Between the pages of beloved books some sunlight gathers, as writers and readers from the various corners of our world gather to greet, honour, and celebrate one another. Crowds gather in search for literature in Rio de Janeiro, a Guatemalan favourite is shortlisted for a prestigious Neustadt International Award, and genre fiction takes the spotlight in Hong Kong. Travel with us between cobblestone and concrete, as our editors bring you the close-up view on global literary news.
Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil
One can hardly say it’s been winter here in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with the sun shining over the 17th edition of FLIP, the International Literary Festival of Paraty, from July 10 to 14. The festival—one of the world’s largest, and certainly Brazil’s most anxiously awaited—brought thousands of readers and writers to the cobblestone streets of Paraty in celebration of world literature. The main programming welcomed internationally acclaimed writers Grada Kilomba (Portugal, author of Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism), Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Nigeria, author of Stay with Me), and Kalaf Epalanga (Angola, author of Também os brancos sabem dançar), among others, with events in various languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Libras (Brazilian Sign Language). But the magic of this year’s FLIP certainly wasn’t confined to the mainstage: the “houses” of Paraty’s historic center were transformed into venues for book readings, signings, and endless conversation; a parallel “Flipinha” brought the literary festival alive for children of all ages; and the first-ever FLIP international poetry slam packed the main plaza for an unforgettable night, featuring poets from Cabo Verde, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, the US, and the UK. Anyone looking for a recap of the main events can head to FLIP’s YouTube page to check out the action!
This week, we bring you news of literary festivities in Romania and Moldova, a resurgence of female writing in Slovakia, and the tragic loss of a promising young translator in Iran. As always, watch this space for the latest in literary news the world over!
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Romania and Moldova:
A book of interviews with Romanian-German writer and past Asymptote contributor Herta Müller came out in French translation from Gallimard just a few days ago (on Feb 15). The book has already been praised for the lucidity showed by the Nobel-prize winner in combining the personal and the historical or the political.
Richard Ali A Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It begins curiously enough with a list of items that its protagonist, Ebamba, and his family must procure as a bride price to obtain the hand of his girlfriend, Eyenga. Over the opening pages, the goods range from the mundane (three bags of rice), to the supposedly traditional (baskets of kola nuts), and the extravagant (two three-piece Versace suits). As negotiations carry on and break down, with the would-be bride questioning the need for this process altogether, a rain-storm recalling the one that wipes Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo off the map in Cien años de soledad forces everyone inside to conduct business inside the house. Everyone decides to pause for a while as due to the leaky roof “people [run] out of dry places to sit” and “The rain is coming down as if someone had opened a giant faucet and the family is frantically putting out more and more buckets to protect the carpet” (12).
Despite the optimism one may glean from this inauspicious opening’s relation to the work’s title (Mr. Fix-It being a stylized translation of Ebamba’s name, which literally means “mender” in Lingala), the rain stands in for the larger structural problems faced by the people of Kinshasa at home and within the world economy. For example, “the Chinese” paved the now flooded street and put in the stopped-up sewers, and the residents themselves are at a loss to explain the failed development project. Some blame poor Chinese workmanship, others the neighborhood’s witches. Whatever the explanation, the roads are flooded and the sewers broken. And what about that roof? The astute reader of African literature will thus find the novel taking up colonialism’s inescapable structuring of the present as found in novels such as Chinua Achebe’s often overlooked No Longer at Ease (1960). As with the main character of Achebe’s novel, the orphaned Ebamba obtains an education but enters a broader economy where power relations, colonial and otherwise, shape one’s destiny regardless of one’s talents or intents. The mayor, the president, and the director of a company where Ebamba applies for a job all lack names, suggesting the utter dehumanization connected to dealing with them. Yet the novel reminds us that, these difficulties aside, Ebamba, the mender, remains the master of his own fate, and the choices that lead to his destruction are his alone.
The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated by Douglas J. Weatherford, Deep Vellum
Reviewed by Nozomi Saito, Senior Executive Assistant
Juan Rulfo’s prominence within the canon of Mexican and Latin American authors has been undeniable for some time. Regarded by Valeria Luiselli as one of the writers who gave her a deeper understanding of the literary tradition in Mexico and the Spanish language, and depicted by Elena Poniatowska as a figure deeply rooted in Mexican culture, it is clear that modern Mexican and Latin American literature would not be what they are without Rulfo. Indeed, Rulfo often has been credited as the figure to whom the Latin American boom of the 1960s and ‘70s is indebted, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was because of Rulfo’s works that the former was able to continue writing and ultimately produce One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Yet for all the recognition that Rulfo’s works have so rightly earned, there has been a persistent misconception that he only published two works of fiction, The Plain in Flames (El Llano in llamas, 1953) and Pedro Páramo (Pedro Páramo, 1955). The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro, c. 1956) for too long remained excluded from Rulfo’s oeuvre, even being miscategorized as a text originally intended for the cinematic screen. To reclaim and secure its position in Rulfo’s canon, Douglas J. Weatherford has brought forth The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, which provides deep insight into the work, ruminations, and personal life of the legendary writer.
