Book of the month: Tesfaye Gebreab

A few months ago, Delina posted the following comment on this blog:

 I’m from Eritrea. First of all, I LOVED your project, it’s brilliant! And second, I noticed that for Eritrea you read books written by Eritrean diaspora. While that’s interesting too, I want to suggest some books that may provide the perspective of someone who lived most of their lives here. I don’t think you can find them easily in London so I would like to send you copies through some relatives who live in London. I hope that’s ok. The books I have in mind are:

Two weeks in the trenches by Alemseged Tesfai
The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab (translated into English by Alemseged Tesfai)

Let me know what you think!

I was intrigued for several reasons: Delina’s kindness and enthusiasm; the idea of reading books rarely available to readers like me; and the fact that, as Delina rightly pointed out, I had found it impossible to find anything I could read by a writer based inside Eritrea back when I read the world in 2012.

There’s a good reason for this: Eritrea has long been one of the globe’s most isolated and restricted countries. Two years before my quest, it was judged by Index on Censorhip to be the country with the least press freedom in the world; even journalists inside North Korea had marginally more leeway than those based in this east African nation. Even now, Reporters Without Borders ranks it second to last in the World Press Freedom Index.

As a result, when Delina’s package arrived, containing copies of the titles she had recommended with personal dedications to me by their authors, along with a postcard from Delina bearing an Eritrean stamp, I lost no time in exploring what I quickly knew would be my next book of the month.

Billed as a novel, The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab translated by Alemseged Tesfai is an ambitious work. After a brief prologue describing an encounter that sparked the aim of telling ‘the history of one hundred years spread out […] like the camel caravans of Denkalia, Semhar, Barka, Halhal, Mensa’e, Habab, Senhit…’ the main narrative begins in the famine of 1888, when its title character is a small child. It then follows his fortunes and those of his descendants as they grapple with the many traumas and outrages visited on their region in the following century.

In his foreword, translator and fellow novelist Alemseged Tesfai (author of the other book Delina sent me) describes the hesitation he felt at taking on this project, which required him to work between this third language, Amharic, and his second language, English. His concerns were also echoed by Delina in an email she sent to me after the books arrived, in which she warned me that there may be errors and typos because of the difficulties surrounding publishing in Eritrea and said she hoped I wouldn’t be put off by these.

In actual fact, the text is largely sound. Although there are odd slips and a few word choices that feel questionable (but may of course be accurate reflections of the sense in the original), the narrative is in much better shape than many books I’ve encountered by first-language English speakers.

The challenges The Nurenebi File presents to readers raised on mainstream anglophone literature are of a different order (and say as much about the limited circulation of the world’s stories as they do about this work).

Firstly, this book does not obey the conventions that underpin the majority of novels in the English-speaking world. It veers between registers, plunging into political discussion, picking fights with other accounts and commenting on prevailing assumptions about Eritrean history. Passages that would not be out of place in an academic textbook sit alongside sections that ring with bombastic praise for Eritrea’s resistance fighters. There are photographs of many of the individuals and groups mentioned.

What’s more, although Nurenebi’s disappearance, and the efforts of his descendants to find out what happened to him and carry on his legacy form a guide rope that helps lead the reader through the pages, there is an uncertainty to the status of the narrative that makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with its context to know how to take it. It is unclear whether the prologue is written in Gebreab’s voice, describing a real-world encounter, or from the perspective of an unnamed fictional narrator who takes it upon themself to tell this story.

There are extremely powerful passages that will speaker to any reader. Many of these concern Nurenebi’s personal story, but that is not always the case. The account of the brutal amputation of the right hands and left feet of 461 Medri Bahri (Eritrean) men who fought on the Italian side against Emperor Menelik is extraordinarily harrowing and vivid. What’s more, there are many telling reflections on the effects of colonialism and the way oppressed people can sometimes become conditioned to further their own persecution, welcoming enemies as liberators. Inconsistent though the storytelling style may be, the whole work is charged with an urgency to communicate that bursts through at these key moments, sweeping the reader along.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Anglo-American readers face with this book is something that the story itself exists to challenge: the sheer unfamiliarity of these events to the majority of people around the world. This book, as translator Tesfai states, ‘has brought forward forgotten or shelved chapters from Eritrean history’. If that is true for Eritreans it applies tenfold to readers from other traditions.

