This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova
The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.
While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.
We’re back this week with dispatches from three countries where literature and politics have been interacting in unexpected ways: Brazil, El Salvador, and the UK. In response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Central American migration to the US, and the Brexit negotiations, museums and literary communities in these countries have been producing thoughtful exhibitions, fiction, and criticism that reflect on national identity and uncertain political futures.
Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, reporting from Brazil
It is hot and humid in Brazil, and long summer days provide opportunities for new authors and space for reflection about writing as political resistance. Early career authors have an opportunity to submit their work for the SESC Prize for Literature, which is open for submissions from January 9 through February 14, when unpublished authors can submit their manuscripts; the Record Publishing Group will release winning texts.
For Brazilian writers interested in producing their own literature beyond the traditional market, 2019 also offers new opportunities. Graphic artist Rodrigo Okuyama hosts a series of free workshops on zine-making at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. On Saturdays from January 12-26, participants can learn about format, illustration techniques, and how to marry narrative content with visual form. These workshops allow new voices to join a growing independent publishing scene in Brazil, where small collectives like PANTIM work at the intersection of literature and the visual arts. READ MORE…
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.
Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading!
From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.
The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.
Tahir Hamut grew up in Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The city of Kashgar—its fierce local pride, its layout, its customs, and its slang—has been a persistent theme in his three decades of poetic work. The three poems included here, though, were written in the three other cities of Tahir Hamut’s life, each of them a capital city: Beijing, where he completed college and worked for several years as a young man; Ürümchi, Xinjiang’s capital, where he worked as a film director for nearly two decades; and Washington, DC, where he moved with his family last year amidst deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang.
While the young poet of “Her” (1993) speaks of aging and darkness, his tone is relaxed and relatively light. The poem’s unadorned style and syntax are typical of Tahir’s work from his Beijing period. More than two decades later, “Body” (2016, Ürümchi) and “What Is It” (2017, Washington) are more complex on both a stylistic and an emotional level; more troubled, too, with an insistent sense of motion. If “Her” is a moment in a young man’s private life, the two later poems are the collision of private life with forces beyond an individual’s power to control. In “Body” and “What Is It,” Kashgar and the world of Tahir’s youth are distant in time and space; but that deeply felt distance shapes the world of these poems.
—Joshua L. Freeman
Boey Kim Cheng’s reputation as a critically acclaimed writer rests on his work as a poet and essayist. He has authored five poetry collections—Somewhere-Bound (1989); Another Place (1992); Days of No Name (1996); After the Fire (2006); and Clear Brightness (2012)—the first two of which won Singapore National Book Development Council awards, and the last of which was selected by The Straits Times as one of the best books of 2012. His collection of essays Between Stations (2009) was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize in nonfiction.
This past October saw the publication of his first foray into novel writing. Set during a turbulent period in Tang-Dynasty-era China, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017) is a fictionalized biographical account of Du Fu, one of China’s most esteemed classical Chinese poets. The end-result of a ten-year-long, meticulously researched labor of love (the early fruits of which appeared in Asymptote’s inaugural issue), Gull represents the first extensive literary treatment of Du Fu’s life, fictional or otherwise, in any language.
In addition to venturing into the territory of prose fiction to complete the project, the Singaporean-born poet also undertook new translations of Du Fu’s poetry, which appear scattered throughout the novel, gem-like and epiphanic. In this interview with Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao, Boey recounts what compelled him to see this book to completion, as well as the challenges and joys of translating not only Du Fu’s poems, but his character and life.
Tiffany Tsao: On the one hand, your novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth represents a shift for you. Until now, you’ve been a poet and essayist. On the other hand, there’s considerable continuity between your previous works and this one: Gull is about a poet and his poetic calling; it contains poetry as well as themes of travel and nostalgia, which feature prominently in your past work. What prompted you to switch forms for this project? How have you found the experience of writing fiction in prose compared to writing poetry and nonfiction in prose?
We are back with literary news you simply cannot miss! This week we will take you to Romania where MARGENTO will help you discover the intricate networks of performance art. Also reporting from Europe is Fiona Le Brun who discusses the eclectic list of recent French literary prize winners, while subtly underlining the theme of migration that cuts across the various literary events. Far away from Mexico, Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn will highlight the increasingly important role of translation in its contemporary cultural landscape.
