TED talks: a speaker’s-eye view


Back in February, I asked you to tell me about your favourite TED talks. I had been invited to give a TEDx talk about my year of reading the world at an event organised by Procter & Gamble and I was keen to pick up some tips. It was very useful to hear about the speakers you found particularly inspiring.

In March, I flew out to Geneva to give my talk and had a wonderful time, appearing alongside such inspiring people as former Olympian Derek Redmond, sculptor Alex Chinneck and Luvuyo Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s great-grandson.

Although our talks from that day were filmed, they weren’t posted online. However, a few weeks after the event, I got an email from the organisers with some exciting news: the European director of TED, Bruno Giussani, had asked to see the footage of my talk. Not long after that, I spoke to Bruno on the phone and he invited me to speak at TEDGlobal>London this September.

That was when the hard work really began. Because of the precise timings of TED events, I had to get a draft of my talk to him in a matter of weeks – and find a way to cut the presentation I was used to giving (which can sometimes last as long as an hour) down to just eight minutes.

This was a new experience for me as I never normally write out what I’m going to say, preferring to talk without notes from a range of visual prompts. Still, I stuck to the brief and a few drafts flew back and forth between Bruno and me as we worked on tightening and focusing the presentation.

In the end, eight minutes proved a little too restrictive, so we settled on 12 minutes. We also agreed that I would do without my usual visual-prompt slides and hold up some of the books from the quest at relevant points instead. This meant that I would have to do what I had never done before and memorise my presentation pretty much word for word, finding a way to deliver it that hopefully wouldn’t make me sound like a robot.

Practice was the only way. And so from mid-August onwards, I went over my talk almost every day. I repeated it in the shower and in front of the mirror. I set a timer on my computer and rehearsed delivering it within the time limit over and over, until I stopped feeling stressed by the numbers counting down. I muttered it to myself as I walked down the street (I got some funny looks).

In early September, I had a rehearsal over Skype with Bruno and his colleague, Katerina. They stared out of the computer screen at me as I delivered my talk. It was quite a challenge to keep smiling and enthusiastic in the face of such intense scrutiny, but they seemed pleased. Barring a few last-minute tweaks to the opening, they thought it was ready to go.

The day before the event, I attended a rehearsal at the venue, the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London’s Green Park. I stood in a room facing around ten members of the TED team, including two performance coaches, and gave my talk. The team was generous and warm, applauding enthusiastically when I had finished. The coaches shared some advice on eye contact and movement on stage, as well as flagging up a few phrases that I could emphasise more carefully.

That evening I went with the other speakers, among them social progress expert Michael Green and Norwegian journalist Anders Fjellberg, to a dinner at the house of Bond producer and photography collector Michael Wilson. It was a great chance to unwind, mingle and reassure each other about how our talks would go – like me, many of them had found the experience of letting go of their normal speaking props a challenge.

The day of the event was a blur of make-up, microphones and meeting people. Backstage, most of us sat without saying very much, going over our talks in our heads and nibbling nervously on the snacks the team brought to the green room.

My presentation was in the second half, so I sat in the audience for the first session, willing on the people I’d chatted to the day before.

Then the interval passed and the speaker two slots before me was onstage. Then it was the speaker before me. Then me.

I heard Bruno announce my name, took a deep breath and walked forward into the red circle. The timer began the countdown and, well, you can see below how it went from there…

Photo: Courtesy of TED

Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares


Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Good news for women and translation



Writing is a tricky career at the best of times. With thousands of titles published every day, the chances of selling enough books to make a living as a wordsmith are slim. Indeed, a study by Queen Mary University reported by the Telegraph earlier this year found that only a tenth of British authors are able to support themselves purely by writing – a sharp drop from the 40 per cent who claimed to be able to do so a decade ago.

If you write in a language other than English, your odds of making a decent living from your books are narrower still. With translations accounting for only around 4.5 per cent of the literary works published in the UK, deals in the world’s most published language are like hen’s teeth, meaning that the majority of foreign-language authors have access to a much smaller market than their anglophone counterparts.