Reading it, I was struck anew by how cumulative our sense of history is. We don’t encounter stories about the past in isolation but in the context of thousands of other narratives that have informed our cultural compasses and references throughout our lives. Consequently, when we come across a fact-based account in which none of the figures are familiar, few of the place names call associations to mind, and hardly any of the events connect to episodes we have heard of before, we struggle.

This is precisely why books like this and translations like Tesfai’s are important – and why I am so grateful to Delina for going to such trouble to get this story to me. In a world in which certain narratives are amplified and broadcast ubiquitously while many others are sidelined, silenced or erased, it is vital that accounts such as this expand, challenge and reshape our awareness of events.

This book does not obey the conventions of the European novel form, but then why should it? As the narrative makes clear, European influences have served the community it stems from appallingly. It is surely fitting, then, that in Tesfaye Gebreab’s hands this venerable export from the global north should be twisted, broken and refashioned into something that serves the Eritrean community. If readers like me struggle to keep up, then that is our problem.

The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab, translated from the Amharic by Alemseged Tesfai (Books and Media Center, Asmara, 2021)

Book of the month: Kristín Ómarsdóttir

This has been a particularly exciting month for me. As Literary Explorer in Residence of the Cheltenham Literature Festival for the second year running, I got to spend nine days in conversation with a fascinating array of writers and storytellers from all over the world.

There were too many wonderful events to list here. However, some personal highlights included an hour-long discussion with Japanese sensation Mieko Kawakami (facilitated by the brilliant interpreter Bethan Jones), my Read the World interview with Kenyan author and activist Nanjala Nyabola, and talking about writing the refugee experience with Dutch writer Rodaan Al Galidi and Caryl Lewis, author of Martha, Jack and Shanco, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies, which was the final book of my year of reading the world back in 2012.

Then, on the last day of the festival, I chaired a discussion between two fabulous novelists, including the author of my latest Book of the month. Guest curated by bestselling US novelist Celeste Ng, whose latest novel All Our Missing Hearts presents a bleak vision of an America in which discrimination against those with Chinese heritage is enshrined in law, the theme of the session was dystopian fiction around the world. Joining me to discuss this fascinating topic were US debut novelist Jessamine Chan, whose compelling The School for Good Mothers has already been named by The New Yorker as one of the best books of 2022 so far, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir author of Swanfolk, translated from the Icelandic by Vala Thorodds.

Set in a country that no longer exists, the novel follows Elísabet, an employee of the Special Unit of the Ministry of the Interior, whose life is thrown into chaos when she encounters a hybrid species of swan women living in the woods near her home. Caught between the tightly controlled existence required by her employer and the weird excesses and demands of creatures that defy the logic she has been taught to believe, Elísabet must find a way to bridge the gulf between these two worlds.

As this summary suggests, there is a mythic and even surreal quality to the narrative. In our discussion, Ómarsdóttir was open about the fact that she draws heavily on Icelandic fairy tales and legends in her writing, and this shows. Not only are the swanfolk themselves – human from the waist up and avian from the hips down – like something out of mythology, but the mysterious nature of the world in which we find ourselves and the lack of certainty over what is real and how all this came to be lend the book a dreamlike feel.

As readers, the ground is constantly shifting under our feet. The double dystopia that unfolds before us – Elísabet’s stifling daily existence and the swan people’s need to live secretly for fear of persecution – plays by rules that are never fully explained. Instead, hints are dropped. We learn that Elísabet is under constant surveillance, beholden to her constantly shifting employee rating and afraid of being promoted. Similarly, the swan people explain little of their culture and mores, but veer between violence and tenderness with alarming unpredictability.

Sometimes, the result is very funny, particularly when this subversion of expectations takes place on the linguistic level. Ómarsdóttir and Thorodds crash together registers and concepts in a way that sometimes made me laugh with surprise. Humour in this book, though, comes with a health warning. For much of it, Elísabet is engaged in writing a report on the city’s stand-up comedians. Yet when the comedians finally appear, they give a performance that is anything but funny. (‘I’m a very serious person,’ said Ómarsdóttir when I asked her about this, with a twinkle in her eye.)

