This week our reporters bring you news of Sweden’s reaction to last week’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement by the Swedish Academy, the FILBA international festival in Buenos Aires, as well as the surprise of the Booker Prize winner(s!) in the UK.
Eva Wissting, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Sweden
Since the announcement of the 2018 and 2019 Laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, the subsequent debate shows no sign of receding. Before the announcement, literary Nobel Prize discussions within Sweden focused on whether awarding a 2018 prize was good for the world of literature or bad because it would smooth over the Swedish Academy’s connection to misconducts.
After the announcement of Polish Olga Tokarczuk (“Flights”) and Austrian Peter Handke as the two most recent literary Nobel Prize Laureates, however, the pros and cons of announcing a 2018 laureate has waned in the shadow of the controversial choice of Handke. The disagreement in Sweden centers on whether Handke’s political standpoint is misunderstood—if he has simply been naive and used by others, if he is an apologist of war crimes—or if awarding Handke is correct on solely literary merits and that disregarding politics is possible. READ MORE…
As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.
Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania
Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.
The tides of cultural change are reflected in the literary festivals of Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as our editors point us to the increased awareness of both past misrepresentation and the lack of representation altogether. As more dismal political news from around the world rolls in, such instances of rectification and progress from the cultural sphere are a source of light and comfort.
Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain
April might be the cruellest month for some glum, English poets, but in Spain, spring has arrived and ushered in a blossoming book fair season. Alicante has just wrapped up its 2019 Feria del Libre with a refreshing theme of Mujeres de Palabra, celebrated from March 28 to April 7. The long week was packed full of readings, signings, booths, and workshops. This year, many activities were aimed at younger readers.
Among many great Spanish writers was a personal favourite, Murcian writer Miguel-Ángel Hernández, whose 2013 novel Intento de Escapada (Anagrama) was translated into English by Rhett McNeil (Hispabooks, 2016) as Escape Attempt and was also translated into German, French, and Italian. Compared to both Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Hernández’s El dolor de los demás (Anagrama, 2018), which he was signing at the fair, is now high on the reading list.
In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists.
What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.
Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.
Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”
In this edition of weekly dispatches, we remember Argentine author Hebe Uhart, celebrate the continuation of Guatemala’s national book fair, and look to China for news of cultural exchange and literary prizes.
Sarah Moses, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Argentina:
Argentine author Hebe Uhart passed away on October 11 at the age of eighty-one. Uhart was the author of numerous collections of travel essays, stories, and novellas, and in recent years dedicated herself exclusively to the former, visiting towns in Argentina as well as countries in Latin America and further abroad to document what she saw. Her most recent work was a collection of non-fiction pieces about animals, which included her own sketches.
Uhart was born in the town of Moreno and moved to the capital to study philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, where she later taught. For many years, she also led writing workshops out of her home. She was recognized as one of the greats among both readers and colleagues, and authors such as Mariana Enríquez and Inés Acevedo have written about her work. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas.
On the night of October 28, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) wrapped up after four consecutive jam-packed days. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings were filled with stimulating conversations and lively panel discussions, film screenings and book launches, poetry slams and musical performances, all set in the culturally fertile town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao and Indonesia Editor-at-Large Norman Erikson Pasaribu were invited to speak in their capacities as writers. In this retrospective dispatch, each of them reflects candidly on their experiences at this year’s UWRF.
One Brain, Multiple Selves (Tiffany Tsao)
There was so much about participating in UWRF that was wonderful and exhilarating, but as I (Tiffany) write this, I’m realizing how exhausted I am! It’s mostly a good exhaustion—the kind that one experiences after being exposed to so many interesting ideas, books, and people. My head and heart are still abuzz, and the festival concluded several days ago!
There’s certainly some physical exhaustion thrown into the mix as well: I brought along my 10-month-old son, Azure. The festival was immensely supportive and bought him an infant plane ticket and made sure there was a crib in the room. Plus, my heroic father flew from Jakarta to babysit while I was busy participating in events and meeting people. Unfortunately, Azure slept fitfully during the nights before deciding at around 5:00 am each morning that it was time to rise and shine, which meant that I gained a new appreciation and appetite for coffee. Glorious, glorious coffee.
Welcome to the fifth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors, a showcase of contemporary Indonesian literature brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week it gives us great pleasure to present a story by the award-winning author Nukila Amal, translated by internationally published writer, InterSastra founder, and past Asymptote contributor Eliza Vitri Handayani.
If you’ve just discovered A World with a Thousand Doors, you can find an introduction and the first installment here. And we invite you to read the second, third, and fourth works in the series as well.
Batara—or Bunny Battery to his pals—likes to hold a festive and meticulously prepared smokol (a.k.a. brunch) once or twice a month, depending on how often the Brunch Fairy has graced him with her visits.
According to Batara, this Manadonese fairy is the ruler and protector of brunches, brunch cookers (like Batara), and brunch fanatics (like Batara’s pals Syam, and the twins Anya and Ale). However, his three pals suspect that this fairy is really Batara’s own invention. All Ale can report after actually visiting Manado is that the locals do indeed eat brunches, which consist of tinutuan, a kind of porridge, accompanied by banana fritters and fried anchovies dipped into dabu-dabu, a chili paste so hot that it makes their eyes weep, their ears ring, and, if prone, their minds hallucinate.
To Batara, however, brunches aren’t that simple. With surplus imagination and a passion for perfection, Batara comes up with odd themes and dishes for his brunches. His three pals can never guess what will appear on his table.
