My time in Edinburgh

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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.

Book of the month: Sema Kaygusuz

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Short story collections have traditionally been a hard sell in the UK. Unlike publishers in the US – where short pieces have long been a key part of the literary culture – companies in the British book industry have tended to focus almost exclusively on novels, with only well-known writers getting deals to release assortments of shorter works.

In recent years, particularly since short-form writers Lydia Davis and Alice Munro scooped the Man Booker International Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature respectively in 2013, things have started to change. Last year, the Telegraph newspaper reported that, according to the Bookseller, short-story sales had risen by 35%. And where sales figures lead, publishers tend to follow.

If anyone needed further evidence of the power and value of short stories, The Well of Trapped Words  by Turkish writer Sema Kaygusuz makes a compelling case. Peopled with outcasts, misfits, trauma survivors and eccentrics, the collection makes for arresting reading. From the tale of the mentally disturbed girl whose self-loathing focuses itself on her feet, to the account of the old man driven into a frenzied search for water after years of drought, the pieces pit characters against the norms of their communities, rattling propriety’s cage.

The brevity of many of the tales allows Kaygusuz to write with an intensity that might be difficult to sustain – and to read – over longer stretches. Revealing how emotion seeps into and colours the world, tainting sight, taste and smell, she captures moments of crisis vividly. A particular favourite of mine is this description of the moment before a woman boiling fruit in her kitchen realises a snake is about to bite her toddler in ‘The Viper’s Son’:

And this is when the whole world went silent.

The whole world. Even the birds stopped singing. Standing over the plums, Zilver suddenly noticed that the only sound she could hear was their bubbling.

There are also impressive longer pieces, often portraying an emotional reversal and frequently exploring gender politics. For example, two of the strongest stories, ‘Stolen’ and ‘Deep Inside’, delineate a devastating shift in relationship dynamics, in both cases leaving the men bewildered as the women they thought of as theirs assume control.

The precision of the language in many of the pieces is striking – and here praise must go to translator Maureen Freely too. My copy is riddled with pencil marks picking out phrases that distil a complex truth or emotion into a small cluster of words – the feeling of ‘regrets steaming inside me, and somehow, strangely, washing me clean’, for example, or the description of ‘a girl whose life is fading at the creases. Its multi-coloured fabric […] fast unravelling’.

There is also a winning streak of wit and irreverence in the writing, as when the narrator of ‘Tacettin’ tells the reader that the title character had ‘a neck twice the size of yours and maybe five times the size of mine’. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the first time a book has called me fat.

Sometimes the structure lets the writing down a little. While a few too many of the stories rely on the device of a final section told from another perspective to tie up the loose ends, a number feel a little loose and meandering. In addition, passing references to political figures and events in a couple of the pieces may prove trip hazards to readers not familiar with Turkey’s history (although the smattering of footnotes do help smooth the path).

All in all, though, The Well of Trapped Words is a testament to the power of storytelling. By turns funny, alarming, familiar and strange, this collection will surprise, challenge and delight. Hats off to Comma Press for publishing a work not only in a genre but also from a language that has traditionally been underrepresented on British shelves.

The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Comma Press, 2015).

Audiobook giveaway winners

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I’m in Cornwall this weekend. Yesterday I was at Port Eliot Festival, an annual literature, music, craft and food extravaganza that takes place in the grounds of beautiful Port Eliot in St Germans.

I spent 45 minutes or so chatting and chuckling about Reading the World with writer Andy Miller on the Walled Garden stage. As Miller pointed out, there are a number similarities between us: our names begin with the same letters and we both devoted a year of our lives to unusual reading quests, A Year of Reading the World in my case and A Year of Reading Dangerously in his.

While at Port Eliot, I also had the pleasure of catching up with former classmate, Tim Clare, who was reading from his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Honours, which came out earlier this year. Tim and I both studied on the UEA Creative Writing master’s course back in 2004, so it was lovely to see him again and congratulate him on his success.

Busy though, I’ve been, however, I haven’t forgotten about the audiobook giveaway and my promise to announce the winners today. In fact, as you can see from the picture above, I even remembered to bring the Year of Reading the World hat (the one that appears in the Coney Island picture taken during the quest in the top right-hand corner of this page). The hat’s looking a little tatty now, but it still works for prize-draw purposes.

