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Same as it ever was: Orientalism 40 years later

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In addition to reading the classics like Edward Said and Jack Shaheen, I recommend exploring contemporary Arab and Arab American writers and scholars. There is no shortage of them, of us. For one place to start, check out the list of Arab American Book Award winners. In terms of scholarship, Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 (2012) updates Said to explore how contemporary media often deploy a “good Arab” to create the illusion of complex representation, what she calls a “simplified complex representation.” In terms of literature, Khaled Mattawa’s lyrical poems and translations have brought into English so much beauty and wisdom. Likewise the work of the indefatigable Marilyn Hacker, in her poems and translations. Marcia Lynx Qualey’s blog called Arabic Literature in English provides a constant reading list. Interlink Books deserves special mention, and there are at least three literary magazines devoted to Arab literature: MiznaBanipal, and Sukoon. For me, the existence of RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers) has made me feel a little more at home in the world, and at home in myself. RAWI is home to many prominent Arab American writers, including a core group with whom I regularly group-text: Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema Shehabi.

In poetry, Hayan Charara is the master of dread, whose poems tip the earth beneath us, sliding into the unspeakable; on text, he shares goofy photos of his kids, usually dressed up in hilarious outfits. In poetry, Marwa Helal invented a new kind of poem, the Arabic, which reads right to left; on text, she’s the one who hearts us most, and keeps us hip to slang and people like DJ Khaled, whose embrace of the good life is equal parts hip hop and Arab. In her essays, stories, and Tweets, Jarrar’s drawn to the funny and provocative; one troll called her novel “a handbook on masturbation.” In group-text, she alternates between hilarity and sweetness. Fady Joudah’s just another award-winning poet and translator, whose surprising response to the Levinson affair and other grotesqueries, “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” ought to be read by everyone, vibrating as it is with the birth-pangs of something new. Farid Matuk’s baby girl pops up in group-text, as she does in his new and highly experimental poems, when he’s not going high-theory in voluminous and impeccable texts. Deema Shehabi’s two boys, and her kindness, radiating always, rhymes with her jasmine-scented and fierce poems. What does it mean to know her grandfather was once the mayor of Gaza?

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The secret to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s overnight success

The novelist seemed to go from unknown to MacArthur genius in two years. In truth, it took decades.

This month, the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was awarded one of the most prestigious honors a writer can receive: the MacArthur “genius” grant, given to artists, thinkers, and public intellectuals whose ideas have culture-altering potential. This, in itself, should surprise no one. Nguyen writes with arresting moral and intellectual force, often about people scarred and uprooted by conflict. As the MacArthur Foundation put it in its citation, Nguyen’s demonstrated a unique gift for exploring how depictions of the Vietnam War “often fail to capture the full humanity and inhumanity, the sacrifices and savagery, of participants on opposing sides.”

But the MacArthur is just the latest in an astonishing run of literary successes, one that makes it easy to forget a simple fact: A mere 18 months ago, Nguyen was still unknown as a fiction writer. His career began quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere, in April 2015 — when a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review made his debut novel, The Sympathizer, one of the year’s most-discussed books. Shortly after that, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, bringing Nguyen international fame. Since then, he’s stayed busy, publishing two celebrated books in short succession: a work of nonfiction cultural criticism, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and a short story collection, The Refugees.

But Nguyen is no overnight sensation — far from it. In this interview, he opens up about a period of his life that’s been mostly overlooked: the two decades he spent trying, and mostly failing, to write fiction, working in secret while he juggled a host of other responsibilities. We discussed the 20 years of work that preceded his debut, the challenges he faced along the way, and — when it seemed his literary ambitions would never quite materialize — the strategies he used to keep going.

Viet Thanh Nguyen and I first spoke in 2015, discussing how he stumbled on The Sympathizer’s first sentence, an opening that finally allowed him to complete the rest of the book. That conversation appears in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, published this fall by Penguin Books. He teaches at the University of Southern California, and spoke to me by phone.

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Han Kang and the complexity of translation

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

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Finding Eastern and Western selves through Eastern and Western stories

Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity.

