*NEW SERIES* World bookshopper: #1 Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, NYC

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Late last year, I asked for your help. I was planning a trip to New York City and wanted to know which bookstores you thought I should visit while I was there.

As ever, the response was impressive. Suggestions flooded in for intriguing wordmongers all around the Big Apple.

There were more than I could hope to hit in a month, let alone during the few days I was going to be in town. Nevertheless, despite the blizzard’s best efforts, last week I managed to get to five of the shops you recommended in Manhattan. And I enjoyed the trips so much that I’ve decided to write up my visits in a series of World bookshopper posts on this blog – a kind of mystery bookshopper review, if you will. (See what I did there?)

I’m hoping this will become a regular feature (in fact I’ve already visited three bookstores in another soon-to-be-revealed part of the world and plan to write about those too). So, if you have a favourite bookshop in your neck of the woods –wherever that might be – why not tell me about it below?

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll stop by one day.

In the meantime, let me introduce the subject of my inaugural World bookshopper review: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street, Manhattan.

This was a recommendation from Grant and, when I looked it up, the store’s premise intrigued me. Established a decade or so ago, the shop deals entirely in donated merchandise. Its profits go to support Housing Works, a charity set up to tackle homelessness and support those living with HIV/AIDS.

What’s more, the place is run almost exclusively by volunteers. As Elisabeth Kerr, my editor at Liveright/Norton, told me when I met her for coffee after my trip to the shop, these unsalaried booksellers come from a huge variety of fields. Now and then, you might even be served by folk from inside New York’s publishing scene, who are eager to get a taste of life on the literary market’s front line.

On the day I went, the shop was busy. Nearly every table around the cafe counter at the far end was taken up with people chatting over coffee, cake and – more often than not – piles of books. Elsewhere, customers milled around the wood-lined space, browsing the shelves, tables and trolleys, and climbing up the curving metal staircases to the galleries above.

The titles were arranged in sections that you might expect to see in any number of bookshops – literary criticism, comics/graphic novels, health and so on. However, there were some more unusual shelves too. I was particularly taken with the ‘Cool & Quirky’ stand, which offered vintage editions of such classics as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Chessmen of Mars and Doc Savage’s The Terror in the Navy for the bargain-basement sum of $3 a pop.

Knock-down prices were by no means the rule, however. In glass cabinets near the front of the store, rare editions commanded three-figure price tags. I spied a signed, uncorrected proof of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for $150 and an early edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a cool $300.

Curious to see what sort of presence international and translated fiction had in this shop made up of donated, second-hand reads, I made my way to the general fiction section. I searched in vain for many of the usual suspects. No Haruki Murakami or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie met my gaze here, although I did see a copy of Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia.

Moving to crime, I found more surprising gaps and inclusions. The great Scandi godfathers of gritty whodunnits, Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson, were conspicuous by their absence, but there were several copies of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

And though the work of the most famous Larsson was not represented, a novel by another writer with the same surname stood in its place: Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy), winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award.

It was a snip at a little over $6. Intrigued, I hurried it to the counter and handed over my money to the smiling, grey-haired volunteer there. For all I knew, she might have been a publisher, a schoolteacher or an astronaut the rest of the time.

You get the feeling that, at Housing Works, the bookshelves aren’t the only source of fascinating stories…

Picture by Crystal Luxmore on Flickr

Book of the month: Saneh Sangsuk

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Experts have been a great help to me since I decided to try to read the world. Many of the books I read for my original project in 2012 were recommended by people who had devoted decades of their lives to studying or translating literature from particular regions or languages. My Chinese and UAE choices were two very good examples – in both cases, the advice of people with in-depth knowledge of the books of those nations directed my attention to fascinating titles that I may well not have considered otherwise.

So when Sutida Wimuttikosol, a Thai literary critic and lecturer at Thammasat University,  introduced herself to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I lost no time in asking for her suggestions for literature from her homeland. Wimuttikosol emailed me details of three writers with work available in English translation: Khamsing Srinawk, Prabda Yoon and Saneh Sangsuk.

I tracked down work by all of them and can second Wimuttikosol’s recommendations – they are all, in their different ways, intriguing authors. However, the book that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and has colonised a large swathe of my imaginary universe this month is The White Shadow by Saneh Sangsuk, and that’s the title I’m going to write about today.