I wrote all the names of the entrants on a piece of scrap paper – the back of a page from an early draft of my forthcoming novel, Beside Myself – cut them up and put them in the hat. Then I shut my eyes, stuck my hand in, and pulled out two names.

And the winners are:

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Congratulations to James Reynolds and Kandalasingh. I’ll be in touch shortly. And many thanks to everyone else who entered. It was great to hear about the books you’ve enjoyed recently. And you’ve certainly given me some great new Book of the month leads…

Book of the month: Valeria Luiselli

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I’ve been on the trail of Mexican writers for the last few months. Conscious that there is a wealth of exciting literature emerging from south of the US border, I was keen to experience a broad range of it and find something that I could recommend to you.

Things got off to a promising start. Having stumbled across Elena Poniatowska being interviewed at the London Book Fair, I read Leonora, her biographical novel based around the life and work of eccentric British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington – whom Poniatowska spent a great deal of time with during her latter years. The book was extraordinary, colourful, alarming and brave.

Next, on the recommendation of my Liveright/Norton editor Elisabeth, I sought out Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. Striking, rich and odd, this novel brought forth a virtuosic performance from its translator Lisa Dillman. She writes at the end about the efforts she went to to achieve a geographically unmarked English rendering for Herrera’s linguistically playful account of a young woman’s journey to the US in search of her brother.

Either of these books would have been a worthy candidate for Book of the month. However, as both authors are already extensively celebrated nationally and relatively well-known beyond Mexico’s borders, I thought it might be nice to find work by a lesser-known author to tell you about. And, as the majority of my Books of the month have been by men, I decided to seek out work by a woman author.

This is where things got more difficult. A bit of virtual detective work led me to Gabriela Jauregui, a published poet who has turned her hand to novel-writing in recent years. I contacted her through her website to ask if her novel was available in English and if not, whether she could recommend any women authors whose work is not widely known outside Mexico.

Jauregui replied that her novel was only being published in Spanish this September. An English version is not yet on the cards, but she (and I) hopes that this may happen one day.

She had two names for me: Brenda Lozano and Daniela Tarazona. Both young and doing great work, they were not as widely known as more established writers such as Valeria Luiselli or Cristina Rivera-Garza.

I tracked both authors down in that wonderful, global talking shop Twitter and sent them messages. Were their novels available in English? I would very much like to read them if so.

Sadly, as happened so often during  my year of reading the world, the answer was no in both cases. Despite building an increasingly impressive reputation in the hispanophone world, Lozano and Tarazona are off-limits to anglophone readers. (For now at least – if you know of an English-language publishers looking for exciting new Mexican writers, do send them their way, and to Jauregui too!)*

In the absence of anything available in the language I read in by these authors, I decided to go for one of Jauregui’s fallbacks and plumped for Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. This book has received some great write ups and I was keen to take a look.

Split between Mexico City and New York, the narrative records the attempts of a young mother to write a novel drawing on her youth in the Big Apple. As the scraps of text she generates in between looking after her children build, layer upon layer emerges and we find the narrative consumed by her own fears, concerns and fascination with obscure Harlem Renaissance poet, Gilberto Owen.

The fragmented nature of the narrative makes for a quirky and sometimes surprising reading experience. Many English-language reviewers have remarked on the originality of Luiselli’s style, but those familiar with the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector will find parallels.

I particularly enjoyed the playful allusions to the reactions of the narrator’s husband, who keeps reading the work in progress and trying to adjust his behaviour in response to it, as though the fictional events described are somehow a comment on him. It was also great fun to read the sometimes contrary comments on the translation and publishing world that pepper the narrative: ‘That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree,’ the narrator observes at one point. ‘It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.’ (And surely this blog post and the way I chose this book are a neat demonstration of the truth of the statement.)

Add to this a range of wry and wise insights into human nature and the way we deceive ourselves about our motives, and it’s rare that you turn a page without nodding in recognition at some observation or other.

What moves the book onto the next level, however, is Luiselli’s technical flair. Rarely does an object get mentioned without reappearing as a plot device later; time and again the narrative turns back to satirize and comment upon itself. The result is that the novel is peppered with payoffs and the last third presents a series of pleasing moments of recognition, where idea after idea is tied up, resolved or complicated.

This demands attention from the reader and it’s fair to say that there are times when the fragmentary narrative is tough to follow. By the same token, the set-up the structure demands can make for some stretches that feel rather devoid of tension and lacking in momentum.

