Posts featuring Daniel Mendelsohn

Winter 2018: A Treasure Hunt Without A Map

That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations.

Thanks to the hard work of Duncan Lewis, Jacob Silkstone, József Szabo, Marina Sofia, Emma Page, Kyrstin Rodriguez, Giorgos Kassiteridis, Tiffany Tsao, Alexander Dickow, and myself, November 2017 sees the launch of the Asymptote Book Club, a sustainability initiative meant to support independent publishers of world literature while also helping Asymptote stay afloat. By January 2018, after an intensive marketing campaign (e.g., I answer some questions about the Book Club here), we succeed in attracting more than 120 subscribers. In addition, our seventh anniversary is greeted by two important milestones, both to do with the number 100: We cross the 100 mark for number of team members on our masthead, and, with the addition of Amharic and Montenegrin in the Winter 2018 edition, we have gathered work from exactly 100 languages in our archive of world literature! In his interview with Asymptote that we ran in this issue, Lithuanian editor Marius Burokas laments that, as with many peripheral literatures, Lithuanian writing “can only speak of a one-way influence” from English at the moment; that said, Lithuanian literature is by no means a “small [one].” “There are only writers who are not good enough,” he observes wryly, “or writers who are not publicized enough.” This speaks to the very heart of Asymptote’s mission, which is why we have whole teams (from social media to graphic design) set up for the purpose of marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with, as detailed in an earlier post where I released this publicity report. Where we direct our efforts applies to where we direct our funds as well: For instance, by January 2018, the money we’ve cumulatively thrown at Facebook promotion alone has exceeded $10,000 USD. It’s not only money that I’ve staked personally; in our eight years, I’ve supported almost every single Facebook post in order to encourage other team members as well as our own readers to engage with Asymptote’s feed, all so that we can be a more powerful advocate for so-called “small literatures.” Cruelly, then, around this time, because of the backlash from Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, Facebook deprioritizes social media pages like ours, hurting our ability to connect authors with new readers. I know because I was still supervising the new English Social Media Managers (as well as the Assistant Director of Outreach—whose day job was in social media analytics—I was hoping to install as a permanent team member) from the hospital ward where I was quarantined after radioactive treatment, anxious as much about our falling social media engagement as my own Geiger counter reading (which on the other hand refused to fall as quickly as the doctor and I had hoped, thereby prolonging my hospitalization and resulting in a larger medical bill). Here to introduce the Winter 2018 issue is Brazil editor-at-large Lara Norgaard.

Two parallel snapshots of everyday scenes spliced by double-circle frames form the cover image of Asymptote’s Winter 2018 issue. A woman calmly pushes a stroller on the left, mirroring a different woman on the right who wears dark sunglasses and stares directly into the camera, allowing us to only guess at her penetrating gaze. In these cover photographs, the edition’s guest artist, Elephnt, captures one of its central components: the way each contribution takes a powerful approach to perspective. The authors in this issue all write with a particular and intense gaze that confronts or perhaps commiserates with the reader.

I decided to look back at the woman on the right as I prepared to write this reflection. It is not just her staring back at me that catches my eye; she seems to recognize the camera, to acknowledge how the image representing her was created. The Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote was my first as part of the magazine’s team. I witnessed—and participated in—the compilation of so many voices into one unified whole. READ MORE…

Summer 2017: New Words Usher Forth New Worlds

Come play Spin the Globe with us!

ANATOMY OF AN EDITOR’S NOTE

World literature is the literature of many worlds[1], intersecting on one “endlessly rotating earth[2]” (Chen Li). This summer, come play Spin the globe![3] with the only magazine that could assemble never-before-published[4] writing from 27 countries and 21 languages[5] in one issue. Alongside an interview with Michael Hofmann, fiction by master story-teller Mercè Rodoreda, poetry by Ghassan Zaqtan and Marosa di Giorgio, essays on Bohumil Hrabal and Tove Jansson[6], and reviews of the latest titles, we celebrate the very best the canon has to offer via a showcase of contest winners[7] picked by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu. While new words pave the way for new worlds, every one of these gems, to quote repeat contributor Ko Un[8], also represents “[a] world…in want of the world.[9]

Noemi Schneider’Life as Trauma[10] introduces us to Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir, and hence a man who has never existed. In Orshina, Hanit Guli’s poignant drama, a promise to the family is revealed to be empty when, all packed up, the father remembers he has no address to provide the movers. And in Mercè Rodoreda’s Aloma, remembrance of childhood loss punctuates a woman’s mundane existence, just as Ah-reum Han’s tribute to Kerascoët’s “dazzling, ruthless worlds” is interwoven with the mourning for a deceased teacher. While Samudra Neelima’s narrator plants “black seeds” in order to grow a “beloved black tree,” Alejandro Albarrán desires to “write the amputation”—both poets sketch writing’s failure, but, through performing failure, succeed.[11]

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.

Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

It’s a struggle to pick ​just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya ​whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator​’s​ note). Much as each poet in this issue and ​the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and ​we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (​”peyote” in ​the ​indigenous language of​ Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward​,​ so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua ​Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary​ spirit​ of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:

On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
from joy
to Art
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012

It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

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