How much do Arabic speakers read?

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This week I had the great honour of being one of the speakers at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai. It was the third annual conference organised by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) to champion the sharing of expertise across borders. I was one of more than 60 speakers brought together from all over the planet to debate a range of issues, challenges and opportunities facing the world today.

The subject of my panel was a tough one: ‘Future Foresight – Against Ideological Extremism’. Alongside presentations from several other distinguished speakers – including Ambassador Theodore Kattouf and Dr Jawad Anani, the Jordanian deputy prime minister for economic affairs – I spoke about the potential of reading and storytelling to build bridges across ideological divides and to help us recognise and celebrate our common humanity.

As it turned out, I was not the only speaker at the conference extolling the virtues of books. On the second day, in the hour or so before I had to leave for the airport, I managed to attend a session on ‘The future of reading in the Arab world’. This discussion saw speakers including Dr Najoua Ghriss, professor at the Higher Institute of Education and Continuous Training in Tunisia, and His Excellency Jamal Bin Huwaireb, managing director of the MBRF and cultural adviser to the government of Dubai, presenting the results of the Arab Reading Index 2016.

Driven by the foundation’s belief in reading as a great tool for cultural exchange and enlightenment, the ARI set out to test a rather shocking claim: that Arabic speakers read for an average of just six minutes a year. Incredulous that this could be the case, the MBRF in partnership with the UNDP carried out the most wide-reaching survey of reading habits the Arab world has ever seen.

Around 148,000 people responded across 22 countries. The results showed a clear challenge to the common assumption that, as Jamal Bin Huwaireb said publishing professionals had often told him at international book fairs, ‘Arabs don’t read.’ In fact, according to the ARI, Arabic speakers read for an average of 35 hours a year, with people in Egypt reading for 64 hours annually, as compared to countries with much lower reading rates, like Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros.

The revelations didn’t stop there. Exploring the types and format of reading material popular among respondents, the survey showed that social media and news websites account for a sizeable chunk of the written words Arabic-language readers consume and that ebooks win out over print volumes.

Jamal Bin Huwaireb put this last point down to the low print runs and the relatively high cost of physical books in the region. He appealed to publishers to do more to make books accessible for all readers.

‘Publishing houses are not performing their responsibility,’ he said. ‘If not enough copies of a book are published, and we don’t increase those [numbers] and make the price suitable, it means that the coverage of a book is not enough.’

All the panellists agreed that, although 35 hours of reading was in a different league to 6 minutes a year, there was still a long way to go. For Dr Ghriss, some of the challenges ahead involved finding ways to support families in instilling reading as a habit in children and ensuring that the quality of the texts people consume is good. She hoped that further analysis of the data would help her and colleagues to develop suitable strategies, in addition to the initiatives already under way, among them new laws to help encouraging reading in schools and in the workplace, and the development of the Dubai E-library.

This was important, she said, because reading was a vital tool for the social and economic development of nations. ‘We can’t envision a community or society acquiring knowledge without being a reading community,’ she said.

I left for the airport feeling encouraged. At a time of funding cuts for many arts organisations closer to home, it was inspiring to see a government putting such emphasis on the importance of the written word and its potential to advance and enrich people’s lives.

As I know well from my year of reading the world and from excellent blogs such as Arabic Literature (in English), the Arabic language has a wealth of wonderful homegrown stories. I hope initiatives such as ARI mean that even more readers discover them.

Would you like to receive a book chosen by me in 2017? Enter Postcards from my bookshelf now!

Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

Turkmen book published in English

the-tale-of-aypi-72dpiI’m often contacted by fellow literary explorers keen to know if the unpublished books I read during my quest are now available so that they can read them too.

Sadly, I frequently have to answer no: the manuscript translations I read from the Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, are still unpublished. And although I have heard from several publishers interested in bringing out an English-language version of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi, an anglophone text is yet to appear.

However, there has been some good news this summer when it comes to the book I read from Turkmenistan, the whimsical novel The Tale Aypi by exiled writer Ak Welsapar. This has found an English-language home with Slavic literature press Glagoslav Publications and is on sale now.