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Namrata Poddar: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?

Gish Jen: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.

The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.

NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?

GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.

In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.

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2017: The year Asian-American writers broke into mainstream of US literary publishing

Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, this year has seen widespread praise for a variety of authors for bringing their stories about the immigrant experience to English reader.

After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian-American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of East and Southeast Asian heritage led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong are among the hottest trends this year.

It marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.

Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.

The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian-Americans, and their books cross genres and forms.

Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. His images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.

The stories in Nguyen’s The Refugees are set in Vietnam and among refugee communities in California. The author disarms the reader, consistently complicating our sympathies. What came before and after the characters’ journeys across the Pacific pervade the collection. His book is dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere”.

The privileged twenty-somethings in Tony Tulathimutte’s satirical novel, Private Citizens , inhabit a different San Francisco tech scene in the 2000s – but like Nguyen’s characters, they’re alive to the nuances of Asian-American experience. Tulathimutte’s Thai-American protagonist, Will, is accused of being paranoid about racism, but he is clearly on to something as he witnesses the lives of Asians overlooked because, he says, “they’re outside the black-white binary”.

There is a thrilling and almost wild energy about Jenny Zhang’s long sentences in the connected stories of Sour Heart. The brutality of communist China is vividly remembered and the hardships of immigrant life graphically enumerated by young narrators, among them a girl who says: “Going to school in Little Neck was the only thing – short of spending eighty grand on a down payment for a new house, short of having hundreds of thousands of dollars for private tuition – that stood any chance of saving me from a life of misery, poverty and pain.”

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The Orange County writer who saved Vietnam’s wartime literature, poem by poem, dies

When the Communist forces pushed into Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War, Vo Phien sensed that his country’s past was about to be erased. Books would be burned, history lessons rewritten, entire cities stripped of their names.

Fearful of what was to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries — anything that captured the raw emotions and nervous energy of wartime.

What emerged years later, after he landed in America as a refugee with little more than his wife and teenage daughter, is a volume of Vietnamese writings that otherwise might have vanished.

Vo, a prolific Vietnamese writer himself who made a living crunching numbers for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., died Tuesday at a medical facility in Santa Ana. He was 89, though in Vietnamese culture he was considered to be 90 based on the lunar calendar.

Among Vietnamese Americans, Vo is considered one of the diaspora’s towering literary minds, someone with an eye for the melancholy of the era, a writer who captured the rich detail of the culture, Vietnamese village life and the war itself.

But it was the exhaustive collection “Van Hoc Mien Nam, Tong Quan,” an overview of South Vietnamese literature from 1954 to 1975, that endeared him to fellow expatriates. The book featured the work of more than 200 authors and documented the period’s artistic and literary movements. Its 1999 debut was followed by six other books exploring genres such as poetry and plays.

Born Doan The Nhon on Oct. 20, 1925, Vo grew up in Binh Dinh, a province in Central Vietnam. By the time he was 20, he had joined the anti-French revolutionary movement but became disenchanted with communism and went to work in the Ministry of Information for the Republic of Vietnam.

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The great Vietnam war novel was not written by an American

In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.

I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

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Shanghai recognises UK translator Wang’s ‘special contribution’ to literature

Helen Wang, a London-based literary translator and British Museum curator has been recognised on the international stage for her “special contribution” to children’s literature at the 2017 Chen Bochui International Children’s Literature Awards in Shanghai.

Wang, who translates contemporary Chinese literature, including novels, picture books and graphic novels for children and young adults, was commended as “a tireless champion” for Chinese children’s literature at the event, which named her Special Contributor of the Year on the eve of the city’s fifth international children’s book fair.

Wang earlier this year took home the 2017 Marsh Christian Award for her translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, set in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution, that was originally published by Phoenix Publishing House and published in translation by Walker in the UK and Candlewick in the US.

In addition to her translations, Wang has also worked collaboratively with the China Fiction Book Club, Paper Republic and Global Literature in Libraries. In 2016, she co-founded Chinese Books for Young Readers, a resource collating scant reliable information about Chinese children’s books.