There are also moments of extreme consternation, many of them centring around the question of legacy and motherhood. The swanfolk, whose egg yield has dwindled to almost nothing, fear extinction – a plight that put me in mind of Jacqueline Harpman’s dystopian tour de force I Who Have Never Known Men, translated by Ros Schwartz, and also made for a brilliant discussion with Jessamine Chan, whose The School for Good Mothers presents a nightmare US in which parents found to be in breach of their responsibilities are sent to re-education camps.

Yet in Swanfolk even a reading that posits the book as an investigation of motherhood is not left to stand unchallenged: when an egg is delivered into Elísabet’s safekeeping at the ministry, her colleagues cast doubt on its origins, intimating that the swan people may be all in her mind.

As a result, we are constantly second-guessing the story and ourselves. Words become unmoored from the meanings we are used to giving them. Like Elísabet, we begin to doubt our instincts and lose the power to articulate our thoughts. Observations glimmer in the narrative and wriggle out of reach. And lest we are tempted to settle on anything concrete, the book admonishes us: ‘Books that search for a conclusion and closure are at risk of disappointing their readers. Conclusions dampen the impulse to innovate and to imagine.’

Perhaps the most telling insight into what’s going on at the heart of this complex, troubling and surprising read came during my discussion with its author. Ómarsdóttir revealed that, in her view, modern society is like a spaceship speeding away from reality. It could be that we need storytelling like this to bring us back down to Earth.

Swanfolk by Kristín Ómarsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Vala Thorodds (Harvill Secker, 2022).

Photo by Monica Dunkley

Reading the World: publication day giveaway

*Giveaway now closed*

It’s out! The shiny, new, paperback edition of Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country (featuring a new foreword and numerous updates) is officially available from today.

To celebrate, I have five signed copies (which I will personalise) to send anywhere in the world. For readers outside the UK and Commonwealth, this is a rare opportunity to get your hands on this latest version, as it is not available to buy where you are.

All you have to do to put yourself in the running for a copy is recommend me a book in the comments below. The offer is open until 31 October 2022 and I will contact the winners after that date.

Ooh, and if you need convincing about whether you’d be interested in Reading the World, there’s a recording of me reading an extract from it below. This describes the moment in late 2011 that started this project off, when I realised how narrow my reading habits had been and decided to spend 2012 trying to put that right…

*Giveaway now closed*

Book of the month: Sibusiso Nyembezi

One of the great privileges of my 2012 Year of Reading the World was the chance it gave me to read a number of stories not usually available to English-language speakers. Whether these came in the form of pre-existing unpublished manuscripts (as in the case of the books I read for countries such as the Comoros and Turkmenistan) or translations created specially for me by generous volunteers (as with my pick for São Tomé and Príncipe), reading these works was an extraordinary experience, like being granted glimpses of a world those around me couldn’t see.

My latest Book of the month is another such marvel currently off-limits to the English-speaking world. Although it was published by the now-defunct Aflame Books in 2008, it has long been out of print, with only the occasional rare second-hand copy popping up now and then.

I received mine in the armful of books that Aflame’s founder Richard Bartlett generously handed to me in 2012, when he shared with me the manuscript of the astonishing Ualalapi, my pick for Mozambique. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have time to read the extra novels that year, having only 1.87 days for each of the titles I featured in my original quest. And, as so often happens, I shoved the others onto a shelf, with the intention that I would get to them eventually.

They might have stayed there for another ten years had a discussion I am due to take part in next month at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with a little-known author (cough, Booker prize-winner Damon Galgut) not prompted me to go through my collections to remind myself of my other South African reads. There it was, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi, a novel selected by an international jury as one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg by Sibusiso Nyembezi.

In many ways, the novel, which was published in its original language in 1961, is a classic stranger-comes-to-town tale. In the remote village of Nyanyadu, Mr Zeph Mkhwanazi receives a letter from a rich man he has never met, who tells him that he plans to visit and asks Mkhwanazi to convene a meeting of his fellow farmers so that the rich man can set out his plans to use his wealth and influence to improve their lives. Consternation, amusement and upheaval ensue: the arrival of the visitor exposes fault lines in the community, throwing Mkhwanazi and his family into crisis, until at last the village bands together to restore equilibrium.

Yet, though the arc of the story may sound familiar to anglophone readers, the way it is told is anything but. For one thing, the pacing is entirely different to that of most English-language novels: the opening pages, for example, focus mostly on the logistical challenges of reaching Nyanyadu and the complicated arrangements for the collection of the post.

