Book of the month: Boubacar Boris Diop

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This book came onto my radar thanks to award-winning translator Jennifer Croft, who mentioned on social media recently that she was obsessed with it. The novel had another claim on my attention too, being the first work to be translated into English from the north-west African language Wolof (although, as co-translator Vera Wülfing-Leckie explains in her introduction, the English version comes from a francophone text also created by celebrated author Boubacar Boris Diop, who usually writes in French rather than his mother tongue).

The premise of Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks is deceptively simple. Coming to the end of his life in Dakar, Senegal, Nguirane Faye sets about recording his thoughts and recollections for the benefit of his absent grandson, Badou, who he hopes will one day return to his native Senegal and unearth his notebooks. What follows, however, is far from straightforward, as time, language and the written form itself bend and snap beneath the weight of Nguirane’s experiences and ideas.

A plethora of techniques are at work here. There are stories within stories, proverbs, voices that interrupt or take over the narrative and digressions galore. Historic events jostle with folklore, hallucinations and memories. Often, Nguirane will pause, mid-flow, to chide or tease his reader for getting exasperated with his meanderings. Sometimes, he will imagine his grandson’s responses and embark on an argument with him – a mechanism that is as touching as it is funny.

At the root of it all, lies the oral tradition (a tradition to which Diop has said he belongs ‘with every fibre of [his] being’). And though the writing is exceptionally deft, sidestepping many of the problems that often beset novels framed as accounts directed at imaginary recipients (which are often weighed down by expository passages too obviously penned for the benefit of the real-world reader), there is a tension between written and spoken that Diop clearly intends us to feel: ‘I would have preferred to talk to you face-to-face, of course, like any storyteller worthy of that name.[…] But, I am writing to you, since that’s my only option,’ laments Nguirane in the opening pages.

This idea of people and stories being forced into frameworks that don’t serve them is a central theme. Time and again, we encounter characters who are obliged to work against their nature and interests, both in terms of the contemporary political system, their own identities and Senegal’s colonial history. ‘Our chains are in our heads, you see,’ cart driver Ousmane Sow tells Nguirane.

With plain speaking often impossible, satire and allegory are the order of the day. Revelling in a mischievousness that once again draws strongly on the oratorical daring of West Africa’s griots, Diop creates a corrupt fictional president, Daour Diagne, only to substitute him with another fictional figure, Dibi-Dibi, who, we are told, will stand in for the former. The implication is clear: by making so much of the fictional figure and its double, Diop is inviting us to draw parallels with Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s actual president at the time of the novel’s writing. The double substitution underscores this, while seeming to deny any comparison, thereby emphasising  the threat to free expression that Diop – co-founder of Senegal’s first independent daily newspaper – is keen to highlight. Similar techniques are at work when it comes to Europeans and colonial figures, with monkeys often standing in to bear the brunt of the bitterest truths.

And this is only the start – there are layers within layers in this book. As Wülfing-Leckie explains, many of the incidents and walk-on characters bring with them a train of associations and references to other African novels and key cultural figures. The articulateness of the cart driver Ousmane Sow, for example, is unsurprising when you realise that he is intended to represent the celebrated author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

The genius of this novel, however, is that it does not require you to know any of this to be thoroughly engrossed. The writing is so good – rendered in an accessible, conversational and witty register, with sporadic flights into breathtaking lyricism, by Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop – that it sweeps you along regardless of who or where you are. The storytelling – fractured, thrawn and divorced from its natural framework as it is – keeps the pages flying. Unlike so many clever novels that use their references as barriers to keep out the hoi polloi, this book opens the door to a rich world of ideas and invites the reader in. Marvellous.

Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French/Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State University Press, 2016)

Picture by Toon van Dijk on flickr.com

Tips for reading outside your comfort zone

The makeup of bookshelves is changing. Since my 2012 quest to read a book from every country, it’s been great to see many of the nations that had no literature commercially available in English translation back then becoming represented in the world’s most-published language, as well as many other wonderful books being brought to an increasingly enthusiastic anglophone readership.

This year, that much-needed expansion of many people’s reading looks set to accelerate. In response to the #BlackLivesMatter protests that spread around the globe in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the US, there has been a lot of discussion about diversifying the voices we listen to and the texts we read. Social media has been full of lists of must-read books by writers of colour (including this excellent resource put together by award-winning translator Jennifer Croft), and many people have declared their intention to broaden their cultural intake and seek out works by people from demographics that have traditionally been marginalised in anglophone publishing.

I think this is a great thing. Having discovered how transformative reading books from a multiplicity of communities and perspectives can be during my quest, I am keen to encourage everybody to read widely because I am convinced that sharing stories is one of the most powerful tools we human beings have for fostering understanding, empathy and cooperation across cultural, political, racial, religious, social and geographical divides.