And if you make the silly error of being born a woman, well, your chances of seeing your work made available to many of the world’s readers shrink yet further. As Alison Anderson reflected in an excellent piece for Words Without Borders back in 2013, the statistics don’t look good. According to figures from Open Letter Books’ Translation Database, for example, only around a quarter of translated works published in the US each year are by women.

Many international literary prizes show an even sharper discrepancy. The fact that only two women authors have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its 25-year history is a case in point.

In the three years that I’ve been involved with English PEN’s PEN Translates funding programme, I’ve seen this imbalance first hand. Over the past five or six rounds, we have often struggled to award grants to more than a handful of female authors. This is not because of a lack of will to support women writers on the part of the panel, but because the applications have overwhelmingly been for books written by men.

So it’s great to be able to share the news that this latest round of grants achieves gender parity for the first time. Eight of the 16 writers whose books have been supported are women, with the languages represented including Korean, Mandarin and Turkish. Authors range from well-known names such as Han Kang, whose novel, The Vegetarian, was published to great acclaim in the UK this year, and Prix Goncourt winner Lydie Salvayre, to wordsmiths likely to be unfamiliar to anglophone readers, such as Karmele Jaio, who writes in Basque.

The supported titles should be out in the next year or so. Great news for readers and writers alike. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come.

Picture: Four of the best translated books by women I’ve read recently.

Book of the month: Zoe Whittall


The internet is a wonderful thing. As this project has demonstrated many times, the unprecedented access the world wide web gives us to information and each other enables all sorts of connections and discoveries that would not have been possible – or at least nowhere near as easy – in centuries gone by.

October’s Book of the month is a good example. I found it through, of all things, accommodation site Airbnb, after Steve and I used it to book a place to stay in Toronto a couple of weeks back. Our host turned out to be a friend of a friend, TV and film producer Michelle Mama, who, among many things, made the award-winning documentary 21 Days to Nawroz about the lives of three women in Kurdistan.

Michelle and I got on well and had a great time discussing our various projects, so when she told me about a Canadian novel that she had bought the film rights for and offered to lend me a copy, I was keen to take a look. She disappeared upstairs and returned with Torontonian author Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s top 100 books of 2007 and, I soon realised, an engrossing read.

Set around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the novel follows 19-year-old Eve as she seeks to move out of her parents’ house and establish herself and her sexual identity in downtown Montreal. There she meets and falls for ardent separatist and non-monogamous older woman Della, who sweeps her into a world of sensation and experience she could barely have imagined before. As their volatile relationship shatters and remakes her, Eve finds her way into an urban family consisting of her new housemates, aspiring novelist Rachael and the flamboyant Seven. They ride the waves of politics, violence and homophobia that surge through the city’s streets with her, seeking true independence, even at the ultimate price.

Like many of the best writers I’ve encountered during my literary travels, Whittall has the knack of taking us into unfamiliar worlds. Despite being a stranger to both the independence question and Montreal’s ‘queer’ – as Whittall’s characters call it – scene, I quickly found myself drawn into Eve’s milieu. I felt with her the threat lurking in the gaze of neo-Nazi skinheads and the aggressive advances of the men she encounters in the street late at night, as well as the unease sparked by the passionate debates around Quebec’s bid for sovereignty, and the way expectations – heteronormative or otherwise – risk crushing and warping who we are.

This sense of immersion in Eve’s world is helped by the deft succinctness of Whittall’s language: the cold air that ‘hits [her] like a punch of new ideas’, the room so colourful ‘it’s like living in the middle of an exploding comet’. Time and again the author’s images snare experience and bring it home, fresh and twitching.

Whittall’s eye for quirkiness is a source of joy too and leads to funny moments in what might otherwise be an overly heavy book. Through odd details such as Eve’s stubborn belief that she can perform a handstand on two fingers to the curse that Della claims has led to all the women in her family dying by their 30th birthday, the characters come alive. In addition, there are wicked cameos, such as my favourite, the over-discerning customer who comes into the healthfood cafe where Eve works and asks, ‘Umm, what exactly is in the tofu carrot mushroom miso stew?’