There is also a striking approach to dialogue. Conversations stretch for pages, with many of the same facts and opinions rehearsed multiple times.

These things might sound off-putting or even dull, but in Nyembezi’s hands they are a joy. The narrative is sharp and witty, using a roving close third-person voice (not a million miles from the writing style in Galgut’s The Promise) to expose the inconsistencies and absurdities of the characters. What’s more, the repetition of certain details only makes them more amusing – the fact, for example, that the unknown stranger is ‘an esquire’ and the bewilderment caused by his strange name, Ndebenkulu, which, we are told, means ‘the one endowed with long lips.’

All this provides a wonderful build up to the arrival of the rich man himself. His advent is a masterclass in comic writing. Pompous, ridiculous, eager to tell anyone who will listen about his regular correspondence with prominent white people, and appalled by the prospect of having to travel to his host’s house in a ‘makeshift cart’, Ndebenkulu bursts onto the page. Many of his interactions are laugh-out-loud funny.

Yet Nyembezi is too subtle a writer to satisfy himself with merely amusing his reader. The ground is constantly shifting in this story, showing us how self-doubt, pride and half-forgotten grudges fuel suspicion, break and forge allegiances, and open old wounds. As Mkhwanazi’s neighbours and family members pitch in their opinions on the newcomer, Nyembezi traces the threads that bind the community and stress tests them with the application of the kind of financial, political and social pressures that govern all our lives, making this story of the arrival of an oddball in a remote community a universal reflection of humanity.

The book is, in short, a classic: funny, engrossing, wise and timeless. It ought to be available in English and celebrated alongside the works of its author’s more internationally renowned compatriots. Publishers, please, make it so!

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg (Inkinsela yase Mungungundlovu) by Sibusiso Nyembezi, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi (Aflame Books, 2008)

My novel: Crossing Over

Book deals are a bit like buses, as the jokey British saying goes: you wait ages and then two come along at once.

That’s certainly what it feels like for me at the moment. A little more than two weeks before the launch of the updated edition of Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country, I have happy news of another publication to share. This one in particular has taken a lot of waiting – five years to be precise.

I wrote my second novel, Crossing Over, in 2017, shortly after I’d moved to live on the Kent coast. Back then the reports of small boats crossing the English Channel were few and far between. The migrant crisis, as it was becoming known in the English-speaking world, was still mostly in the Mediterranean. So this novel, which centres around an encounter between a recently arrived migrant and an 87-year-old woman with dementia, was largely speculative.

It was my most ambitious project to date, and one that brought together a lot of the thinking about the role of storytelling in building our sense of one another’s humanity, different Englishes, and the limits and possibilities of mutual understanding that is at the centre of my reading-the-world work. It contained what I believed was my best writing so far; working on it had felt like spreading my wings.

But – despite a lot of great responses from early readers and interest from several major publishers – it failed to find a home with a big press. Audible was keen, so it came out as an audiobook in 2019.

For a long while, I resigned myself to Crossing Over not existing in print. But as time went by, this felt less and less satisfactory.

In the intervening years, as more and more boats began to arrive in this area, I had the chance to work with a number of people who had made the crossing, thanks to the support of the Royal Literary Fund and collaborations with local charities, including KRAN and Samphire. I also attended a vigil on the beach down the road in solidarity with the 27 people who drowned trying to make the trip last November. These experiences and the hardening of UK government policy towards those risking their lives for the hope of security in my home country made me feel increasingly strongly the importance of using stories to build bridges.

And so I decided to try again, this time approaching the kind of small, independent publishers who so often champion the extraordinary, boundary-pushing books I feature on this blog. A few months ago, I agreed a deal with the wonderful Renard Press.

Their publisher, Will Dady, told The Bookseller this: ‘I’m absolutely delighted to have acquired the UK and commonwealth rights to Ann Morgan’s beautiful new novel, Crossing Over. A stirring tale that considers the plight of those forced by circumstance to leave their homeland and cross the Channel in search of a better life, as well as the realities of living with dementia, the book is a real celebration of humanity, and leaves you reeling, thinking about what others are facing in their lives and the power of connection, even when language fails.’

Crossing Over comes out in April 2023. No doubt I’ll be pestering you about buying it nearer the time (in fact, those in the UK and Commonwealth countries can already pre-order it here). But for now I’d just like to say hooray and thank you to the many people who believed in this project, and to the hundreds of readers, writers and translators around the planet who keep my faith in the power of storytelling strong. Yes!

