March 31, 2015
It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.
Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.
As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).
The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.
Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.
Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:
How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?
In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.
Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.
(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)
Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.
Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.
A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)
March 20, 2015
Book signings are funny things. You do your talk and read your extract, and then you sit at a table, crossing your fingers that someone will have liked what you said enough to actually buy your book.
Sometimes you can wait a while. Other times, as happened when I gave a talk at a bookshop in south London recently, you are surrounded by so many people asking questions and wanting to talk about books that the signing itself is a bit of a scramble – I think several people went home with rather eccentric variations on my signature that day!
What always makes the experience better, though, is when people I know through the project are there. After my Around the World in 10 Books event with Scott Pack at the Bath Literary Festival a couple of weeks back, I was delighted to be joined at the signing table by Robin Patterson, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Scott and I had discussed Our Musseque, the Angolan novel by José Luandino Vieira that Robin had translated, and it was great to see Robin signing copies of that book.
Of course, it’s not possible for many of those who I’ve met virtually on my reading adventures to get to events in the UK. People who follow this blog are spread all over the world. My stats show that it has been viewed by folk in well over 200 territories, including in many places like Mayotte, New Caledonia and the Northern Mariana Islands that didn’t feature on the UN list I worked from for my quest. So the chances are that many of you won’t be in Covent Garden at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening.
But if by some miraculous chance you are in London that day, I’d love it if you’d join me for an event I’m doing at the wonderful Stanfords bookshop on Long Acre in Covent Garden. If you come along, you’ll get to hear me speaking about the project, how it started, some of the amazing stories and people we encountered along the way and how the book developed – and ask any questions you want (within reason…).
And if you haven’t been to Stanfords before, you’ll discover one of the world’s best travel bookshops into the bargain.
Hope to see you there…
Reading the World – an evening with Ann Morgan, Tuesday 24th March, 6.30pm at Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Tickets £3 (redeemable against the cost of Reading the World) available here
March 19, 2015
Last night Steve and I had the honour of being guests at Index on Censorship’s gala award ceremony at the Barbican Centre in London. Set up in 2000, the Freedom of Expression Awards celebrate some of the bravest and most creative champions of free speech around the planet, and highlight the sinister efforts of numerous regimes and other organisations to censor and silence dissent – an issue I encountered many times during my Year of Reading the World.
The evening combined a number of wonderful experiences. It was the first time we had ever been in the Barbican’s cinema and lush garden room, where we relished sipping something bubbly and looking at the artwork Index has commissioned from cartoonists around the world in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I particularly liked the picture by Burkinabé cartoonist Damien Glez, which showed a small boy with one tiny, squashed speech bubble next to a massive, bloated and suited bureaucrat or politician, whose robust pronouncements filled the rest of the page.
It was also the first time I had seen comedian Shappi Khorsandi perform live. She was hosting the event and spoke with great wit and humour about her family’s experience of fleeing Iran after her father published a satirical poem. ‘A fatwa is the Iranian equivalent of an Oscar,’ she quipped.
But by far the most powerful experience of the night was hearing about the nominees in each of the four categories – Journalism, Campaigning, Digital Activism and Arts –and listening to the winners’ speeches. From Kenyan women’s rights activist Amran Aboundi, who dedicated her award not only to those she has helped on the Somali border but also to the people who have threatened her because of her work, to Moroccan rapper El Haqed, who has been imprisoned three times and finished his speech with a performance of one of his hits, the people honoured were an extraordinarily inspiring bunch.
We heard from Saudi documentary maker Safa Al Ahmad – who defied the laws restricting women’s movements to make the film Saudi’s Secret Uprising – about the preciousness of facts in a society where the media is the mouthpiece of the state (you can watch her film below). Meanwhile Angolan journalist and activist Rafael Marques de Morais spoke bravely about the court action he must face in his home country, where he is being sued by numerous powerful figures whom his work has exposed. The experience would only empower him further he said.
Closer to home, Hungarian journalist Tamás Bodoky, founder of Atlatszo.hu, talked about the need for investigative journalists to ‘position ourselves outside the mainstream media’ because most outlets have come to ‘represent the interests of local oligarchs’. In addition, exiled Azeri journalist Idrak Abbasov won a special award in recognition of the dangers that he and many of his colleagues face under the vicious crackdown on free expression in Azerbaijan, where several journalists have been murdered in recent years.
By the time actor Simon Callow stepped on stage to end the evening by speaking about his long-term support for Index and to appeal for donations, no one was in any doubt as to the huge amount of work that has to be done to win and safeguard freedom of expression in every society.
