In January 2017, independent British publisher Comma Press announced that in 2018 they would only be publishing authors from ‘banned nations’. This was a response to President Trump’s directive to block entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for ninety days. Whilst continuing to generate hate and divide people, Trump’s announcement did give rise to some positive news. Organisations around the world stood up to fight for the rights of the citizens of these countries. In a show of solidarity, Asymptote’s Spring 2017 issue featured writing from authors in many of the countries affected. And now, a new title from Comma Press, Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, has just been published in this spirit.
Good stories help us to make sense of the world.
It is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings.
As a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law, and Society, Cristina Serverius continues her lifelong quest to “understand humans, understand the self, and understand community,” while promoting educational environments that encourage all its participants to thrive. Native to Belgium, she earned an M.Ed in Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches from SFU and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. Cristina currently works as an educational consultant. Asymptote for Educators Lindsay Semel interviews her about the questions driving her interdisciplinary inquiries and how they manifest in the classroom.
LS: From the perspective of a border-crossing scholar (in terms of discipline, country, and language), can you speak about the extent to which education is or isn’t a field/practice rooted in place? How does your foreignness impact your relationships within the schools?
CS: I think it is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings. We do children (and the environment!) a great disservice by denying them an intimate knowledge of their surroundings in favor of studying the world “at arm’s length,” as physicist Arthur Zajonc calls the learning enforced in many schools, which adhere to a rigid barrier between self and object of study. How are we supposed to learn to care for a neighbor or a local marshland when we are taught in a context of separation; how can we examine the far-away before we explore that which is close by? In Belgium, we call secondary school “humaniora,” a place where one becomes a human. Most schools, for a variety of structural, systemic, and societal reasons, have forgotten their role in this process and have been reduced to places where (a certain kind of) knowledge transfer either happens or, frustratingly, doesn’t happen.
Obviously, when looking at place-based education, we have to consider that places (and the communities that inhabit them) change over time. Place-based education in Belgium, for example, must include exploration of the large Maghrebi communities; the village church and the mosque are both opportunities for place-based learning. As such, it is representative of contemporary society for Canadian schools to have staff who did not attend Canadian elementary or secondary schools, and a great deal of the children attending school now are first-generation Canadians. Bringing in staff who do not have a Canadian background can lay bare and put up for debate some of the things we do “because they’ve always been done this way,” and that can only be healthy for any organization. My (or any other foreigner’s) learning about the school system starts a conversation that necessarily leads to self-reflection for those who have been embedded (in this case) in the Canadian system. Those are wonderful conversations that advance learning for both parties.
"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.
Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.
Simon Fraser University’s Cristina Serverius on Understanding Identity in Oral Storytelling Traditions
Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!
Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
While the work of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is always situated between two cultures—Somali and Italian—it provides a point of access for students to learn about oral traditions, because despite the author’s long residencies outside of Somalia, these traditions remain present in her writing. Their ubiquity is testament to the very nature of oral stories, which creep into our lives unannounced and perhaps unnoticed, and travel with us. This is how they survive; this is how we survive.
The activities below focus on Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s use of the Somali oral tradition and the question of personal identity in the context of stories that are passed down and retold, and which have become part of the socio-cultural fabric of our being. Besides offering an introduction to these topics, the lesson provides practice for analysis of a literary text and use of a secondary source to enrich our understanding of literature.
Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!
Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue!
“‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”
—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz
“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.
The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.
It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery. Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”
—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund
“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.
So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”
—Blog Editor Madeline Jones
Read More About Translation and International Literature on the Blog: