Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

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

WITmonth pick #3: Svetlana Alexievich

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When Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer Alfred Nobel left money in his will for the establishment of an annual literary prize at the end of the 19th century, he stipulated that the award should recognise an author who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. Since the Nobel prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901, various winners have proved controversial, with some commentators and interested parties objecting to the decisions of the Swedish Academy.

For example, when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the accolade in 2006, not long after charges that his work was guilty of ‘insulting Turkishness’ were dropped, there was uproar in his homeland. Similarly, when exiled Chinese writer Gao Xingjian received the honour in 2000, China congratulated France on the news, pointedly disowning the first ever literary Nobel laureate born within its borders.

Indeed, when you think about it, such controversy is unsurprising: with so many exceptional writers working away around the globe, the idea that it should be possible to pick one a year to honour as outstanding is problematic. Whoever the Swedish Academy chooses, it’s likely that someone will have other ideas.

Or so I thought, until I read Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Belarusian investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

Twenty years in the making, this extraordinary book consists of the curated accounts of many of those who lived through (and continue to feel the effects of) the Chernobyl disaster. It was in part prompted by the fact that, although the nuclear-power plant where the accident happened was in Ukraine, a combination of meteorological, geographical and political factors meant that Belarus suffered terribly, such that at the time Alexievich wrote the book, one in five Belarusians lived in the contaminated zone and only one in four died of old age.

Through her conversations with people involved with the incident at every level – from local villagers and clean-up workers to scientists, lecturers and former officials, as well as returnees, outlaws and immigrants now deliberately living in the affected area, and even herself – Alexievich presents a powerful document that uses the horror of what happened to interrogate identity, history and the way that this event has shaken and reshaped the future not only of her nation, but of the world.

The secret to the book’s power is its focus on the personal and the specific. Opening with a lengthy and heartrending account by Lyudmila, the widow of a fireman sent to tackle the blaze at the power plant in nothing but his shirt sleeves with the result that his body disintegrated over the weeks that followed, the narrative sets out insight after insight into the painfully inadequate responses we human beings exhibit in the face of the unthinkable. Through this, we see delineated our reluctance to accept catastrophic change – as revealed by the fact that shops continued to set out trays of pastries as the dust cloud blew over and in the initial excitement of evacuees at the thought of a weekend away – and the distressing ubiquity of selfishness that led many to barter the safety of others in their own interests. In addition, the terrible resignation of a generation of children robbed of their futures speaks plainly in anecdotes such as the account of the young boy who, when chided by a fellow bus passenger for not giving up his seat with the warning that if he does not do so he will have to stand in his dotage, replies coldly that he knows he will never be old.

There is humour in the midst of the bleakness. I defy you not to smile at the story of the success of ‘Chernobyl produce’ in the markets of surrounding cities, where allegedly contaminated apples get snapped up as gifts for bosses and mothers-in-law.

And powerful though the human stories are, some of the most disturbing passages are those that reveal how nature itself was thrown out of whack by the accident. Details such as the revelation that flowers lost their scent and bees stayed in their hives for several days after the blasts are chilling.

These observations – testament to Alexievich’s skill in winning her subjects’ time and trust – ground the narrative, engross the reader and provide the author with the foundation to build some devastating arguments that the text’s emotional clout makes it impossible to ignore. There are many of these – including fascinating explorations of self-sacrifice and the tragic consequences of the Soviet ideal of putting the collective before the individual, which may have led some to take suicidal risks out of a misplaced desire to be heroic.

However, the most compelling points for many readers who, like me, are hundreds of miles from the scene of the accident, must be the passages that show how Chernobyl has changed the lives of everyone around the world. For all that foreign journalists arrived to cover the incident swathed in protective clothing, what happened has got under everyone’s skin, Alexievich contends. This is true not only because of the radionuclides the explosions spread across the globe, which will endure for 200,000 years, but also because ‘in the space of one night we shifted to another place in history’.

In this new place, ‘near’ and ‘far’ are redundant terms because we have been revealed to be vulnerably interconnected. It is a world where traditional concepts of evil fall apart and the language we have to describe disaster crumbles because the greatest threat comes not from an external enemy, but from something we have created ourselves. It is a reality that our brains are not fully equipped to comprehend, an existence where home can become uninhabitable, where trees can groan under the weight of toxic fruit, and where the damage from a single event is inflicted not all at once, but over time, spooling on to warp the lives of those not yet born.

That Svetlana Alexievich manages to get us to appreciate so much about what Chernobyl means – that she enables us to contemplate the unimaginable – marks her out as a truly great writer. This work is outstanding. Were he able to look forward into the future, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, would probably have shuddered at the sort of explosions human beings acquired the power to create a few decades after his death. But I believe he would have found the author of this exceptional work well worthy of the prize to which he gave his name.