This means that Welsapar’s novel, the first book to be translated directly from Turkmen into English, is now accessible in the world’s most-published language. Great news for its author – who lost so much when his work was blacklisted in his home nation – and for curious readers everywhere.

As such, The Tale of Aypi joins The Golden Horse, my then-unpublished Panamanian read (now available on ebook), on the anglophone global bookshelf. Let’s hope we soon see many others follow suit.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (Glagoslav Publications, 2016)

Postcards from my bookshelf (or A year of sending the world books)

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Exactly five years ago today, I did something eccentric. Sitting in my living room in south London, I decided to spend 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world.

To this end, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and posted a short appeal online asking the planet’s book lovers to suggest what I should read from different parts of the globe.

On that dank October day, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested. Yet within hours of my request going live, I had numerous comments and messages from people I’d never met offering all sorts of ideas. Just four days later, a stranger in Kuala Lumpur had volunteered to go to her local English-language bookshop to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me.

What followed was an extraordinary quest that challenged and remade me in ways I could never have imagined. It introduced me to writers and translators around the planet. It established friendships and professional connections I cherish to this day. It reshaped the way I read and write. And it taught me a huge amount about the extraordinary power stories have to connect us across geographical, political, social and religious divides. It also transformed me into a published author.

A year of reading the world changed my life. But it could never have done so without the generosity of the hundreds of book-loving strangers who went out of their way to do research, send me books, and even translate and write things specially for me from countries with no commercially available literature in English.

The project prompted the most extraordinary outpouring of altruism I have experienced.

And so, as the five-year anniversary of A year of reading the world rolls round, it seems only fitting to take a leaf out of those generous volunteers’ books and pay some of that kindness forward.

As such, this October 24, I have decided to spend next year doing another eccentric thing. Once a month throughout 2017, I will send a translated book to a stranger – a sort of postcard from my bookshelf.

You can apply to be one of the recipients by leaving a comment below. All you need to do is tell me a bit about you, the sort of things you like reading and why you want a book from me.

On the 15th day of each month I will choose one person to receive a book translated into English and use the information they have given me to select something I hope they will enjoy. I will post or courier this title to the recipient wherever they are in the world.

It would be great to hear from as many readers as possible, so please share this with anyone you think might be interested. As I discovered five years ago, the more people who get involved, the better reading the world can be.

World bookshopper: #10 Aida Books&More, Valencia

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A while ago, Miguel left the following comment on this blog:

Hi Ann,

If you ever come to Valencia (Spain), I volunteer in a second-hand bookstore called “AIDA Books & more”. It is fully run by volunteers, all books are donations and all profits go to support the projects of the charity organization AIDA. The projects are mainly focused on countries like Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh, Cambodia and more. And there are more AIDA bookstores in Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia and soon in Castellón.

You are warmly welcome!

Well, in September I spent two weeks in the city and so, one glorious afternoon when the sun shone done more warmly than we ever experience in the UK, I made my way to the shop where Miguel volunteers.

Situated north of the Jardines del Real, an offshoot of Valencia’s Jardines del Turia (one of my favourite places in the world), AIDA Books&More is in a parade of shops on the Carrer de Molinell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it if you were walking past – indeed, the trolley of books on the pavement is so casually placed that it almost looks as though it might have been left there by a passer-by.

Once you go inside, however, it’s clear that this is a place run by booklovers. There is a buzz of enthusiasm in the air, tangible even to someone with only about 20 words of Spanish like me. What’s more, the curation of the stock is impressive, with sections neatly organised.

The place is clearly popular. When I visit, numerous customers are drifting up and down the aisles and in and out of the back room, browsing to the accompaniment of music by Elton John and the Pet Shop Boys playing throughout the store.

Second-hand bookshops can provide interesting insights into the reading habits of those living nearby because much of what they sell often comes from the collections of local people looking to downsize or declutter.