After all, there are plenty of places where even writing a blog post like this is a risky business. And the distance between those places and those of us living in so-called ‘free’ societies is smaller than we might like to think.
Photo by Steve Lennon
March 16, 2015
As those of you who have followed this project for a while know, I was a writer long before I was a blogger. For the last seven years I have paid my bills by writing and subediting on a freelance basis for a variety of publications and organisations. In fact, for the first seven months or so of my Year of Reading the World, I was working five days a week at the Guardian newspaper in London and juggling shifts and commissions for several other clients. It made fitting in roughly six to eight hours of reading, blogging and researching a day quite a challenge!
What you may not know is that I was also a writer long before anyone paid me to do it. I made my first attempt at a novel when I was seven (a fantasy story set in an old castle with a bookcase that revealed a hidden world – it owed a lot to The Chronicles of Narnia) and throughout my childhood and teenage years I filled notebooks with scraps of stories and splinters of poems and half-formed things.
When I graduated from my creative writing master’s course and had to face the reality of earning my keep, I made a deal with myself: wherever I was working and whatever I was doing, I would always get up early and spend an hour or so on my own writing before I left to go and work for someone else.
For the next few years, through a series of varied and sometimes rather strange jobs (administrator, campaigns officer for a charity, invigilator for school exams, assessor of doctors’ surgeries, freelance choral singer, professional mourner – don’t ask), I stuck to my bargain. Give or take the odd duvet day, I got up at around 6am, sat at my desk and wrote.
I produced a lot of nonsense. Still, when I became a professional writer, I carried on with my regime. Before commuting into London to edit articles on planning applications for Building Design or write about the latest opportunities for international students for the British Council, I would spend an hour or so on my own (usually not very promising) projects.
Then, about four or five years ago, a glimmer of an idea came to me. I found myself gripped by the thought of a pair of identical twins swapping places in a childhood game and then one of them refusing to swap back.
It was the merest flicker of a concept, but it wouldn’t let me go. Over the months and years that followed, my mind returned to it again and again, full of questions. What would cause one child to refuse to swap back? What might it do to someone to grow up with the wrong life? What kind of family wouldn’t notice the change?
A few times, I was on the point of sitting down to start writing the story, but something always held me back. Somehow, it wasn’t ready for me (or perhaps I wasn’t ready for it).
Then A Year of Reading the World came along and for the first time in my adult life, I gave my precious early-morning writing slots over to something else, and filled them with reading and blogging.
What with everything that happened with the project and the book deal, it wasn’t until March 2013 that I got back into the swing of the old writing pattern. Having submitted my first draft of Reading the World to Harvill Secker, I found I had brainspace to focus on other things.
That was when the twins came and tugged at my sleeve once more. And this time I felt ready to take them on.
Over the 18 months that followed, in between long stints re-writing and editing Reading the World, I wrote my twins manuscript. Perhaps it was because I was in the rhythm of writing from the blogging and non-fiction book, but I found the story came to me easily and I wrote with excitement to find out what would happen next.
In autumn 2014, after several drafts, I gave the manuscript to my other half, Steve, and to my novelist friend, Emily Bullock, to read. I worked their feedback into my draft and shared it with a few more people. And then, when my lovely agent Caroline returned from maternity leave towards the end of the year, I sent it to her.
I envisaged that there would be a long process of re-writing and polishing, but when Caroline had finished reading the manuscript she told me she was very excited and that – with a little bit of tweaking – she thought it was ready to sell.
I spent about a week working on Caroline’s edits. Then, on the day that Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published in the UK, Caroline sent my novel, Beside Myself, out to editors.
We soon heard that several publishers were interested. I met with them and, after a few weeks of negotiation, I’m delighted to announce that Beside Myself has been bought by Bloomsbury and will be published worldwide in English by them next year. It means my book will be produced by the same team looking after the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, Donna Tartt, William Boyd and JK Rowling.
My seven-year-old self wouldn’t have known about Harry Potter when she was scribbling my first novel back in the late 1980s, but I think she would have approved.
February 27, 2015
A rather lovely email arrived in this morning. The message was from Rafidah, the generous stranger who, four days after I first asked the planet’s booklovers to help me read the world, left a message offering to go to her local English-language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose and post me my Malaysian book.
Rafidah’s kindness was a great inspiration for me at the start of this project and so, when Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published earlier this month, I emailed her to ask if I could send her a copy in return for the books she once sent me.