In many ways, Sangsuk was a controversial writer for a Thai literary critic to recommend. Although his talent has long been recognised outside Thailand (the French government even made him a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008), the wordsmith’s work has historically had a less-than-glowing reception in his own nation.

According to the biographical note at the end of my edition of The White Shadow, in Thailand the author ‘raises twice as many jeers than cheers’. The novel was struck off the 1994 SEA Write Award pre-selection list and sold less than 1,000 copies, forcing its author (who had funded its publication himself) to survive ‘with no computer, no phone, no TV, but books from floor to ceiling in his rented room, writing in longhand […] and occasionally being treated to lunch at the market by his friends after he helps them sweep the floor’.

The eccentricity and single-mindedness the description above suggests is reflected amply in The White Shadow. As its subtitle – ‘portrait of the artist as a young rascal’ – suggests, it is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Looking back on the excesses, cruelties and bad choices of his youth, the narrator, who has retreated to a ramshackle house in the rural north to try to write, oscillates between self-loathing and self-pity, with numerous flights into mania, fantasy and humour along the way.

It’s subject matter that thousands of bildungsromans around the world – from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and JM Coetzee’s Youth to MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam, not to mention the James Joyce book referenced in the English-language title – have tackled over the centuries. Yet no-one has done it quite like Sangsuk. Extraordinarily inventive, merciless and sometimes offensive, his writing zeroes in on the smallest dust mote before spiralling out to look at the world from the perspective of outer space. All of life is here – digressions on Western art and Eastern mysticism, dissections of music and scientific theory, ponderings on philosophy, politics and psychology. You name it; you’ll find it in these pages.

In addition, the narrative bristles with lush descriptions of Thailand in many of its guises. The seedy underbelly of Bangkok and the wild splendour of the jungle all appear in lavish detail. We trail through the slums and universities, and jostle against the hawkers and hoodlums in the markets and on the beaches. Beauty and brokenness abound.

The same can be said of the writing. Some passages are astonishingly virtuosic and playful. Nevertheless – whether through glitches in the translation or quirks in Sangsuk’s style – there are odd turns of phrase and the occasional malapropism.

The book is also not an easy read from a liberal Western standpoint. Its questionable handling of gender issues and the unabashed misogyny of its protagonist make for some very uncomfortable moments.

For all that, though, this is an extraordinary performance. Whether its compatriots own it or not, the novel has things to say to readers everywhere. It will delight, challenge, unsettle and move.

Pleasingly, more than 20 years after this book met with the opprobrium of many of his peers, Sangsuk does seem to be getting more homegrown recognition. In 2014, his collection Venom and Other Stories won the SEA Write Award denied to his earlier work.

If The White Shadow is anything to go by, the accolade was richly deserved. The author, however, with the directness that makes that book so powerful, wasn’t convinced that his new work deserved the recognition. ‘It’s readable, I’d give it B+,’ he told the Bangkok Post.

The White Shadow: Portrait of the artist as a young rascal (Ngao See Khao) by Saneh Sangsuk, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thaifiction Publishing, 2009)

Photo ‘Bangkok, Thailand’ by Simon Marussi on Flickr

Children’s book competition result

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Wow. What a lot of wonderful book recommendations you gave me in response to my request for suggestions of children’s stories written in languages other than English. Entries have come from far and wide – Ukraine, India, China and Switzerland to name just a few.

Reading through your comments has been a joyful and intriguing experience. And, as is always the case with exploring literature from elsewhere, it has given me so much more than simply ideas for good reads.

I really enjoyed your accounts of the different ways you’ve read and shared stories. From Annemarie and her cousins rewording one of the songs in the audioversion of Klatremus og de andre dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen by Thorbjørn Egner for her grandmother’s 80th birthday to Ray and his schoolfriends pretending to be the title character in Yang Hongying’s Naughty Ma Xiaotiao.