If the shelves of AIDA Books&More are anything to go by, the reading tastes of Valencians are diverse and wide-ranging. Alongside an extensive fiction section, featuring Spanish and Catalan versions of numerous international favourites, as well as regional bestsellers such as novels by Andorran author Albert Salvado whose The Teacher of Cheops I read for this project, there are a lot of areas catering to niche interests.

Chess lovers will find a table of books devoted to strategies for achieving the perfect check mate; those curious about new-age philosophies and spiritualism will discover several shelves devoted to works on this. There are bookcases holding erotica and various kinds of cookery books, as well as an extensive selection of poetry and plays.

Here and there, old editions of classic works, such as Don Quixote, peer down from ledges and window sills. And for the thrifty, sale tables offer bundles of books at bargain-basement prices. For a handful of euros Javier L. Collazo’s three-volume English-Spanish Diccionario enciclopédico de términos técnicos could have been mine.

Although I assumed there would be little else that I could read in the shop, I was wrong. In the back room, I happened upon a shelf devoted to books in English, with smaller selections of books in French and German beneath.

There were some surprises here too. Although the majority of the English-language titles were mass-market crowd pleasers, with the inevitable Dan Browns and James Pattersons cropping up several times alongside offerings by Sue Townsend, CS Lewis and Rudyard Kipling, there were some more obscure works in the mix. I suspect it might be a while before S. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (volume II) finds its next home.

Among the smattering of works aimed at younger readers, I was delighted to find my childhood favourite, LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Clearly, not far away, there was a reader after my own heart.

In the end, I plumped for VS Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira, handing over the princely sum of €1 to a cheery woman at the till. She took my monosyllabic Spanish in her stride and sent me on my way with a merry smile.

I wandered back through the beautiful parks confident that if the charitable work of AIDA is carried out with anything like the enthusiasm that goes into running its bookshops, its projects are in very good hands.

Thanks for the tip-off, Miguel!

Reading the world through libraries

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Last week I had the great honour of delivering the 26th Annual Mortenson Distinguished lecture at the University of Illinois in the US. The Mortenson Center was founded through the generosity of C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, who believed that librarians sharing information is one of the shortest and surest roads to world peace.

Since 1991, the organisation has provided training to 1,300 librarians from more than 90 countries. It has also raised $2.5m-worth of grants to strengthen skills and modernize libraries. So you can imagine my delight at being asked to contribute to the final celebrations marking its first quarter-century.

The visit turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Shortly after I landed at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself sitting with a group of librarians in a Chinese restaurant. They had been attending a workshop on global studies and were full of ideas

The next morning, following a jog round campus and a brief spell going over my notes, I was picked up by Rebecca from the centre and taken to the library in which the Mortenson Center is housed.

Although the no-gun signs on the doors felt forbidding, the library was anything but. I was delighted to see a large number of students enjoying the space in the subterranean building – built that way so as not to overshadow a historic experimental corn field, one of the first of its kind.

I particularly liked the board of questions posted up for graduate researchers to answer, featuring a query as to whether Jack and Rose would both have fitted on the floating door in the film Titanic. This, along with several others, was addressed in great detail.

There was no time to ascertain the answer, however, as Rebecca whisked me off to the Mortenson Center, a small but intriguing space filled with gifts brought by many of the librarians who have visited over the years. A string of prayer flags hung over the sofa area, while a cabinet by the door of director Clara M. Chu’s office boasted ranks of trinkets, dolls, ornaments and mementos.

After lunch, the first of my events was a Chai Wai (or public dialogue) with former Mortenson Center director and author Marianna Tax Choldin. Her latest book, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia, is a compelling and moving account of her decades-long fascination with the Soviet Union and Russia, which she has visited more than 55 times over the course of her career. It considers the personal and social effects of censorship and reveals the importance of a concerted effort to understand the past.

