in Romania, and the Szatmár Hassidim, except for the Yiddish-speaking Satmari in Brooklyn, were almost all murdered in the Holocaust.) And yet through these three sections, which he terms ‘Sequences’, he causes the three great western traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and the world of the ancient Greeks—to confront each other, form a dialogue with each other; they all cause the others to be seen in a different light.


What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month


Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.


In Conversation: Ottilie Mulzet on Multilingualism, Translation, and Contemporary Literary Culture

"One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian..."

Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014. Her recent translations include Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (Seagull Books, 2016); The Dispossessed (HarperCollins, 2016); and Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély (NYRB Poets, 2016); forthcoming is her version of Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017), as well as Krasznahorkai’s The Homecoming of Baron Wenckheim (New Directions). She is also working on an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends. In 2016 she served as one of the judges of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation competition and is on the jury for the 2017 ALTA National Translation Award in Prose.

Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, spoke with Mulzet via email. Below is the first part of their enlightening correspondence. Stay tuned for part 2!

Julia Sherwood (JS): You translate from the Hungarian, are doing a PhD in Mongolian and are based in Prague.  Your recent Asymptote review of Richard Weiner’s Game for Real shows that you also have an impressive command of Czech, enabling a close reading of the original and an in-depth review of the translation. How did your involvement with Hungarian begin and what is it like to live between all these languages?

Ottilie Mulzet (OM): Part of the difference is due to my involvement with each of these languages.  I started studying Hungarian because of my family background (two of my grandparents emigrated from Hungary), although I didn’t speak it as a child. I decided to learn it in adulthood as the result of some kind of fatal attraction, I guess, and never even realized I would end up translating. Hungarian grammar struck me as being so strange that I couldn’t wait to get onto the next lesson to see if what followed could possibly be any stranger than what I just learnt. I used a hopelessly out-of-date textbook with pen-and-ink illustrations of women in 1950s coiffures having a cigarette in front of a prefabricated housing estate. They spent their evenings complimenting each other on their clothes, sipping tea and playing match games, all the while making sure they were back at their parents’ houses by 8 pm. In retrospect, this textbook actually encoded, along with Hungarian grammar, a manual to the kind of “petty bourgeois-dom” that was so characteristic of central European socialism in the 1980s.


An illustration from my first Hungarian textbook. Here we are introduced to Mr. Comrade Nagy, and his lovely wife, Mrs. Comrade Nagy.

I learned Czech more for practical reasons, because of living in Prague, but there are many aspects of the language I’ve come to love, not least its humour and slang. I try to keep up with what’s going on in Czech literature, although I don’t translate from it.  One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian—at Charles University, an institution with extraordinary language pedagogy with roots in the pre-war Prague Linguistic Circle, and an astonishing array of languages on offer—from Manchurian and Jagnobi (a descendant of Sogdian) to Jakut and Bengali. One can only hope, given the current trend toward mindless rationalisation, i.e. shutting down whatever seems too impractical or exotic, that the university will stay that way. It’s impossible to understand anything really essential about another culture without knowing something about the language: and the more you know about the language, the better off you are.


Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part VI

she will continue her quest / for a world bereft of homes.

We’re thrilled to present the sixth and final installment of our Indian Languages Special Feature here at the blog. This time, Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us an inside look at the life of the featured poet via the following interview. Thanks for sticking with us on our tour of the language-rich Indian subcontinent! 

Images of writer Salma receiving honours and awards from Chief Ministers and Presidents line the living room walls of her Chennai flat. It’s the home of an acclaimed public figure, but she has fought to be able to declare this success as a writer, even to herself. Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and married at nineteen into a conservative family, Salma had to hide her identity as a writer. Her years of struggle as an imprisoned woman are well recorded, including in an award-winning documentary by Kim Longinotto. Her poems, short stories, and novels are deeply melancholic reflections on life as a woman in her culture. “I don’t think I have ever felt happy. Not even when I receive recognition for my work. I always feel a sense of sorrow, having lost a lot,” she said during our interview.

“How did you reach my apartment? Did you take a taxi?” she asks. My scooter gets a nod of approval. “Parava illaye!” [“Not bad!”] A woman must have mobility. She sits down with a newspaper upon which she cleans and removes spinach leaves from their stems to prepare lunch, while we speak about her life and art. Later, she takes a picture with me and the spinach as a rebuke to Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan, who once insulted a bank teller, suggesting she was not capable even of picking spinach leaves.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, translated by the interviewer and Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor, Janani Ganesen, as well as one of Salma’s poems, translated by N Kalyan Raman.

