Book of the month: Jacqueline Harpman

Getting translated into English is a tricky business. An anglophone book deal represents an opportunity for a writer to access a huge international audience because novels that appear in English have a greater chance of securing other language deals. But, with literary translations making up 3 to 5 per cent of publications in much of the English-speaking world, there is a narrow bottleneck to negotiate to achieve this kind of global reach.

For many books, time is of the essence. Editors love novelty and the idea that they are discovering talent before anyone else. As a result, most novels that don’t get picked up for translation in the year following their first publication are unlikely to make it beyond their original language.

Every so often, however – perhaps because of a news event or the efforts of a particularly tenacious champion – an exception breaks through. And sometimes books get several incarnations. Such is the case with Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s classic I Who Have Never Known Men, which was published in French in 1995, and first appeared in Ros Schwartz’s translation as The Mistress of Silence in 1997, before being republished under the more direct translation of its title in 2019, seven years after its author’s death.*

I was lucky enough to interview Ros Schwartz for the Royal Literary Fund’s Writers Aloud podcast some months ago. In a metaphor that feels uncannily resonant for the times we are living through, she used the French word ‘passeur’ to explain what translators do. ‘Passeurs were people who helped refugees escape during the war,’ she told me. ‘[A translator is] a passeur, a ferry if you like, between cultures.’

The image of the passeur is also relevant to Harpman’s novel. Narrated by a nameless girl who is one of 39 female prisoners held in a subterranean cage until the day an alarm sounds, leading the guards to flee while the door is open, the novel explores exile and alienation. Left to wander a deserted landscape that they cannot even be sure is Planet Earth, the women piece together the fragments they discover to try to understand what has happened to them and how to survive until the bitter truth finally reveals itself.

The richness and depth with which Harpman inhabits her narrator’s experience is astonishing. Indeed, it is no surprise that she was a psychoanalyst, for she presents the psychological shifts with which the protagonist encounters her predicament incredibly vividly. Those of us who have lived through lockdowns will recognise the truth in the heightened sensitivity you develop and the greater significance small events and objects take on when your world shrinks. Similarly, it is fascinating how thoroughly Harpman brings to life the experience of living without timekeeping devices and the ingenious way the narrator adapts to this.

The novel is also a powerful portrait of how we try to make sense of things – the ways we attempt to read situations we lack the necessary contextual information to understand. As so many of us do when confronted with texts that work differently to the kinds of stories we are used to, the women in the novel draw on their own limited knowledge to plug the gaps in their comprehension of this strange new world.

In the case of the narrator, who has been imprisoned since she was an infant and knows little of adult human civilization, this tendency is particularly clearly demonstrated in the naive fantasies she constructs around the young guard who keeps watch over the cage. Ignorant of the mechanics of sexual relationships, she tells herself stories that blend scraps of information with instinct and guesswork to bring about a mysterious ‘eruption’ in her maturing body. ‘This was extremely difficult because I was simultaneously the inventor of the story, the narrator and the listener awaiting the shock of the unexpected.’

Indeed, exploring the potential and purpose of storytelling forms an increasingly urgent theme. Repeatedly, along with questions about what defines human existence, the novel invites us to consider what a text is and what it does. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, who, we learn, is writing the account we’re reading, reflects on the strange alchemy that happens when someone reads a story: ‘The reader and I thus mingled will constitute something living, that will not be me, because I will be dead, and will not be that person as they were before reading, because my story, added to their mind, will then become part of their thinking.’

Yet, even as she examines storytelling, Harpman resists many of its conventions. There is a playful irreverence at work sometimes in the text: ‘Underneath, there were several items,’ writes the narrator at one point. ‘[…] But I shan’t go into the difficulties I had in identifying and naming all these things because that would be too tedious and I wouldn’t enjoy it.’ The reader’s curiosity is just one factor in the crafting of this story; this text must also serve its author’s pleasure.

At other points, the narrative seems to critique itself: ‘So few things happened during all those years of walking. I found the bus, I lost the road, I arrived here.’ It is almost as though Harpman is taunting the reader with her refusal to bow to plot conventions by withholding the revelations and resolutions the setup seems to demand. Indeed, on the face of it, this is a profoundly bleak and open-ended book.

To read it this way, though, would be to miss the subtleties at work beneath the surface that bring about the very transformation the protagonist claims reading is capable of effecting. For in being worked upon by Harpman and Schwartz’s fine words, we find ourselves changed from passive bystander to active participant. The story we hold in our hands may be a lonely one. But the fact that we are able to read it and enter into its protagonist’s strange experiences conveys a message of profound hope.

