Postcard from my bookshelf #1

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Wow. What a fantastic response there’s been to my pledge to send a translated book to a stranger each month throughout 2017.

To date, nearly 170 people have applied to be part of the project, which marks the fifth anniversary of my year of reading the world. I have heard from fellow literary explorers – among them 13-year-old Aisha in Pakistan and Sally in Maine, US, who is cooking her children meals from the countries she reads books from. There have also been comments left by physical adventurers, such as Michelletrinh9, who is cycling around the globe with her boyfriend.

Teachers and students, librarians and booksellers, bloggers and writers, and teenagers and retired people have all been in touch.

Many have shared powerful accounts of the importance of books in their lives and the difficulty of accessing literature in some parts of the globe. And I have read moving personal accounts from people facing enormous challenges.

Just as in 2012, I have been amazed and humbled by the enthusiasm of booklovers. The experience has reminded me that sharing stories is a universal human activity. It has shown me again the enormous potential of storytelling to connect us across political, social, religious and geographical divides.

Choosing my first recipient has been tricky. For a while, I had no idea how to begin deciding who would get a book. Reading the comments, I wished I could pick out something for everyone.

Then it struck me that many of the messages were from people who represented groups that were essential to the success of my original quest. As Postcards from my bookshelf  is about giving back and saying thank you for the kindness of so many strangers who helped me read the world in 2012, it seemed to make sense to pick an individual from each of these categories to send a book to throughout the year.

And so this is what I have decided to do. There will be a few entirely random selections along the way, so everyone who entered has a chance of winning a book. For the most part, however, the postcards will be sent to people who in some way stand for groups that proved essential in my project to read a book from every country.

As such, my first book goes to a person from a profession that is vital for stories to cross borders: a translator.

I have chosen Laimpresionista, who translates prose and poetry from Spanish, English and occasionally French into Greek, to represent this group. She told me:

I think I would go for a nice thick novel of a Turkish, Syrian or Egyptian writer. I live on a greek island and during these past two or three years, our life has been changing rapidly. War refugees keep arriving in Greece on a daily basis and I feel I should somehow get to know them a bit better. I don’t mean to get political or anything but my daily contact with people from Pakistan or Syria or Afganistan sometimes makes me think that the only thing I know about my new neighbours is the capital city of their country and, maybe, part of their cuisine.

This got me thinking about a lot of the Arabic and Turkish literature I have read in recent years. There are, of course, many marvellous long novels in English and English translation by Turkish and Egyptian writers who are household names in many parts of the world. Authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk need little introduction to many people.

However, I was pretty certain that Laimpresionista would already have heard of these writers. I also felt that, while their books are wonderful – as is the work of Rafik Schami, whose Damascus Nights I read as my Syrian choice back in 2012 – they would not necessarily provide insight into the issues she mentioned.

For a while, I thought I might send Khaled Khalifa’s hard-hitting novel In Praise of Hatred. I read this book a couple of years back and, although it is set several decades ago, it was banned in Syria after it was published in 2006 and is felt by many to bear on contemporary events.

But, in truth, the most powerful work I have read about the horrific situation that has displaced millions of Syrians is not fiction, but a non-fiction book: A Woman in the Crossfire by Samar Yazbek (translated by Max Weiss). The journalist and novelist’s account of the collapse of normal society in her home town of Jableh haunts me many months after I read it.

When I looked Yazbek up, I found that another of her more recent works has since made it into English. The Crossing (translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) draws on a number of secret journeys that the now-exiled Yazbek has made back into Syria to document the ongoing devastation and arrival of ISIS.

I knew it was the book I had to send. And so, hoping that my recipient wouldn’t mind a non-fiction book in place of the novel she asked for, I picked up two copies from the picturesque Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly – one to send and one for me.

Laimpresionista, I’ll be reading it with you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be chosen on February 15.

17 responses

  1. Anne,
    I loved this post. I devour books and movies from West Asia so much that I have always felt I am reconnecting with something familiar when I read/watch my next voice from there. (Perhaps in a life of seven incarnations, as we are taught to believe in India, I had lived quite a few of them there?). I had always meant to read Yazbek’s book especially after I followed and read the Riverbend blog which also spoke of how normalcy changed in the lives of a people. I had been putting this off because even watching the news has been pure heartbreak. But I think I will gather courage and read Yazbek’s book now.

  2. I may have told you about me, can’t be sure it’s been so long. I started this challenge myself back in February and I’ve given you a few suggestions as well. I grew up with books. My dad’s family used to own an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN, USA.

    I think this next project of yours will be wicked fun. So you picked Turkey. I would’t be surprised if Greece, Turkey and Egypt are all related some how; even Italy. I’m big on Mythology.

    Take care and best regards towards your next project. EZ

  3. This is such a lovely idea! I think we all need to read books written by Syrian writers and those form other countries who’re watching ISIS crumble their world. Nothing will speak to us better than their own voices.

  4. So nice choice. Congratulations for it and for your words. Just great to share passion for books, stories, experiences and history of different countries with so many people.

  5. Congratulations on your 5th year anniversary! Your work is very impressive and I can’t wait to read your book ‘Beside Myself’ 🙂 I also wanted to say thank you for taking the time to talk to my class today at school. You truly inspired me to spread my horizons when reading! Sincerely the student who read the paragraph written by the french author 😄

  6. Pingback: Project Redesign – la impresionista

  7. Here I am at long last! Thank you very much, Ann, I am so looking forward to this! The book isn’t here yet but it should be arriving soon, I’ll let you know. Once again, than you so much 🙂

  8. I am glad to read that you & your readers are into Turkish Literature.

    I would like to suggest two more (female) names for those who might like to meet Turkish authors other than Pamuk and Safak:

    Asli Erdogan and Elif Batuman.

    Batuman writes in English, Erdogan is translated.

  9. Pingback: Postcards from Ann’s bookshelf – la impresionista

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