Editor's Note

Welcome to our mega July issue, tagged: philosophy, happiness, Russian novel, mystery, Chinese reunion, Thai art, New York, Budapest, meta-text, monks, and the afterlife.

And "Life is so short"—three of the authors we present in this issue died before the age of 35: Tang dynasty courtesan Yu Xuanji, Japanese modernist poet Sagawa Chika, and Taiwanese avant-gardist Lin Yaode (from, variously: capital punishment for murder, stomach cancer, heart attack). "Which of you died in autumn—the most beautiful season of them all?" asks Thai artist Rasdjarmrearnsook, addressing her students in her conceptual video "The Class, Death Seminar." In a similar intervention, Franco Arminio imagines postcards written by those already gone: "Before me, eighty billion people had already died". (Moved, our guest artist, Malaysian-born Sherman Ong, decided to pair the piece with a "postcard" from his grandmother, recently deceased.) Admirers of each other's work when they were alive, Lin Yaode and master of the lyric novel Shen Congwen reunite this issue.

"What does one fear in fearing death?"  If you've ever come up short on that question, let Yoshimichi Nakajima, in Asymptote's very first philosophy offering, enlighten you with a Kierkegaardian reading of Adam in the Garden of Eden, via Singaporean Sim Yee Chiang's lucid translation. Sim, an ex-Fukushima resident himself, also translates Akutagawa prize-winning novelist and chief priest of a Fukushima temple Gen'yū Sōkyū for the first time into English in a despatch about the importance of fearing not too much, or too little, but just enough.

Elsewhere, Manit Sriwanichpoom and András Forgách offer other takes on Buddhism—the first, a critique of crass commercialism; the second, a pastiche composed of Zen Buddhist-style anecdotes that veer hilariously off-track. Translator of Forgách Tim Wilkinson also gives us a heroic translation from Bernhard admirer, Gábor Németh—for me the jewel of our Hungarian Fiction Special Feature for parting the curtain to inner life. Assembling the Feature, I was struck by how often the texts referred to one another: the recurring character in Dezső Kosztolányi's fiction, Kornél Esti, is appropriated without qualm by Péter Esterházy, in Esti, which, like the Németh, also quotes Márai, a towering figure in Hungarian letters. At the other end of the spectrum, I have included what looks to be an exciting first novel in Yvette Bíró's Runner, whose original, released in April of this year, was much praised by Forgách, and which Ivan Sanders generously undertook to translate just for Asymptote. Balazs Gyore's muted and beautiful short fiction, "On the Road," rounds off the Special Feature as well as the entire issue, counterpointing our energetic opener, the truly excellent "Only In New York."

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extraordinary lineup in our Criticism section this issue. Sven Birkerts's thrilling review of Bolaño's essays is a paean to the current "it" author; in the same category, contributing editor Aamer Hussein reviews two new translations from the Sindhi that question the meaning of home in the face of migration—one by a quitter, the other a stayer. Other articles take on the bigger questions surrounding translation: Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear's superbly distilled "Ghalib Redux" (illustrated with their own translations of the famous Urdu poet) makes the compelling case that translation is inseparable from the act of interpretation while Daniel Borzutzky challenges the cultural position of self-effacement that the translator traditionally occupies. The last piece is an essay by Adonis arguing that ambiguity in modern Arabic poetry arose as a necessary response to a changing Arab world—it is also the first article in Asymptote from the Arabic.

The section with the most number of such first-time appearances is the Poetry section, curated by Aditi Machado. Along with a daring Upaniṣad translation (complete with diagrams!) by acclaimed translator Mani Rao, Poetry gives us our first work from the Urdu(romantic Hijab), the Slovenian (formidable Šalamun), the Yiddish (elegiac Celia Dropkin), and the Vietnamese (soulful Nguyễn Quốc Chánh), all reminding us, in their various ways, that poetry should be—in the words of Massimo Gezzi—"like bricks." The translator of the last, Hai-Dang Phan, also gives us a run-down of contemporary Vietnamese poets in an unforgettable (and beautifully illustrated) Writers on Writers Special Feature.