I Who have Never Known Men (Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes) by Jacqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Vintage, 2019)

Picture: ‘Tundra Landscape‘ by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on flickr.com

*Corrected on 1 March 2022 to include details of the earlier edition.

My conversation with a living legend

Back in March 2012, when I posted about my Togolese pick for my year of reading the world, I said that Tété-Michel Kpomassie was the writer I would most like to meet. Little did I know then that, almost exactly a decade later, I would be speaking to him.

Yesterday, however, I got to realise my dream (virtually at least) and spent 40 minutes talking to the intrepid explorer, whose extraordinary journey across the world to live with the Inuit in the 1960s has long been an inspiration for me.

The call came about after I heard the wonderful news that Kpomassie’s groundbreaking memoir, An African in Greenland, translated by James Kirkup, was being reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a new afterword, translated by Ros Schwartz. When Penguin contacted me about it, I seized the opportunity to ask to speak with the great man, who is now 80 and lives in France.

It turned out to be one of the most joyful, thrilling and thought-provoking conversations of my life. I was humbled to hear Kpomassie say that he saw parallels between our quests because they both came out of a desire to push beyond received notions and meet the world on our own terms. And my delight knew no bounds when, holding up the beautiful new English-language edition of his book, I saw Kpomassie raise a copy of my novel, Beside Myself, in reply.

We covered many things. I asked Kpomassie how he maintained so much energy and enthusiasm after living with the aftermath of his life-defining journey for so many decades. ‘It’s easy,’ he told me. ‘I am still the same person.’

He went on to explain that, for him, the extraordinary adventure he began as a teenager has always had the quality of a mission – a calling entrusted to him by the surprising collision of many factors (the appearance of the python that gave him his fear of snakes; the baffling presence of a book about Greenland in a shop in rural Togo; the fact that his six years of education gave him just enough French to understand the text and conceive his ambition to run away to this treeless, snake-free land).

A big part of this mission involves opening up the minds of young Africans to the wider world. ‘I think Africans should learn many languages and travel,’ he told me. But he is clear that this must work both ways. There should be greater prominence for and celebration of African culture internationally.

For Kpomassie, language is central to this. ‘We have more than 100 languages in Togo, yet if a young boy can’t speak French perfectly, he cannot succeed. That’s ridiculous,’ he told me, going on to say that it was similarly outrageous that African nations are among the few that don’t speak their own languages when they go to international conventions such as those at the UN.

He would like to see a Pan-African language chosen as the continent’s lingua franca – whether Swahili, Wolof or another widely spoken tongue. This, he says, would play a powerful role in evening up international relations and cultural exchange: people around the world would learn it in much the same way as many European languages are studied, thereby opening up opportunities for African linguists and translators.

The point, he stressed, was to be respectful and evenhanded. ‘No culture is better than another.’

Kpomassie has seen firsthand the damage favouring one culture over another can do. He still remembers the outrage and confusion the European missionaries caused when they tried to convince his father to abandon seven of his eight wives and marry one in a Christian ceremony, an action that would have spelled disaster for many of his brothers and sisters, and could have started a feud with neighbouring villages.

Yet it wasn’t until he reached Greenland that the extent of the wrongs done by colonial evangelism became clear to Kpomassie. ‘They changed the words [of the Lord’s Prayer] to “Give us this day our daily seal”,’ he told me. ‘But no-one gives you a seal at minus 40 degrees. You have to work really hard for it. I realised then that “Give us this day our daily bread” was a lie used to control us.’

Different though they were in so many ways, Kpomassie found parallels between the animism of the Inuit and the traditional beliefs of his community. There was a respect for nature and a sense of oneness with the environment that he found lacking in many European settlers, who made handbags out of the pythons that were sacred to locals in Togo.

This is one of the reasons that, as he writes in the afterword of the new edition of Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland, on some level, he never really left Greenland. And it is why he will move back there later this year. After a lecture tour, he plans to live out his days reading and writing in the country that won his heart more than 50 years ago. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘I will not return.’

Book of the month: Namwali Serpell

Some weeks ago, I had an email from R. Like many over the past couple of years, they’d had a tough time and found solace in reading. Having been keen to expand their horizons, they had embarked on an international quest, using the List on this blog as a source of ideas and supplementing these with their own discoveries when they felt like it or didn’t like my choices (the best way to use this website, if you ask me).

Their favourite read not featured on my list was The Old Drift by Zambian author Namwali Serpell. I decided to give it a try.

