A special message

February 27, 2015

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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.

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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).

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!

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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?

A night to remember

February 5, 2015

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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.

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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

Ready for launch

February 4, 2015

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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.

Book of the month: Han Kang

January 27, 2015

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Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.

When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.

Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.

It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.

The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.

Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.

As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.

Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2015)

Well, not quite a movie. But a close second. This is the author film made for me by the excellent production company Vloop.

The idea is to give a little flavour of what Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is like and how it’s different from the blog. At the end, there are links to three very short extra videos about some of the highlights from that extraordinary year, as well as the film of the shelf piling up with books. I hope you like it.

Seeing the finished film is a great end to what’s already been a very exciting week. In the past few days, the book’s first review has been published and I visited the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast – to be released soon.

There are lots more things to come in the next few weeks as we build up to the UK publication day (or pub date, as I’ve learned it’s called in the industry) of February 5, 2015. Watch this space.

The finished book

January 10, 2015

Finished book

A package came last night. This was inside. It’s the UK edition of the finished book, the book that so many of you helped make happen.

If you look closely, you can just spot me peeking up from the author photo on the inside back cover. You can’t see it from here, but I am grinning in that photo almost as much as I am now.

Roll on the UK publication date of February 5, 2015!

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Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.

As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.

In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.

Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.

There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.

In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.

As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.

Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.

By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).

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