The photograph above shows my book and the card I enclosed in Rafidah’s apartment, where my parcel has just arrived. More than three years after her act of generosity kickstarted my quest, the book that it led to has found its way to her. I’m so pleased.
February 24, 2015
February’s book of the month has special significance for me. It was translated by Robin Patterson, one of the nine volunteers who came to my rescue to convert Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor into English when I was unable to find anything I could read from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012. At the time, Robin was just starting out as a translator, so it is wonderful to see his efforts come to fruition in this lovely edition of Our Musseque by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira.
In fact, I am doubly pleased to see this novel because, as I found with São Tomé and Príncipe, translations of literary works from Portuguese-speaking African nations are still very rare. So when Dedalus Books sent me a copy, I lost no time diving in.
First published more than 40 years after Luandino Vieira wrote it in prison, the novel captures the experience of growing up in a musseque (shanty town) on the outskirts of Luanda. Thronged with vibrant characters, from the prostitute Albertina to the delinquent Zito and the alcoholic inventor manqué Mr Augusto, the book bustles with individual stories that surge and jostle against one another as the narrative builds towards its narrator’s – and the nation’s – coming of age when Angola’s War of Independence looms.
As in Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns, the oral tradition informs and shapes the text, filling each page with a clamour of voices. We quickly learn that the story is a collective endeavour with accounts perpetually contradicted, augmented and challenged by conflicting descriptions or subsequent events. Consequently, the question of truth-telling and the way stories are presented for different audiences are recurring themes, because, as the narrator concedes, ‘no one can tell where the truth ends and the lies begin’.
This is deliciously illustrated when the ebullient boy Zeca tries to reinvent the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for a local audience. In response to accusations from his peers that he is ‘messing it all up’ by changing the details they were taught in school, he makes an eloquent case for his use of artistic licence:
‘If I tell a story about a girl in a red hood being eaten by a wolf and all that, nobody’s going to be able to make head nor tail of it, now are they? Are there any girls like that here in this country? No. Are there any wolves in the bush here? Of course not! But we’ve got leopards instead and that’s why I tell it like this.’
This sense that stories are fluid, mutable things operates on all levels of the narrative. While the tone of the interconnected stories veers from lyrical to earthy – occasionally within a single paragraph – the chronology of events is complex, with the narration doubling back to fill in a gap or dodging ahead to something years in the future.
According to Patterson’s Translator’s Note, Luandino Vieira took a similar approach to fact and fiction and even language itself in the novel. His childhood memories informed the book – the parish priest Father Neves, who appears in the story, really existed – and the original language of the narrative wove together Portuguese and Kimbundu to represent the way people spoke in Luanda’s shanty towns. Although Patterson decided not to attempt to recreate this blend in English, his melding of registers echoes that hybrid feel cleverly, capturing the disparate experiences and social situations in which the characters must present themselves.
The result is a rich and involving piece of work that takes readers into the heart of the community it portrays. While those of us used to the conventions of the Anglo-European novel may find the fluid chronology and crowd of characters bewildering at points – we meet six in the first paragraph alone – the overall effect when you surrender yourself to the narrative is surprising, delightful and often profoundly moving. By the end of the book, we are nostalgic for a place we have never been.
Our Musseque (Nosso musseque) by José Luandino Vieira, translated from the Portuguese by Robin Patterson (Dedalus, 2015).
February 12, 2015
One of the lovely things to come out of this project is the fact that I’m often invited to go and speak to people about reading and the world. From standing on stage at International Translation Day talking to a packed audience of translators (eek! – actually they were lovely) to speaking to a handful of booklovers in a yurt at the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury last September, I’ve been privileged to share these adventures with many people and I’ve met some fascinating bibliophiles along the way.
I have to confess, however, to being particularly excited about an invitation that I’ll be taking up soon: in March I’ll be flying out to Geneva to talk at a TEDx event organised by Procter & Gamble.
As anyone familiar with the TED format will know, this involves speaking to an audience (in my case of about 300 people) while being filmed by several cameras. The film is then edited together and shared free online.
It’s a fantastic opportunity and a great honour to be asked, but it’s not a little daunting too. As a result, I am spending a lot of time preparing and will be watching many TED talks in the coming weeks.
I’ve shared my favourite above – the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, which she delivered at TEDGlobal in 2009. This was a big inspiration for me throughout my project and kept me conscious of trying to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that one book can stand for a nation.