“Helen Wang is a tireless champion for Chinese children’s literature. And her advocacy is widely recognised and appreciated,” said Junko Tokota, one of the judging panel.

She added: “Although her name is synonymous with children’s translation, Helen Wang has raised the visibility and professionalism of children’s literature translation worldwide.”

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KAVEH AKBAR: “BEWILDERMENT IS AT THE CORE OF EVERY GREAT POEM”

THE CALLING A WOLF A WOLF POET ON WONDER, ADDICTION, AND PRONOIA

“I was not a good person,” Kaveh Akbar tells me. Though it’s the province of his work––in his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and his debut collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both released this year––it’s hard to imagine the charming voice at the other end of the line belonging to someone in the throes of the “deeply miserable” life he speaks to in his poems. Among their myriad themes are the inherently paradoxical nature of being a grateful, recovering, sober alcoholic. Writing these poems, which Akbar calls his “fundamental bedrock,” has earned him a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Akbar and I first met earlier this summer at a poetry reading of his in New York City, where he shared the bill with several poets including Kazim Ali. “That’s big brother for me,” Akbar says over the phone in October. He continues, “Kazim was, I think, the first American poet I knew who was writing about Islam; who was writing about being interested, and in love with, Islam in ways that were complicated by his identity and experience. That’s very much a lodestar for me. Zeina Hashem Beck is another poet who I love for a lot of those same reasons.”

These references to fellow poets, and specifically these expressions of taking care with their work, come up often in conversation with Akbar. Fittingly, part of his new life is built on communing with other major voices in contemporary poetry, as the founding editor of his interview project Divedapper. He tells me that for the site’s interviews, which he aims to publish approximately every other Monday, he doesn’t often prepare formal questions. He explains his belief that, “It’s just conversation, and that’s all I ever really want. You and I are just having a conversation right now. You have these really intensely insightful questions prepared, but they’re based on your having spent time a lot of time with my words, both in my book and other interviews I’ve done. That is very much spending a lot of time with a person.”

The results of our conversation include reflections on humility, discomfort, memory, and having a sense of humor in your work.

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The Subversive New Generation of Asian American Writers

Real talk between writers Jenny Zhang, Tanwi Nandini Islam, and Karan Mahajan on race, writing, parents, sex, and the ongoing creation of the Asian American canon.

 

Asian American writers occupy a weirdly marginal space in American letters: a few successes, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, go mainstream, but otherwise these are authors you read if you are interested in the “Asian American experience”; they haven’t achieved the universality, say, of Jewish American writing. Asian American writers are in a position analogous to that of Asian Americans themselves: salubrious but maybe inessential.

A new generation is challenging that. In 2008, Wesley Yang published an essay inn+1 about the Virginia Tech mass shooter; fierce, analytical, and dangerously confessional, it had a testy Naipaulian energy. Other nonfiction writers have come up concurrently or followed suit: Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, even provocateurs like Eddie Huang and Amy Chua. In fiction, Hanya Yanagihara, Ed Park, Jenny Zhang, Tao Lin, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Alice Sola Kim, Alexander Chee, and Tony Tulathimutte are renovating an ossified genre with outrageous and sometimes hypersexual scenarios. (Kang is a correspondent for VICE on HBO; Huang is the host of the VICELAND show Huang’s WorldLinIslamPark, and Tulathimutte are all occasional contributors to this website.) Zhang and Islam also exemplify a style of online confessional essay-writing that draws blood—and thousands of politicized readers.

To talk about all this, I Google-hanged with Zhang and Islam. They were in Williamsburg, and I was in Bangalore. Zhang, the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS, had just sold her first collection of stories to Random House (she’s a friend of mine from college). Islam’s debut novel, Bright Lines, was about to be the inaugural pick for the NYC Mayor’s Book Club. This being an Asian American story, parents were never far from the picture: Islam’s Bangladeshi American family weaved in and out of the background. “My mom keeps wanting to take a selfie with me,” she wrote at one point. The three of us talked about families, politics, and the cringes that come when your story is workshopped by a room of white writers.

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