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…
This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan.
Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature
The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictions—some cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.
In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.
If you love reading fiction by writers from around the globe, you are used to hearing about the big prizes that put international literature in the spotlight: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International, the Caine Prize, the Prix Goncourt, the German Book Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Tanazaki Prize, and many others.
In fact, you might even have trouble keeping up with the variety of United States–based awards just for literature in translation, from the Best Translated Book Award (now eleven years old) to the National Book Award’s new Translated Literature category. It’s getting to be like following the Olympics, without all the fuss over new stadium construction. For one thing, winning books, like medal-bedecked Olympians, don’t get to the podium all by themselves. Winners need a team (and a coach and money) behind them. For another, we know that lots of great contenders don’t make it to the final round.
So what should we know about book prizes as we are reading the shortlisted candidates or hoping for a win for one of our favorite writers?
This week, our Editors-at-Large bring us up to speed on literary happenings in South Africa, Central America, and Brazil.
Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, South Africa:
South Africa has eleven official languages, a fact not often evident in local literary awards and publications, which generally skew towards English and Afrikaans as mediums. However, the announcement of the 2017 South African Literary Awards (SALA) has done much to change this perception.
In addition to including five contributors to narratives in the extinct !Xam and !Kun languages (drawn from the Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd archives), a biography in Sepedi (Tšhutšhumakgala by Moses Shimo Seletisha) and poetry collections in isiXhosa (Iingcango Zentliziyo by Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu) and the Kaaps dialect (Hammie by Ronelda S. Kamfer) have been shortlisted.
Juxtapositions are rife in Intan Paramaditha’s enchanting story, “Visiting a Haunted House,” translated from the Indonesian by Stephen Epstein. To me it read almost like an incantation, the words constantly looping memory upon the story’s present. As a granddaughter visits her dead grandmother’s house, she paints a pointillist picture of her grandmother’s life, whose colors soon run into her own. A broken red lipstick, a cloudy mirror, vanished smells of Gudang Garam cigarettes—the world spins, and so do familial memories, ancestral souvenirs, and time.
The granddaughter is an eternal migrant, “dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack.” She remembers how her grandmother had always wanted to go abroad but contented herself with the thrill of riding a minibus to market while dressed in a flowery cotton dress. The story is ostensibly a simple tale of returning to an ancestral home. But the narrator’s voice soon bifurcates like a snake’s tongue, each sentence describing the grandmother and the granddaughter both. When speaking of a kuntilanak, “a woman no longer here, in our world, but not ‘over there’ either,” is she describing the ghost, or herself?
In a globalized publishing landscape Seagull Books, based primarily in Kolkata, India, stands out as having uniquely made a mark as a world publisher. In its thirty-five years of existence, Seagull has primarily concentrated on publishing literature in translation with a particular emphasis, from its early years, on Indian theatre and cinema from different regional and linguistic backgrounds. Seagull has introduced Indian readers to the joys of literature from different world languages — writers such as the Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imri Kertez, Ellfride Jellinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Operating with a small team to produce and design books distinguished by superior literary content and exquisite aesthetic appeal, each Seagull book is a collectible that is also reasonably priced for the Indian buyer. While Asymptote has previously covered Seagull books, Sneha Khaund caught up with Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder, to know more about how the publishing house continues to support translation and shape world literature.
Sneha Khaund (SK): Can you tell me a bit about how Seagull was conceived?
Naveen Kishore (NK): Overnight. Very specifically, the event that marks our “birth,” as it were, was a festival of grassroots theatre I produced in 1982. Around that time there were a lot of theatre groups working with original themes and using their bare bodies with no props or costumes. Their plays dealt with the human condition around them and the dailyness of survival. Working in a 40km radius around Calcutta, these groups were more interested in going into villages and the interiors of the state rather than trying to perform for an urban city audience. At this event I noticed someone in the front row of benches madly sketching the body movements of the performers. So I turned to a theatre scholar, Samik Banerjee, who was also at the time an editor at Oxford University Press, and I said what a pity there is no way to capture this moment. We were not familiar with words like documentation and there was no digital photography and so on at the time. It was Samik da who suggested that a specialist niche publisher focusing on the arts could be a good way of documenting these evolving movements not just in theatre but also in cinema and fine art. We already had a name! Seagull! So Seagull Books was waiting to happen. We decided to explore the possibility of a theatre publishing programme that would do theatre scripts from different Indian languages in translation and document the vibrant New Indian Cinema movement: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jabbar Patel, Goutam Ghosh, to name a few. We would not focus on anything but the performing and the visual arts. So after thirty-five years, in fact after the first twenty-six years—that’s how long it takes sometimes—all the s, a lot of the Tendulkars, a lot of the Mahaswetas, a lot of these plays have now become textbooks. Classics of Indian drama like Ghasiram Kotwal, Charandas Chor. The irony is that even after thirty five years because it’s not a great commercial thing there’s still no other dedicated theatre publisher. It just doesn’t pay enough. So that was the first lesson for a non-publishing person stepping overnight into publishing — that you have to build a back-list because that’s how publishers survive. You can’t produce one book, sell it, recover, then re-invest because the way a publishing chain works is that you are expected to keep producing the books. Regardless. No single book is a profit centre. Small numbers selling across a list of say 500 books is how the numbers begin to make sense. Sometimes there are spikes and you sell certain titles very well. These then support the ones that don’t sell that well! Who said it is easy?!
As the week comes to a close, we’ve been busy reading and re-reading the Fall 2016 issue of Asymptote, while trying to escape the fact that November is nearly upon us. This week, we hear from Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large based in South Africa, who shares the details of the literary awards season from across the continent. We visit Editor-at-Large Marc Charron in Canada next, before heading south to catch up with Blog Editor Nina Sparling in New York City.
Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large in South Africa, sets us afloat with a whirlwind literary tour of the continent:
After peaking in the polls but missing out on the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, author of Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, was subsequently awarded the prestigious Pak Kyong-ni Literature Award by the South Korean Toji Cultural Foundation. Thiong’o, a champion of African literature(s), has produced novels, plays, short stories, and essays, publishing primarily in the Gikuyu language.
In West Africa, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim won the Nigeria Prize for Literature for Season of Crimson Blossoms, which explores sexuality, loss, and community through an affair between a twenty-five-year-old street gang leader and a devout widow and grandmother. Shortlisted candidates included Elnathan John (Born on a Tuesday) and Asymptote-featured writer Chika Unigwe (Night Dancer).