But I’m also aware that reading outside your comfort zone can be challenging. If you’re only used to absorbing certain kinds of stories told in a familiar range of ways (which is what the mainstream anglophone publishing industry – for all the great books it boasts – has tended to produce), it is daunting to try to tackle a novel from an unfamiliar tradition. What if you don’t get it? Or it’s too much like hard work? What if you have to spend half your time looking things up? What if the emotional passages leave you cold and the jokes go over your head?

With this in mind (and as a companion to the blogging guide I wrote at the start of lockdown), I’ve put together a list of some tips for approaching books from unfamiliar traditions gleaned from more than eight years of wide-ranging international literary exploration:

  • Get comfortable with not knowing If you read a book by someone from a community you don’t know well, you are likely to encounter unfamiliar concepts. There may be vocabulary you don’t know or references that you cannot place. There may be symbolism that you can’t unpick or don’t even realise is there. This can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that you should put the book down. Just as it’s possible to enjoy a television drama even if you miss the odd scene, so you can get a lot out of a novel that you don’t follow perfectly. If the writing is good, the story should sweep you along and you may well find that it answers many of your questions along the way.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable If you read books by people with markedly different beliefs and perspectives to your own, you are going to be challenged. Sometimes – as I found with the many less-than-flattering presentations of the British Empire I have encountered in literature from elsewhere – this may prompt you to re-evaluate your views. On other occasions – as happened to me when characters in several of the novels from countries where homosexuality is illegal expressed homophobic sentiments as though they were universal truths – you will be offended. We all have to decide for ourselves what we’re prepared to entertain and it’s up to you whether you throw a book down in outrage, but I think there can be value in seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of those we disagree with, especially when we’re not quite the reader the author imagines us to be.
  • Get comfortable with making mistakes You’re going to get things wrong. You’re going to misunderstand. You’re going to mispronounce. Sometimes, you’re going to miss the point. At least at first and probably for a long time after that. It’s all right. Discovering that you don’t know something is an opportunity. It’s what you do about it that counts.
  • Be curious There’s no shame in ignorance, but there is shame in complacency. If your reading leads you to discover a blind spot in your thinking, you owe it to yourself to try to address this. It’s not always easy. It can be tiring. And you may find that the path it leads you down takes you some distance from the person you were when you picked up that book. But the view from your new vantage-point will probably be better.
  • Beware knee-jerk reactions It’s a human trait to dismiss as flawed things we don’t understand. In the case of literature from other communities, the instinctive response that something is bad may simply indicate that a technique is unfamiliar to us or point out a glitch in our thinking. Many great novels have been panned by those who don’t know how to read them. If you find yourself taking against a book that has made it through the bottleneck of international publishing to be one of the relatively few titles translated into English each year (or one of the relatively few titles by writers of colour published annually), ask yourself if there may not in fact be something lacking in your own reading. If you’re not sure, give the book the benefit of the doubt.
  • Stay critical Guarding against knee-jerk reactions doesn’t mean you have to switch off your critical faculties. It simply means that you criticise your own responses as well as the book. There are some bad translated books out there. (I’ve read a few of them.) Even great books usually have problems and, as a reader, you are entitled to call them out. You are also entitled not to like things that everyone else agrees are brilliant.
  • Beware cross-cultural parallels When we encounter something new, it’s natural to try to find comparable things in our recollections and experiences. If you have studied literature, you will probably have been encouraged to make connections between texts. However, such impulses should be treated with caution when it comes to books from unfamiliar traditions. While they may be valid in some cases, they may also impose assumptions and frameworks that are alien to the work in question and produce a warped reading as a result. If you find yourself thinking that a book from elsewhere reminds you of the writing of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton, for example, notice the observation but don’t let it dominate to the point that it takes over.
  • Treat explanatory material with caution Footnotes and introductions in books from elsewhere can be very helpful in illuminating some of the things most anglophone readers may not know. But they can also be boring, distracting and – in the worst cases – downright wrongheaded (witness the introductory note to the 18th-century translation of The Koran on my bookshelf, in which the translator describes the religious work as a ‘forgery’ and explains that helping Christians find ways to convert Muslims was his motivation for bringing the work into English). My general policy is to leave extraneous material until last (if at all) and to consult footnotes sparingly. Make up your own mind about a book before you allow someone else to tell you what to think.
  • Go at your own pace Faster is rarely better when it comes to reading. On balance, you’ll probably get a lot more from immersing yourself in a handful of texts than skimming thousands.
  • Enjoy yourself You’re a reader, not a martyr. If a book is making you miserable (and not in a good way), put it down. Life is full of enough challenges without making reading a chore. Instead, follow your inclinations. If you like crime novels, start expanding your reading that way – try ‘sunshine noir’, as I once heard Afrikaans author Deon Meyer describe African thrillers, or take a trip through some of the troubling police novels of Latin America. You’ll probably find that, in time, this leads you to other kinds of books as your comfort zone expands to cover more and more of the world’s extraordinary stories.