The result is a text that is refreshing and diverse. The titular story follows the rise and fall of Dionisio Pinzón, an impoverished man whose crippled arm prevents him from farm labor, the only viable work in the town, and whose destiny changes when someone gives him a golden cockerel that has been badly beaten, having comprised the losing side of a cockfight. While the majority of the story follows Pinzón’s migration in pursuit of wealth, his path eventually intersects with that of the singer Bernarda Cutiño, familiarly called La Caponera, whose own migratory wanderings lead them from one town to the next, to various cockfights throughout Mexico.
Contributor Hanna Heiskanen checks in from Finland:
Over in Finland, several prominent authors have expressed their concern for the writing skills of today’s young people. What began as a Facebook post by Anja Snellman, who has written more than 20 novels and is a recipient the Pro Finlandia Medal, on the quality of the letters she receives from school children around the country, has since been echoed by Salla Simukka and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, authors of the Snow White Trilogy (Hot Key Books/Amazon Children’s Publishing) and The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Pushkin Press/Thomas Dunne), respectively. Children and teenagers appear to struggle with understanding metaphor and long sentences, and are increasingly unable to write in literary, rather than spoken, language, the authors said. Reading is still generally held in high regard in the country, with 50 million books borrowed from libraries by the 5 million strong population in 2014, though these figures have been in decline.
The national broadcaster YLE shines a light on Elina Ahlbäck, the founder and director of the Elina Ahlback Literary Agency. The eight-year-old agency is behind the string of success stories of the aforementioned Salla Simukka who, like Maria Turtschaninoff, also represented by Ahlbäck, signed a Hollywood film deal some months back. Other good news for the agency is the recent nomination of Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron for the Nordic Council’s 2017 literature prize, the winner of which will be announced in November. Finnish literature in translation is having a moment, according to Ahlbäck: “Finland is an undiscovered treasure trove, and a source of unique stories and storytelling,” she says in the article. The country still lags behind its western neighbour, however, when it comes to marketing efforts: more than 30 agencies work to export Swedish literature, now a familiar sight on global bestseller lists.
The literature festival Helsinki Lit has published its schedule for this year. The event, May 12-13, will feature discussions with the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Linda Boström Knausgård, and Laurent Binet.
And to wrap up on a more unusual note, a Danish crime literature festival has gained nationwide interest for an advertising campaign gone awry. The Krimimessen festival, the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries and organised earlier this month, was advertised by staging fake crime scenes using fake human bodies. After, naturally, distressed reactions from the general public, the campaign was promptly terminated. “I am horribly sorry”, said the organising town’s Mayor, according to the Copenhagen Post Online.
This week, we dock first in Romania, where Editor-at-Large MARGENTO updates us on the political climate and how it’s influencing literary output. Then we sail southwest to Cuba, where we’ll hear from Blog Editor Madeline Jones about the foreign diplomats barred from an awards ceremony, as well as highlights from the International Book Fair in Havana. Finally, back across the Atlantic, M. René Bradshaw, Editor-at-Large for the UK, maps out the best literary events taking place in and around the capital throughout March and April.
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova, catches us up on the Romanian literary scene:
The recent wave of rallies that have swept Romania, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s decrees decriminalizing certain corruption-related offences, has sparked reactions both on social media and in literary and creative circles. The “light revolution” received huge global media coverage when tens of thousands of smartphones converged their glows outside the government building in Bucharest, sending a blinding anti-graft message while also forming the image of a huge national flag. The true hallmark of this revolution has been internationally perceived as the deployment of digital apps and catchy, pun-filled slogans in both English and Romanian, inundating social and mass media with what hip-hop star Călin “Rimaru” Ionescu has termed the new “OUGmented reality” (OUG being the Romanian acronym for a governmental decree). As #Rezist has gone viral across digital media channels, it is apt to share from our past archives a celebration by Asymptote contributor Ruxandra Cesereanu of what she sees as a revival of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist rezistance, a Romanian partisan movement that heroically lasted from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.
In a similar vein, American poet and translator Tara Skurtu—currently in Romania on a Fulbright grant—has revisited the Romanian gulag in a poem inspired by the recent protests and published in the Huffington Post. A couple of days later, the same publication ran an interview on similar issues with Radu Vancu, also an Asymptote contributor. Still, one of the authorities on modern and post-communist history Mircea Stănescu, who has consistently and shrewdly chronicled and analyzed the protests, maintained a cautionary stance, pointing out the generation gap strongly manifest in the current movement and warning about deeper political and educational issues that might remain unaddressed and resurface later. Yet it seems that the ongoing rallies and sense of solidarity are a breath of fresh air that has already inspired a great deal of writers. Poet, novelist, and essayist Cosmin Perța has already announced a forthcoming #Rezist literary anthology.
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Our last Asymptote Podcast for 2016 takes a turn for the mystical as we explore the Tarot and its influence on different corners of fiction and poetry from around the world. In recent times, there have been many new “translations” of the Tarot in updated editions of the mysterious 78-card deck: see, for example, the ingenius “Black Power Tarot” deck by the Canadian Musician King Khan, who found his inspiration after attending readings by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky! We’ll also delve into Spanish artist Andres Marquinez Casas’s “Macondo Tarot,” a deck crafted with characters from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and hear from the creator of the most recent Tarot reimagining, American artist Courtney Alexander who has updated the ancient deck with characters like Grace Jones and Duke Ellington. Stay tuned: you might just have your future unveiled! This is the Asymptote Podcast.
Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James