Spanning more than a century, a large cast of characters and numerous countries, The Old Drift is a proudly ambitious book. Similar in scope to The Eighth Life, which R also enjoyed, the novel begins in 1904 with a small pioneer settlement near Victoria Falls, and traces how the connections and traumas forged in that messy collision of people ricochet down the generations. Over its course we meet, among many others, blind British tennis player Agnes who marries across the colour bar, a philandering doctor intent on finding a vaccine for AIDs, the Zambian astronaut who never was, and a woman covered in hair.

Stylistically, the novel is something of a Trojan horse. On the face of it, the form and storytelling are familiar, recalling many of the sweeping, colonial narratives authored in decades past in the global north. Yet this one has a difference: there is a bite to the tone and a zing to the wit that undermines that familiar structure and forces the reader to look again at many of the prejudices and assumptions that might have passed unexamined in such stories before now.

Recalling the telling historical commentary of writers such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Serpell explodes any notions of glory that may yet be attached to empire in the reader’s mind. The pioneers in her book are a ragtag, brutal bunch, most of whom, having failed elsewhere, decided to ‘go where pale skin and a small inheritance went further’.

The risk with big-canvas stories such as this is that the scale overwhelms the individual elements; yet Serpell does not fall into this trap. She inhabits her vast range of characters – even the unsympathetic ones – with powerful humanity. Her depiction of Agnes’s sight loss is moving, as is her portrayal of the way her husband, Ronald, edits his homeland’s history to present the version he believes she wants to hear:

‘During his time at university, Ronald had learned that “history” was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground. This, he knew, was what Agnes would expect to hear. So Ronald skipped the real story: the southern migration of the Bemba tribe from the north in the seventeenth century, the battles with other tribes and the bargains with Arab slave traders that had left only a straggling group of warriors wandering the great plateau with its many lakes, carting around a wooden carving of a crocodile, their chitimukulu’s totem, until one day, in the valley at the base of a circle of rocky hills, they came across a sapphire lake, shiwa, with a dead crocodile, ng’andu, on its shores – a sign that they should settle there. Instead Ronald began the story with a white man, one he knew Agnes would recognise from her Grandpa Percy’s stories.

‘”No!” she exclaimed. “The most famous man who ever lived in Africa? He died there?”‘

Serpell is well versed in the challenges of blending history and fiction: it’s astonishing how many national events she weaves through the narrative, from the painful struggle towards independence and the subsequent oppression under Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party to democratisation and economic struggles, before stretching forward into a nightmarish near-future where the very notion of independence itself is under threat.

Occasionally the research sits a little too close to the surface of the narrative (although when it comes to episodes such as Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian Space Programme – complete with training techniques such as rolling aspiring astronauts downhill in oil drums – it is joyous). Partly, this is because the book appears to be outward-facing – written for readers beyond Zambia’s borders – with the result that Serpell sometimes explains customs, attitudes and context that she would probably leave unglossed for those closer to home. It would be nice to see her demand a little more of her readers instead of taking such good care not to leave us confused.

This generosity can sometimes slow the pacing, particularly in the final chapters when events seem to demand an acceleration in the telling (at least according to the norms of European novel structure). The mosquito chorus that punctuates each section, though witty and playful, also sometimes slows the pace.

At its best, however, the novel is sublime. Absolutely engaging, mightily imagined, funny, heartfelt and fearless. Thanks, R, for this worthy and welcome addition to my list!

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Books, 2019)

Picture: ‘Safari on Rails, met Rovos Rail dwars door Afrika …’ by Martha de Jong-Lantink

Book of the month: Shahla Ujayli

Translators have long been my heroes. Almost from the moment I had the eccentric idea to try to read a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, I have found them to be extraordinarily generous, inspiring and wise.

Not only have they helped shaped my understanding of the different ways storytelling works around the globe and revealed many of the blind spots that I continue to challenge myself to overcome in my reading, but they have also repeatedly drawn my attention to writers and trends that I would otherwise have overlooked. Many of the best reads I have featured in this project have come to me by way of a translator’s recommendation.

This is true in the wider book world too. Whether they’re highlighting traditionally overlooked issues, such as the need for more translated titles on children’s bookshelves or the failure to credit translators in reviews and on book covers, translators are often a force for broadening understanding and driving change.

It’s fitting, then, that the final featured title of my first decade of reading the world should be one that a translator fought to bring into the world’s most published language. Sawad Hussain’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the start of A Bed for the King’s Daughter makes no secret of the struggles she went through to get award-winning Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s short story collection an English-language book deal.

In addition to the experimental nature of the writing, one of the major issues Hussain encountered was that the work ‘stepped out of the trope of how Arabic literature is too often digested today’:

‘[The collection] is not an anthropological foray into the heart of Syrian life or history, though it is a “Syrian” short story collection. It is not confined to “women’s issues”, though written by an Arab woman. Rather, the human psyche is explored.

