Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

This #WITMonth, my reading has had a particular flavour. In October, I’ll be the inaugural Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (theme: ‘Read the World’). One of the events I’ll be involved in is chairing a discussion about ‘Crime Fiction Around the World’ between celebrated writers Ragnar Jónasson, Mark Sanderson and Manjiri Prabhu.

As a result, I’ve been using the summer holiday to catch up on some of the world’s most intriguing who/how/whydunnits, with the help of recommendations gleaned from social media and more knowledgeable bloggers in this field, among them Marina Sofia, a contributor to Crime Fiction Lover and one of the driving forces behind Corylus Books. Female-authored highlights from recent weeks include: The Aosawa Murders by Ritu Onda, translated by Alison Watts, and Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

For me, one of the fascinating things about crime stories that travel is the contrasting ways that regional norms around criminality, detection and punishment shape page-turners based on concepts of right and wrong. A murder mystery set in a country with the death penalty may land awkwardly for readers unused to the idea of criminals being executed; an investigation proceeding in a city where limitations on resources or infrastructure mean that the sort of forensic techniques commonly available in the global North are off-limits presents an author with contrasting choices to those confronting, say, Jo Nesbø. Meanwhile, varied conventions around interrogation practices and the handling of evidence may mean that the unravelling of a particular crime has the potential to play out rather differently depending on where it takes place and who is telling the story.

Bestselling Brazilian author Patrícia Melo embraces this issue in The Body Snatcher, translated by Clifford Landers. Presenting a narrator-protagonist who considers himself morally ‘neutral, to tell the truth’ and is well aware that ‘we’re not in Sweden, the police here are corrupt’, she unravels the mystery not of how a crime is solved but how it is committed and the ways a human mind must contort itself in order to do and try to get away with despicable things.

The premise is outlandish: out fishing one day in rural Corumbá, near the Bolivian border, the cash-strapped narrator witnesses a fatal light-aircraft crash. Discovering that the pilot is the son of one of the region’s wealthiest families and that his backpack contains a large packet of cocaine, he hits on the idea of selling the drugs and ultimately extorting money from the dead man’s parents as they grow desperate to recover their son’s body. What follows is a deft, fast-moving story full of twists and surprises.

Melo and Landers’ writing carries the day. While some of the set up and events, particularly in the early part of the story, would probably feel a little heavy-handed or convenient in another author’s hands (the protagonist wangling a job as the wealthy family’s chauffeur, for example, or his girlfriend having recently started working at the mortuary), this novel sweeps us over bumps in the road with an engaging, witty and beguiling narrative voice that can’t help but fascinate. Reading it is like watching a high-wire act – part of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that the performer could tumble and seeing the flare and skill with which Melo dodges one pitfall after another.

Spare rather than bald, the writing bristles with beautifully succinct descriptions and observations. Consider this depiction of the pilot’s mother ‘being eaten alive by the worms of [her] son’s death’:

‘Every day there was a new health problem, a neck pain, another in the temples, in the neck and temples at the same time, her arms numb, tingling in the legs, tachycardia, vomiting, always some new symptom. And new doctors. If Junior were to appear, even dead, I knew the illness would go away. The same thing happened with my mother. At first the sickness is just a fiction, a kind of blackmail the body uses against the mind, and then, over time, it becomes a true cancer.’

These insights into human psychology are one of the keys to the novel’s success. With an uncanny sense of how the mind moves, Melo is careful to sweep us along in the currents of her narrator’s obsession. Starting with the revelation of a few shabby but relatable traits in her narrator – drawing comfort from disaster headlines because of the satisfaction of being outside the events, for example – she brings us along on his journey towards the unforgiveable, taking us through the loops of rationalisation and justification by which almost any act can be made acceptable to the doer.