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin Classics, 2016)

Picture: ‘Libro abandonado en Chernóbil‘ by tridecoder on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #2: Paulina Chiziane

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I have been wanting to read this book for more than four years. It came onto my radar during my Year of Reading the World in 2012, when I was finalising my choice for Mozambique. As I wrote in my post at the time, I had actually just read a novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto and was planning to post about it, when a comment from Miguel made me think twice.

Mia Couto was a literary cliché, he said. I should try to find something else – and Niketche by Paulina Chiziane, the nation’s first-published female novelist, would be a good starting point.

Loathe to be thought to have plumped for a cliché, I embarked on a quest to find an English version of Niketche, which did seem to have been published in translation. But when I contacted the publisher, it turned out that the firm had folded before it was able to release the book. A finished English-language version did not exist.

All was not lost as far as a good alternative to Mia Couto was concerned, however, as this conversation led to the manuscript translation of the extraordinary Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, an amazing book that richly deserves an English-language deal.

Yet, while Ualalapi still awaits an anglophone publisher, the last few years have brought good news for Chiziane’s novel. This summer, Archipelago Books launched a version titled The First Wife, translated by David Brookshaw, and I lost no time in snapping up a copy.

As the title suggests, the novel is about marriage – albeit in a rather different form to that which many of us in the English-speaking world are used to, at least at first glance. When Rami discovers that her husband of 20 years, police chief Tony, has been secretly conducting a series of concurrent, long-term extra-marital relationships – effectively practising a form of polygamy – she reacts furiously. Yet her anger quickly gives way to a desire to understand and challenge the warped gender dynamics that have seen her and so many women like her marginalised and silenced across the generations.

Embarking on a journey of personal discovery that leads her to question the traditions and assumptions that have shaped her life, Rami visits dubious love counsellors and wizards, and eventually joins forces with her husband’s unofficial wives to right the wrongs they suffer. In so doing, she reveals the extraordinary potential of female solidarity and exposes the hollowness of patriarchal power – uncovering a self-perpetuating system, in which those who appear to wield influence and to gain from inequality are often the most deluded and damaged of all.

This is a powerful and angry book. Portraying the myriad injustices to which Rami and her contemporaries are subject – from a welter of myths about women’s evilness and tendency to precipitate natural disasters, through cultural rules that dictate men should receive the best parts of the chicken to eat, to the appalling treatment of widows, whose possessions can be appropriated by their in-laws and whose bodies can be commandeered by their brothers-in-law for ‘sexual purification’ – Chiziane reveals the ‘litany that has sent women to sleep down the ages’.

Yet, for all its fury, the narrative is underpinned by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human experience. To Chiziane, the suffering experienced by her female characters is part of a loop of wrongdoing and hurt, in which all people are implicated. Rather than women against men, or them and us, gender inequality as seen through this author’s eyes is part of a wider, skewed system, which it behoves all humankind to correct. This is neatly summed up in the description of the ‘cycle of subordination’:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

This clear-eyed evaluation of the causes of subjection makes Rami’s discovery of her own agency and worth deeply touching. I was moved to tears by several passages towards the end of the novel, in which she and her friends revel in their femininity and celebrate womanhood – free at last from the mental fetters that formerly made them resent their gender.

The writing is urgent and surprising. As in Ualalapi, there are images that leap from the page and delight with their freshness. That said, there are a number of mixed metaphors that obstruct the sense. In addition, some English-language readers may struggle with the unfamiliar pacing, which makes some events seem rather abrupt, while other minor incidents stretch on for pages. Similarly, several episodes and thought processes are recounted on more than one occasion, which can be a little discombobulating.

These niggles are really beside the point, though. In addition to being a work of great imagination and creativity, this is an important book. As well as setting out a story that enables readers to feel the necessity of challenging patriarchal norms, it provides a compelling comment on the long shadow of colonialism and telling insights into the way tradition moulds minds.

Hats off to Archipelago Books for bringing this towering work to the English-speaking world. Might I persuade you to take on Ualalapi next?

The First Wife (Niketche) by Paulina Chiziane, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw (Archipelago Books, 2016)

Picture: ‘Elections in Mozambique’ by United Nations Photo on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

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At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

Edinburgh: extreme storytelling

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For the past three years, I’ve spent a portion of August in Edinburgh. In fact, twelve months ago I was there to speak at two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a wonderful experience.

But even when I don’t have an official reason for going, these days I tend to feel the call of the north when the brief British summer glimmers into view. And, marvellous though the book festival is, I have to confess that another extravaganza in the Scottish capital has first claim on my heart: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Running since 1947, the annual four-week celebration of all things performance-related is the largest arts festival in the world. This year sees more than 50,200 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries taking place across the city.

The variety is extraordinary. If you want to witness South African dancers transforming themselves into a 16-legged beast, you can find that in After Freedom Productions’ I Am Rhythm. If politics is your thing, you could take yourself along to a garden shed in South College Street and get involved in the reading of the 2.6m-word Chilcot report into the Iraq War (or you could have done until it ended after 284 hours and 45 minutes last weekend). And if it’s comedy you’re after, you can take your pick from the hundreds of aspiring stand-up comics and famous names gurning from posters fixed to every lamp-post, phone box and – likely as not – person who stands still too long on the Royal Mile.