[…]

‘And that is the highest form of literature: not a piece of work that we easily swallow, digest, and after which we rub our bellies gleefully, but rather a body of written work that, rather than giving you the answers, elicits a gut reaction, makes you uncomfortable, puts you on edge and makes you ask (hard) questions. Just as Dena Afrasiabi, the delightful editor of this series, was able to recognize the promise of this collection, I hope that you will also go against the tide, and on a journey of discovery – of the fresh and the possible.’

In short, the writing in this slim volume does not fit into one of the neat marketing categories that publishers often impose on literature from elsewhere, a trend I’ve taken to calling the genrefication of national literatures. In fact, the 22 very short stories in this collection do not conform to many assumptions anglophone readers might have about the short story form itself. I suspect most of the pieces in this volume would not score highly on an English-language creative-writing course.

The maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, for example, has no place in Ujayli’s writing. (Indeed, it has little place in much translated writing because it assumes a shared frame of reference between writer and reader that is unrealistic when it comes to literature from markedly different cultures.) Meanwhile, the author has no hesitation about pulling the rug out from under the reader in the final line, as she does in a number of these pieces, seeming to undermine everything that has gone before. In Ujayli’s world, the experience of waking up to find it has all been a dream seems to be chillingly commonplace.

Instead of the sort of works we might be used to, she presents us with a series of wry, striking shards of writing. Many of them read like parables. Some are more akin to sick jokes. There is the story, for example, of the corrupt police officer who pulls strings to get his brother a gun licence only to be shot by his sibling in the final line. There are the children who Santa fails to visit because of a delay at an Israeli checkpoint.

In such extremely short stories – many of which would fall into the anglophone ‘flash fiction’ category – there is often little room for development or progression. These are largely snapshots rather than short films – a portrait of a dilemma rather than a working through of a problem.

A key to their mechanism seems to glimmer in ‘The Strangest Thing that Happened to Me in 2010’, in which an art-history professor recalls a piece of writing submitted by one of their students in response to the brief: ‘Tell me about Surrealism’. Instead of turning in an essay, the student recounts a bizarre experience. ‘This tale of mine will present surrealism in the way of someone outside the depth of thought, not in the way of someone surrounded by it,’ she writes.

Instinct, mysticism, the crashing together of things that don’t belong – these elements seem threaded throughout this collection. To overthink it, perhaps even to try to explain it, is a mistake. These are works that stand outside the depth of thought, working on the reader as dreams do, defying summation or categorisation.

And like dreams, some will leave us baffled. Some may seem nonsensical or childish. But some will resonate profoundly in a way that cannot quite be captured except in the words as they are presented on the page.

There isn’t much writing like this published in English. Some may say there’s a good reason for that. I say it’s an argument for this book’s existence, and for all the other jagged, unsettling works that don’t fit neatly into bookshop categories. Because, as its translator so eloquently argues, stories like this invite us to journey further, to enlarge our sense of what is possible, to envision other ways of seeing.

A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 2020)

Ten years of reading the world

Exactly ten years ago I was preparing to set out on what would turn out to be a lifechanging quest: spending 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world. The bookshelf in the living room in my small south London flat was clear, ready to receive the first of the 144 hard copies and manuscripts, and 53 ebooks I would make my way through that year.

By this stage, I already had suggestions for books from around 110 countries and a sense of some of the challenges my project would entail. I had already been amazed by the enthusiasm the idea had been met with, prompting strangers around the globe to send me recommendations, advice, books and words of encouragement. However, as this short recording by producer Chris Elcombe showed, I had no concept of what was about to happen to me.

As I waited to open the first page, I knew nothing then of how the extraordinary books I encountered would change my thinking, enlarge my perspective and teach me to reimagine not only my world but also myself. I had no clue that this project contained the seeds of my first book, Reading the World, and that the lessons it taught me would unlock my dream of becoming a published novelist. I couldn’t imagine that this eccentric personal quest would lead to speaking invitations and media appearances all over the planet, TEDx and TED talks, hundreds of connections and friendships, and a steady trickle of messages from curious readers. And I was ignorant of the fact that, far from a year-long experiment, A Year of Reading the World would become a lifelong endeavour.

A decade on, this project continues to challenge, enrich and change my life and writing. This year, I was thrilled to take up the role of Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, where I launched my Incomprehension Workshop for adventurous readers. I’m offering free places on a virtual version in 2022 – there’s still time to apply if you’re interested in trying it out.