The structure creaks a little now and then. After a punchy, filmic opening that, using the technique deployed in many episodes of subsequent blockbusters such as Breaking Bad, starts with the end crisis and then winds back to take us through what led up to it, the book is a little slow to get going. There’s also a risky section towards the end where Seven stages a play to reveal his responses to the events they have lived through. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

Overall, though this novel is a great achievement. Unlike the maudlin, coming-of-age accounts many other Anglophone writers produce, in which boredom and drifting are the order of the day, things really happen in this book. Survival is at stake, people change and Whittall knows how to make us care. The story should make an absorbing film. I hope it won’t be too long before we can all go and see it.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books, 2007)

Picture by Josh Graciano

A drink on the South Bank


The first week of October was a rather busy one, what with my event at Henley and a trip up to Wigtown. So what better way to unwind than with a drink back in my home town?

This is I duly did at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre last Wednesday night, in the company of drinks writer Richard Godwin, broadcaster Georgina Godwin, and a warm and friendly audience.

It was a pleasure to a share a stage with Richard Godwin for two reasons. Firstly, as he has just launched his book, The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing, Richard is a mine of information on all things alcohol-related and he entertained us with anecdotes about some of our best-loved tipples.

Secondly, having been very dutiful in his research, Richard mixes a pretty mean drink himself. This he did for Georgina and me, presenting us each with a Remember the Maine, a vermouth-based cocktail. It was made to a recipe from The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, first published in 1933 by American author Charles H Baker. Godwin had chosen this beverage partly because of the international theme of Baker’s book, which he felt would complement Reading the World.

The drink certainly helped proceedings go with a swing – no doubt thanks in part to the extra spray of absinthe Richard gave the glasses just before he served them!

A most enjoyable end to a packed week of travelling, reading, meeting new people and talking about books. Cheers!

Picture by cheddarcheez

A weekend in Wigtown


I wrote my last post on a train bound for Scotland, where I was due to appear at the Wigtown Book Festival last Saturday. Little did I know the treat I had in store.

More than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been, Wigtown lives and breathes stories. There’s a good reason for that: since being designated Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998, it has undergone extraordinary regeneration. More than 20 book-related businesses (including numerous bookshops, as you can see from the photo above) operate there – no small matter for a place with a population of only around 1,000 people, and a powerful testament to what books can do.

The annual Wigtown Book Festival is a big part of this success story. And because of this, many local people throw themselves into making it work, from putting authors up and driving them to and from the station, to ushering at events. The result is that the extravaganza has a cosy, community feel, while attracting some of literature’s biggest names.

I first realised this on the drive from Dumfries station when I found myself sitting next to Caine prize-winner and three-times Orange prize-longlisted Sudanese-Scottish author Leila Aboulela, whose novel Minaret is one of the books on my list for Sudan. The journey took an hour (yes, Wigtown really is remote), but we barely noticed the time because we found so much to talk about, comparing notes on our various writing projects and the books we’d read.

Owing to the timing of my event the next day, I was lucky to have two nights in Wigtown. I resolved to make the most of them by going to as many events as possible. The first of these took place that evening: a shadow Man Booker Prize judging event, featuring an expert panel chaired by critic Stuart Kelly, who was one of the real-life judges in 2013.

None of the six books on the shortlist escaped unscathed as the panel laid into them, although it’s fair to say that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life came in for a particular bashing. In the end, by a narrow margin, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island was voted the Wigtown favourite to win. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the announcement of the winner on Tuesday.

The next morning I went to hear young Scottish author Kirstin Innes talk about her novel, Fishnet, which came out of research she did into the sex industry. Then it was off to the McNeillie tent, where Leila Aboulela was talking about her new book, The Kindness of Enemies. Set partly in present-day Scotland and partly in the Caucasus mountains during the Crimean War, the novel explores the concept of jihad and the problems that come with moving across borders. It was, Aboulela said, partly motivated by her desire to ‘put Muslim culture in English literature’.

Afterwards, I queued up to have my copy signed and Aboulela kindly agreed to a photograph, as you can see below – a lovely memento of our discussion.


Following a sumptuous lunch in the Writers’ Retreat above The Bookshop on North Main Street – the owner generously turns his private living room over to the authors visiting the festival each year – I got invited by writer and explorer Robert Twigger to participate in his ‘The Message Board’ project. This involved the authors speaking at the festival writing a message on a blackboard and being photographed with it.