The cultural information you shared along the way was fascinating too. I was very interested by teacher Mariska’s comment that in Sweden children who have a mother tongue other than Swedish have a legal right to receive tuition in that language as part of their school education. Similarly, I loved the video that Encarni shared of giants dancing in Catalonia. This is something I experienced first hand at a festival in the Priorat region a few years ago and it is a wonderful sight. It was great to learn that the tradition comes from the song and tale ‘El Gegant del Pi’.

The book recommendations themselves were marvellous. So many tempting-sounding stories and concepts – from a paintbrush that enables a poor boy to bring his imaginings to life (Magic Brush by Hong Xuntao) to a book about a girl with a terminally ill mother that also contains recipes for the world’s best cocoa and pancakes as well as special tricks for secret agents (Die erstaunlichen Abenteuer der Maulina Schmitt by Finn-Ole Heinrich).

And, among the many new discoveries, I was struck by the handful of familiar stories that came to light too. There were favourites such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, along with well-known fables like the Kiswahili account of how the tortoise got its shell (Safari Ya Angani by Francis Atulo) – a version of which I heard in primary school. These shared narratives, many of which have travelled around the world, reminded me once again of the extraordinary power that stories have to connect us across cultural barriers.

I could easily have chosen ten or more winners from among the entries, but sadly I only have one signed copy of Reading the World to give away. And so, after much deliberation, I have decided to give the prize to Frances for her recommendation of the Italian classic Le avventure di Cipollino by Gianni Rodari, a story that has been popular in many parts of the world, including Russia, where the postage stamp pictured above featuring two of the characters is from.

Frances’s description of the tale was well-calculated to pique my interest: ‘a story of good versus evil and the power of affection, family and friendship in the fight against tyranny… in a world of vegetables and fruits’. But it was what she said after her pitch that tipped the balance. Describing how she had been able to recite the story word for word when a friend began to read it aloud years later, she wrote: ‘This is the reason of my choice: the book is good and I love it, but even more so, it is engraved in my heart. These books, we always want to pass on to others, as a gift from our heart to theirs.’

To me, that is the key to many of the best reading experiences I have had during this project and throughout my life. I hope 2016 brings many more such reads for all of us – books that we love so passionately that we want to give others the gift of reading them too.

Happy new year everybody and thanks again. Frances, I’ll be in touch.

Book of the month: Eka Kurniawan

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This was a recommendation from friend and fellow writer, Trilby Kent. She mentioned a few weeks ago that she had just discovered Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and highly recommended his work.

Kent isn’t the only person to have been wowed by Kurniawan. His latest novel to be translated into English, Man Tiger, recently received a glowing review in the UK Guardian, which described it as a Javanese subversion of the crime fiction genre. Furthermore, when I clicked open my e-copy, I was confronted by another endorsement in the form of an effusive introduction by celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this month. Despite describing the English translation of the title as ‘slightly awkward’, he was adamant that Kurniawan was Indonesia’s ‘most original living writer of novels and short stories’.

I turned to page one with a sinking heart. Could any novel really live up to such a fanfare?

I’m pleased to report that Man Tiger does so with ease. Opening with the savage murder of an ageing villager by the young man, Margio, who has been dating his daughter, this novel pours forth a stream of delights. As we follow the unfolding of the narrative, watching Kurniawan peel back layer after layer of grudges, half-remembered incidents and surprising events, we meet many characters so vivid and robust that they seem at times to lean from the pages and hoick us bodily into their concerns. There is the major who is convinced that the piece of ground he has been honoured with in the heroes’ cemetery is simply an invitation to die quickly and the elderly woman who would rather poison herself by eating the soil of her land than allow her avaricious children to get their hands on her wealth.

The references to crime fiction that several English-language reviewers have made are understandable, but potentially a little misleading. While the intricate and deftly tuned plot runs like clockwork throughout, keeping us guessing until the last page – not about who did what (we know that in the first sentence), but about why things happened the way they did – this book is so much more than a mere twist on a familiar genre. It brings in huge amounts of other things: myth, oral storytelling techniques and a brand of the fantastic that many will no doubt describe as ‘magical realism’, but which is quite unlike anything else I have read in that category.

The writing reflects the novel’s hybrid nature, shifting between registers with breathtaking dexterity. Moments of brutal matter-of-factness – gritty as anything you’ll find in the pages of Larsson or Nesbø – give way to bathos, flights of lyricism and a beauty that is almost painful.

