After the recently concluded blog series in which we looked back on 2017's literary discoveries, we bring you our New Year's reading resolutions.
Chris Power, Assistant Editor:
I work in French and German, so I’ll start with my French literary resolutions: I’m reading Marx et la poupée (Marx and the Doll) by Maryam Madjidi with my friend and former French professor, the psychoanalytic literary theorist Jerry Aline Flieger. Excerpts of the novel of course appear in our current issue. If it isn’t my favorite work we’ve published, then it stands out for being the one that overwhelmed my critical faculties. I couldn’t write about it in the disinterested manner that I prefer. Instead I wrote a confused, gushing blurb listing my favorite scenes and describing how it brought tears to my eyes. An emphatic “yes” was all I could muster. Next on my list is Réparer le monde (Repair the World) by Alexandre Gefen, to which Laurent Demanze dedicated a beautiful essay in Diacritik in late November. I’m looking forward not only to an insightful survey of contemporary French literature, but also to a provocative anti-theoretical turn in the history of literary theory, namely a theory of the utility of literature (to repair the world) which cites pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. Gefen introduces this theory enticingly through a reading of Barthes in his lecture “A quoi bon ? Les pouvoirs de la littérature (La tentation de l'écriture)” / “What’s the use? The powers of literature (the temptation of writing)” which is available online, but I must admit that I’m reminded of a Baudelaire quote dear to me: “Être un homme utile m'a toujours paru quelque chose de bien hideux.” (“To be a useful man has always appeared to me to be particularly hideous.”) In 2018 I’ll also continue exploring the work of Sarah Kofman, who seems to me to be a diamond in the rough of historical amnesia and a potential dissertation topic. She’s exactly the kind of Nietzschean, Parisian philosopher-poet of the 1960s who worked at the intersection of philosophy and art that we’ve grown so comfortable labelling a “theorist,” but she hasn’t (yet) acquired the cult following of her dissertation advisor Gilles Deleuze or colleague Jacques Derrida.
As regards German literature, I must first (re)read the second part of Faust to complete an essay that I started with the guidance of my German Literature professor Michael Speier this summer in which I argue that Faust is not the tragic hero of the eponymously titled play. Herr Speier, also a lyric poet from Berlin, also recently gave me his 2015 collection of poetry dedicated to various cities, Haupt Stadt Studio, my second German resolution for 2018. Next is artist/philosopher Hito Steyerl’s Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (The Color of Truth: Documentarism in the Artistic Fields), which analyses the status of the documentary in the 21st century beyond the logic of mimesis (not as a representation but as an interruption and reconfiguration of reality). Although I don’t do much with my camera, I’d like to think of myself as a member of what she’s described as her generation: „Jung, schlau, von der Krise gebeutelt, hungrig und auf allen Kontinenten zu Hause. Kein Geld, keine Zukunft, nur Hoffnung, Humor und Smartphones mit hochauflösenden Kameras.“ (“Young, smart, tossed by the crisis, hungry and at home on all continents. No money, no future, only hope, humor, and smartphones with high-resolution cameras.”) Last is philosopher Judith Butler’s Fühlen was im anderen lebendig ist: Hegels frühe Liebe / To feel what is living in the other: Hegel’s early love, which will be fun as a translation exercise because she wrote the text in both languages.
In English I’m going to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts because of the hype and Moira Donegan’s superb N+1 essay “Gay as in Happy,” in which she writes about Nelson and unknowingly also about me: “Nelson is half a scholar with a downturned cup, attempting to trap something scuttling uncooperatively around, and half a writer-bug, trying to dodge the cup.”
Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large for Singapore:
Some time ago, I came across Ocean Vuong’s remarkable interview with Kaveh Akbar (an Asymptote contributor), in which Vuong—a queer, Vietnam-born former refugee whose work has swept prizes on both sides of the Atlantic – discusses the significance of ‘lineage’ to writers of colour. It’s an important idea to return to, as Vuong says, ‘despite all of the craziness’. “Writers of colour,” he writes, “don’t have a solid literary foundation to build on, whereas white writers enjoy the perpetual presence of a canon where their faces are faithfully reflected. […] So it’s always important for me to say, ‘This is where I came from’, and that my making of this art is both an act of creation and survival at once.”
As a writer, I’ve spent embarrassingly little time interrogating my influences, preferring to treat the literatures I’ve drawn upon as a happy accident. But if anything, world-historical as well as personal events of 2017 have persuaded me that it’s essential to think critically about my ‘lineage’: to unseat my own middle-class reading biases, and to understand my work as part of a more big-hearted and necessary purpose. In 2018, I’ll be making an effort to trace my inheritance as an Anglophone, Southeast Asian poet of faith and colour, reading and writing across British and Singaporean literary neighbourhoods. Here are some starting points.
For a sense of how others have written against the (predominantly white) grain of UK poetry, I’ll be turning first to two anthologies by Bloodaxe: Out Of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets (2012), and Ten: Poets of the New Generation (2017). Ten is the latest offering from The Complete Works, a now decade-old programme for writers of colour that hinges precisely on affirming lines of literary kinship through direct mentorship. Next, writers from Southeast Asia may be few and far between on the shelves of mainstream Anglophone literature, but I hope to read (and in some cases re-read) these notable exceptions: Madeleine Thein, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Tash Aw and Vuong himself, who in turn names Li-Young Lee (who grew up in Indonesia) and Wong May (in Singapore) among his literary forebears. I’ll be starting with Thein’s award-winning debut Simple Recipes, out in a new edition by Math Paper Press in Singapore.
