Posts featuring J.M. Coetzee

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to France, Brazil, and Argentina.

It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France

Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”

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The Asymptote Book Club: An Update!

Our Editor-in-Chief takes some questions about the Book Club!

What an overwhelming ten days since the launch of the Asymptote Book Club! We received queries from as far afield as Australia and Canada—so much interest from Canada, in fact, that we decided to open our book club to Canadians four days ago. But why a book club in the first place? some asked. Well, in a nutshell: the idea was to take the important work we have done with our award-winning, free online journal and our Translation Tuesday showcases at the Guardian—that is to say, showcasing the best new writing from around the world, and giving it a physical presence outside of the virtual arena. We also wanted to celebrate (as well as support) the independent publishers who work hard behind the scenes to make world literature possible.

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What sets your book club apart from others?

Curation is a big part of what makes the book club special. We have a large team of editors based in six continents to research and pick the best titles available from a wide variety of publishers. Subscribers will receive a brand-new (just published or, in many cases, not even in the bookshops yet), surprise work of fiction delivered to their door each month. This is another thing that distinguishes us from a few other book clubs before us: we choose from new releases only—nothing from a backlist that readers may already have on their bookshelves.

Subscriptions are for three or 12 months (for as little as USD15 a month, shipping included!) and, depending on the package the subscriber picks, they may receive additional perks in the form of Asymptote merchandise and ebooks (see below), but the real focus here is on creating a serious book club for a dedicated reading public. Many subscription services focus as much on the gifts as the books themselves, but we do not see ourselves as experts in tea or socks, so we’re concentrating rather on ensuring our readers get their hands on the most amazing literature we can source, applying the same curatorial instincts that won us a London Book Fair Award in 2015. READ MORE…

In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have held...is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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