Next year brings some more exciting developments. I’m not able to talk about them yet, but as soon as I can, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, as 2021 ticks through its final 100 hours, I look back on the past decade with gratitude and wonder. The world can be a dark place at times and the last couple of years have been especially challenging. Yet our love of storytelling and the power it has to connect us – made so stunningly clear to me back in 2012 – remain undimmed.

Thanks to everyone who has made this quest what it is. Thanks for writing. Thanks for reading. May 2022 bring us all some excellent stories.

Book of the month: Anonymous


Does the identity of an author change how we read a book?

In some cultures, this question would make little sense. In many oral storytelling traditions (with examples on this blog including books I read for the Marshall Islands and Niger during my 2012 quest), the notion of authorship, and the distinction between fact and fiction are fairly irrelevant. 

For those of us immersed in the anglophone tradition, however, these issues often matter a great deal. A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a funding committee trying to decide whether to give a grant to a publisher planning to bring out a translation of a collection of stories thought to have been written by an author inside North Korea. For many around the table, the question of whether the manuscript really had been smuggled out of the totalitarian state was the key factor in deciding whether or not to award the money. (The book got the grant in the end and Deborah Smith’s translation of Bandi’s The Accusation came out in 2017, featuring a note from publisher Serpent’s Tail making it clear that it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of the book’s origins.)

As a writer, I find this focus on author identity troubling. The purist in me would like to believe that a work speaks for itself. In the Bandi discussion, I was firmly on the side of supporting the grant on the basis that the extract I read was well written, thoroughly imagined and fresh, regardless of who wrote it.

Yet I keep encountering questions books that challenge this approach. And when it comes to stories that are supposed to be factual accounts, things get even more complicated.

My latest Book of the month is a case in point. Published in Philip Boehm’s translation in the early 2000s, more than forty years after it first appeared in the US and then in Germany, the anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin throws up so many questions about identity and the relationship between who we are and what we tell.

On the face of it, the book is a diary, recording the experiences of a thirty-something-year-old Berlin woman between 20 April 1945, shortly before the death of Hitler, and 22 June 1945, by which time life under Allied rule had begun to assume some sort of shape. Written with extraordinary frankness, the text documents the horrors that unfolded over those two months, as Russian troops drew closer and captured Berlin, looting and laying waste, and subjecting hundreds of women to repeated assaults and rapes.

The subject matter is as extraordinary as it is harrowing. The early entries crackle with sickening tension as civilians await their fate. Everyday details about the business of surviving in a besieged, war-torn city under a failing regime – fetching water, scavenging for firewood, finding that tokens have been introduced to make people ineligible to board the collapsing tram system – dominate, making the flashes of foreboding all the more shocking by contrast. Along with the narrator, we live through the tedium and terror of those last few days of life as she’s known it.

When the crisis comes, and the Russians arrive and begin to wreck havoc, the writing rises to meet it. By turns arresting in its frankness and powerful in its omissions, it brings home the full force of the horrors it presents. Unflinching accounts of individual attacks exist alongside euphemistic references to bed sheets needing a wash ‘after all those booted guests’. 

A novel might have stopped there, after the first wave of atrocities, and jumped forward to a later stage in the protagonist’s life, attempting to present some sort of resolution or assimilation of these experiences. But, this being a diary, the entries continue, one horror piling upon another as the weeks grind by. And as they do so, they reveal extraordinary things: humour, resilience, the strange camaraderie that collective trauma brings. The women share jokes and commune with one another’s suffering, often without needing to rehearse what they have been through, and we learn with them how shared experience creates an understanding that transcends words.

There are extraordinary reflections on the human condition and the larger significance of these events too. Consider this passage, in which the narrator writes about the struggle to find meaning and a reason to carry on in the face of the loss of almost all she once held dear:

‘I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in Progress? Yes, to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary labourer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.’

The historian Antony Beevor writes in his introduction that the diary’s literary merit has been one of the reasons people have questioned its authenticity, citing the striking images the writer often uses as stumbling blocks that make some readers doubt its provenance. In actual fact, it’s not the images but the perspective that sometimes looms through the writing that is problematic. There is an expansiveness in some of these reflective passages that challenges the notion that they were written day by day in the thick of the events they describe. The level of analysis and self-awareness the writer achieves sits awkwardly with the image of her scribbling frantically in a notebook disguised as an aide-memoire for Russian vocabulary to prevent the conquerors from destroying it.

The afterword from the German editor goes some way to explain this tension: the diary was not published as it was originally written but reworked and edited by its author in the years before its first publication. Many of those more expansive, longer-lensed reflections may well have been developed after the fact. 