The venues are as different as the acts they house. While specially erected tents accommodate some of the bigger shows, numerous shops, businesses, bars and institutions throw open their doors to host performers in their basements, back rooms, lecture theatres and garages. This year, there are 294 performance spaces operating in the city – among them a venue in Blackwell’s bookshop.

Depending on what you choose to go to, you could find yourself wandering the halls of Edinburgh university, scrambling into the store room of a shop, or squeezing into a police box or camper van (both of which have been used for shows in previous years).

As I writer, I always find the Fringe hugely inspiring. I love the energy and excitement. I relish the inventiveness of the performers, and the weird and wonderful characters you encounter both on and off stage.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about it all for me is this: for all their diversity, each of the 3,269 shows is an attempt to communicate something. Every time the house lights go down in venues large and small, someone is trying to tell a story that will hold the attention of a frequently tired, sometimes rowdy and occasionally downright difficult audience for an hour.

Meeting this challenge every day for the best part of a month requires performers to have guts, energy and a creative approach. This may involve mining episodes from their lives for material, as comedian Alice Fraser does in her show The Resistance, which draws on her childhood in her Holocaust-survivor grandmother’s ramshackle home in Sydney. They may get the audience to take part in the action, as happens in the moving and wonderful play Every Brilliant Thing, in which members of the public are drafted in to play characters in the story.

They may take a historical episode and use it as the framework for their performance, as magician David Narayan does in The Psychic Project, a show based on American studies into the possibility of using mind readers as spies in the late-twentieth century. Or they may make it up as they go along, the way that improv-comedy group Austentatious do with their hilarious improvised performances of a never-before-or-since-read Jane Austen novel inspired by a title provided by a member of the audience.

Not every show works (although I should say that I enjoyed all four of the above). But in many ways, that is beside the point. The attempt to communicate is what counts, the daring to take the conch and step to the front of the stage.

As I return to my desk this week and attempt to pick up the threads of the draft of my next novel, the stagefolk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be my inspiration. They will remind me that though storytelling can sometimes be a messy, intimidating business, it is also a great wonder and privilege because of the opportunity it offers human beings to connect.

None of the joy and power that has filled my last few days would have been possible without the bravery, determination and ingenuity of those performers, who each found their own ways to share their stories. What matters is finding the gumption to try.

Photo of posters and fliers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2012) by Jim Forest on Flickr.com.

Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

Women in Translation month

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Now and then people ask me how many of the works that I read during my year of reading the world were written by female authors. This morning, I finally totted them up.

It turns out that of the 197 texts I read over the course of the quest, 53 were by women and 134 were by men. There were also nine mixed-gender group-authored books and one anonymous work (although most theories point to it having been written by a man). In all, then, 27 per cent of the literature I read in 2012 was by women.

When you consider that women make up 49.6 per cent of the global population (according to a 2015 UN report), it’s clear that my reading was not representative of the world’s demographics. However – without my realising it at the time – it was a fairly close reflection of the proportion of female-authored books that get translated into English.

The fact is that women authors have significantly less chance of getting an English-language book deal than their male counterparts. According to translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski, who has drawn on the excellent Three Percent Translation Database for her analysis, around 30 per cent of new translations in English are books by women writers.

The implications are clear: not only are we anglophone readers still only getting access to a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s stories, compared to the amount of translated literature published in many other parts of the world, but such works as do make it through the bottleneck add up to a rather skewed selection.

Eager to challenge and correct this imbalance, in 2014 Radzinski decided to name August ‘Women in Translation month’ (#WITmonth for those of the tweeting persuasion). The idea caught on, with numerous readers, bloggers, translators and booksellers jumping on the bandwagon to champion translated books written by women.

This August, for the third year in a row, #WITmonth is back and looking bigger than ever. A significant number of bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, France Germany and New Zealand have pledged to support it with displays of female-authored translations, and various other literature organisations and publications on both sides of the Atlantic are getting involved.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the campaign’s success is that #WITmonth is first and foremost a celebration. As translator Katy Derbyshire recently put it: ‘Women in Translation month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe.’

If you’d like to join the fun, Radzinski has put together a handy list of things you can do. This could be as simple as pledging to read a translated book by a female author sometime this month – in which case you might want to check out Radzinski’s database of translated books by women for inspiration.

And for those keen to explore the issue further, the activist group Women in Translation, founded by translators Alta L Price and Margaret Carson, has a great Tumblr site featuring a lot of the latest news on efforts to address gender inequality in the translation world.

For my part, I’ll be reading widely to find a brilliant female-authored work to feature as August’s book of the month. It’s a small gesture in the face of such marked inequality, but, as I discovered back in 2012, the way to read the world (and transform your view of it) is to go one story at a time.