Chaired by former American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director Barbara M. Jones, the discussion proved lively and wide-ranging, as you can see from the video of it here. Though the audience was small, there was no shortage of questions and we covered everything from the intriguing Japanese film Library Wars: The Last Mission (definitely on my to-watch list) to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic to which both Tax Choldin and I refer in our books.

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Next came the investiture of the Mortenson Center’s third director and distinguished professor, Clara M. Chu, and a celebration reception. Then it was my turn (you can watch the video of the lecture if you’d like to see how it went – my presentation starts at about 17.53).

Saturday was my last day in Illinois and Clara Chu and I spent it visiting Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, often said to be the US’s greatest president. There, alongside a welter of insights into Lincoln’s rise from lawyer to world leader, his efforts to champion the abolition of slavery, the horror of the American civil war and the pity of the great man’s assassination, I learned an interesting fact: each president has his (or perhaps one day her) own library. For every American leader, there is a small army of people sorting, ordering and safeguarding the historically significant documents associated with their time in office so that others may learn from them.

Important though books are, my visit to Illinois reminded me, they are limited without the people who organise, promote and – all too often – have to fight attempts to keep others from reading them. Librarians are at the forefront of these efforts. And as books such as Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories demonstrate, they have been essential in drawing out and shaping many an aspiring wordsmith.

This is one of the reasons why I’m also delighted to have got involved with another library-centred organisation recently. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative aims to make more resources and techniques available to librarians to help them encourage readers to explore books from around the world.

Founded this year and already numbering 345 members, the project will run workshops, produce catalogues featuring excellent translated books and suggest tactics such as pairing unfamiliar works with popular titles to help readers venture further.

‘It’s about recognition,’ says translator and publisher Rachel Hildebrandt, who founded GLLI. ‘Very often librarians know what the patrons like. It’s sometimes enough to get someone to pick up a book that they might never pull off the shelf.’

Both the Mortenson Center and GLLI are funded by donations and would appreciate any help you can give (click the links to find out more). Hopefully, soon librarians everywhere will have the tools to help anyone who wants to to read the world.

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

Farewell to the shelf

 

A week ago, almost five years after I first asked book lovers to help me read the world, I packed up the bookshelf that stored all the paper volumes I accumulated during the project. It was still arranged almost exactly as it had been when I finished my quest on December 31, 2012.

Yet last Friday everything from the massive hardback photobiography of Grace Kelly that I read for Monaco to the printout of ‘To Forgive Is Divine Not Human’, the story that Julia Duany wrote and read for me to represent her nation South Sudan, went into boxes.

I was moving out of the little south London flat in which I read the world and where, huddled at my desk in the corner, watching bin men and delivery lorries come and go out of the window, I wrote two books: Reading the World (known as The World Between Two Covers in the US) and my first novel Beside Myself.

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Packing up is a strange thing. You encounter objects that you haven’t looked at or noticed properly for a long time.

Picking up each of those books and loading them into boxes – it took four and, as you can see from the pictures, James Joyce proved particularly problematic (plus ça change) – was a touching, joyful and meditative experience.

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Handling the volumes brought to mind many of the stories of what people did to help me in my quest. Ripples and Other Stories recalled for me the generosity of Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, who chose and posted it to me from the other side of the world; the striking black cover of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta made me think of the afternoon I spent discussing author Aglaja Veteranyi’s extraordinary life and tragic death with her former partner Jens Nielsen (a conversation recorded in Reading the World).

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I remembered the many generous people who sent me unpublished manuscripts and self-published works, as well as the team of volunteers who translated a short-story collection so that I would have a book to read from São Tomé & Principe.

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I also found other things. Buried in a stack of notebooks that had languished on top of the bookcase long before the AYORTW shelf took shape, I found scraps of a diary from early 2009.