Had the author wanted to be involved in the republication of her work, several decades after its initial, patchy reception, it is conceivable that she might have reworked it further into the through-written memoir that seems to hover just below the surface here. Yet, it is understandable that she preferred not to rake over the coals of what must have been a painful publishing experience – although it is a shame she did not live to see the impact her words had on the world when the book was finally rereleased. 

Is the diary genuine? I can’t be sure. But perhaps this is fitting. Maybe a text that goes so much to the heart of identity should not sit snugly in the form assigned to it. Is this what people are? this book asks. Is this is what we turn out to be made of when every last social grace and nicety is stripped away? Maybe no form of storytelling can adequately contain these questions.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Virago, 2018)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Would you like to do an Incomprehension Workshop?

When I set out to read a book from every country in a year nearly a decade ago, I realised something alarming. Many of the techniques and assumptions I learned at school and as a student of English literature at university were of limited use in the face of stories from markedly different traditions and cultures. With only 1.87 days to choose, read and blog about each book I featured on this site in 2012, I had no hope of doing the sort of diligent, contextual study that often unlocked the meaning of texts on my degree course. In the face of books built on drastically different ideas of what storytelling should be or imbued with values far removed from my own, I couldn’t rely on my cultural compass to keep me on track.

The only option was to embrace not knowing. I had to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t understand everything and try to have a meaningful reading experience in spite of this.

This proved to be a revelation. Indeed, far from being a disadvantage, reading with the awareness that I wasn’t going to be able to make sense of everything set me free to have a much more curious, playful and thought-provoking engagement with texts. The more I went on, the more I discovered that paying attention to what I didn’t know could be a strength, teaching me not only about opportunities for further learning but also about my own conditioning, assumptions and blind spots.

As the years went by, I found myself developing a reading technique that centred rather than sidelined incomprehension. The idea of not knowing became a key thread in how I engaged with books of all kinds, as well as in my interactions with other people and things.

It was so transformative that I began to wonder if this technique might be of interest to others. I started talking about it, testing the idea out with a range of different people, and tweaking and developing it in response to their reactions. The encouragement I received led me to think there might be scope for a workshop on this way of reading and I spent a year or so considering the shape this could take.

During this time, my thoughts kept returning to the comprehension exercises I had done at school – those literature-class staples where you have to answer questions about an extract from a book. As I mentioned in a talk I gave on BBC Radio 4 last year, although these exercises help develop many useful skills, they carry the implication that if you can’t explain everything in a piece of writing you’re failing and that there is some single perfect reading of a text that we should be all be striving towards.

Last month, I was thrilled to be allowed to pilot this idea as part of my role as Literary Explorer in Residence at the UK’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, running my Incomprehension Workshop twice on the Huddle stage. There, two groups of around thirty intrepid readers joined me in some literary off-roading, applying my incomprehension techniques to a series of texts likely to be outside the comfort zone of most anglophone readers.

The discussions that ensued were fascinating. It was wonderful to see people letting go of the fear of failing to understand and instead embracing gaps in knowing as a necessary part of the reading process. We covered so much more than we would have done if we had simply set out to explain and make sense of the texts.

Since the pilot, the idea has continued to grow. I’m delighted to have been invited to run the workshop for some sessions with humanities teachers in the UK.

On the subject of which, in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of my life-changing quest to read a book from every country, I’m offering to run one free virtual Incomprehension Workshop for up to 30 participants anywhere in the world in 2022. If you would like to take part, please leave a comment below or drop me a line (ann[at]annmorgan.me) telling me a little bit about you and why you read. 

Book of the month: Graeme Armstrong

Earlier this month, I had the honour of being Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, one of the biggest events in the UK’s literary calendar. Created as part of a three-year focus on the theme ‘Read the World’, my role saw me taking part in 18 events over five days, including launching my new Incomprehension Workshop for adventurous readers and delivering a keynote speech, which you can catch on the #CheltLitFest Player until the end of this year.

The experience led to many memorable moments and fascinating conversations. These included a discussion about crime fiction around the world with international bestseller Ragnar Jónasson, Indian mystery writer Manjiri Prabhu and crime-writing critic and novelist Joan Smith, and an event on what reading the world means with novelist Clare Clark, academic Helen Vassallo, who writes the brilliant Translating Women blog, and translator and social researcher Gitanjali Patel.

I was also delighted to catch up with teams from several of the small publishers my reading adventures have brought me into contact with over the years. Representatives from Istros Books, Charco Press and Europa Editions UK all joined me on the stage in the Huddle to talk about their work championing literature from elsewhere (indeed, the Europa team are in many ways responsible for the continuation of this blog, having prompted me to start my Book of the month slot by persuading me to read the work of a little-known – in English – Italian writer called Elena Ferrante back in 2014).