This is the first issue with new Drama editor Caridad Svich and new Interviews editor Nazry Bahrawi on board; with their help, both sections have doubled from the previous. In Drama, we have an Algerian piece set in war time, and a Mexican one in airports—both about insatiable love. In the Interviews section, Sun Kyoung Yoon faces off with the witty and very wise Brother Anthony of Taizé; I then conduct an interview with opposition politician Chen Show Mao, who won a watershed victory in Singapore's recent General Elections. Of special note, from the interview he gave on the intersection between language and politics, is his observation about the "whiff of the utilitarian and instrumental" in Singapore's language education, that came out of the country's bilingual language policy, which might explain the wanting reception (both atmospheric and institutional) to literary writers here.

So this will be the last issue that I will be editing out of Singapore, so to speak; my move to Taipei having been finally decided three weeks ago. Stay tuned for Asymptote's Special Feature, "The Case For Taiwan," in January 2012.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

Editorial Team for Issue Jul 2011

Founding Editor:
Lee Yew Leong (Singapore/Taiwan)

Section Editors:
Lee Yew Leong (Singapore/Taiwan)
Aditi Machado (India/USA)
Sayuri Okamoto (Japan)
Caridad Svich (USA/UK)
Nazry Bahrawi(Singapore/UK)

Contributing Editors:
Florian Duijsens (Holland/Germany), Aamer Hussein (Pakistan/UK), and Anthony Luebbert (USA)

Masthead for Issue Jul 2011

Fiction/Criticism/Feature: Lee Yew Leong
Nonfiction/Poetry: Aditi Machado
Drama: Caridad Svich
Visual: Sayuri Okamoto
Interview: Nazry Bahrawi
Photo Illustrations and Cover: Sherman Ong
Design: Lee Yew Leong and fFurious
Legal Counsel: Lindy Poh

Asymptote would like to acknowledge the support and/or contributions of: Balkenende Chew & Chia (Advocates & Solicitors), Sim Yee Chiang, Rikey Cheng, Guo Bingxiu, Judith Sollosy, Tim Wilkinson, Ágnes Orzóy, Ivan Sanders, Nora Bojar, Mary Griffiths, Lin Ting, Huang Yin-Nan, Erika Sigvardsdotter, Leopold Lippert, Sascha Aurora Akhtar, Desmond Kon, Damiano Abeni, Moira Egan, Darryl Jingwen Wee, Francis Li Zhuoxiong, Wong Chee Meng, Deanne Tan, Jeremy Tiang and J. J. Fong.

Thanks go too to Dave Chua and Anonymous for their generous donations.



Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Only in New York

Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

If Cairo wants to brag about its sphinx then New York answers: Get a nose job.

Robert Walser, Full

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Sallies and attacks on one side, rebuffs and refusals on the other, the vessel continues to sail calmly and gaily through all the metropolitan traffic, which almost resembles an ocean.

Quim Monzó, Life is so Short

Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

The elevator, she tells him, is the most important means of transport over the last few decades.

Franco Arminio, from Postcards from the Dead

Translated from the Italian by Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan

Before me, eighty billion people had already died.


Massimo Gezzi, from The Moment After

Translated from the Italian by Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan

Erika Burkart, from Secret Letter

Translated from the German by Marc Vincenz

Yang Zi, Two Poems

Translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Hijab Imtiaz Ali, from Gilded Letters

Translated from the Urdu by Aamer Hussein

Sagawa Chika, from The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika

Translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu

Anonymous, Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad

Translated from the Sanskrit by Mani Rao

Constantine P. Cavafy, Two Poems

Translated from the Greek by George Economou

George Gömöri, Three Poems

Translated from the Hungarian by Mari Gömöri, Jamie McKendrick, and George Gömöri

Tomaž Šalamun, Four Poems

Translated from the Slovenian by Michael Thomas Taren and Tomaž Šalamun

Yi Lu, Three Poems

Translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Two Poems

Translated from the Vietnamese by Hai-Dang Phan

Eduardo Espina, from El cutis patrio

Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky

Celia Dropkin, from In the Hot Wind

Translated from the Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon

Yu Xuanji, from The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji

Translated from the Chinese by Leonard Ng


Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear, Ghalib Redux

We began once more armed with the understanding that the mystery of Ghalib's poetry is its mirage-like quality: it is most opaque when it appears to be crystalline with clarity.