But if you give yourself over to Luiselli and resign yourself to the rare moments when the narratological currents leave you idling in the reeds, you’re in for a joyous ride. Opening up onto stunning prospects and shimmering moments here and there, this novel achieves the rare balance of being at once accessible and profound, funny and wise.

Mexico, we need more from you.

Faces in the Crowd (Los Ingrávidos) by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2013)

* An extract of Brenda Lozano’s novel Todo nada, translated by Rosalind Harvey, has already appeared in the México20 collection, featuring work by 20 Mexican writers under 40.

Audiobook giveaway*

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Yes, it’s official: the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, written and narrated by yours truly, is now published. It is available for listeners in the US and non-Commonwealth countries to buy here.

And if you’re curious to hear how my four days in the studio turned out, you can listen to the first half-hour of the book below. (As you might be able to tell, I particularly enjoyed reading the word ‘rattling’.)

For now, rights reasons mean that those of us in the UK and Commonwealth (including me), can’t buy it. However, Audible has kindly given me some CDs, in addition to a code for a free copy accessible to those outside the Commonwealth.

In honour of this fact, I am running a giveaway for readers anywhere in the world to get their hands on a copy of the audio version. All you have to do is leave a comment at the bottom of this post, telling me about a book you’ve enjoyed reading recently.

On August 1, I will put the names of all those who leave a book tip in a hat and pull out two winners. They will each receive the audio version of The World Between Two Covers in the format that works best for them.

If you live in a Commonwealth country this could be your only chance to get your hands on a copy without travelling beyond your borders. So make my day and share a favourite recent read below!

*iPod and physical book not included…

This giveaway is now closed. Find out the names of the winners here.

Book of the month: Abdulaziz Al Farsi

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About 18 months ago, fellow literary explorer Camila Navarro from Brazil (who is recording her own literary odyssey on her Portuguese-language website) got in touch. ‘Ann, I have good news!’ she wrote. ‘There’s a great Omani novel translated recently. It’s “Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs”, by Abdulaziz Al Farsi. I’ve just read it and I loved it!’

This was good news indeed, as, when I tried to find a book to read from Oman back in 2012, there was precious little available. Apart from the collection of fairy stories I eventually got my hands on, there was almost nothing in English.

This month, I at last made it to Camila’s recommendation on my teetering to-read pile. And I was very glad I did.

Starting with the return of government employee Khalid Bakhit to the remote village of his birth, the novel reveals the tensions and historical ties that bind and warp human society. It brings together the accounts of everyone from Ayda – the only woman in the place ever to have gone to university – to dark-skinned servant Khadim, and depicts the build up to a coup that threatens to break the community apart, spilling secrets with the power to kill.

Neatly plotted and containing some genuinely surprising revelations, much of the book makes for engrossing reading. Al Farsi certainly seems to enjoy playing with suspense: he deftly foreshadows disasters and, in the case of one passage towards the end of the book, even describes a funeral while withholding the identity of the corpse until almost the very last line of the chapter.

Stories nest within stories. There are funny anecdotes, such as the description of how the village mosque’s call to prayer came to be shared unorthodoxly between two muezzins, and the tale of Imam Rashid’s insistence on keeping time using his rooster. And there are much more poignant and sometimes shocking accounts that, collectively, work to round and ground the characters in the story.

The novel’s multiple voices and perspectives afford Al Farsi great scope to move between registers, from earthy, humorous observations about vanity, misconceptions and back-biting, to lyrical portrayals of loss and love. Several times, I found myself surprised into delight by succinct encapsulations of experience – the claim that ‘it was as though he had drawn in the reins of the scene and placed them in my hand’, for example, or the observation that ‘Our problem when it comes to love is that we always want those we love to match the image we’ve drawn of them in our mind’s eye’.

Translator Nancy Roberts, who has also translated Mahfouz and Nasrallah, deserves credit for the beauty that often shimmers in the prose, as well as her skill in making the story’s sometimes unfamiliar mores and references comprehensible for anglophone readers.

In addition, many of Al Farsi’s observations have universal resonance precisely because they are so touchingly human. I couldn’t help but wonder whether something of the author’s medical experience (he is a senior specialist in oncology in Muscat) had informed his description of the way people often pledge and fail to reform bad habits:

It’s like what happens when a man walks all night long, then falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next morning he wakes up and finds himself lying on a railroad track. He hears a train approaching in the distance, but he doesn’t feel like moving his body. He says, ‘I’m all tired out from my long trip, and the train’s still a long way off. When it gets closer I’ll do something.’ […] Then, just when the time comes for him to act, he’s overcome by drowsiness, and the train runs over him.