Of all the conversations I had at Cheltenham, however, one in particular stands out in my mind. It was with Scottish writer Graeme Armstrong, author of the bestselling and award-winning novel The Young Team, only the third UK title I’ve featured in ten years of writing this blog.

Drawing on Armstrong’s experience of gang culture in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, The Young Team tells the story of Azzy Williams, who grows up in a post-industrial wasteland of deprivation, addiction, sectarianism and violence. Narrated by Azzy at the age of 14, 17 and 21, it charts his rise through and eventual fall out of the ranks of the Young Team, taking the reader into the heart of a cycle of neglect and abuse that most mainstream storytelling prefers to ignore.

The book is not an easy read in many senses. In addition to the profanity and violence that fill its pages, it is written in dialect – something that was a key factor in the book being rejected some 300 times before it found a publishing deal. Armstrong explores his desire to write in this way powerfully in his article ‘Standard English is oor Second Language’.

Comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting are obvious – and indeed Armstrong cites reading that book as one of the key inspirations that prompted him to leave gang life and study to be a writer. However, it’s important not to let the Welsh parallel detract from Armstrong’s achievement: in finding a written framework for his mother tongue (as opposed to the east Scottish dialect of Welsh’s novels), he has not only created a new mode of expression but breathed fresh poetry into written English, even as the language strains and cracks to contain the narrative’s voice. (The audiobook, narrated by Armstrong, adds another level to this, even featuring lusty renditions by the author of several Orange marching songs.)

The writing has an extraordinarily compelling, immersive quality. Whether he’s describing tripping at a rave, acting up in school or beating up members of a rival gang, Armstrong captures all the colours of the experiences he portrays. We feel not only the pain and the pity of many of the situations he presents but the humour too, and even the thrill. (‘That was our Vietnam,’ Armstrong told me someone he knows once said, looking back on their shared years in the gang.)

For Armstrong, though, storytelling is about more than simply evoking experience. Now involved with anti-violence and addiction-recovery campaigns, he makes no secret of his ambition to use his writing to effect change. The novel declares this too: each section begins with a striking statistic or piece of research focusing on violence, suicide, deprivation or addiction levels in his home region. At times, it almost has an essay-like quality, with points made, and then illustrated and backed up by the events that follow.

As a result, the pacing takes on an unusual quality in the second half of the book. The fizz and thrill of the early chapters, as we see the young Azzy embrace gang life, dissipate. Instead of the ratcheting up of tension and pace we might expect in a more traditionally plotted book, the narrative takes on a heavier, more contemplative tone. Armstrong has no intention of providing a neat pay off. We are forced to confront the messy consequences of what has gone before and to dwell with Azzy in the aimless brokenness that leads many in his community to be drained of all hope and vitality at 21, whether we like it or not.

This book is not an easy read, but it was never meant to be. As with the first UK book I featured on this blog back in 2012, albeit in a very different way, it forced me to confront the glaring disparity between my reality and the lives of those only a few hundred miles from my front door – the many worlds my nation contains. Its message is too urgent to be anything but uncomfortable. After all, as someone remarked after my conversation with Armstrong in Cheltenham, not many book festival events end with the sentence: ‘Literature saved my life.’

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong (Picador, 2020)

Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

This was a recommendation from Fran, an Ecuadorian who stopped by this blog a few weeks ago to add some suggestions to the list.

First published in 1985 and brought into English by translator Amalia Gladhart some twenty years later, The Potbellied Virgin follows the political wrangles surrounding a small wooden icon in an unnamed town in the Andes. This strangely shaped representation of the Mother of the Christian God is the repository of local pride and virtue (as well as a secret that comes to light in the course of the novel) and is controlled by a group of local matriarchs from the landowning Benavides clan. Led by the formidable Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin, these women watch over the virgins nominated to dress and prepare the icon for each of the many festivals and rituals built around it. But when communism begins to sweep neighbouring regions, stirring up dissent among the less fortunate residents of the town, the women will need more than prayer to maintain their dominance.

This is a book about female power warped and poisoned by a patriarchal, classist and racist system. The narrative refers at one point to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and the parallels between the play’s eponymous heroine and Doña Carmen are clear. The same dessication of youth and cramping of development that plagues Bernarda Alba’s captive daughters shows in the frustrated virgins who fall under her sway. Similarly, the deployment of proverbs, which  run through the narrative like a kind of psychic chorus, creates a memorable impression of the internalised, punitive voices that limit and direct women’s actions.