Photo © Steve Lennon

Book of the month: Bogdan Teodorescu

Translators can often be great guides to interesting new books. Once you get into reading literature originally written in languages other than English, the names of the people who bring it into your mother tongue start to surface – shyly at first, from flyleaves and afterwords more often than book covers – in your awareness.

The more you read, the more you get a sense for the sort of projects a particular translator tends to work on. Just as publishing houses and imprints become known for producing certain kinds of books, so individual translators (who often act as scouts and activists, persuading publishers to acquire books they might otherwise not hear of or might hesitate to bring to the English market) often exhibit a certain consistency of track record that makes their name a kind of endorsement.

These days when I receive news of a novel by an author I’ve never heard of, discovering that the English version is by a translator whose work I have enjoyed in the past can often be the deciding factor that makes me turn to the first page.

So when I heard that one of the book bloggers I most respect, Marina Sofia, was working on a translation from her native Romanian, I was intrigued. All the more so when I learned that the novel was the first publication from newly minted Corylus Books, an outfit that, as it states on its website, aims ‘to take a chance on presenting some of the great European crime fiction that wouldn’t normally make its way into English’.

What was it about Bogdan Teodorescu’s Sword, I wondered, that had convinced a prolific and discerning reader and a new publisher to throw their weight behind it?

Difference is certainly one of its selling points. Although the premise of a serial killer leaving a trail of bodies across the Romanian underworld sounds conventional enough and the first chapter dutifully delivers a corpse for the reader to ponder, the similarities between this novel and the crime fiction with which most English speakers will be familiar end there.

Instead of the graphic, action-packed thriller such books usually provide in the anglophone world, the narrative moves through a series of meetings, phone calls and media broadcasts in which politicians, journalists and bureaucrats weigh up the political implications of a murderer targeting the nation’s much-maligned Roma community. Rather than providing a central figure – usually an emotionally damaged detective – to accompany us through the twists and turns of the plot, the novel sweeps us past a large cast of characters, many of whom have very few distinguishing features. And in place of dwelling on the tribulations of the killer’s human victims, the book presents Romania itself as the hostage whose fate hangs in the balance.

There are striking stylistic, pacing and structural differences too. Dialogue makes up the vast majority of the book, with many pages given over to political speeches and debates. Whole chapters go by without more than a handful of sentences of description. Although the actions of the killer are extreme and brutal (and are captured with powerful economy on several occasions), these account for a tiny proportion of the narrative: most scenes concern men in suits arguing with one another.

This makes for a surprising and sometimes challenging read. With the sort of action-based suspense that keeps the pages turning in many anglophone thrillers largely absent, the book has an oddly static feel. Sometimes, it almost seems as though readers have been left with reams of raw, unedited footage to sift through and shape for themselves.

However, for those willing to read in this way, the novel offers other kinds of intrigue. The preoccupations, prejudices and corruption of Romania’s ruling elite are laid bare as the players work the levers of power and try to turn the increasingly alarming events to their advantage. With a satirical directness that few British writers attempt, Teodorescu lampoons the self-serving nature of those ruining his nation. (That said, I was sure I could see Marina Sofia smiling to herself when at one stage she opted for the phrase ‘the nasty party’ – an appellation that has been associated with the UK’s Conservative party since Theresa May uttered it in 2002.)

It’s also fascinating and thought-provoking to see discrimination and racism handled in a rather different manner to the way in which such issues are usually discussed in the anglophone media. In addition, the much more global perspective that drives many of the Romanian politicians’ domestic decisions, most of which are taken with half an eye on how they might be construed in the West, is illuminating. Reading about these things, which are so rarely portrayed in English, feels like gaining privileged access to a world from which we would normally be excluded.

Sword doesn’t deliver what its cover and title may lead many anglophone readers to expect. I am sure there will be people who will be disappointed by this book. For those willing to set their expectations aside, however, the novel offers a surprising, urgent and little-heard story, told in a voice that English speakers may have to learn to listen to properly.