Janani (J): Your life and struggle has been widely recorded. Yet, for the sake of our readers, I hope you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. You grew up in a cloistered environment. How did you access books?

Salma (S): There was a library in my town that I liked going to. It wasn’t big, but I read as much as I could. In those days, New Century Book House used to bring out translations of Russian writers. I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. I read and admired Tamil writers like Balakumaran. But it is from these Russian greats that I got a sense of what literature is about. I also read Periyar and wondered, “Why am I not being allowed to go to school or do the things that my brother is allowed to do? How am I different?” I felt angry.

J: When did you start writing?

S: Although I wrote my first short story when I was in class seven, I wouldn’t look at it as my beginning. It was about a woman, whose husband abandons her and yet she goes back to help him when he is in need. I was influenced by the movies I watched and what older people told me: “Kallanalum Kanavan.” [“A husband remains a husband even when he is hard like a stone.”]

I would say my writing career began with the publication of the poem “Swasam” [“Breath”] in a little magazine called Suttum Vizhi Chuddar, when I was seventeen.  I received a lot of reviews only after that poem.

J: What is “Swasam” about?

S: What is my identity? Things were happening around me without my being aware of it. My breath should be mine. Somebody else can’t breathe on my behalf. But that was how it was. Everybody else was deciding the course of my life. My education, my activities, my movements, my marriage, all of this was decided by someone else. That’s what the poem is about. The poem became controversial in my village. “How could you let a girl who has attained puberty let her name be printed? It’s a disgrace for her to show her face outside. A disgrace to the family. A disgrace to her society,” they said. I didn’t understand this then. Why could you not print my name? A girl’s name is printed in a marriage invitation; is that a disgrace too? But I couldn’t argue with them.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Singapore, Latin America, and the US

The week is drawing to a close, and it’s time for a quick wrap-up. This time we’re visiting South and North America where Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, and Executive Assistant Nozomi Saito bring us the latest news. Our final pit stop is in Singapore, where Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has been following a new literature campaign, among many other developments. Enjoy!

Our Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn had this to tell:

In collaboration with the Mexican Secretary of Culture, on January 24 in Mexico City’s Fine Arts Palace Pluralia Ediciones presented its latest publication, Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra (Earthen Skin) by Hubert Malina (Guerrero State, 1986). Malina’s volume is the first work of poetry published in the Me’phaa language (known by outsiders as Tlapaneco), a language with roughly 100,000 speakers. According to the press release, Malina’s work stands out for its lovingly realistic portrayal of life and community in the mountains of Guerrero. Zapaotec poets Natalia Toledo, 2004 winner of the Nezahualcóyotl Prize in Indigenous Literatures, and Irma Pineda participated in the event, providing commentary on Malina’s work. In particular, Toledo stated that a voice like Malina’s has been lacking within the contemporary indigenous language scene, while Pineda added that Malina’s work balances themes of traditional stories with current realities, guiding the reader through both the beautiful and the difficult contemporary indigenous life. The unveiling of this new book also precedes this February’s Me’phaa Language Festival, to be held in Paraje Montero, Mexico, on Tuesday, February 21 from 9am until 4pm.

In Guatemala City, Guatemala, on February 1 Caravasar hosted an event to celebrate the release of Tania Hernández’s latest work, Desvestir santos y otros tiempos [Undressing Saints and Other Epochs]. This latest publication will no doubt be an excellent addition to the author’s existing work that deals with life in contemporary Guatemala from a feminist perspective. The event was hosted by Rodrigo Arenas-Carter and the groundbreaking Maya poet, book artist, and performance artist Manuel Tzoc Bucup, among others. The event was streamed in real time via Facebook Live.

Finally, poets from all over the world will descend on Medellín, Colombia from July 8-15, 2017, to participate in the 27th International Medellin Poetry Festival. Updated in mid-January, the list of invited poets is a truly remarkable, international lineup, including authors from Algeria, India, Vietnam, Syria, and the UK, in addition to those from throughout Latin America. This will certainly be an event you can’t miss!


Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:


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