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‘17,000 islands of imagination’: discovering Indonesian literature

In February last year, I was sitting in Cafe Batavia on Fatahillah Square in Jakarta, talking to an Indonesian friend. We were discussing how any novelist might describe a country to a readership who know nothing about it. We were surrounded by framed photos of Indonesian politicians and Hollywood stars, and the ceiling fans turned overhead. Outside, it was hot and overcast, and students milled around the front of the History Museum, built by the Dutch in 1710 and now housing objects from the founding of Jayakarta in 1527. How could any writer portray such a diverse culture?

My friend smiled wryly. “You only have the same problem as the rest of us,” he said. “Indonesia isn’t a nation. It’s an imagination.”

There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.

Elizabeth Pisani is a writer and epidemiologist who has lived in Indonesia for many years. She has a simple explanation for this: ignorance. “Indonesia has no place in the British imagination,” she says. “It wasn’t a British colony and there’s virtually no Indonesian diaspora here, which means Brits aren’t even introduced to the country through food or a cultural presence.” In the absence of such historical links, can literature fill that imaginative gap?

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New translation funding for Arabic Literature from the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

This year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is offering translation funding for literary and children’s titles that have won the award, with the goal of increasing the readership for Arabic books.

Along with the recent announcement of its 2018 winners, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) is also launching a new translation funding initiative to encourage more publishers to translate Arabic literature.

Organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award recognizes writers and academics writing in Arabic and those promoting Arab culture in other languages.

Literary and children’s titles that have won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award are eligible for translation grants of up to approximately US$19,000. (See a list of eligible titles.) Additional grants for certain types of production and promotion are also available. Priority will be given to publishers translating into English, German, and French, though other languages will also be considered.

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Sometimes the best way to read is to mark up the book

Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.

In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.

There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”

In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.

Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages.

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The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen recommends the best of Contemporary Israeli Fiction

Do you think Israel’s fiction must engage with her politics?

I think Israel is a very political country. We are in the middle of a huge conflict zone and we have two thousand years of history of very difficult politics. I don’t think it is possible to write anything in Israel without referring to politics, and if you were to decide to write something without referring to politics, then that in itself is a political decision. I don’t mean to say that fiction has to limit itself only to the current conflict. Writing is a political act, but it’s much wider than everyday politics: it’s a political act because it deals with morals, with people, with power and knowledge.

It goes without saying that the political situation is immensely complex. Have you found that Israeli fiction engages with all sides of the debate?

Most of the writers I know are left-wing, while the majority of people in Israel vote for the right-wing Netanyahu. So there is a gap here between literature and the political map.

Where does that gap come from?

I think literature is a humanistic act. While writing a novel, you have to put yourself into the shoes of ‘the other’. Once you try to write from a different perspective, you cannot remain blind to the needs of other people or other nations.

So writing literature is fundamentally a left-wing activity?

I’m not saying that all writers are left-wing, but I do think there is something humanistic about the very idea that human life is important enough for us to sit down and write about it for pages and pages. Of course there are fascist novels in the history of literature, but I think there’s something in writing fiction that forces you to look where you don’t usually look – otherwise it would make bad literature. Maybe that’s why, if you write about the conflict, you can’t just say: ok we’re right and that’s it, you have to start asking questions. I see myself as an Israeli patriot—I believe Israel has every right to exist—but I can’t ignore Palestinian rights as well.

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How do we judge translations?

Look to the whole, the translator asked.

The line comes from Helen Lowe-Porter’s correspondence, and can be read as an early plea (from a letter to her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated 11 November 1943) against the kind of translation review which proceeds by finding and scrutinizing the apparent lapse, the moments of inattention, the local mistake or infelicity—which might always be of the order of a conscious decision on the translator’s part—and making these stand in for the quality of the full translation.

Michelle Woods discusses this very common form of translation-evaluation in the section titled “Gotcha!” of her account of Kafka’s English-language translators and translations. The expression comes from the translator Mark Harman, whose 1998 translation of Kafka’s The Castle was widely reviewed and discussed. In this kind of review, as Woods writes, “reviewers often hone in on perceived ‘mistakes’ in order to justify their own taste preferences and to present their own legitimacy as experts in judging a translation. Rarely glimpsed is a consideration of the translator, or where translation fits into their career and their background. . . and what the nature of their contribution should be.”

Looking to the whole is a call to consider the way the thing is working and reading altogether, the way its many parts work in relation to one another, and the larger ways in which the translation relates to the circumstances and motivations for making it (a call that, as Woods points out, Lawrence Venuti makes repeatedly throughout his work).

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With fewer debut novels selling, what do editors want to tell authors?

In a tightening market for fiction and especially for debut authors looking for that big break, editors can be choosier—and many are more dependent than ever on literary agents to find their next debuts.

A room filled with aspiring writers awaited three editors and a debut author last week at London Book Fair’s session “Why We Commissioned These Debuts.” Speakers included:

  • Penguin Random House UK editor Jade Chandler, who handles crime and thrillers for Harvill Secker and Vintage
  • Nick Wells, the founding publisher at independent house Flame Tree Publishing, which is to launch an imprint for horror, crime, and science fiction/fantasy in September
  • HarperCollins UK editorial director Martha Ashby
  • HarperCollins author Sarah J. Harris was on hand to provide the debut writer’s viewpoint

Harris is also published in the States by Simon & Schuster, and she’s written three YA novels under a pseudonym.  And she described the comparatively dreamy experience she had in entering the market with The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder.

Having spent nine months writing the book, she said she researched agents and picked out the ones she thought would suit her best. Among them was Jemima Forrester who was starting a new list at David Higham’s agency.

Harris wrote a cover letter, targeted her agents’ list, met Forrester first and signed with her.  Once the book was edited, Harris said, Forrester submitted it and the manuscript drew overnight interest from publishers.

Within less than a week, HarperCollins made a bid, which Harris said she knows is unusually fast action.

From an editor’s viewpoint, Harvill Secker’s Chandler said that in a pre-empt, a publisher may “offer quite a lot to the agent because you want the book” to be taken off the table.

“But sometimes the agent will have it go to auction. I’ve pre-empted two books this year,” Chandler said, “and it usually involves reading the book overnight. It’s very dramatic and exciting and involves sleepless nights.”

Chandler said that like most editors, she finds authors through literary agents who filter submissions. “It’s quite an old fashioned process,” she said, “but in reality, I’m just one woman and I can only read so much.” Not surprisingly, she said that good relationships with agents become important if an editor is to find the best material.

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Abu Dhabi International Book Fair features 25 translations from French, English, and German

Running from April 25 through May 1, the 28th edition of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair will host 1,350 exhibitors from 63 countries in 35,000 square meters of space at the emirate’s National Exhibition Center.

Held under the patronage of the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nayan, the fair this year is expected to showcase more than half a million titles in some 35 languages and more than 830 seminars, workshops and other events, some of them as part of a professional program for international industry players.

The Kalima Project for Translation, which is handled by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, will present 25 new translations into Arabic from French, English, and German, while Poland will be featured as Country of Honor.

And at a news conference held this week at the Manarat Al Saadiyat, it was announced that visitors to the fair for the first time will be offered an electronic card they can use to charge purchases of books without needing to bring cash with them to the book fair.

And among those who were featured at the news conference, there were several in the leadership who spoke to the occasion.

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“The tragedy of going back”: Jhumpa Lahiri on her work as a translator

In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.

One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.

Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.

In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?

LAHIRI

Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

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