Naturally, it won’t do to recognize one’s lineage only in the Anglophone sphere. Several publishers, including young imprints like Tilted Axis Press and Balestier Press, have broken new ground by bringing freshly-translated titles from Southeast Asia to the UK market, and I’m excited to see how the polyglot cultural worlds I’m familiar with will be rendered in (other) English(es). I’m especially looking forward to Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang’s new translation of Sinophone novelist Yeng Pway Ngon’s Opera Costume, out with Balestier in May. Some lesser-known works by acclaimed Malay-language authors like Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (a winner of the country’s Cultural Medallion) are being brought into English translation for the first time, and I’m hoping to pick up collections of his stories and poems, both out with stalwart publishers Ethos Books.
Of course, as soon as I’m done with these, it’ll be time for the 2018 edition of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, which, for the fifth year running, promises to spotlight some of the best verse—in English and in translation—by Singapore’s migrant writing community. Some of the past prize-winners have gone on to publish full collections, and their words remind me, again and again, that those who lineages intersect with ours are never a narrow tribe, but a rich and open-ended diaspora.
Caitlin O’Neil, Copy Editor:
As I was pondering my reading resolutions for 2018, I had a look at my bookshelves. Even though I thought I had done a “decent” job of reading authors of color this year, the figures were undeniable: the white authors I had read outnumbered authors of color two to one. So for 2018, I have one firm overarching goal: to read authors of color exclusively—one work by an author from the United States (since that’s where I live) and one by an author not from the United States each month.
For the U.S. books, I’m relying in large part on recommendations via social media, especially those of Well-Read Black Girl. In January, I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad; in February, Erika L. Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; in March, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. I’ll figure out the rest from there.
For reading authors not from the United States, since I need a gimmick to keep myself from falling into old biases, I’m starting with the country furthest from me (Madagascar) and working my way home (according to data from DistanceFromTo). At the rate of one book per month, I’ll be going at a snail’s pace, but this plan of action encourages me to explore countries whose literatures are entirely new to me. For Madagascar in January, I’ll be reading Michèle Rokotoson’s Lalana (currently only available in French, but in the process of being translated into English!) before exploring works from the Maldives, the Seychelles, then Singapore, Mayotte, Australia, Malaysia, the Comoros, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Swaziland, and Mozambique.
In deciding which book to read from each country, I owe a lot to the work done by Anne Morgan, who curated and maintains a list of novels from every country. I would have been lost in tracking down a source from the Maldives, but thanks to Morgan’s website, I know that in February I’ll be reading Abdullah Sadiq’s Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu (tr. by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea), often referred to as the Maldivian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. For other countries, I’ll be finding works on my own. For the Seychelles in March, for example, I’ll be delving into the works (in French) of Antoine Abel, a novelist and poet considered the father of Seychellois literature. I can’t wait to see what I find!
Claire Jacobson, Assistant Interviews Editor:
Try as I might, I can’t narrow down my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions to a single unified direction, category, idea, or motivation. So, I’ve parsed out three overarching goals and made an attempt at sketching out their substance (which is, quite frankly, as subject to change as my coffee preferences):
This spring, I’ll be working on a project translating several Arabic short stories by an Iraqi fiction writer. Thus far, most of my exposure to the literature of the Arab world has been francophone, so Part One of my New Year’s Resolutions involves reading “around” my project, as it were—familiarizing myself with other contemporary Iraqi fiction texts. (Preferably ones that others have translated into English, because I’m learning how to do just that, and part of the value of reading them is in seeing how it’s been done before.) Potential titles are The Baghdad Eucharist (Sinan Antoon), the collections Iraq+100 and The Madman of Freedom Square (Hassan Blasim), and American Granddaughter (Inaam Kachachi).
One of the most exhilarating and frustrating aspects of working at a journal like Asymptote is the ever-present knowledge that there are massive swaths of world literature that exist just out of my reach. Part Two of my resolutions is to read texts in translation originating from languages I don’t know. For example, I have a book of Russian short stories and poetry in Chinese, Japanese, and Albanian, all of which I bought in a fit of literary optimism and then never got around to reading. (Actually, this category includes quite a range of titles on my shelf. But I have to start somewhere.)”
And finally, Part Three of my resolutions is a little more personal: Recent events involving certain people who claim the “evangelical Christian” designator have soured me somewhat on the term, whose present meaning in common parlance has nothing to do with the reality of my experience. Far from describing my political views, it has also moved farther and farther away from my theological ones. This shift has prompted me to intentionally cast my net a little wider in seeking out my own spiritual and ideological heritage, namely by decentering white Protestant voices. To that end, I am putting together a somewhat haphazard and open-ended list of writers and theologians who do not fit that description, a list currently comprising Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman, Shusaku Endo, and Julian of Norwich. I hope this is just the beginning of that exploration.
As the great philosopher and creepy pirate Captain Barbossa once said, these are “more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”—while the titles I’ve proposed are not set in stone, these “guidelines” will direct my reading in a purposeful way throughout the coming year.
Head over to the Asymptote blog to learn about South Africa Editor-at-large Alice Ingg's reading resolution for 2018. Hint: it has to do with "unfinished business."
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