Except that in the world Melo presents, the acts are not quite as unforgiveable as they might appear in some other places. With corruption revealed at every turn – indeed, with double-dealing repeatedly offered as the only way to afford a decent standard of living – the moral compass swings increasingly wildly as we journey through the book. By the end, the question is not so much whether the protagonist will be found out but whether we would want him to be. What makes this novel great is that rather than leave us on the outside, looking at the conundrum through the prism of our own society’s conventions about law enforcement and justice, it draws us into its centre, filling us with the same doubts and contradictions that besiege its characters.

A novel about a plane crash leading to an extortion attempt set in the British countryside might take very different twists and turns. And that’s precisely the point. This is a story that is the product both of its characters and of the world in which it takes place. In great writing, the two are inextricable.

The Body Snatcher (Ladrão de cadáveres) by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015)

Picture: ‘Pantanal, Corumbá/MS’ by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on flickr.com

Book of the month: Nanjala Nyabola

Although most of the books I feature on this blog are fiction, one of the titles I refer to most often from my 2012 quest to read a book from every country is a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by the Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie, translated by James Kirkup. This joyful account of teenage Kpomassie’s real-life odyssey through Africa and Europe to go and live with the Inuit never fails to bring a smile to my face when I think of it, and I can still feel all the enthusiasm that went into my initial review nine years ago. I loved its curiosity and fearlessness, the optimism with which Kpomassie pursued his goal, and the humour with which he exposed the quirks of the people and societies he encountered.

Recent years have seen some welcome additions to travel writing in English by authors with similarly illuminating and underrepresented perspectives. Two of my favourites are Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johnny Pitts and Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan. Nevertheless, non-white and non-Western accounts of travelling are still relatively rare in mainstream anglophone publishing – something that my latest Book of the month makes a powerful case to change.

As its subtitle makes clear, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola is not a memoir but rather a collection of think pieces inspired by the author’s journeys through some 70 countries. Although a number of the chapters centre around particular trips – to Burkina Faso, to the DRC, to Botswana in search of the legacy of Bessie Head (whose A Question of Power also featured in my 2012 quest) – this is a book about the larger questions that arise from moving through the world. In particular, it focuses on what that experience is like when you come from a demographic that is commonly restricted and denied the rights granted freely to those in more privileged groups.

Nyabola’s arguments are as fearless and intrepid as her journeys have been. She has no hesitation in taking down some of the world’s most powerful players – exposing everything from the hypocrisy at the heart of the sort of aid organisations she used to work for, and the racism embedded in the visa system, to the rottenness of an international news industry predicated upon representing black and brown people in ways ‘at odds with how the communities in question may see themselves’, alongside the complacency of many of us who imagine ourselves to be anti-racist.

Her femaleness and blackness sit at the heart of the collection. Being different to the default world traveller can be a double-edged sword. While the frustration and exhaustion that constantly running up against people’s assumptions causes is clear, Nyabola’s reflections on the access that her appearance sometimes gives her to experiences and neighbourhoods that white-orientated guidebooks would brand no-go areas are thought-provoking.

Nor does she exempt herself from criticism when it comes to the problematic stereotypes that often attend international travel. ‘I am no better than those I would challenge,’ she writes in her account of her summer in Haiti. ‘I take pictures that I probably shouldn’t take. I am afraid of the water coming from the tap. I surreptitiously glance over my shoulder when I am on my long, lonely walks.’ Even in her home continent, she often used to find herself in the grip of extreme wariness: ‘I’m ashamed to admit that I was even afraid of Africa: the Africans of CNN, warring Africans who killed each other on a whim, who hated women and did violence to them, who ate monkeys and spread Ebola, whose bodies were ravaged with AIDS, and who were always waiting to steal from each other.’

The unpicking of the reasons for these assumptions is one of the sources of the book’s great power. ‘I started to appreciate that, because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa – shaped by particulars of those people’s existence – I had learnt to be afraid of it. […] Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realise something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men.’