Unlike Bernarda Alba, however, Yáñez Cossío’s matriarch does not focus on shutting the world out but on subverting and controlling it. The author shows this in astonishing detail, swooping in on the key moments in which characters manipulate and better one another to show minds shifting and changing beat by beat. Time and again, we see the downtrodden tempted to act against their best interests in the name of short-term security, exhaustion and disillusionment.

What’s more, we feel it too. Yáñez Cossío and Gladhart’s writing is so precise and vivid that, within a handful of sentences, we are taken into the deepest concerns and emotions of figures who often appear only fleetingly in the narrative. The death of the new magistrate at the hands of his former friends is a particularly striking piece of writing. This account of some of his final thoughts is a powerful sample:

‘… he sees with his own bulging eyes the bad movie of his life, its grotesque presence in full color. And he wants to cry because it is a ridiculously sad movie, it’s an interminable melodrama, and the protagonist is a small-town man who would have liked to have had so many things, and would have liked to live in a different fashion and to have died in his own bed with that unknown something that he never had and which is now set aside and he needs it. And he is filled with shame and nostalgia at never having had it, not because he didn’t want it, but because he was never allowed, because if he had had that which is called dignity, he wouldn’t be stretched out on the strangely fresh grass now, although he thinks at the same time that with dignity he and his children would have starved to death.’

Although it centres on life in a small, nameless town, the narrative has an epic quality. It sweeps across the decades in a single piece, unbroken by chapters, like the train of a richly embroidered gown, snagging now and then just long enough for particular details to catch the eye before jerking forward again. This grand quality has the effect of augmenting the bathos of some of the novel’s more ignominious and ridiculous episodes, but it also lends the work a timeless, majestic air.

For readers from other traditions, some of the rhetoric  (in particular, the habit of rehearsing the same mechanism of undercutting expectations over a series of consecutive paragraphs) may feel overblown. It is also intriguing to note which terms the publisher chose to italicise and explain in the glossary, and which they left undefined (often a keen tell on who the production team envisages the reader to be). I found myself having to freewheel over passages with extensive lists of local foodstuffs, materials and practices, although this may not be such an issue for readers in Texas, who may well have more knowledge of Latin American traditions than I do.

Luckily though, this book is more than equal to accommodating sporadic, superficial slippages in comprehension. The narrative glides along like the current of a mighty river, carrying readers with it, however they flail. Irresistible and powerful.

The Potbellied Virgin (La cofradía del mullo del vestido de la Virgen Pipona) by Alicia Yáñez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (University of Texas Press, 2006)

Conversations with translators: Sarah Ardizzone

For the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of being an interviewer for the ‘Writers Aloud’ podcast produced by the Royal Literary Fund. This has given me the opportunity to go and record conversations with a range of the fascinating biographers, poets, non-fiction writers, novelists and playwrights who have held RLF fellowships.

The latest interview to be released was particularly special for me: I have wanted to meet Sarah Ardizzone since I read Just Like Tomorrow, her translation of Faïza Guène’s Kiffe kiffe demain, as my choice for France back in 2012. A translator with an impressive track record of bringing stories outside the mainstream of French literature into English, Ardizzone inspires me with her longstanding commitment to amplifying underrepresented voices and broadening the range of Francophone works available to anglophone readers. (Her translation of Bessora & Barroux’s graphic novel, Alpha: Abidjan to Garde du Nord, a Book of the month of mine back in 2019, is a great example of this.)

Released in two parts, the conversation on the podcast covers a lot of ground. The first episode focuses on the challenge of finding equivalencies for slang and dialect, the lengths Ardizzone went to in bringing Guène’s work into English and the responsibilities that come with working with literature from traditionally marginalised communities. I was particularly interested to hear about the concept of ‘dosage’ – the level of idiomatic language a writer chooses to include in their work – and the loaded significance of the double ‘f’ in Kiffe kiffe demain.

The second part draws on Ardizzone’s experiences studying with the world-renowned French acting movement coach Jacques Lecoq at his eponymous Paris theatre school and explores how performance feeds into her translations. It also touches on how a shift in the way publishers handle markers of difference on the page may reveal a greater acceptance of diversity in storytelling and the ongoing need for challenging those in positions of power to rethink rules.

The timing of the podcasts’ release is serendipitous too: it comes just ahead of the publication by Cassava Republic of Ardizzone’s translation of Faïza Guène’s latest book to come into English, Men Don’t Cry, on October 12, 2021. Judging by Guène and Ardizzone’s past work, it will be a compelling and necessary read.

If you get a chance to read the book or listen to the interview, I’d love to know what you think!