He’d already garnered an intriguing selection, from ‘Educate all the world’s children’ by Debi Gliori to ‘The dream shall never die’ from former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, as well as more quirky offerings, such as ‘A pig looks you right in the eye’ from Canadian novelist Patrick de Witt. You can see my contribution below.


No sooner had I put the chalkboard down then it was off to hear Patrick de Witt speak about his new book, Undermajordomo Minor. I’d not come across de Witt’s writing before, but his droll style and the dark humour of the extract he read quickly won me over, and I’m keen to read him.

Following my event, which took the form of a lively discussion with BBC arts producer Serena Field, I repaired to the Writers’ Retreat once more. Further discussions with authors, critics and editors followed, and the evening ended with a spin around the dance floor at the festival ceilidh.

The next morning yielded another car journey full of fascinating conversation, as Clandestine Cake Club founder and cookbook writer Lynn Hill, author Gregory Norminton, agent and writer Andrew Lownie, and I all piled in with local volunteer Jim for the ride to Dumfries.

Once back on the London train, I tried to get to work on an article I had to write, but I found myself distracted. I was already wondering how soon I could make my way back to Wigtown…

Black-and-white photograph by Robert Twigger

My evening with Helle Helle


I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

Book of the month: Carl Frode Tiller


If you think of Norwegian literature, two kinds of writing will probably come to mind. The first is the crime fiction that has taken the world by storm in recent years, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of Jo Nesbø. The second comprises lengthy collections of linked literary novels – from Karl Ove Knausgård’s acclaimed six-book My Struggle to the outstanding Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (the only translation I ever wrote about on ayearofreadingwomen.wordpress.com, the blog I had before I decided to expand my horizons and read the world).

What you may not think of in connection with Norway is Nynorsk literature. There’s a good reason for that: despite being an official language, in comparison to Bokmål (the most widely used Norwegian language), Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’ as its name is commonly translated) is not much published. Books in it are rare. Which means English translations of Nynorsk literature are like hen’s teeth.

In fact, if the subject of this post isn’t the only translation currently available in the world’s most published language, I’d be very surprised (do put a comment below if you know otherwise).

However, though it was written in a different language, Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling does share some traits with other Norwegian books translated into English. Like Undset and Knausgård’s novels – and indeed much of Nesbø’s work – the book is part of a series. It’s the first in a trilogy, also called Encircling, that Sort Of Books proposes to bring into English in the next few years.

This opening instalment centres around the enigmatic character of David, who, we are told, has lost his memory, giving rise to a newspaper appeal for people who know him to make contact and share stories about his life that might help re-establish his sense of identity. Three people respond: two close friends from his teenage years in the small town of Namsos and his now-estranged stepfather. The narrative consists of their letters to David, interspersed with interior monologues and commentary on their present-day lives.

One of Tiller’s many strengths is his ability to capture people’s emotional states in small details. Through looks, gestures and – strikingly often – desperate or furious grins, he manages to convey the guilt, tensions and frustrations that underpin the familial, platonic and romantic relationships in the novel. He has an eye for ‘the unwritten rules’ that govern long-standing associations and a keen sense of the way emotions can gust up and throw us off-balance, forcing us to do ridiculous or perverse things.

This can give rise to moments of humour, as when the former friends recall some of their teenage posturing and attempts at sophistication. But it can also tilt over into pathos too, as we watch characters sabotaging themselves often in full knowledge of what they are doing but without the ability break the patterns that hem them in.

Another joy is Tiller’s (and translator Barbara J. Haveland’s) skill in presenting the distinctive voices of the three narrators. I particularly enjoyed free-spirit-turned-disillusioned-academic Silje’s occasional exclamations at the beauty of her own writing – a witty key to her character that might have taken pages of description to render another way.

The writing is so enjoyable that many of the passages feel as though they could stand alone as short stories. Yet all the while, the turbo engine of the narrative drives on, navigating deftly from one episode to the next, keeping up the momentum. Tiller takes full advantage of the shifting perspectives to drop in numerous contradictions and revelations along the way, building up a rich, problematic and fractured picture of David and the lives of those around him. The denouement is clever and, unlike the endings of many other trilogy openers, feels satisfying in its own right.