But I’d be really interested to hear your recommendations. Are there any TED talks that have stood out for you? If so, what was it about them that made them particularly powerful?
Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Thanks!
February 9, 2015
It’s a moment every debut writer waits for: that first reader review on Amazon. The point when an ordinary person, somewhere out there in the world responds to your work.
For me, that moment came yesterday afternoon. I’d clicked onto my book as I do most days (all right, every day at the moment) to see how it was performing and found that Reading the World had scored its first rating: one star.
Anxiously, I flicked down to the write-up. Had the reader thought the writing was bad? Did they hate my ideas?
No – at least they didn’t say so. As it turned out, the one-star rating was down to the fact that the book wasn’t what the reader expected. They had been hoping for an account of the 196 books I read in 2012 and because the book didn’t conform to their expectations they had marked it down.
The Amazon reviewer isn’t the first person to have expected Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer to be a blow-by-blow description of my year of reading the world. In fact, when I first got the book deal back in 2012, I assumed that that was the form the narrative would take. I even wrote a first draft to that effect, weaving in a lot of material from my online reviews and roughly following the chronology of the year.
Then (with the help of my editors at Harvill Secker) I realised two things. The first was that anyone who wanted a story-by-story rundown of my literary quest didn’t need to go to the bother of buying a book: that material was already online for free. Anyone who went to the list and clicked on a country name could find my account of what I read for that particular nation. It seemed rather limited to package all that openly available material up and expect people to pay for it.
The second realisation was that the 196 books I read that year (well, 197, counting Kurdistan) were sort of beside the point. They were my solutions to the challenge at a particular time and place, but someone else reading the world would find and pick very different things – as the ever-growing selection of recommended titles on the list demonstrates.
I had never set out to source the definitive work for each country (given that I’ve only read one book from many nations, I’m certainly not qualified to do that). Instead, I was interested in exploring and seeing what I could find.
What intrigued me most, I discovered, was not the specific choices, but how they changed my thinking and the big ideas they brought up along the way. I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest.
To this end, I decided to structure the book around these ideas. I would refer to many of the texts I read during 2012, but I would also bring in lots of other stories and research too. And I would weave in some of my own experiences as a reader throughout my life.
I hope it makes for a more substantial and longer-lived work than a simple collection of stitched-together reviews would do (it certainly required me to think a lot more deeply than the initial project). But that’s for readers like you to decide.
For now though – until a hopefully more enthusiastic rating appears – I’m perversely enjoying the distinction of my book having the worst-possible average rating on the world’s biggest bookselling website. That’s surely got to be an achievement in its own right?
February 5, 2015
So the day is finally here. Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is published and on sale through all major e-tailers and retailers, as well as some fantastic independent bookshops too. We did it!
Last night I celebrated the event with friends, family, colleagues, fellow book lovers and some of the many people who helped the project on its way at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. You can see me speaking in the photo above, which was taken by the writer Martin Goodman – one of a number of a number of authors who were there, including Hamid Ismailov, whose book The Railway was my pick for Uzbekistan. I’m not quite sure what I was saying at this point, but it was probably some kind of thank you (there were a lot of those).
It was a joy to see so many people who were important to me and to the project in the same room, but I was particularly delighted by the fact that four of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe were there. You can see us together in the picture below (from left: Clare Keats, Margaret Jull Costa, me, Yema Ferreira and Robin Patterson). It was the first time I had met three of them in person, so it was a very special moment.
I was also really pleased to be able to reflect the international theme of the book in other ways. It was wonderful that the team from Belgravia Books (the home of French-literature-in-translation publisher Gallic Books) were there to sell copies of Reading the World. I signed a couple for them to take back to the shop, so if you’re passing through Victoria in the next few days you might be able to pick one up if you pop in.
And when it came to the drinks, we had wine from four different countries – Slovenia, Romania, Uruguay and Greece – which was provided by The Wine Pack (@thewinepack if you want to get their tips on Twitter). They’d even made bookmarks with tasting notes and details of which book I’d read from each nation represented.
There were so many wonderful things about the party. I could write for ages about the pleasure of introducing people who I knew shared common interests, reading my work aloud and seeing old friends.
Unfortunately, however, I’ve got to dash. I’m about to head off into town again – this time to BBC Broadcasting House to record a discussion about Reading the World and translation for Radio Four’s show Open Book. Wish me luck!
Pictures by Martin Goodman and Steve Lennon
February 4, 2015
My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.
I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.
But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.
Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.