Sindhi Journeys

A review by Aamer Hussein

We have become aliens in our own land, while you, without your roots, are being treated like strangers everywhere.

Marosa di Giogio's The History of Violets

Translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas

A review by Daniel Borzutzky

The translation, as an immigrant to a dominant culture, must attempt to assert its identity into a world that could mostly care less about its existence.

Roberto Bolaño's Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

A review by Sven Birkerts

Spirit, where it exists, shines through. Roberto Bolaño was one of the ones for whom literature was everything.

Adonis, Ambiguity

Translated from the Arabic by Elliott Colla

Picture humankind or the world clearly. At that moment you will find nothing more than a horrible superficiality. In them, you will find no place for poetry.


Shen Congwen, from Family Letters

Translated from the Chinese by Alice Xin Liu

What's hard isn't lack of characters to write about, or lack of events to write about, it's how to achieve a mood of ample freedom, in order to structure a story and proceed to write. What's hard is to find a place to write.

Lin Yaode, HOTEL

Translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong

Sexual love with another human being requires the other's endorsement; each one of our lives contains a cheque book related to sexual matters, each cheque either valid upon presentation, or else uncashable forever.

Omar Pérez, from Cubanology

Translated from the Spanish by Kristin Dykstra

Sunday sunrise, Cubanology, What is the drug that the verse contains? 

Yoshimichi Nakajima, I Will Be in Trouble If I Die

Translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang

The fear of death is not the fear of being dead, because I know nothing about that state. Well then, is it the fear of nothingness?

Viktor Shklovsky, from Bowstring

Translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan

In its construction, estrangement is similar to the riddle: it is based on the rearrangement of an object's signs. But in Tolstoy, the main function of estrangement is conscience.

Gen'yū Sōkyū, Is It Possible to Fear Properly?

Translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang

Tiger at the front door, wolf in the back—fearing the tiger too much, one lets one's guard down against the wolf.


Mohamed Kacimi, from Holy Land

Translated from the French by Chantal Bilodeau

It makes holes in the sky, it makes holes in the earth, it makes holes in our history, it makes holes in our bodies, it makes holes in our love.

Elena Guiochins, A Lover’s Dismantling

Translated from the Spanish by Andy Bragen

Hunger is desire. Where there is nothing, I beg for something.


Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, The Class, Death Seminar

In "The Class, Death Seminar," lifeless bodies obtained from a morgue are the students.

Alexandra Demenkova, Pokrovka

I asked myself—how is it that someone would choose to live here?

Manit Sriwanichpoom, Masters

followed by a Q&A with the artist.

Special Feature

Hai-Dang Phan on Contemporary Vietnamese Poets

An essay followed by a translation into the Vietnamese by Hải Ngọc

The post-Renovation period is indeed one of strange empty spaces, of absent authority, of a train without an engine or an engineer.

Florian Duijsens on Verena Stefan

Learning a language is not simply a question of sinking or swimming, but of diving into the deep end or lurking in the changing rooms, idling at your locker, toweling off the same limbs, rolling the same socks on and off.

Leonard Ng on Yu Xuanji

In her short life, then, Yu Xuanji managed to fill multiple roles outside of the traditional social order: first as courtesan, then as abandoned concubine, and finally as Daoist nun.

Hungarian Fiction Special Feature

Dezső Kosztolányi, Happiness

Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

Péter Esterházy, from Esti

Translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy

Gábor Németh, from Lake Huron

Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson

Yvette Bíró, from Runner

Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders

András Forgách, from (One) Who Is Not

Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson

Balazs Gyore, On the Road

Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki


An interview with Brother Anthony of Taizé

The world's foremost Korean-English translator on the perils (and the happinesses) of translation.

An interview with Chen Show Mao

Singapore's first foreign-born Opposition MP talks about the intersection between language and politics.