Occasionally, the structure presents problems. Now and then it’s tricky to remember who some of the wider circle of characters are. In addition, the decision to lump long passages of dialogue together into single paragraphs in the latter sections can give the text a (probably intentionally) breathless feel. And while the repetition of certain constructions, such as Silje’s frequent assertion that she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying, can give a powerful impression of the way the characters are entrenched in toxic mindsets, the overuse of some words and phrases grates occasionally.

Overall, though, this is a great read. It’s certainly the best Nynorsk literature I’ve ever read. And though that’s not saying much for now, there’s no doubt that Tiller can hold his own alongside Norway’s other literary big hitters. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Encircling (Innsirkling) by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Nynorsk by Barbara J. Haveland (Sort of Books, 2015)

Picture: the waterfront in Namsos, Norway, by Grete Rasmussen

How does censorship affect a writer’s career?


A controversy in New Zealand has this month brought the issue of banning books to many bibliophiles’ attention around the world. At the centre of the storm is Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the River, a Young Adult novel that follows a Maori teenager who wins a scholarship at an exclusive Auckland boarding school.

The book has been out for two years, but on September 3 it was withdrawn from bookshops and libraries after a Christian group objected to its sexually explicit content and portrayal of drug use. While New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review decides whether or not to issue a permanent ban, any company caught distributing the book in the nation faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000. It is the first time a title has been restricted in this way in the country for around two decades.

As censorship was a big issue I encountered during my year of reading the world, the story threw up several interesting points for me. The first was the curious and counter-intuitive effect that bans like this tend to have in much of the English-speaking world. Although such steps are rare in New Zealand, there have been attempts to restrict certain titles in other Anglophone nations in recent years, with the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and even The Diary of Anne Frank drawing challenges.

What’s interesting about such episodes is that they almost invariably result in precisely the surge of publicity and sales that these works’ opponents would most like to avoid. Although NZ librarians reported borrowing rates for Dawe’s novel dropped when it was first given a warning sticker in December 2013, the latest events have brought Into the River international renown. My first action on hearing about the ban was to order a copy – something I would probably not have if the book were freely available, given that it is aimed at teenage boys.

Granted, the restrictions on distribution may hamper sales inside New Zealand in the short-term, but the widespread media coverage will fix Dawe’s name in many minds for a long time to come and will no doubt drive sales of his other titles, whether Into the River returns to the shelves or not.

The second thought for me was how sharply this situation contrasts with the issues facing authors working in many other languages and under much more restrictive regimes, where the media does not have the ability to challenge similar decisions and hold authorities to account in the same way. Throughout my project, I came across a number of writers whose careers had been stunted and sometimes cut short by often brutal attempts to limit their freedom to write what they felt they must.

When I researched my book Reading the World, I interviewed several of them at length, in particular Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Turkmen writer Ak Welsapar. They had both been forced to flee their home countries in fear of their safety and even their lives.

As they explained to me, rebuilding your career in another language is a huge challenge for an exiled author. Welsapar, who now lives in Sweden, even went so far as to call it a tragedy – not surprising when you consider that the unpublished translation I read of his novel The Tale of Aypi remains without a publishing deal, despite it being the first book ever translated directly from Turkmen into English.

More than 20 years after they fled their homelands, Ismailov and Welsapar have nevertheless made admirable progress. Ismailov has had several works published, most recently his acclaimed novella The Dead Lake,  and was writer in residence at the BBC World Service for several years. Meanwhile, Welsapar has been published in Swedish and Russian, and he was the Turkmen poet at Poetry Parnassus, a cultural event organised to complement the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I was particularly delighted that both writers had short stories featured in the summer 2015 issue of the excellent Index on Censorship magazine.

For Welsapar this represented almost the first prose work he has ever had published in English. Not comparable to the worldwide attention Ted Dawe’s novel has received over the past few weeks. But at least it’s a start.

Picture by Samuele Ghilardi

My time in Edinburgh


I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Although my quest to read the world has taken me on many adventures and seen me speaking to a wide variety of audiences – from 20 Women’s Institute members in a school hall in Lee to 300 Procter & Gamble employees in Geneva – I had never faced a challenge quite like this. As I walked into the authors’ yurt, backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I couldn’t help being aware that I was here to take part in one of the most renowned literary events in the world.