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.
It’s been a busy October in world literature! Join us to find out more about literary happenings from around the world, in Taiwan, China, the United Kingdom, and Albania.
Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Taiwan:
The “Double Tenth Day” on the 10th of October has been commemorated as the “birthday” of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan. On this day in 2018, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery in Sanxia District, New Taipei City, held an opening ceremony for a series of exhibitions featuring the works by two important Taiwanese cultural figures, Li Mei-shu (李梅樹, 1902-1983) and Zhong Lihe (鍾理和, 1915-1960), respectively a painter and a novelist. Both were influential to the development of Taiwan’s art and literary scenes, and having lived through the martial law period, Li and Zhong grounded their paintings and novels in depicting the homelands that had nourished them. Both are considered to be among a group of Taiwanese nativist artists, who composed works to express their concerns and affections about the local people and places in Taiwan. The exhibition is open to the public until the 18th of November, featuring many precious manuscripts by Zhong, paintings by Li, as well as artworks of the other two younger Taiwanese artists.
Welcome to the third installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—our Translation Tuesday series showcasing Indonesian literature, brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week’s feature: poetry by festival guest Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, translated by past Asymptote contributor Mikael Johani. If you are joining these amazing writers and translators, don’t forget that you can save 20% on the 4-Day Pass by entering the code MPAS at the online checkout!
soap bubbles float in the air explode
on the tip of my toes
a scavenger collects rubbish from tiny barrels crams them into oversized
plastic hessian bags
washes his hands with water from a half-empty mineral
mums run around, carry hello kitty backpacks, ben ten water bottles,
an extra change of clothes, a tiny towel
kids scream and shriek they want to buy baby turtles kept in colourful transparent
a tourist photographer presses the shutter on his camera
ten thousand rupiahs per photo
and always you forget to smile
Continuing our collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Bath-Novel-Award-winning writer Clarissa Goenawan. Her novel, Rainbirds, released earlier this year with Soho Press, has garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. It has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, French, and Hebrew. Set in Akakawa, a fictional town near Tokyo, Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida as he retraces the life of his recently deceased sister. Navigating between sudden drizzles, cram school, and a strange arrangement between his late sister and a local politician, he attempts to make sense of her life and death.
Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, had the opportunity to converse with Clarissa Goenawan before her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In the following interview, we discuss how Clarissa has moved between languages and places, her Indonesian-Singaporean background, and her choice to set the novel in Japan.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu (NEP): Rainbirds is about the relationship of two Japanese siblings and how one discovers the other post-mortem. What inspired you to write about it?
Clarissa Goenawan (CG): The idea for Rainbirds started from a simple thought: “What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?” The question left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.
In partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, we’re very proud to present A World with a Thousand Doors, a series showcasing writing from Indonesia hitherto unpublished in English—including some from authors featured in this year’s festival.
Curating this series had its challenges: it was impossible to do full justice to Indonesia’s diversity through a selection of only eight writers’ works. But each of these pieces excites us and we hope with all our hearts that this series will not only highlight just a few of the many talents on today’s Indonesian literary scene for our readers, but also provide a critical intervention in discussions of how to best disseminate Indonesian literature in the world, which tend to advocate reliance on government-sponsored initiatives and large institutions.
Although assistance from these quarters is undoubtedly invaluable, even the most wonderful of writers may fall through the cracks and remain untranslated. The editors of this Translation Tuesday series, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, sincerely hope that A World with a Thousand Doors will encourage writers and translators of Indonesian literature to consider pairing up directly and submitting widely to literary journals and publishers, of which Asymptote is only one. The ‘thousand doors’ of the series’ title is a metaphor for the immense diversity of Indonesian writing. But it could also stand for the thousand routes that Indonesian-language writers and translators might take to reach the wider world.
Without further ado, it is our pleasure to kick off our series with this short story by beloved author and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival guest Dee Lestari.
There should be a wise saying that goes something like this: Never take two if you only want one. One brings completion—but two, oblivion. It may sound a little strange, but it’s the truth. Such sayings aren’t mere literary cotton candy—all fluff, no stuff. It takes bitter experience to formulate each one. It takes a person to practically perish paddling upstream before they can appreciate the serene swim to shore, as the old adage goes. Or to draw on yet another maxim—it takes someone to fall flat on her face, then have the ladder land on her as well. It takes an entire tureen of milk to prove a drop of ink will spoil the whole lot. In this case, it took a Hera who was searching for a Herman.
Asymptote is proud to announce a collaboration with Southeast Asia’s biggest literary festival! Held in Ubud, Bali, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival will take place this October, featuring exciting and instructive conversations, talks and performances by leaders in world literature. Do read on to find out how you can get a discounted festival pass with Asymptote.
The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) celebrates its fifteenth year as Southeast Asia’s leading festival of words and ideas, from 24-28 October in Ubud, Bali. From humble beginnings, the UWRF has grown into Indonesia’s leading platform for showcasing its writers and artists, and one of the world’s ’20 Best Literary Festivals’ (Penguin Random House).
The five-day program of insightful in-conversations, intimate literary lunches, impassioned debates and powerful performances will feature more than 180 authors, journalists, translators, artists and activists from 30 countries. From Indonesia to Ireland, Sweden to Spain, the Philippines to Pakistan and dozens of countries in between, this year’s UWRF promises a world of stories, ideas, and solutions at a time when amplifying diverse voices and rarely-heard perspectives is more critical than ever.