Indeed, though there are one or two oddities in the text (some of which may of course reflect the original), translator Labodalih Sembiring deserves praise for his part in this extraordinary book. Gems such as ‘the night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon’, and ‘he gave up on cutting hair, and instead trimmed away at his own soul, snip by snip’ make the text glitter. This is particularly worth noting when you reflect that, as Anderson explains in his introduction, Kurniawan’s work presents great challenges for translators because it ‘includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centred dictionaries’.

There’s so much more to say. I wanted to tell you about Kurniawan’s extraordinary eye for detail, which brings the novel’s lush settings close enough to touch. I’d love to have written at length about his uncanny understanding of why we do what we do, and the way he portrays human ugliness, vulnerability and tenderness in all their fullness. I’ve got a whole list here of moments that had me chuckling and insights that made me nod in recognition.

But instead of turning this blog post into a dissertation, let me suggest this: give yourself a treat and buy this book or request it from your library. Then you can discover all this and much more for yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start 2016 than in the company of such thrilling writing. Happy New Year.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015)

Picture by Yos C. Wiranata on flickr.com

Tell me about children’s books (and I might give you a free book)

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Since I started my quest to read the world, I’ve encountered all sorts of literary explorers. I’ve had messages from people doing their own round-the-world trips on different timescales and with contrasting criteria to mine. I know of bloggers engaged in sampling the literary offerings of particular regions or continents, or of all the nations playing in the world cup. And I’ve heard from people who are trying to find international books from particular genres. (I even got an email not so long ago from someone set on reading a horror novel from every state – a particularly dark quest, as he pointed out!)

Perhaps the most common inquiry I receive from prospective world readers, however, concerns children’s books. I’ve lost track of the number of parents and teachers who have written to me asking for advice on resources they can use to help youngsters read more widely. It’s great to know that so many children are surrounded by adults keen to help expand their imaginary universes in this way.

Although during my quest I only read two books aimed specifically at children (my choices for Dominica and for the Central African Republic) and one YA novel (Samoa), my literary adventures have brought me into contact with a number of great projects exploring children’s literature from around the world. In the UK, for example, the wonderful Outside In World organisation has done a lot to bring more great books onto British children’s radars. Meanwhile in New York, this list compiled by Marianna Vertsman at Mid-Manhattan Library is a great starting point. There are also some wonderful personal projects, such as the Read Around the World section on mother-of-three Amy’s Delightful Children’s Books blog.

In my reading this year, I was also enthralled by Helen Wang’s wonderful translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, a glorious children’s story set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. I made it my April Book of the month and I’ve been very pleased to see that it’s been getting some much deserved attention in the UK Independent and Guardian newspapers this week.

But, as you’ve probably gathered from this project, I’m a great believer that you can never have enough book recommendations. So I thought I’d see what you’ve got to add to the discussion of children’s literature from beyond the English-speaking world. And because it’s the festive, gift-giving season in many parts of the planet and I’m feeling generous, I thought I’d offer you the chance of getting a signed copy of my book in return.

Simply leave a comment below giving the title and author of your favourite children’s book written in a language other than English, and up to four sentences about why you like it. Your recommended title can be available in translation or yet to be translated, and it can be a picture book or full of words. My main criteria are that you love it and that it’s good.

On January 1 at midday UK time, I will read through all the entries and choose my favourite, most persuasive book pitch. And that person will get a signed copy of the UK edition of my book, Reading the World (pictured above). I’ll even personalise the dedication and post it to you and everything. So go on, tell me what children’s stories we English-language readers are missing.

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED. CHECK BACK SOON FOR THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE WINNER

News from Madagascar

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Towards the end of my year of reading the world, I made an appeal. I’d been shocked to discover that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into and published in English, obliging me to fall back on the anthology Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa, as my read from the nation.

It seemed astonishing to me that the world’s fourth-largest island nation, which is home to more than 22 million people, should have no full-length books available in the planet’s most published language, particularly as the short stories and extracts in the anthology proved that it had many great writers. So I called for your help: which Malagasy novels should be translated? I asked.