Book of the month: Ivana Sajko

Women in Translation Month is a brilliant time for book recommendations. A cursory search on #WITMonth on Twitter invariably brings up a wealth of tempting suggestions, and that’s even without the list of new releases that WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinksi generously shares every year to help promote the reading of translated literature by women and address the imbalance that sees more than 65 per cent of literary works coming into English authored by men.

So it was that I found my August book of the month after a tweet caught my eye. I can’t say what it was about this particular post, or indeed remember who wrote it, but something in the enthusiasm of the words prompted me to seek out Mima Simić’s translation of the oddly titled Love Novel by Croatian writer, theatre director and performer Ivana Sajko.

In spite of the warmth with which I’d seen the book discussed, I nearly didn’t get past the first chapter. Opening in the middle of a fight between the couple whose troubled relationship it follows, the narrative bristled with fury and violence, striking a sharp, angular tone that I wasn’t sure I had the energy to stick with for a whole book, even one as slender as Love Novel (which weighs in at not much more than 100 pages).

It was only the softening at the end of the first chapter – when the unnamed female protagonist, an out-of-work actress, retreats to her child’s bedroom and tries to soothe the toddler with a string of brittle and whimsical claims, and flights of fancy – that made me think I might be missing something and persuaded me to persevere.

I’m very glad I did. Over the following pages, I discovered that this slight book is a work of enormous range. The emotional intensity that had nearly overwhelmed me in the opening chapter was not the relentless, one-note barrage of anger I’d feared but an illustration of Sajko’s extraordinary capacity to suffuse her narrative with the feelings of those she portrays. From the ludicrous to the poignant and the excruciating to the banal, she inhabits her characters’ realities with a freshness that is at times quite astonishing, rendering this story of a couple pushed to breaking point by circumstances largely beyond their control as gripping and engaging as the most high-stakes thriller.

This power probably doesn’t come from Sajko alone. Mima Simić’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the end, in which she reveals that this story of poverty and struggle is hers too – one lived by almost all those she knows who grew up in the former Yugoslavia – makes clear how invested she is in this project. ‘The world of Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel is my world,’ she says, going on to reveal that the translation process took her more than a year because ‘every time I opened the book, it was like a punch in the gut. A punch by someone I knew, a family member.’

Simić’s description of how hard she worked to overcome the ‘not-quiteness’ of the story’s expression in another language, and her evident commitment to rendering the work as powerfully as possible in English provide an interesting case study for those considering the issue of the direction in which translation should work. (For a long time, the prevailing assumption in the anglophone industry has been that translators ought to translate into their mother tongues, with the result that native English speakers have largely been the ones who win contracts to bring foreign works into the world’s most-published language. Recently, however, a number of people have begun to query this, rightly demonstrating that this can be limiting and short-sighted, restricting the movement of texts and the opportunities open to those working in different languages.)

Love Novel makes a powerful argument for approaching the question on a case-by-case basis. Not only is the power in the writing impressive (although Simić is quick to stress that she doesn’t believe you have to have lived through an experience to translate it well, and I would say the same is true for writers), but there is a quality in the voice that feels distinctive, and which a first-language English speaker may have hesitated to try to achieve.

It’s hard to know how to write about this – the language we have with which to review translations in English is still very underdeveloped and sparse. But while being entirely grammatically correct (with the flexibility that literary writing allows), the text has a striking timbre that seems to complement its subject matter and place of origin. It’s something to do with the cumulative effect of choices that skew its rhythms in a certain direction, accenting the voice. So it is that, as we read about everything from irreverent reflections on how Jesus milked his crucifixion to a nosy neighbour’s grizzly demise in a wheelie bin, the world in which this is all taking place remains present.

Yet, in the way of the best novels, the writing is universal too. One of Sajko’s key methods for achieving this is reflecting psychology at the sentence level, shifting tenses and tumbling from contemplation into action and even hallucination as scenes become fraught. She knows and shows how we think in extreme moments – that peculiar blend of insight and delusion that at once connects us to and separates us from the rest of the world. What’s more, though the experience portrayed in this novel may feel deeply personal and particular to people who lived through it, like Simić, for those of us staring down the barrel of an economic crisis, much of the book will read as scarily fresh and timely.

