Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019
“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.
Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.
Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?
Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.
June is upon us and we are settling in for some summer reading. Join us as we catch up with our international correspondents about the literary happenings around the world. This week brings us the latest on indigenous literature from Colombia and Mexico, book fairs in Argentina, and new artistic endeavors in Indonesia!
Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors at Large, reporting from Colombia and Mexico:
From April 25 to 29 in Bogotá, Colombia, indigenous writers and scholars and critics of indigenous literatures from throughout the Américas came together in the 5th Continental Intercultural Encounter of Amerindian Literatures (EILA). The theme for this iteration of the bi-annual conference was “Indigenous Writing, Extractivism, and Bird Songs.” The centering of these concerns reflects a turn in the field of Indigenous literatures towards recognizing indigenous ways of writing that take place beyond Latin script, as well as ongoing ecological concerns that are at the heart of a good deal of indigenous literatures and Indigenous activism. In addition to literary readings and panels held at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, writers and critics presented to the general public at Bogotá’s International Book Festival (FILBO), and indigenous poets gave a reading in the town of Guatavita, home to a lake sacred to the Muisca people. Among the writers in attendance were (K’iche’) Humberto Ak’abal, (Yucatec) Jorge Cocom Pech, (Wayuu) Vito Apüshana, (Wayuu) Estercilla Simanca, (Wayuu) Vicenta Siosi, and (Yanakuna) Fredy Chicangana.