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Literary Thing I Love: Asymptote’s Map

February 14, 2014

Sophomore year of college, I lived in a tiny dorm room in an old building (b. 1878) with a “charming” slanted ceiling that sloped so low over my bed it seemed I could kiss it. I used the typical décor to mark the space as mine: tapestries, photos, and maps. My world map was awesome, my U.S. map colorful and laminated, my constellation map of the universe my favorite because it glowed in the dark. I dreamt—literally—of becoming a cartographer. I didn’t become a cartographer, but I still love traveling, and I still love maps. Even now they decorate my home. We’ve got a lovely black-and-white of Constantinople, a print of a 1275 world map from the Chronicle of St. Denis, and a shower curtain map of the world which, I admit, is my current favorite because it’s fun to review Pacific islands or Mediterranean nations or where in latitudinal relation the Scandinavian countries are to New England, all while brushing my teeth.

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Asymptote, an international journal of literature, collects pieces in multiple genres from around the world and publishes them in translation. With its geometric name, Asymptote acknowledges that translation can only come so close to the original meaning of text but also celebrates that the translation is a wholly new creation.

Like most journals, Asymptote lists its pieces by genre, groups them into issues, archives them as such.

Like no other journal I can think of, Asymptote offers an interactive map feature on which you can filter literature by content and select by place of origin.

It’s Valentine’s Day and I am in love and I must repeat that last part: Asymptote offers an interactive map feature on which you can filter literature by content and select by place of origin. 

Just now, I filtered out everything but “nonfiction,” and clicked the icon over “Russia” since the Olympics are on my mind, and found an excerpt from Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, translated by Robert Chandler. And just now, while S. slept for a bit, I got lost in the text, which begins with the Moscow-born narrator feeling lost and foreign while walking through an Armenian village called Tsakhkadzor. And I noticed that by the third paragraph, as the narrator is most aware of his foreignness, he switches to third-person POV, and throughout the rest of the piece, as he grows more and more comfortable and accepted, he becomes more and more alienated from himself, or maybe from the narrator he’s created, no longer “I” but now “the translator.” And finally, toward the end, he makes his readers remember always the hateful past that still stains us, even as peace and acceptance surround him on his walks. A few minutes on the map and I still feel a little lost, having visited other places and other times and another dimension of the human experience. With reading, and traveling, and the Olympics, and dreaming, and translation, we are as small and lost as we are locatable on a map.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Asymptote. I love you and I love your map feature and I wish you could hang over my sleeping head and I wish I could kiss you.

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