Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature – Asymptote Blog

As summer draws to a close and many of us think about quickly approaching semesters, we bring you another round of updates from around the world. Poupeh Missaghi reports from Iran, looking at how sanctions imposed on Iran have affected the publishing industry, and paying homage to a much-loved bookseller in Tehran. Bringing us the latest from Singapore, Theophilus Kwek discusses the recently announced Singapore Literature Prize as well as recent poetry publications. Happy traveling-via-laptop!

The recent U.S. breach of the Iran nuclear deal and its new round of sanctions imposed on the country have not spared the Iranian publishing industry and its print media. Rising economic instability and a sudden drop in the value of the Iranian currency, along with other issues such as hoarding of paper supplies have led to many problems in the industry.


The Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Abbas Salehi, recently spoke about the matter and the attempts to stabilize the price of paper. Head of the Iranian paper syndicate, Abolfazl Roghani Golpaygani, also recently discussed a 100% increase in the price of paper in the past year which has caused newspapers and thus journalists concerns about the future of the trade. Consequently, the Iranian Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Trade just agreed with the urgent import of several tons of paper under special tariffs, but it is uncertain that this will provide a long-term solution for the problems of the industry.

On another note, at the end of July, fans of a bookseller in Tehran took to Twitter to mourn the passing of and pay tribute to a man who had provided them with books no one else could or would. Ali Arastooyi, or as some of his fans called him Aras, founder of Aras Books, was not a regular bookseller. He was more of a printer who had the largest archive of pdf files of books and printed them on demand as affordable offsets that were as good as originals. His archive included books mainly in English but also in German, French, and Arabic, and covered various fields such as literature, arts, engineering, physics, and many others. This would be problematic, unethical, and illegal in many countries around the world, but in a country where readers have for many years had no access to foreign-language books, Aras was considered by many a savior who offered them a world of knowledge they had no other way of getting their hands on. One fan tweeted about how university students of humanities majors are forever indebted to Aras for the sources he provided them with. Another fan on Twitter called him “an anonymous, humble fighter of freedom of expression.” Many wrote of their memories of their interactions with him, and others wrote of how what he did was not merely a job for him but more of a mission. All the tweets seemed to share one message: Rest in peace, Mr. Bookseller.

The winners of the biannual Singapore Literature Prize were announced last week, and hearty congratulations go to five-time Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang for winning the Prize in English Fiction for his debut novel State of Emergency(previously featured on the blog here)! Congratulations also to prolific contributor Tan Chee Lay for winning the Prize in Chinese Poetry—you can read some of his poems in our pages, translated by fellow poet Teng Qian Xi. This year’s Prize saw fifty authors nominated in twelve categories spanning Singapore’s four official languages, and was judged by local and international judges including Simon Armitage, Kate Griffin, and Wong Yoon Wah, alongside Asymptote contributors Alfian Sa’at and Boey Kim Cheng among others. The Prize is organized by the Singapore Book Council, an independent non-profit that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

In other literary news, this month has seen a flurry of book launches, from new volumes by younger poets Marc Nair and Aaron Maniam, to a fresh collaboration between veteran poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng and artist Ho Chee Lick. New York-based poet and critic Jee Leong Koh also returned to launch his first collection of essays, containing close readings of fellow Singapore writers and pieces on censorship and personal freedoms. Alongside recent releases by debut voices such as Natalie Wang, Crispin Rodrigues, and Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr., it seems like our shelves of Singapore writing have expanded considerably in the past weeks—providing no shortage of summer reading!