Sword (Spada) by Bogdan Teodorescu, translated from the Romanian by Marina Sofia (Corylus Books, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bucharest Parliament Building-4’ by John6536 on flickr.com

Book of the month: Elvira Dones

My latest Book of the month came out of a conversation on Twitter in which I and a number of other people were asked for suggestions of books by women from rarely translated countries in south-east Europe. As usually happens in such situations, I learnt far more than I contributed. There were a number of fascinating suggestions, including the delightfully sour short story collection My Husband by Rumena Bužarovska, translated from the Macedonian by Paul Filev.

One title, however, got particularly enthusiastic recommendations: Sworn Virgin by the Albanian writer and documentary maker Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (and made into a film in 2015 – see the trailer above). These were further strengthened by the quote on the cover of the e-version I bought, an endorsement from Albania’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting, Ismail Kadare.

Drawing on a tradition still alive in the north of the country, where blood feuds sometimes wipe out a family’s men (a situation memorably depicted in Kadare’s Broken April), the novel follows one woman caught up in the consequences of this brutal situation as she attempts to reclaim her identity. After years of living as a sworn virgin – a status that grants a woman the rights and protections of a man in return for chastity so that they may take on the patriarchal role in a household devoid of men (explored in a series of striking portraits by photographer Jill Peters) – 35-year-old Hana/Mark leaves her small village for the suburbs of Washington DC. There, living with her sister Lila, she finally has the chance to shrug off the expectations and duties that have weighed on her and explore the femininity she has been forced to deny for so long.

The fact of the novel being built around Hana/Mark’s escape to the US makes it an excellent candidate for translation. As Hana is obliged to explain herself to those she becomes close to, the challenge of elucidating the little-known and complex tradition that has warped her adulthood is overcome relatively easily. Like so many of the most successful novels to travel around the world, the story acts as a bridge, connecting a lesser known culture (to Western minds at least) with more widely familiar, anglophone ways of looking at the world.

The insights that come from this are fascinating. This is particularly true of the book’s treatment of gender identity, which feels startlingly different to the conversations around gender fluidity that have become relatively familiar in the English-speaking world in recent years. Far from something she has embraced gladly, Hana’s male identity, Mark, is ‘a product of her iron will’. Her masculinity is something that she has worked at grimly and resolutely, drinking and smoking heavily and aping male behaviour until even male thought patterns are ingrained in her – ‘It must be a woman thing,’ she tells herself when Lila does something she can’t explain. In the face of such extreme self-denial, her faltering attempts to find her way into her own femininity and sexuality are as moving as they are painful.

The broader insights into rural Albanian society that come through Hana’s recollections are equally compelling. Against the backdrop of a rigid world in which women are ‘made to serve and have children’ and where the young Hana thought nothing of carrying a knife to protect herself from rape when she travelled alone, the decision to eschew your gender and don the mantle of masculinity for strategic reasons ceases to seem quite so strange.

Dones and Botsford’s greatest achievement is taking readers into the emotional implications of the novel’s extraordinary events, often while using language very sparingly. With reticence and silence playing a huge role in conservative Albanian society, words often have to be as muscular and ruthless as the people they describe. The best instances of this are extremely powerful. ‘There are wolves out there, my daughter. This place is full of wolves,’ Hana’s beloved and ailing Uncle Gjergj tells her when she proposes going to fetch the medicine he needs. They both know he is not talking about animals.

All that being said, there are problems with Sworn Virgin. Although elements of Hana’s journey are deeply engrossing, there are less successful parts that feel underdeveloped and thin. Her relationship with the patient American who sits next to her on the plane ride over, for example, never quite comes to life and feels more like a device needed to help demonstrate the protagonist’s progress than a living, true part of the book. Similarly, there are some stilted sections and conversations that appear sketched in rather than fully fleshed out.

As the title implies, Hana remains a representative of her unusual social group and never quite makes the transition to being a fully rounded character. This may be a deliberate choice and a reflection of the emotional stuntedness to which her situation has subjected her, but it could also reveal the difficulty that can come from letting a single issue sit too prominently in a narrative, to the point that characters’ actions become largely tools to explore and elucidate it rather than organic happenings.

As a result, this is a book that is probably more important than it is lovable. But it is nonetheless very much worth the price of admission. Brave, imaginative and thought-provoking, like the best of literature, this novel will require readers to reimagine not only a part of the world about which they may know very little but also their own assumptions.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, 2015)

Book of the month: Nino Haratischvili

In the UK, just before the Covid-19 lockdown came into force (an experience I have begun documenting on a new blog), there was a book-buying boom. Forced with the prospect of staying at home for weeks or even months, many people decided to stockpile reading matter. They favoured long reads, from contemporary tomes by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Hanya Yanagihara to epic classics by Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot.