It was not a happy time for me. Having given up my job with the ambition of earning my living purely from writing and editing, I was feeling lost and very doubtful of my ability to achieve my goal. In one entry, I wrote:

A feeling of real depression, uselessness, worthlessness and rubbishness. Have I been here before? I’m not sure to this extent. I feel a fraud. Always a fraud. What can I write? I’ve spent a year twiddling with ideas, churning out words, some of which are half-decent but none of which go anywhere. […] I need to get myself out of this, prove I can do it. […] Sit down at the computer and go on through. This is getting to life and death now. Honesty, that is the key. To write something honest and fearless. […] Sit down tomorrow, brainstorm and write. Not be afraid that the chain of words will break.

 

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At the time, I couldn’t have guessed that the chain of words that would ultimately pull me out of that funk would be written not by me, but by hundreds of strangers around the world.

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It’s taken a few days, but at last I am relatively well-established in the place that will be my home for the next few months. For the first time in my life, I have my own writing room.

The AYORTW books have their own temporary shelf too. It’s rather ramshackle and constructed mostly out of packing boxes, but it has managed to stand up for 24 hours. Arranged in a different order (just imagine the exciting conversations they must be having with their new neighbours), they are staring out at me now.

They will watch as I continue with my next project, another novel. If ever the writing process gets difficult, inspiration will be close at hand.

World bookshopper: #9 The Big Comfy Bookshop, Coventry

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One of the best arguments for supporting bookshops as opposed to purely buying books online, is that they make unexpected encounters possible in a way that websites can’t. When you’re browsing most online retailer’s sites, your screen will be filled with a host of recommendations tailored to your buying history – a list of things that are like what you’ve liked before dictated by a sophisticated algorithm intended to maximise the chance that you’ll purchase another product.

In a bookshop, by contrast, as you wander from stand to stand, almost anything can catch your eye. You might go in looking for the latest bestselling thriller and come out with a memoir by a Norwegian lumberjack, or cross the threshold in search of a present for a friend and re-emerge half an hour later with a previously unheard of title that will keep you spellbound for the bus ride home.

In a bookshop, what you see is dictated less by your own previous choices than by the tastes and interests of those running and stocking the store. As a result, spending time in such places exposes you to more possibility and variety in the literary landscape, and can help challenge, disrupt and expand your reading habits.

As venues for unexpected encounters go, The Big Comfy Bookshop in Coventry has much to offer. Set up around two years ago after owner Michael McEntee took the brave decision to give up his day job and pursue his dream of running a wordmonger’s, the store is one of a series of quirky and creative businesses in Fargo Village on Far Gosford Street. There’s a comic shop next door and a film memorabilia purveyor a few units down, as well as numerous vintage-clothing traders with stands set up around the central hall.

It’s raining the day I go, but you wouldn’t know it from the throng of people gathered in the shop. Sitting at an eclectic array of chairs and tables, sipping coffees, teas and the occasional beer, they have just heard a talk from author Kate Riordan, the speaker before me in the line up of this, the inaugural Big Comfy Literary Festival.

Riordan is still there signing copies and while she does so, I take the opportunity to explore.

Although new books by the authors speaking at the festival are on sale near the counter for the weekend, the bulk of the Big Comfy merchandise is second-hand and, as such, dependent on the tastes of readers who have gone before. The usual suspects are out in force – a formidable crop of Wilbur Smiths, James Pattersons and Patricia Cornwells rubs shoulders with US classics such as Catch-22 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

As is often the case in second-hand shops, translations are not much in evidence. However, there are some unexpected titles in the mix. I spend an intriguing five minutes flicking through a book called How to Clicker Train Your Cat. In addition, there is an impressive spread of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

When I ask McEntee if this reflects a particular interest of his, he tells me that it doesn’t. In fact, some 90 per cent of this section comes from a friend of his who needed to downsize his collection.

Yet, while The Big Comfy Bookshop may be beholden to others for much of its stock, the tastes of its founder and his colleagues are everywhere apparent. From playful quotations and notes bearing personal recommendations from the staff on the shelves to posters for regular folk-music evenings and a handsome array of cakes on the counter, the place is alive with an enthusiasm for creating a cheerful, cosy, ‘comfy’ space that celebrates reading.