Brilliant, strange, funny, angry and sad, this is an extraordinary novel. A welcome addition to the anglophone bookshelves. Highly recommended.

Love Novel (Ljubavni roman) by Ivana Sajko, translated from the Croatian by Mima Simić (V&Q Books, 2022)

Picture: ‘Zagreb graffiti’ by duncan c on flickr.com

Book of the month: Shuang Xuetao

Back in 2013, when I was researching Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country (new edition out in September), I was fortunate to speak to many translators and other literature experts about the way stories travel. A particularly fascinating conversation was with Nicky Harman, one of the driving forces behind Paper Republic, a charity that promotes Chinese literature in English translation.

Among the many things we talked about was crime fiction. English-language publishers, Harman said, were always expecting to find great crime novels in China, yet it was very rare for anything to get picked up. The reason for this involved a fundamental difference in approach to the genre.

Despite the Sherlock Holmes stories being so popular in China that the detective and his sidekick Watson are affectionately known there as Curly Fu and Peanut, Chinese crime fiction tends to have a strongly didactic streak. The page-turning suspense that is an essential ingredient of most anglophone thrillers is generally considered secondary to the message and information the story conveys.

Indeed, the early translations of the Holmes novels provide a neat illustration. As academic Eva Hung found, many had their titles changed to give away the ending. The plot was secondary to the ingenious detection skills the works showcased.

My latest Book of the month suggests that the tide may be beginning to turn. Although far from being a conventional crime novel in the anglophone sense, Rouge Street, a collection of three novellas by award-winning contemporary author Shuang Xuetao, translated by Jeremy Tiang, contains many of the elements of a pageturner. Hard-bitten characters dodge in and out of the underworld of one of Shenyang’s roughest neighbourhoods, mysteries abound and unfold, and a sense of the compromised, broken nature of human dealings in the scramble to survive pervades the narrative.

There is a directness to the prose that has invited comparisons to Hemingway. Sometimes this is very funny, as when one character observes, ‘If you have a big ass, you don’t need to take off your pants to prove it.’ At other times, it is satisfying in its precision, enabling Shuang to convey the essence of a character who might only appear for a handful of pages in a single sentence. For example, when he tells us that Mingqi is ‘the sort of man who’d never be willing to go for an easy win at mahjong but would insist on building elaborate hands to crush the other players’, we know precisely who we are dealing with.

Yet aspects of the collection veer sharply away from the conventions English-language crime thriller readers know so well. Murakami is another name that has been mentioned in relation to Shuang’s work and it’s not hard to see why: the narrative dives into the surreal and the fantastical with little warning. In particular, an extended sequence involving a battle with an interrogator-turned-fish beneath the surface of a frozen lake flies in the face of the gritty realism that suffuses much of the rest of the narrative.

The investigation at the heart of Rouge Street is much more introspective and psychological than the fact-based jigsaw puzzles of traditional anglophone mysteries. Rather than an excavation of events, this is an excavation of the self – a coming to understanding of individual characters’ motivations through the unspooling of seemingly tangential happenings.

This is achieved through a kaleidoscopic series of shifts between the perspectives of different parties involved in the stories so that we are constantly looking at the situation through fresh eyes. It is testament to Shuang and Tiang’s skill that, for the most part, characters are distinctive enough to carry us with them each time a new voice takes over (although the flurry of shifts in the final section teeters on the edge of bewildering).

I suspect Harman is right that anglophone publishers will continue to search in vain for a Chinese book that fits their brief for a great crime novel. Rouge Street is more interesting than that: inventive, irreverent, daring and fresh, it contains far more satisfying surprises than the familiar twist at the end.

Rouge Street by Shuang Xuetao, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Metropolitan Books, 2022)

Picture: ‘Shenyang, China’ by Shinsuke Ikegame on flickr.com

Book of the month: Emmelie Prophète

One of the joys of this project is the contact it’s given me with readers and writers around the globe. It’s always a joy when someone I know to be a committed book lover stops by the blog, sends me an email or replies to a tweet to let me know about books they’ve enjoyed.

So when prolific reader Judy, whose recently concluded book blog continues to be a mine of recommendations, shared a couple of her favourite recent translated reads with me, I lost no time in seeking them out – and in so doing, I discovered my next Book of the month.

