Posts filed under 'travel'

How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?

Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018

To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.

But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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The 2018 Man Booker International Prize: And the Winner Is…

Flights won the Man Booker International because it is a beautiful book, truly “fiction at its finest.”

On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights (which first appeared in English in our Winter 2016 issue), translated into English by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Tokarczuk is already a household figure in her native Poland where Flights was first published in 2007. Two of her other novels have been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, but it is only now with Flights that she is becoming a recognizable name for the English-speaking public. While the red Man Booker logo, signifying its triumph, will help it fly off the shelves in bookstores all over the United Kingdom, booksellers still face a tough challenge, for how do you summarize and sell a book like Flights?

Flights is categorized as a novel, although it eschews traditional plot and linear structure. At its most reductive, it can be described as a traveler’s diary through which an unnamed narrator contemplates and explores the roots of her nomadism. What follows is a compilation of fragments collected by the narrator throughout her journeys: short stories about home and travel, meditations on the human body, and even essays on sanitary pads, Wikipedia, and the English language. In the original Polish, the book is titled Bieguni, the name of a nomadic sect of Eastern European origin who believe the only way to escape the devil is by being in constant movement. And indeed, if the narrator of Flights has a life philosophy, it is this: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.”

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In Conversation: Boey Kim Cheng on his new novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation...mediating between languages and cultures, memory and imagination...past and present."

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?

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from “His Name is David” by Jan Vantoortelboom

All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was?

Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”

‘But sir, why do we have to cram all these things into our heads?’

Roger interrupted my lesson about the capital cities of Europe. His way of constantly questioning everything drove me up the wall sometimes.

‘Neither my father nor mother have ever been further than Ypres or Poperinge, and on Sundays, my mother goes straight home to milk the cows after Mass and my father only ever gets as far as the pub for a pint.’

‘Quite a distance, if he has to crawl home,’ Jef said.

We ignored the remark.

‘Well, Roger. Maybe you will travel further than your parents one day, and see the whole wide world,’ I said.

‘Who, me? Why? Whaffor?’

‘To look at churches and castles in other countries, perhaps. To see how people live there. Or to observe the wildlife.’

I thought of my childhood. Of the books Father brought us. Of the cupboard full of skulls and bones in my room. Of my brother.

‘But I won’t have the cash for that. And anyway, I don’t give a damn about those things.’

Judging by the way his eyebrows twitched, he knew he should be watching his words.

‘Honest, sir. All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was? And on Sundays, I want to go drinking, like Dad!’

I needed all my creativity to come up with an answer that would have a motivational effect on the obstinate lout.

‘Well, Roger. Imagine that one day, you take over your father’s farm …’

He interrupted me enthusiastically.

‘Oh, I will, sir! Cos luckily, I’m the oldest!’ He laughed, sneering at Jef and Walter, who both had elder brothers.

‘All right,’ I continued. ‘And now imagine you do, as you say, also take over that genial habit of your father’s, namely drinking on Sundays.’

‘Yes, naturally. Sometimes, I’m already allowed…’

‘That’s enough, Roger,’ I cut him short. ‘As you know, however, no one on this planet is immortal. I’m sorry I have to say so, but one day, your parents will die.’

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What’s New in Translation? November 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Swedish, and German.

cabo-de-gata

Cabo de Gata, by Eugen Ruge, tr. Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor, US

First published in German in 2013—when his In Times of Fading Light appeared in EnglishEugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, out this month from Graywolf Press, might strike a familiar note for readers who have witnessed a surge in autobiographically-inflected works that frequently take the production of fiction as a subject worthy of novelistic exploration. Hailing from both the Anglophone world and beyond, such novels record the process of their creation or the struggles to even begin them, and Ruge quickly aligns himself with this approach in his tale of a writer’s attempt to get away from it all in the hope of figuring something out. “I made up this story so that I could tell it the way it was,” declares the dedication to this slender volume, and a more precise formulation arrives soon after as the narrator recalls a period in which “I was testing everything that I did or that happened to me at the same moment, or the next moment, or the moment after that, for its suitability as a subject … as I was living my life, I was beginning to describe it for the sake of experiment.”

While in Cabo de Gata, a small town on the Andalusian coast, the narrator quickly settles into routines designed to simultaneously distract him from blank pages and provide him with some inspiration to fill them. The local fishermen, whom the narrator visits on his daily stroll, can empathize with such difficulties: ¡Mucho trabajo, poco pescado! A lot of work for only a little fish—it’s a piscatory philosophy that applies just as well to the writing life. Ruge, however, proves to be an exceptionally gifted angler as he reels in catch after catch in what would seem to be difficult waters, namely a single man’s short trip to this seaside village.