For a long time, I didn’t hear much. I finished the project and went on with writing my book. Perhaps Madagascar was just one of those places that the anglophone publishing industry would continue to fail to reach, I thought sadly.

Then, almost a year after that post, I received an email from a US-based translator called Allison Charette. She said she had stumbled upon this blog and had been particularly drawn to the post on Madagascar. As a French-to-English translator, she was keen to do something about the lack of literature from the nation in translation, but she didn’t know where to start. Did I have any contacts or ideas for where she could go from here?

I made a few tentative suggestions from my own, very minimal knowledge of the situation and wished her luck. She had set herself an enormous task, I felt.

This year, Allison Charette was back in touch with extraordinary news. She had not only found a novel from Madagascar to translate, but had secured a PEN/Heim translation grant and was working to bring the book into English, with high hopes that it would secure a deal with a US publisher soon.

I caught up with her over Skype a few months back and she filled me in on what had happened since we were last in contact.

After speaking to Sophie Lewis at And Other Stories, the publisher who helped me in my search for a Malagasy book, and Susan Harris at wonderful online international literature magazine Words Without Borders, Charette threw herself into reading books that she might translate. But there was a problem:

‘I started getting out as many [French-language] Malagasy books as possible from my library. The more I read, the more I went “Oh, I need to do this. They’re fantastic!” and I started translating. Then I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the culture whatsoever, so I tried to email the authors, but they were unreachable. So I decided, well, let’s go to Madagascar.’

At the point where many people might have been tempted to give up, Charette redoubled her efforts. She persuaded Swiss NGO Humanium, which had just announced a partnership with Madagascar, to allow her to go and be their in-country representative for a while, using their contacts to arrange a homestay that would enable her to research the country’s literature in her spare time.

During the five weeks she spent there, she discovered the reason for the lack of responses to her messages to authors: as its electricity supply is very unreliable, Madagascar still operates largely offline, meaning that email communication is patchy.

In person, however, it was a different matter. Charette was welcomed warmly and met more than two dozen local authors, who were keen to share their work. Despite the island’s logistically difficult publishing situation, which means that writers have traditionally self-published in small print runs and supported themselves by other means, she went home with a whole suitcase of books.

It wasn’t long before one title in particular caught her eye: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, a historical novel exploring the controversial and sensitive subject of slavery in Madagascar. Despite the shocking subject matter (Malagasies are usually reluctant to talk about this chapter of their nation’s past, which many regard as shameful) and Madagascar’s relatively low literacy rate, the book had sold well at home.

What’s more, according to Charette, the author’s style, blending local and Western characteristics, made the book a particularly strong candidate for translation: ‘He has done an incredibly good job of mixing Malagasy ways of storytelling, which are based on the oral traditions, with something that Westerners will understand,’ she says.

Now, with the endorsement of the PEN/Heim grant and interest from publishers, Charette hopes it won’t be long before her rendering of Naivo’s work is available for English-language readers to enjoy, becoming the first ever novel from Madagascar to be published in the anglophone world.

And the good news doesn’t stop there: inspired by her efforts, Words Without Borders has devoted its December issue to Madagascar, carrying a range of fabulous translated extracts, as well as an essay on the nation’s literature by Charette, who is this month’s guest editor. If you’re keen to sample Naivo, there’s a piece of his work there. And if you have time, I’d really recommend ‘Abandoning Myself’ by Magali Nirina Marson (also translated by Charette) – a spine-tingling read.

Charette hopes this will open the door for many other Malagasy works to make it into English. She already has her eye on several more books she’d like to translate. And her ambitions go far beyond simply sharing Madagascar’s rich literature with a wider audience. In time, she hopes her efforts – and those of other translators and publishers engaged in bringing work into English from underrepresented nations – will help broaden and complicate the rather simplistic way that a lot of us English speakers talk and think about books from many parts of the planet.

‘If we can flood the market with enough African books, whether they’re in English originally or translations, then maybe people will stop talking about “African literature”,’ she says. ‘If I can start getting books from Madagascar to the public, this is one more way of helping this problem.’

Photo: ‘Char à Zebu’ © Franck Vervial on flickr.com

TED talks: a speaker’s-eye view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Courtesy of TED

Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Good news for women and translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My evening with Helle Helle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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