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A sense of humour is also in evidence: a Post-it note on a map of the Game of Thrones territories of Westeros and Essos hanging in the loo asks ‘But what lies west of Westeros?’

The result is a beautifully informal, friendly space where people can come to browse, chat, read and while away an afternoon. I feel very much at home while I give my talk.

And if any further proof of the welcoming nature of the place were needed, it comes as I leave. On my way out, I pass Darth Vader, who is on a break from an event at the film-memorabilia store and is popping into the bookshop for a quick cup of tea. An unexpected encounter if ever there was one.

WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #4: Abnousse Shalmani

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There can be few more striking juxtapositions than the one found in the title of Abnousse Shalmani’s memoir Khomeini, Sade and Me. Indeed, it’s unlikely that the names of the ultra-conservative founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the notorious French aristocrat who penned some of the most violent and explicit literature ever published have ever found themselves staring at each other over a comma before.

The jarring effect of the title is entirely fitting, however, for it encapsulates the gulf that its author has crossed in the course of her life – a feat that forms the basis of this, her first book. Jumping from her childhood to her present-day existence, as well as to many incidents in between, the narrative records the reasons for and consequences of Shalmani’s atheist family’s decision to leave Iran for France a few years after the 1979 revolution. In so doing, it provides a framework for the writer to set out and interrogate the conflicting forces that shaped her, as well as to explore the immigrant experience, and build passionate arguments for equality and free expression.

The controversy inherent in the title is reflected on every page. This is an angry book and Shalmani pulls no punches in pillorying Khomeini and the fundamentalist men and women – dubbed ‘Beards’ and ‘Crows’ – who champion a creed to which she cannot subscribe. Many of her arguments, such as her vehement opposition to Muslim women wearing the veil, make for challenging reading – particularly in light of France’s recent burkini scandal.

Shalmani is well aware of this. For many, she writes, she will be ‘just a woman that comes off as a racist when she fears for the future of other women’, yet she will not give ground in the face of those for whom ‘open-mindedness is just a way of washing their hands of the matter’. Indeed, she makes no attempt to help her case or soften her words, thinking nothing of dismissing those who disagree as ‘idiots’.

The reasons for Shalmani’s vehemence are two-pronged and have their roots in the men featured in the title of her book. On the one hand, there is the extreme suffering that she and her family went through when their values clashed with those of their homeland’s new regime; for Shalmani this plays out particularly strongly in gender issues and the attempt to police women’s bodies not just in Iran but throughout the world because ‘each culture has its own women’s prison’. On the other hand, there is the ‘divine Marquis’, whose writings remade her and changed her thinking for good.

The most extraordinary passages are those in which Shalmani writes about her encounters with libertine literature – which she accessed first, surprisingly, with the help of her father who ‘firmly believed that there is no crime worse than censorship’. When writing about how reading Sade’s scenes of unparalleled depravity made her fearless and free in her thinking, staunch in her defence of free expression, and exhilarated about what words can do to expand horizons and change minds, she is magnificent. (Indeed, she is a much bolder reader than I am: I once opened The 120 Days of Sodom in a bookshop and had to put it back on the shelf after a paragraph because I was feeling sick…)

With such a literary hero, it is small wonder that Shalmani does not shrink from causing offence and expressing herself as powerfully as she can. This does her work a disservice occasionally. At points, it makes her writing seem as dogmatic as the teachings of those she attacks. In addition, the fervour with which she expresses love and admiration for her adopted country, France, can sometimes sound a little naive.

On the whole, though, her passion is compelling. Many readers will not agree with all she says and some may be offended, but that is, in a way, the point: this book is a reminder that outrage should be part of the reading experience. It demonstrates that words ought to stretch, challenge and unsettle us. And it is a stark demonstration of the terrible things that can happen when there is no space left in which to question or offend.

Khomeini, Sade and Me (Khomeini, Sade et moi) by Abnousse Shalmani, translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe (World Editions, 2016)

Picture: (TEDxParis Nov2015) Abnousse Shalmani (2) by Olivier Ezratty on flickr.com