I have another suggestion for those looking for lengthy, quality novels to add to their lists. Tipping the scales at around 940 pages, Hamburg-based Georgian author Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life: (for Brilka), which has won multiple awards and is longlisted for the Booker International Prize, is a formidable text. Its subject matter is equally weighty, for it takes in 20th-century Georgian and Russian history, depicting the events of more than a hundred years through the lives of several generations of a single family.

The reading experience itself is far from heavy, however. Framed as an exploration of family history written by the grudging Niza, who is co-opted into recovering her niece, Brilka, after she tries to run away to Vienna, the book surprises with its playfulness and ingenuity.

This playfulness takes many forms. There are the structural games that see the reader offered multiple beginnings and teased with hints at events that may not unfold for hundreds of pages. There is the blending in of elements of the fantastic, most notably in the form of the devilishly addictive hot-chocolate, the recipe for which is only passed to select family members on account of the belief that it curses those who taste it. There is the frequent subversion of expectations, whereby characters defy their stereotypes, with the old proving to be much sturdier, the beautiful much more ugly, and the strong much weaker than their outward appearances suggest. There is plenty of humour too, at least in the early stages.

Humour in writing, particularly humour that carries through translation (credit here to Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins), is often a sign that a writer has a sharp eye. This is certainly true of Haratischvili. The book teams with insights and observations about how we humans work that readers everywhere will recognise, making us feel deeply connected to the story.

This is a powerful tool because much of the history presented here will be unfamiliar to many English-language readers. As I found with several of the eastern European books I encountered during my 2012 quest to read the world (among them my Latvian and Armenian titles), exploring books from countries that have had little literature translated into English reveals how partial the prevailing anglophone understanding of political events is. In the case of the 20th century, the British involvement in the First and Second World Wars – and the subsequent focus on the fighting in Western Europe in history teaching and memorialisation – seems to have constructed a mental wall down central Europe, beyond which few people in this country look.

Haratischvili smashes through this barrier. She forces us to feel the personal consequences of Stalin’s reign of terror, Soviet brutality, the War in Abkhazia and the Sukhumi massacre.

In this, the novel’s length assists her. It takes so long to read that, by the time we reach the end, the events of the early volumes – kept alive in our minds by carefully deployed repetitions and references – have passed into our long-term memory. It is as though we, too, have lived through them, been changed by them and are now looking back on them with wiser eyes.

The book is a little patchy. There are some tropes that do not land quite as I suspect the author hopes (the carpet-weaving metaphor wheeled out in the opening chapters to describe the business of storymaking, for example, feels a little tired). There also seems to be some (possibly cultural) discrepancy between the things that Haratischvili feels needs stating and the things an anglophone author might leave implicit in the text. This has the effect of making some of the observations sound a little obvious or unnecessary. Occasionally, the writing is also a little stagey.

But bof! This is nitpicking. The point is: read this book. If you’re cooped up at home at the moment, this novel will provide some much-needed escapism. It will engross and absorb you. It will teach you many things. By the time you emerge, the world may be changed but so will you.

The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tbilisi Old Town’ by Richard on flickr.com

A literary explorer’s guide to blogging

In October 2011, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and started this blog. I didn’t know it then, but the website would change my life.

The original quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year turned out to be mind-blowing in ways I’d never anticipated: it reconfigured my imagination, reading and writing, and brought me into contact with authors, translators and readers around the globe. What’s more, the international following this blog received initiated a stream of thrilling invitations and opportunities that continues to this day.

Highlights from the past eight years include speaking at TED Global and the launch of my career as a published author, now with three books to my name.

With much of the world on lockdown for the foreseeable future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it strikes me that many people might use the time at home to start a blog. As such, I thought I’d share some tips gleaned from my experience. Feel free to add yours at the end!