Editor-at-Large from Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, provides us with an insider’s view of the exciting world of Romanian artistic experimentation:
The Bucharest International Poetry Festival featured last month an impressive line-up of international writers and performers, among whom were Christian Bök from Canada, LaTasha Nevada Diggs from the US, Steven Fowler of the worldwide prolific Enemies Project, Max Höfler (the tireless organizer of the yearly Text-World—World-Text Symposium in Graz, Austria), the multilingual performance vocalist Maja Jantar of Belgium, the Bucharest-based American poet and translator Tara Skurtu, and many more, alongside local poets such as Claudiu Komartin and Razvan Tupa. Organized by London-based Romanian poet and curator Simona Nastac, this annual event has grown more and more visible and central in a country where the tradition of performance poetry going at least as far back as Tristan Tzara’s DADA seems to be thriving more than ever, with festivals thrown from Craiova in the south to Brasov and Sibiu in Transylvania to Cluj and Iasi up north (some of them performance-driven events, other more standard literary ones with a strong reading or performance section).
Petrila is a one-of-a-kind venue among all of the above, both in Romanian and international terms. The derelict milltown riddled with condemned coal mines and shutdown falling-apart factories has been transformed over the last two decades by visual artist, political caricaturist, and curator Ion Barbu into a mecca of non-conformist festivals (initially thrown in his own backyard), eclectic or scandalous arts events, and improbable post-communist absurdist or faux-kitsch museums (including one that has resonantly revived the memory of once-censored outstanding dissident writer I.D. Sirbu). A competitor—or rather concurrent event—has been the CUCA Festival organized over the past couple of years in Cartisoara, up in the mountains of Sibiu County, where cutting-edge and indie performances and installations converge with Romanian traditional architecture restoration work done by international volunteers. A long-feature documentary titled Planet Petrila casting Ion Barbu in the lead role and portraying his eclectic personality and work against the background of the (post)communist history of his hometown has recently been widely praised and awarded at the international film festival TIFF.
Edil Hassan is a poet of Somali background based in New England. Two of her poems appeared in Asymptote’s most recent issue in the feature on banned countries. Ms. Hassan graciously answered a few questions about her work and inspiration.
Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your poems are so grounded in deep family relationships and stories from the past. Can you talk about the inspiration for these poems? What drove you to write them?
Edil Hassan (EH): The Drought for a long time was only the last stanza. I had seen a picture of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean on some news site—a new picture every week or month, never the same boat. It’s like those videos of Black girls and boys who are killed; I’m waiting to know the person behind the camera. I knew though that this poem was incomplete, and like all stories is layered. Migration comes with a loss of place, and mediating on family helps me track that disappearance.
Gazmend Kapllani is an Albanian-born author, journalist, and scholar. He lived in Athens for over twenty years. He received his PhD in political science and history from Panteion University in Athens, with a dissertation on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. In addition, he was a columnist for Greece’s leading daily newspapers. Kapllani has written his first three novels in Greek, which is not his native language. His work centers on themes of migration, borders, totalitarianism, and how Balkan history has shaped public and private narratives.
Kapllani’s first novel A Short Border Handbook (Livanis, 2006) has become a best-seller and has been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish and Italian. His second novel, My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), has been published into French. The Last Page (Livanis, 2012) his most recent novel, has been translated into French and was short-listed for The Cezam Prix Litteraire Inter CE 2016. Since 2012 he has been living in the US, where he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. Kapllani currently lives in Boston and teaches Creative Writing and European History at Emerson College.
Gigi Papoulias has a chance to sit down and talk to Kapllani on his work, language, and borders.
Gigi Papoulias (GP): You seem to have a passion for languages. You are fluent in five languages. Were you born into a multilingual family?
Gazmend Kapllani (GK): Actually I was born in a shack. My father’s family was persecuted by the communist regime and was driven out of their house in the countryside and punished—sent to live in a shack on the outskirts of my hometown Lushnje. They were considered “enemies of the regime” because they were wealthy landowners. Stalin did the same with the so-called “kulaks” in the Soviet Union.
