Posts featuring Svetlana Alexievich

The Multiple Worlds of the Writer: In Conversation with Margo Rejmer

I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives . . .

Margo Rejmer’s spare, exacting prose and illustrious methods have earned her widespread praise for both her meticulous reportage and her discerningly detailed narratives. From recollections garnered from the survivors of Communist Albania, to the stories collected from the varied and elaborate landscape of Bucharest, to the grappling of relationships in certain toxic fictional characters in Warsaw, the worlds depicted are all at once worn with secrecy, curious with hope, and bold with the human instinct for survival. In this following interview, Asymptote’s Filip Noubel speaks to Rejmer on subjects of writerly process, choice under totalitarianism, and individual freedoms.

Filip Noubel (FN): You have written two books on the experience and the consequences of dictatorial Communism in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Hoxha’s Albania. What drew you to those countries that, even within the context of then Communist Central Europe, have been generally perceived as economically underdeveloped, politically very conservative, and unattractive as destinations?

Margo Rejmer (MR): Both of the books, Bukareszt. Kurz i krew (Bucharest. Dust and Blood, 2013) and Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, 2018) deal with problems of power, strategies of survival in the authoritarian system, and searching for spaces of freedom. Although, when I started working on them, I didn’t know where they would lead me, as it turns out, everyone has their own inner path that leads to the same point. My book about Albania was supposed to simply be a guide to the Albanian mentality for the Polish reader. In the end though, it turned out to be a story about an isolated Orwellian-Kafkaesque space where people are controlled and punished, yet try to look for happiness and for a substitute for freedom, at least internally.

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“Thirst for a Deeper Understanding”: An Interview with the Founders of Absynt

Perhaps the fact that we were amateurs was an advantage: we were willing to take on the risk.

In 2015, two friends, a Pole and a Slovak, took a gamble and ventured into the overcrowded book market in Slovakia. And as if starting a new publishing house wasn’t risky enough, they chose to focus on literary reportage, a genre that was not well-known in Slovakia at the time. Since then, Absynt has published eighty titles and in late 2017 launched a Czech branch. At this year’s London Book Fair, the founders of Absynt, Filip Ostrowski and Juraj Koudela, shared their remarkable success story with Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood.

Julia Sherwood (JS): Reportage is increasingly being recognized as a bona fide literary genre and gaining popularity around the world. What is it about reportage that attracts you and that distinguishes it from ordinary journalism? Why do you think it resonates with readers?

Filip Ostrowski (FO): There is this general thirst for a deeper understanding of events and their context. We get coverage of the whole world from the media and the internet, but what is missing is a detached view, a kind of more universal commentary. For such a text to emerge, some time has to elapse. We feel that online coverage doesn’t respond to this need, but literary reportage can.

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#ReadWomen: A Focus for 2019—And Beyond

What was activism and new awareness has become habit and daily practice.

It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.

Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”

Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective. READ MORE…

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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My 2017: Poupeh Missaghi

We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.

Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.  

I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.

I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are again with literary updates from around the world. This week we bring you news on cultural responses to the earthquakes in Mexico and the latest on indigenous writers via Editors-At-Large for Mexico Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn. UK-based Executive Assistant Cassie Lawrence brings us up to speed on the latest from the UK, including recent prizes and publications. Finally, contributor Julia Chien and Editor-At-Large for Taiwan Vivian Szu-Chin Chih discuss the latest poetry and film initiatives in Taiwan.

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-At-Large, Mexico:

This week on Thursday, October 12, the 17th Annual Book Fair opened in México City’s Zócalo (main square downtown), and will run through October 22. As reported by Mexico’s Cultural Secretary, under the hashtag #CulturaSolidaria, the event will explore the role that the arts and culture play in rebuilding a city devastated by the September 19 earthquake that took over two hundred lives and left parts of the city in ruins.

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In Review: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism

Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. 

Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.

Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.

Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:

“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content.  That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”

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Weekly news round-up, 20th October 2013: Nobel Prize and awards-season special

The first of our weekly columns on literary news from around the world.

The big news of the week (naturally) was the launch of Asymptote‘s new Fall 2013 issue, and, alongside it, that of a new blog, which we very much hope you’re enjoying. For those of the Asymptote team who’ve worked on the quarterly journal, one of the more exciting things about the blog is the new-found ability to comment on events almost straight away. You’re reading the first of our weekly news round-ups, and the idea is to bring together (and perhaps even hold forth on) the most interesting literary news of the past week.

Stockholm. The problem with launching just over a week after the major literary news of the year – the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature – is that we feel compelled to report on it, even though, given the internet’s voracious 24-hour-news appetite, it’s really all a bit old-hat by now. Oh well. We hope your own appetites will stretch to a more international view on proceedings than you might have seen elsewhere. READ MORE…