  • Choose an obvious name It can be tempting to be funny or clever with website titles. That’s fine if you’re setting up something just for yourself, but if you want to create a site that will appeal to a broad range of people, you need to make sure that no-one feels excluded by in-jokes that don’t translate. A simple, clear name that gives some idea of what your blog’s about is good. It also means that if someone searches for your subject area, your site will have a chance of featuring in the results.
  • Be specific There are hundreds of millions of blogs out there and an awful lot of them are brain dumps. Again, that’s fine if you’re just looking to make a site for your amusement (and of course there are some blogs like this that draw huge numbers of readers), but if you’re keen to develop something with greater reach, this approach will make it harder for your website to find an audience, at least at first. A better strategy is to pick a specific interest, goal, or issue and focus on that. You can always broaden out further down the line.
  • Keep it simple It’s possible to spend hours and a lot of money on designing your blog (and most platforms offer technical guides and support with using their tools – also, often, for a fee). However, my advice would be to avoid unnecessary embellishments – at least until you have more of an idea of whether blogging is going to become a habit. Select a basic template and start drafting your first post. Use (properly credited) pictures to illustrate your posts if you have them, but don’t worry about sticking to text if no obvious illustrations suggest themselves. If you want, you can add more images and upgrade the site once you’ve got a better idea of what works and how people use it.
  • Start small When you launch a blog, it can be tempting to contact everyone you know and tell them to check it out immediately. Indeed, this is what I did when I published my first AYORTW post in October 2011. If you’re not launching a project that needs participation, however, try to resist this urge, at least for a few days. Even if your subject matter and approach is clear in your mind, it’s likely that it will take a little time for the tone and format to settle. Be prepared for a few lonely days when you hardly get any clicks and make getting some good, consistent posts in place your first focus, so that, when the readers do flood in, they’ll have plenty of great content to enjoy.
  • Be boundaried Think carefully about how much of your information you want to give away on your blog. If you’re writing about sensitive or personal subjects, you might want to consider anonymising references to the people in your life or even giving yourself a pseudonym. One of the earliest ever blooks (blogs-turned-into-books), the now-defunct Diary of a London Call Girl, took this approach with great success.
  • Keep it accessible The language of the internet is informal and conversational. If your blog takes off, it will get readers from around the world, many of whom may not speak fluent English. As a result, it’s best to avoid unnecessarily complicated expressions and to explain references that may not be obvious to everyone.
  • Edit obsessively Conversational does not mean sloppy. The best writing often reads simply but communicates complex ideas. It has precision and power. In most cases, this comes from painstaking reworking. I’m a big fan of reading aloud. Once I have a complete draft of a post, I always read the whole thing out. It’s amazing what your ear catches.
  • Credit borrowed content properly Lots of people don’t do it, but I think it’s important to credit any images or other elements you use that are still in copyright and weren’t created by you. (You should also make sure that the picture in question has an appropriate Creative Commons licence, which you can filter for on photo sites such as flickr.com.)
  • Be kind to yourself Even with meticulous editing, reading aloud and double-checking, you are going to make mistakes. In my time, I have published posts about the non-existent countries of Dijibouti and Cormoros. I have misspelled writers’ names and made countless other slips. It feels awful when you realise you’ve messed up like this (and, if you’re unlucky, someone out there will leap on it as an opportunity to give you a good kicking). But try not to worry about it. As my time sub-editing for newspapers and magazines has taught me, not even the best writers are immune to bloopers. And at least with a blog, you have the opportunity to correct your mistakes after you’ve hit ‘Publish’.
  • Have a policy on changing published posts One of the lovely things about blogging is that it is an extremely forgiving medium. If you spot a typo or a missing word once a post goes live, it is easy to fix the mistake. I don’t think there’s any issue with correcting technical slips like this. The journalist in me, however, does have a bit of a problem with changing the argument or factual written content of posts after publication without being clear about what you’ve done. I think we bloggers have a duty to be transparent about what we publish and so, if I have to alter the content of something I’ve written after I have pushed it live, I will add a note explaining what I have changed. An example is the entry I wrote describing how I decided which countries my year of reading the world would involve: midway through 2012, I altered the list to include Palestine, so I changed the post accordingly and added a sentence in bold at the end to explain this.
  • Accept that not everyone will like your stuff I’ve been incredibly lucky that almost every interaction I’ve  had as a result of this project has been positive. All the same, it’s inevitable that when you put yourself out there in the way blogging requires, some people won’t like it. When you get unpleasant feedback, bear in mind that some of it will be valid (and will give you an opportunity to improve what you do). Some of it, however, will say more about the person who wrote the comment than about your blog. It might take a while to work out which category applies, so resist the urge to fire off a barbed response until you’ve had a bit of time to process what you’d like to say. If nothing else, a nasty comment is evidence that what you’ve written has made an impact.
  • Feel free to ignore me It’s your project, after all. The joy of a blog is that it’s your own free space to do with as you wish. Who am I to tell you how to arrange yours?
  • Have fun If this blogging thing takes off, you could be doing it for a long time, so you might as well enjoy it!

I’m trying to take my own advice at the moment because, nearly nine years since I launched this site, I have just started a new blog project. It’s still at a very early stage and I’ve no idea how it will develop, but if you’d like to take a look, I’d be delighted to know what you think.

Book of the month: Fernanda Melchor

Mexican stories have been much in the news in recent weeks. The controversy that blew up around US author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt brought questions of authenticity and who decides which voices are heard in an industry skewed strongly in favour of white, anglophone authors to the forefront of many booklovers’ minds.