For all its strengths, however, the book is not without flaws. Some of the metaphors miss the mark – I was rather wrongfooted by the imagery of someone being chased by a wound at one point. In addition, the myriad voices and sometimes cacophonous presentation of scraps of dialogue within a single paragraph can be confusing (although it’s testament to the strength of Al Farsi’s characterisation that the key figures in the story almost always remain clear and distinct). Finally, a few readers may find the whimsical figure of the Saturnine poet a bit hard to take.

On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable and intriguing novel. It reveals the duality of the ties that at once link us to communities and ground our identity, yet may also throttle our individuality and limit our freedom to be ourselves. A welcome addition to the tiny library of Omani literature in English translation.

Thanks for the tip, Camila.

Earth Weeps, Saturn Sleeps (Tabki al-Ard yadhak Zuhal) by Abdulaziz Al Farsi, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts (The American University in Cairo Press, 2013)

Free Chinese literature

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As those of you who’ve followed this project for a while will know, China is very poorly represented in terms of the number of its books that make it into English. According to Chinese translator collective Paper Republic, only 20 fiction and poetry books were published anywhere in the world in English in 2013.

So it’s great to hear of an initiative by Paper Republic to try to broaden anglophone readers’ access to literature from the world’s most populous country. Starting last week, the collective has promised to publish one translated short story on its website every Thursday for the next year.

The stories will be freely available. And if the first two pieces – a witty and touching sketch of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship by novelist A Yi, and wistful ‘The Road to the Weeping Spring’ by Li Juan – are anything to go by, they promise to be a weekly highlight.

The first two stories are also refreshingly short, making them the perfect tasters for anyone keen to sample writing with a view to discovering authors whose books they might like to try. Ideal companions for the morning commute, a quick cup of tea or a soothing ten-minute read before bed.

Photo: ‘relics’ © Mart

Recording the audiobook

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It started out as a bit of a joke. Shortly after I heard that my US publisher Norton had sold the audio rights to The World Between Two Covers to Audible, I received an email from the producers, asking what sort of actor I thought would be suitable to narrate it.

Amused, I posted the query on Facebook, whereupon lots of friends started pitching in with (often rather tongue-in-cheek) suggestions.

Then someone said I should put myself forward. Then another person said it. And another. Pretty soon the comment thread was full of friends telling me to ask Audible to let me do the narration myself.

At first, I didn’t take the idea seriously. I’m not an actor and, being married to someone who trained as one, I’m only too aware of the skill and effort that goes into reading something engagingly. It seemed arrogant to suggest that I should be the person to take the job on.

I might never have thought any more about it had another friend, author Carrie Gibson, not got in touch. She said she wished she had opted to narrate the audioversion of Empires Crossroads, her history of the Caribbean, herself. The actor had done a fine job, but listening to it now, she didn’t feel the book sounded like her. She thought I should go for it.

I looked back at the email from Audible. In the small print towards the end, there was a section that said the producers did consider authors to narrate their own work for certain kinds of (mostly non-fiction) projects.

I doubted they’d look twice at me. Apart from anything else, I was based on the wrong continent. Still, feeling rather devil-may-care after all the Facebook banter, I decided I had nothing to lose and sent back an email saying that I’d like to be considered if they thought I might fit the bill.

A few months later, I heard back from the producers. They were fixing up a studio for the recording in Archway, north London. Could I let them have my availability for June?

That was when the panic set in. Oh crumbs. I was really going to have to do this.

Luckily, my friends came to the rescue once again. Radio presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who I know from university, kindly let me accompany her to a recording session. From this I learned the value of using hand gestures and smiling to get colour into certain words and phrases, as well as the importance of taking regular breaks. ‘You’ll find you do weird things when you’re reading,’ she said.

In addition, several of the translators and experts who helped me when I was researching the project and book provided advice on the pronunciation of numerous words, names and phrases that I had only ever seen written down.

And so it was that, last Wednesday, I pitched up nervously in Archway for my first session. I was shown into a foam-lined room not much bigger than a wardrobe, the light went on on the microphone and it was time to begin.