I grew up surrounded by a large group of monolingual relatives whose discussions always led to the glory days of their aristocratic past. I grew up surrounded by joyful uncles and aunts—all of them impressively good looking. I’m amazed today that in my memories that miserable place comes as a place of joy and love. I remember the flowers that were planted all around. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman—she had lost three brothers in the war against the Nazis in Albania—she did everything possible to make life in the shack seem normal. What has remained with me is the extraordinary love that I was given in that shack. I also learned what resilience and human dignity mean. But I refused the rest: living with the glory of the past. I understood though that when people are denied a present and a future they take refuge in the past.
The day after the EU referendum I woke up early to check the results. It was 5am and already clear that the Leave camp would win. I hadn’t expected that. Despite the growing popularity of right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, to the outsiders (and a large portion of liberal Britons too), this divisive brand of Euroscepticism seemed like the voices from the fringes. It is true that UKIP employed dramatic scaremongering as its major political strategy, using migrants as the folk devil on whom to blame Britain’s economic and social problems, both present and future. But to me their tactics stood in sharp contrast to what I have always admired about the British, that is to say kindness, tolerance and openness. Not surprisingly, the Leave win left the country in turmoil. Those on the Remain side are bewildered by the prospect of being torn away from an identity they have eagerly embraced as their own and, increasingly, many of the Leave voters express a similar sentiment. But the Brexit referendum also mobilized an indignant minority that had been previously silent, and galvanized blatant xenophobia, racism and bigotry. It is the latter that saddens me most.
I myself was an EU migrant who settled in the UK following the first eastern enlargement in 2004, although I had first arrived in Britain in the summer of 2003, eight months prior to Poland’s accession to the EU. I was an undergraduate student on a gap year in Liverpool, away from home for the first time. Despite its long tradition of multiculturalism, the city saw very few migrants from Eastern Europe and people knew very little about Poland. Often, on hearing my nationality, they would recite in one breath: Lech Wałęsa, John Paul II, vodka, and engage with me in long conversations about the Pontiff’s poor health. I felt welcomed, and I immediately fell in love with the city and its people. I loved how they talked and joked, how women wore strapless dresses on cold nights out and how families went on the ferry across the Mersey on Sunday afternoons. I myself spent countless hours in the FACT cinema on Wood Street and I can still remember films I saw that year: Young Adam, Sylvia, Calendar Girls and, my absolute favourite, Love Actually. I went to see art exhibitions in the Walker Art Gallery, learning about British painting, from Pre-Raphaelites, through the Stuckists to the Singh Twins. On the 1st of May 2004 I celebrated Poland’s accession to the EU with a group of English friends. The mood was jubilant and hopeful. We drank sparkling wine and, as naïve as it may sound, it felt like Europe was united again.
Every year since 2009, writers, critics, and literature lovers have been flocking to the Austrian region of Wachau for the European Days of Literature. Late this October, I was fortunate to spend three glorious autumn days surrounded by vineyards in Spitz and Krems on the Danube, to talk about all things literary and listen to authors read from their works, all liberally sprinkled with local Grüner Veltliner. Literature was center stage throughout—and there was a perfect balance between readings, panel discussions, informal chats and the picturesque setting—no wonder many of the participants have been coming year after year.
The overarching theme of this year’s gathering—The Migrants (Die Ausgewanderten)—was chosen with a view to discuss the ways European literature has been changing through and along with the increasing migration of authors. Little did the organizers know that the symposium would take place at a time when migration dominates the media headlines as thousands of desperate refugees risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean and trek through Europe seeking sanctuary, putting the old continent’s humanitarian values, tolerance and unity to a test and threatening the very foundations of the European Project.
“Some of the best writing in Europe today is migrant writing,” said writer AL Kennedy, who tries not to define herself as having a specific nationality. In her powerful keynote speech (podcast recording here) she tackled the current migration crisis head on: “Between my first draft and my last a photograph of a small boy made it to headlines of many newspapers which had, only hours before, been pouring out hatred at refugees as a moral, cultural, biological and spiritual threat. As David Cameron put it: ‘a swarm of people.’ When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both of an alien species and a danger. When words put them in a swarm, they don’t receive the real world’s help.”
Practising art alone is not enough at times like these, she argued in her impassioned address, for “true art is not an indulgence but a fundamental defence of humanity.” She challenged writers to take on a more activist stand, using tweets, poetry, and bestselling novels, to create “50 shades of refugee.“