As often happens in such situations, the debate pitted two issues connected with freedom of expression against each other: the right of all communities to be heard and to speak for themselves versus the right of individual artists to allow their imaginations to venture into whatever territory they wish to explore.

This is not an easy conflict to resolve. However, it is problematic to make one title the battleground for such far-reaching concerns. Just as writers rarely, if ever, set out to speak on behalf of their nation, ethnicity or other demographic markers, so single novels are hardly ever designed to carry the weight of such issues. It is unfortunate that the way many big publishers and the mainstream media deal with books (giving a handful of titles 90 per cent of the attention and focus) means that these conversations usually remain reactionary and tied to specific events rather than opening up into more thoughtful, meaningful debates.

One positive thing that did come out of the furore, however, was a series of tweets from translators and other Latin American literature aficionados sharing titles by Mexican writers that deserve more attention. As they pointed out, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Favourite names in the frame included Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) and Brenda Lozano’s Loop (translated by Annie McDermott) – all of which, I heartily second.

For my money, however, there is one recent Mexican book that stands in a class of its own: Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. Set in motion by the discovery of the body of an ambiguous figure known as ‘The Witch’ in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of the impoverished village of La Matosa, this whirlwind of a novel rampages through an entire community, blowing back curtains, breaking down walls and cracking open skulls to lay bare the secrets within.

Each chapter focuses on the experiences of a different person, plunging into their fears and rifling their memories to reveal the steps that led to the savage killing at the book’s heart. Circling around and around, often rehearsing the same incidents several times in different words, the narrative smashes together intimacy and violence, beauty and filth, creating an accretion of details that coheres into a compelling and disturbing exploration of scapegoating and the legacy of abuse.

The urgency of the subject matter is mirrored stylistically. Each chapter forms a single block of text, often containing sentences that run for a page or more, and, although each one represents a particular characters’ experiences, the narrative perspective swings like a ceiling light in a gale, illuminating now the interior monologue of the character in focus, now the voices of the community, now prejudices internalised below the level of conscious thought. Occasionally, it even casts its glare on the reader, who is at points a bystander, gossip, police officer or other player in the action.

This approach is extremely risky – and in lesser writers’ hands it would be a mess. However, with Melchor and Hughes, the writing pulses with energy. The chaos comes from the sort of virtuosity that arises from painstaking effort; the force and bluster is the result of laser precision.

But the reader is expected to work too. The book is unapologetic in its demands. In addition to assigning the reader roles at various points, it requires intense concentration. The dense weave of the chapters does not support dipping in and out. Distractions must be put aside.

And you can forget about being babied. With song lyrics kept in Spanish and cultural references left largely unexplained, this is not a text that comes meekly to the reader but one that requires its audience to meet it on its own territory, ready or not.

The same goes for the subject matter. This is one of the most explicit books I have read. To me, it never feels gratuitous – indeed, one of its greatest achievements is the way that the events are so richly imagined that Melchor and Hughes manage to take us into extreme mindsets (from murderous frenzies and rank bigotry to fantasies involving bestiality) and show the mechanisms by which love and vulnerability can be sublimated into such things. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, for some readers, this will be too much.

I don’t expect this will do anything to impede Hurricane Season‘s progress to the lasting success it richly deserves, however. It contains that rare energy and vitality that now and then power a story far beyond its beginnings and into the collective imagination. The day I finished reading it, I heard that it had been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. I have a feeling it won’t stop there.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Photo: ‘The Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Carl Campbell on flickr.com

Book of the month: Zeruya Shalev

January’s featured read came onto my radar by means of following some threads of recommendations from translators on Twitter – a fabulous source of fresh suggestions for those keen to venture further afield in their reading. It had been a while since I’d read a novel originally written in Hebrew and so when Sondra Silverston’s translation of bestselling author Israeli Zeruya Shalev’s Pain came up in conversation, I was quick to check it out.

The premise appealed to me. The orderly existence of middle-aged, married school principal Iris is thrown into disarray when, ten years after she was injured in a bus bomb, she bumps into her childhood sweetheart, who is now a pain specialist at the hospital where she goes for treatment. What follows pits the joys and suffering of the past against the problems of the present, unfolding a compulsive examination of identity, love and the factors that dictate our choices.

Shalev and Silverston’s writing is at its finest when handling subjects with universal, and sometimes even primal, resonance. First love, physical pain and the bickering that attends family life all receive deft treatment. Indeed, the descriptions of Iris’s feelings for her first boyfriend, Eitan, and her nostalgia for the passion they discovered together are so sumptuous and powerful as to assume a timeless, almost mythic quality. It is no surprise to learn that Shalev has a master’s in bible studies, for this novel is studded with heady descriptions of romantic love that would not feel out of place in the Song of Songs.