Luckily, my producers Alys and Katie were very friendly and patient as I stumbled my way through those opening pages at the start of each session. More than once, I found myself cursing my writing as I faced yet another labyrinthine sentence guaranteed to tie my tongue in knots and have me gasping in its wake.

Still, as time went on and I relaxed, the process became easier. Sara was right: it turns out the weird thing I do when I’m reading out loud is conducting myself with my left hand. It seemed to help with getting some of the meaning across, however. By the end of the first hour or so I was starting to enjoy myself.

This was helped by the regular communal breaks that brought together all the actors and producers recording books. On the first day, I found myself chatting over a cup of tea with someone engaged in narrating lengthy battles between dwarves and elves for a fantasy novel. The next morning, a grey-haired actor told me about the gothic story he was reading: set in Victorian times, it centred on a scientist engaged in swapping around people’s brains.

By the end of the second session, we had seven out of 12 chapters in the can and I was rather tired. Still, it had been a lot of fun and I was enjoying the opportunity to narrate my words myself.

I’m back in the studio to finish the job later this week. Fingers crossed my voice holds out!

Translation pitches (and a revelation)

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Last night, English PEN hosted an experiment at the Free Word Centre in London. As part of European Literature Night, which in the seven years it has been going has grown from a single evening to a festival stretching over several weeks, The Translation Pitch saw eight translators pitching eight novels that have not yet been translated into English to a panel of industry experts. At stake was a £250 PEN samples grant, which would pay for a chunk of the winning text to be translated and shared in the hope of attracting an English-language publishing deal.

The competing books were varied. They included a Danish crossover novel about a school shooting (Jesper Wung-Sung’s Proper Fractions, pitched by Lindy Falk Van Rooyen), a 640-page-long work of German metafiction (Verena Rossbacher’s Small Talk and Slaughter, presented by Anne Posten) and a prize-winning collection of interlinked Hungarian short stories (Krisztina Tóth’s Pixel, championed by Owen Good).

After the pitch and an – often powerful – reading of an extract by an actor, the translator received feedback from the panel: writer and senior editor at Granta Max Porter, agent Kerry Glencourse, and translator and founder of publisher And Other Stories Stefan Tobler.

The panel’s comments were illuminating. As well as revealing the strengths and problems of each project, they also shed light on what publishers look for when they consider bringing works to the English-language market. Books with clear narrative lines and easy, one-sentence hooks seem to have a better chance of being published (although middle-of-the-road commercial fiction is likely to be passed over, as there are lots of home-grown writers doing that). In addition, books that can easily be compared to the work of well-known authors tend to have an advantage because, as Porter observed, ‘publishers are lazy creatures’.

At times, the feedback made for somewhat depressing listening. With the panel generally shying away from works that sounded structurally or linguistically complex – or that used settings outside the author’s home nation – it seemed as though the odds were stacked against more inventive, experimental works making it through the translation bottleneck into English. With editors reportedly ever more under pressure to take on ‘marketable’ books, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we are in danger of only getting access to works that reinforce our preconceptions about other places and people.

Thankfully, however, the winning book did not conform to all these prescriptions. Penned by a writer who has been billed as ‘the Bulgarian Balzac’, Vladimir Zarev’s Ruin sounds like a fabulous read. Now in its ninth edition since its publication in 2003, it has apparently been hailed by critics in countries such as Germany as the novel about life in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.

Indeed, what swung it for the book – along with translator Angela Rodel’s obvious passion for the project – was probably her observation that German publishers were laughing at English-language publishers because they have failed to pick up Zarev. This, Rodel claimed, was an ‘outrage’ and she was eager to ‘unleash Ruin on the anglophone market’.

With commendations also going to the Rossbacher and Pierre Autin-Grenier’s That’s Just How It Is, whose would-be translator Andrea Reece made a similarly compelling pitch, it was clear that passion still wins the day. Let’s hope it long continues so.

For me, it was a particularly thought-provoking evening: shortly before the pitches began, an email had come through on my phone. It was from my editor Helen at Bloomsbury and attached was the final version of the cover design for my novel, Beside Myself (below – I hope you like it). For the first time, I had seen what it will look like when it’s published next year. It was a moment of great delight and pride.

Hearing about those eight fascinating novels that may never get an English-language deal put that experience into context. It made me feel once more how extraordinarily lucky I am to be writing in a language that gives me the chance to reach the sort of readership that English does – and how very much further we have to go before we can all truly read the world.

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Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

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