Now, I’ve been in a yurt or two before (I once gave a talk in one in Canterbury), but I have never seen one to compare to this. Sprawling over an area about twice the size of my flat, it was made up of a series of conjoined octagons, which created pleasing little alcoves furnished with benches and cushions, where you could sit and prepare before your event. There was a luggage area, and tea and coffee, and an array of tempting snacks, and everywhere you looked you spied well-known, bookish faces, as though the world’s literary supplements had come to life and deposited their occupants here.

There wasn’t much time to take in the scene, however, as Dutch writer Gaston Dorren (with whom I was appearing) and I were quickly whisked away for press photos. A festival staff member led us round the back, past the bins, to a studio area. Four photographers appeared from another yurt and began shouting instructions: ‘Ann, look here!’ ‘Look there!’ ‘Put your hands on your hips!’ ‘Look up at the sky, Ann!’

Then, after a brief pre-talk chat with chair Rosemary Burnett, Gaston and I made our way to the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, where our event, ‘The World in Words’, was due to begin.

I’d had an anxiety dream the night before that no-one came to watch us, but when we walked out on stage I was delighted to see that the room was full. Gaston kicked off proceedings by reading from his witty and fascinating book, Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, I read a bit from Reading the World, and the discussion quickly got going, helped along by Rosemary’s questions.

Afterwards, we went to the bookshop to sign copies and chat to members of the audience. I was particularly pleased to meet several people I have been in touch with virtually over the past few years, among them Catharine Cellier-Smart, a blogger who lives on Reunion Island, where she is one of only two ‘sworn translators’, who help local people by translating official documents.

A brief respite and then it was back onstage, this time with award-winning translator, poet and critic, Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s criticism is renowned (indeed, he was described in the festival programme as ‘one of the most fearlessly outspoken literary critics writing in English today’), so I was more than a little in awe of him. He was very gracious and kind, however, and went out of his way to put me at my ease.

Our discussion, chaired by Society of Authors chair Daniel Hahn (another award-winning translator), explored the concept of world literature, and some of the many challenges and joys translators and readers experience when trying to access stories from other linguistic and literary cultures.

I spent the following day recharging and seeing a handful of the more than 3,000 shows being staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month (among them In His Own Write, a groundbreaking performance of the Beatle John Lennon’s nonsense book).

But on Wednesday I was back at the literary festival, this time as an audience member. Queuing for a talk on ‘What is the Nation State, Anyway?’ by academics Frank Bechhofer & David McCrone, I was delighted to bump into Gaston Dorren. We sat together to watch the event, which turned out to be an intriguing examination of Bechhofer and McCrone’s research into attitudes to national identity in England and Scotland. According to the pair, it’s helpful to think of national identity as a set of cards (made up of markers such as birthplace, language, place of residence and ethnicity), which each person will play differently from situation to situation. I found this very interesting as working out what makes a book count as being ‘from’ a particular nation was one of the big questions I had to grapple with during my year of reading the world.

Afterwards, Gaston and I repaired to the authors’ yurt where we spent a happy hour discussing writing, languages and our next book projects. I was also pleased to have a chance to say hello to my former creative writing tutor, Paul Magrs, who was preparing to run a readers’ workshop on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The final event of my visit was ‘Where I’m Writing From’, a discussion between authors Petina Gappah and Nell Zink about national identity and writing. As a Zimbabwean living in Geneva and an American living in Germany respectively, Gappah and Zink had a lot to say on the topic and there were plenty of laughs along the way. I was particularly struck by Gappah’s comments on the danger of expecting a writer to speak for a nation because, as she said, ‘writing about is not the same as writing for’ a place or a group of people. And I was thrilled to hear about her collaborative project to translate George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Shona – the first time the novel has ever been published in an indigenous African language.

When the applause died down, it was time to head off to the station to catch the train back to King’s Cross. My Edinburgh adventure had lasted three days and involved a round trip of more than 800 miles. Yet I felt I had travelled much further than that.


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