Sauntering Verse, a new app for auto-generated poetry, uses Dadaist language to redefine the experience of physical space. In this essay, Lara Norgaard tests the app while reflecting on its implications for our relationship with technology, and the art that it creates. What contexts do we bring to the art we create and consume? What does it mean to be an artist when art is made possible just by taking your phone on a walk?
It is warm and cloudy on the afternoon following the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. The extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro received just over 46% of the popular vote—he would come to win the run-off election just weeks later. It feels like the world I woke up to earlier that morning was not precisely my own, as if a body-snatcher stole my world instead of my skin.
The day is a blur: I walk a few meters from the living room to the kitchen in my apartment. Outside the window, the skyline of nearly identical high-rises in the Brazilian city that I call home glint in clouded sadness, weighed down by more than 186 thousand people who voted for a man whom The New Yorker has called a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Perhaps he will not win in the second round, but perhaps what is already bad will get worse. This eventuality feels so surreal that I focus on boiling water for a calming mug of coffee. I glance down at my phone. It wrote me a poem:
She skipped it
A rear Jesus
They of them
The sagging can retract or sagging sagging
A quirky staging
She pots him
This week, we travel to the Czech Republic, where the poet Kamil Bouška brings us ‘Labyrinth’, translated by Ondřej Pazdírek, winner of the 2017 Beacon Street Prize in poetry. Moving from a room to vast nature, to suburbia, and more, this poem rapidly moves between small and large worlds, negotiating a maze of all that ‘a strip of light’ touches.
A strip of light
in a threadbare carpet
lights up cities,
Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018
Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant
“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.
Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.
In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.
Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.
Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)
Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor
Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel. The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues. “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.” Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.
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
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.
The Book of Tbilisi, edited by Becca Parkinson and Gvantsa Jobava, Comma Press
The Tbilisi funicular that leads all the way to the Mtatsminda Mountain, one that families might usually take on Sunday mornings or lovers for an afternoon date, gives an opportunity to get a glimpse of the city from above while still being close and immersed in the noises and lives it encapsulates. The Book of Tbilisi attempts to be an extension thereof, unravelling to the readers the literary landscape of Georgia after the recuperation of its independence and the consequent transformations it underwent. Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series brings to the surface works and literary traditions of underrepresented areas. This endeavour aspires to insert forsaken voices and cosmologies into the Eurocentric literary canon.
One should not overlook the genre chosen for this aspiration. An underrated form that has experienced a renaissance in recent years (as could be attested by Asymptote’s Winter 2018 Issue special feature on microfiction and the 2013 Nobel Prize awarded to Alice Munro), the short story is distanced from illusions of coherency and authority. Instead, its fragments embrace the gaps and absences, charged with an energy that surpasses the mere focus on the sequence of events, in order to capture a state or a quality. Thus it is not difficult to imagine why this impressionistic genre seemed the adequate vehicle—much like the funicular itself—to capture the fleeting force that runs through Georgia.