Blue, translated by Tina Kover, is the first novel to be brought into English from Emmelie Prophète, an award-winning writer and diplomat, and the director of the National Library of Haiti. Plotwise, it’s at once deceptively simple and hard to sum up. In essence, a woman waits at departures in Miami. As she contemplates her return to Port-au-Prince and the scene of the struggles of her childhood, memory unlocks a raft of personal and inherited trauma, revealing a bedrock of suffering that underpins the existence of all the women in her world.

Normally, I avoid the temptation to present a book as speaking for a particular community – something the marketing departments of anglophone publishers are often all too eager to do. Yet this novel actively invites the idea. Time and again, the narrative voice extrapolates from the specific to the general, identifying here ‘a metaphor for the country’s glittering sickness’, there the rhythm of ‘the heart of all women who have been poorly loved’. In this sense, the narrative voice seems more choric than individual, actively encouraging the reader to see it as an ambassador for Haitian women’s experience.

The book challenges in other ways too. From the start, it makes no secret of its resistance of Anglo-European narrative conventions. Beginning, middle and end have no place here. Instead, the telling circles its subject matter, like one of the planes waiting to land at the airport. ‘By the end of the story, or what will seem to be the end, [the voices it contains] will seem like nothing but an endless cry echoing from the depths of this country,’ we are told.

The language use is as fresh and inventive as the structure. ‘An umbrella opens in my head,’ the narrator tells us. Meanwhile, watching many of her compatriots encountering suspicion and questioning at security, she identifies their biggest crime as being ‘Carriers, probably, of all sorts of dreams.’ The book is, essentially, a poem in prose.

Inevitably, the result is slippery. There are not many fingerholds for those used to grasping a narrative thread and stories that work on the principle of one thing leading to the next. Although we enter into the narrator’s thoughts, she holds the reader at arm’s length, resisting any attempt to make her our creature. The heavy, mournful nature of the subject matter will also prove too much for some.

But for those willing to give themselves over to the rhythm of the telling and let go of the need to be ‘right even before the question is asked’ – a Western trait the narrator criticises at several points – there are riches in store. Unapologetic and unflinching, Blue demands to be taken on its own terms. It does not need our approval.

Blue (Le Testament des solitudes) by Emmelie Prophète, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Amazon Crossing, 2022).

Picture: ‘Haitian Metal Art’ by Alex Proimos on flickr.com

Reading the World: a new edition

I have a bit of news. I have a book coming out in September. Actually, it’s a new edition of my first book, Reading the World – seven years after the original UK hardback and ten years since my 2012 quest.

In that time, this blog and has changed from a quirky, yearlong project to a lifelong endeavour – one that strangers still contact me about almost every day. It has had some extraordinary highs (from my delivering my TED and TEDx talks, speaking on BBC Radio 4 and meeting my hero Tété-Michel Kpomassie over Zoom to taking up the role of Literary Explorer in Residence at the UK’s Cheltenham Literature Festival).

But it has also been challenging and I have had to work hard to keep it sustainable and worthwhile alongside my other work and writing projects. One of the ways I have tried to do this is by continually developing my reading and reviewing practice, most recently launching the first of what I hope will eventually be a series of workshops for curious readers (more information here).

The fact that I have kept going is largely down to you and the thousands of intrepid readers around the world like you who contact me about books. Your enthusiasm, and the wonderful recommendations and information you send, continue to inspire and intrigue me, and keep me excited about the extraordinary power of stories to connect us across all sorts of divides. Thank you.

It’s been great to have a chance to reflect on all this – and on how storytelling and our world have changed in the past ten years – in a new foreword. I’ve also enjoyed catching up with some of the writers and translators I featured in the original edition and adding to their stories, as well as updating a lot of the facts and figures in the original manuscript. And I rather like the new subtitle – How I Read a Book from Every Country – too. I hope this edition will be of interest to anyone who loves reading widely and wants to understand more about how stories travel, and how they shape us.

Preorders make a massive difference to a book’s success, so if you don’t have a copy, would like another, know someone who might enjoy it, or simply need a doorstop, please do place an order. Your support will mean a lot and will help me keep this blog free for people everywhere keen to explore the world’s books. Thanks so much.