This is, nevertheless, a novel rooted in a specific location. With the legacy of Iris’s bus-bomb injuries playing a pivotal role in the plot and numerous references to the fear that stalks Israeli mothers of teenage sons who will one day be drafted into a national service that may cost them their lives, the reader is never allowed to forget the pressure that international politics exerts on citizens of Jerusalem. To readers from elsewhere, the universal quality of much of Shalev’s storytelling may make these details all the more striking, coming as they do in the midst of scenes that often feel so recognisable that they might be happening in the neighbouring house.

One of the novel’s most powerful aspects is its exploration of the multi-valency and fallibility of perspective, particularly in relationships that have spanned many years. ‘How mysterious another person’s brain is, even more mysterious than the future,’ reflects the narrative voice early in the book, and in many ways, this is a neat summation of the central theme. Even Iris’s thoughts – to which we often have access – are presented as riddles, swerving abruptly from one course to another, and full of contrariness and inconsistencies of which she is rarely conscious.

The present moment, in Shalev’s hands, is a constantly shifting mirage and the world is a mirror in which we recognise elements that reflect our emotional state. The same street may by turns seem threatening or friendly. A loved one’s foible may be maddening one moment and endearing the next. And these reactions will usually tell us far more about the mental state of the person experiencing them than about the people or places they are observing.

At times, these abrupt reversals can make the reading experience itself challenging. This is particularly true of the second half of the book, in which Iris’s incipient love affair is forced to take a back seat to her quest to rescue her teenage daughter from exploitation. Although this section is compelling in its own right, it fails to match the intensity and urgency of the first half of the book, with the result that the resolution falls a little short of the mark Shalev seems to want to hit. In addition, although much of the writing is beautiful, certain descriptions teeter on the verge of the grotesque or contain a directness that rings oddly in English. There are also a number of instances of characters deferring conversations or making erratic decisions seemingly to serve the plot rather than themselves.

The novel is strong enough to weather these storms, however. At its best, the writing is world class, taking readers into the mind of someone living a very different existence and enabling them to believe her experiences could be theirs.

Pain by Zeruya Shalev, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Other Press, 2019)

Picture: ‘Jerusalem’ by ilirjan rrumbullaku on flickr.com

A library visit

Libraries have been going through a tough time in the UK in recent years. In the last decade, more than 700 have closed, with scores of others under threat because of funding cuts. As I write, a high-profile, author-led campaign is under way to fight plans to shut 14 libraries in Hampshire, the county in which Jane Austen was born and lived for most of her life.

Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about why places where people can gather to access books for free are vital. Their role in stretching the human imagination and changing lives is a recurring theme in stories around the planet. From Roald Dahl’s Matilda to Tayeb Salih’s Mustafa Sa’eed, literature abounds with characters shaped by hours spent in public spaces lined with books.

However, this week, I got a powerful, practical reminder of why these places matter when I took up an invitation to speak to Sandgate library book club.

The only library in Kent to be managed by a parish council on behalf of the county council, Sandgate library sits a street away from the English Channel on the UK’s south coast. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who make it possible to offer longer opening hours and a regular programme of events.

Chief among the volunteers is retired teacher Liz, who I know from the regular Read and Rhyme sessions my daughter and I have attended. Liz also runs the book club and, when she discovered I was a writer, she very kindly put my novel Beside Myself on the schedule and invited me along some months later to talk to the group.

I arrived a little early to find the members – all women and most retired – engaged in a lively discussion of their latest read, which the librarian had ordered in from libraries across the county to ensure that everyone had a copy.

Each took it in turns to share her assessment, finishing with a mark out of ten that averaged out to around 5. (I resisted the temptation to ask what Beside Myself had scored when it was up for discussion some months before.)

The comments were refreshingly frank. Although the novel under examination was by a celebrated household name, the members – quite rightly – had no compunction in calling out passages that had bored, irritated or baffled them, alongside sharing the aspects they had enjoyed.

After this, it was my turn. Following an introduction from Liz, I launched into an informal talk about my year of reading the world and novel writing, answering questions as they arose. The discussion was warm and friendly. We covered some familiar ground, including several of the topics listed in the FAQs on this site, as well as some more unusual queries to do with the writing process I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to turn a school essay into a novel before!

The hour was up in no time. Before I knew it, a get-well-soon card for an absent member was circulating for people to sign, and we were shrugging on our coats and saying our goodbyes.

What lasted much longer – and will no doubt outlive the beautiful bunch of flowers the book club gave me as a thank you for my visit was the sense of welcome that surrounded the library. A thriving centre for friendship, shared interests and fun in this little village on the edge of the land. A precious community built around books.

Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.