Serving as a metronome marking out the rhythm of memories that constitute the novel, a refrain of “I remember” begins many of the paragraphs that have been expertly rendered by translator Anthea Bell. Far from repetitive or reductive, such a strategy instead seems somehow expansive, particularly when we are reminded that, “fundamentally memory reinvents all memories.” Both the vagaries and the vagueness of memories—“I remember all that only vaguely, however, like a film without a soundtrack,” remarks the narrator in a line that will be hard to forget—serve as the subjects of reflection that find their counterpart in the rhythms of the sea and the surrounding Spanish countryside.

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My 2015

For me, being able to chew on something I’ve read throughout my day is as essential as the coffee that gets things moving in the morning.

I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed most everything I’ve read this year and a number stick out in my mind (Erpenbeck’s End of Days and Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth for instance), but the two I’m writing about here occurred one after the other in the past month: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Because She Never Asked and Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two. I wonder, though, if it’s not recency-bias so much as the circumstances under which I read them.

I’ve been working a short term job–which happens to have ended today, which sounds like the intro to one of Vila-Matas’ books, come to think of it–and found myself riding the L on a daily basis for the first time in years. I try to travel without a bag, so having books that fit into an inner pocket of my vest is somewhat key (and inner pockets in one’s jacket: so very, very key). Both these volumes, slim and not overly tall, were ideal travel companions on those grounds and, what’s more, somehow enhanced the physical experience of riding the train, too.

Because She Never Asked is as playful as any of Vila-Matas’ work: stories within stories, diving and looping in and out of one another; narrators less unreliable than slowly unhinging; a prose that skips along at a pace at once jaunty and leisurely. In many ways (and as Michael Orthofer suggested in his review), Because She Never Asked functions as a great entry point to Vila-Matas, but I would also offer that this work is perfectly suited for a short trip on public transit. The story moves along, sure, which is something of a key component to anything read in a public space, but it also possesses a light density: that is, one can dip in and out without feeling like anything has been lost, but at some point, some aspect of the story will go off in one’s head, motivating a return to story, a desire to dive back in and parse it further. For me, being able to chew on something I’ve read throughout my day is as essential as the coffee that gets things moving in the morning. READ MORE…

Swedish Camels

An ignoble literary translator’s journal by André Naffis-Sahely

We were driving along the Sheikh Zayed Road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, a hundred and fifty kilometres of desert back then unmarked by a single building or feature from one city limit to the next. It was the mid-1990s, and my father, an architect, had just relocated the family to the United Arab Emirates, where we joined the tribe of impermanent aliens that constitute over eighty-five percent of the country’s population and workforce. At the top of this pyramid: the Emaratis themselves, former Bedouins who shuffled back and forth between town houses and their farms in distant oases in their 4x4s, safely ensconced behind blackened glass. The couple of decades since the oil crisis in 1973 had seen the establishment of one of the world’s most lavish welfare states, whereby Emaratis were being gradually etherized with “sit-down money”—an expensive version of what has also befallen Australia’s Aborigines, among others—meaning that if your grandfather had once lived in a tent and dined on dates, bread, and salted fish, attuning his life to the rhythm of the sea and the sands, you would instead have gone to Yale on a scholarship and found a managerial post at some state-owned corporation waiting for you on your return; you might never go to the office, but that wouldn’t get in the way of your salary, your house, your satellite television. It all happened in the space of a single generation.

It was either our second or third weekend excursion to Dubai, but this one was special. My father had promised me a rare sight: a Swedish camel. They were blonde and had blue eyes, but you couldn’t inspect their irises up close, as they were even grumpier than your average camel and would probably tear away a finger or two. My father’s warning left a vivid impression. I spent the two-hour trip with my nose glued to the window as my father pointed out three or four of the beasts, barely visible in the blurry distance. “Are they really blonde?”—“Yes!”—“And blue-eyed?”—“Yes!”—“Why did they leave Sweden?”—“Because it was cold!”

*

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The Story of an Expat

“…the hybrid International school accent. It doesn’t sound American. Nor English. It sounds like nothing.”

I come from a family of ruthless, rootless, French expatriates. But papa isn’t a diplomat; papa is a CFO at a French car company. He’s spent his whole life working. They send him to factories and to selling points abroad, where he’s given three-year contracts. Papa usually doesn’t know where he’ll be sent next.

Papa’s papa was a baker, and he too spent his whole life working. Papa’s papa would wake up early in the morning to knead the dough and bake the bread. Then papa’s maman would go to the shop and set it all. My papa went to school, and now here we are.

Growing up, I followed my parents abroad. I went to international schools in the countries where we lived and I developed the hybrid International school accent. It doesn’t sound American. Nor English. It sounds like nothing. It’s neutral. Like a tepid glass of water.

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