Book of the month: Adrienne Yabouza

Firsts can be tricky propositions. Whenever I hear about the first translation into English of a work of literature from a particular country, I am pulled in two directions. On one hand, I’m glad that another nation’s stories are now represented in the world’s most-published language (there were around 11 UN-recognised states with no commercially available literature in English at the time of my 2012 quest).

On the other hand, I feel wary. Making a book the global ambassador for a country’s written works is a lot of weight to place on a single story (a dangerous concept as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has explained). It can also be very unhelpful – a nation, after all, is the sum of numerous, often contradictory narratives. We need a supply of multiple tales told in a range of voices, not a single example that we can showcase like an artefact in a museum.

But publishers love a marketing hook and billing something as the first example of a certain kind of literature seems a good way to attract sales. So it’s hardly surprising that houses big and small make much of such claims.

My latest featured read is not strictly the first book in English translation from its home nation. There was a long-out-of-print children’s book – a sort of Enid Blyton with crocodiles – that I managed to get my hands on from this country during my original quest. But, to my knowledge, publisher Dedalus is correct in describing Rachael McGill’s translation of Adrienne Yabouza’s Co-wives, Co-widows as the first book for adults by a writer from the Central African Republic to come into English.

As the title suggests, the novel follows two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, married to the same man, Lidou, who dies during the course of the story. Faced with an event that spells disaster in their strongly patriarchal society, where women are routinely turfed out of their homes by their husbands’ families on the death of their spouses, the widows have little option but to rely on each other to secure a future for themselves and their children.

The major challenge for an author writing protagonists in a relatively powerless position is not to make them seem like victims. Yabouza’s solution to this is humour. Her narrative is threaded through with a range of kinds of comedy, revealing everything from the surreality of death to the hypocrisy that underpins the women’s daily reality.

Often, wit glimmers in a single word (credit to McGill here). We learn, for example, that the sun ‘beat down mercilessly and democratically on all citizens’ waiting in the interminable queue to vote. Similarly, Yabouza makes rich capital of free indirect speech to reveal the ways her characters lie to themselves. Here’s Lidou in the run-up to his heart attack: ‘He’d practically given up smoking, he only accepted every other beer these days and he only ever touched kangoya or bili-bili on Sundays, or mostly only then.’

This lightness of touch does not prevent Yabouza from revealing the depths of the injustices that surround Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou. Whether it’s the self-regard of the EU officials monitoring the electoral process or the naked corruption in the legal and political systems, she pulls no punches in laying society’s ills bare – sometimes literally. The widows, for example, receive a brutal beating from their husbands’ relatives when they attempt to attend his funeral.

There is a beautiful directness in the writing, too, particularly when it comes to scene-setting. Take ‘the big eyelid of night closed over Bangui’ or the description of the sky ‘slashed from side to side by the machete strokes of lightning’. This directness adds weight to moments of emotional intensity in the narrative, where Yabouza often excels at capturing deep feelings in simple words.

That said, not every image works smoothly. I found myself tripped up by the phrase ‘deeper in his thoughts than a relative trying to draft an insincere eulogy for a bigwig’s funeral’. It felt as though the writing was trying too hard here – although this may also be a function of cultural difference, which presents some intriguing challenges. For example, the depiction of a new suitor wooing Ndongo Passy by inviting her to cook a meal for him and his friends (much to her delight) will pull many of those raised in the Western tradition up short, as will the proliferation of descriptions comparing her to one of his cows.

The same can be said for the plot. Those looking for a staunchly feminist account of two women breaking free of patriarchal control, will no doubt find the resolution, which relies on the women gaining male support and permission for their plans, frustrating. Unlike the protagonist of Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, tr. David Brookshaw, who bands together with other women to transcend the system that has oppressed her, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou choose to operate within the mechanisms they know. Although the narrative presents strong female agents, such as the lawyer Catherine, it falls short of imagining an upending of the status quo.

But perhaps this is ultimately a more emotionally satisfying, realistic-seeming ending for many of the original readers of this novel. A mirror rather than a beacon, it is a trailblazer in another respect: a translation of a story from the Central African Republic written without regard for European sensibilities (unlike the children’s book published decades before). That alone makes it worth the price of admission. And judging by its wit, insightfulness and passion, it ought to be the first of many more such publications.

Co-wives, Co-widows (Co-épouses, co-veuves) translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2021)

Picture: ‘Central African women inspecting building for microfinance project’ by hdptcar on flickr.com