As a result of her almost exclusive exposure to a certain kind of narrative, to ‘the dominance of a normative standard determined by a certain eye’, the view Nyabola had internalised not only of the world but also of herself and those around her was slanted, problematic, incomplete. Her description of her journey to free herself from this and see the world in terms more reflective of her lived reality is a masterclass in self-awareness, curiosity, questioning and personal growth.

We can’t all travel as widely as Nyabola has done. Most of us will never spend more than a decade hitching our way to Greenland like Kpomassie, or pass months living with nomadic herders in the manner of Li Juan. That’s why we need writers like this and why we need more of their stories in the world’s most published language. Because, as Nyabola so clearly demonstrates, when it comes to living well in the world, it is not what you see but how you see that matters most of all. ‘We are bigger than what we hear about each other,’ writes Nyabola, reflecting on the way different black communities’ views of one another are diminished by being filtered through prevailing white narratives. How might things be different if we all read about travelling the world through various eyes?

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst, 2020)

Picture: ‘airport‘ by whity on flickr.com

Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein on flickr.com

The genrefication of national literatures

A few weeks ago, the tweet above caught my eye. It made me laugh, but it also captured something that has been playing on my mind in recent months: the tendency of English-language publishers to make national literatures genres in their own right.

The pattern tends to go like this: a writer from a particular nation, such as Japan’s Haruki Murakami, becomes a hit in English; other publishers, keen to capitalise on this success, seek out comparable writers and publish them with strong signposting that their work is like the bestseller (or simply get designers to work in the national flag on the cover, as above!); over time, that style of writing becomes synonymous with literature from its home nation. Books in that particular mould cease to represent one of many varieties of work from the country in question and instead come to exemplify its stories in the minds of anglophone readers. We think we know what characterises Japanese literature, when in fact we know only books similar to those that have proved pleasing to English speakers in the past.

In many ways, this model is unsurprising. Long before Amazon’s ‘Books you may like’ bar, booksellers and publishers favoured a ‘like with like’ approach when it came to convincing readers to try new things. Novels by debut English-language authors have long been published with stickers comparing them to and blurbs from authors of similar works. Haunting the aisles of Brent Cross Shopping Centre’s WHSmith in the 1990s, my pocket money clutched in my sweaty palm, my child self would frequently succumb to the logic that I was likely to like a novel because I had liked something like it before.

When this sales technique is applied too aggressively to translated literature, however, it becomes problematic. Just as labels such as ‘women’s fiction’ can be reductive, so using national affiliations in this way can be harmful. Not only does it run the risk of conflating the popular style of writing with the nation’s literature in the minds of many readers (making Argentinian literature synonymous with the fabulous fevered fantasies of Samantha Schweblin, for example), but it also risks reducing the chances of books that do not conform to the anglophone world’s idea of a nation’s literature finding an audience in the world’s most-published language. This is perhaps particularly the case for countries with relatively few books in translation, whose national reputation may rest on a handful of titles.

Taken to extremes, using nationality as a marketing tool narrows, rather than broadens, readers’ access to the world’s stories. Perhaps most worryingly, it does so almost imperceptibly – flattering readers that they are making adventurous choices, while peddling (often excellent) novels that are in fact broadly similar to what has worked in English before.

Meanwhile, the books that do not reflect these trends remain largely untranslated and invisible to readers who they might, given the chance, really transport.

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on flickr.com

Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).

Rethinking translation: The Multilingual London Festival

From the moment I set myself the goal of reading a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, this project has challenged what I thought I knew. From the question of how many countries there are in the world, to the issue of what makes a book ‘from’ a particular nation, I have repeatedly found myself obliged to question and rethink my assumptions.

Apparently clear distinctions break down when you view them through a global lens. Factual writing blurs with fiction; genre boundaries warp and snap. Even the notions of what storytelling is for and what counts as a book prove flimsy and unreliable in the face of traditions and publishing processes that operate differently to those we are used to in the anglophone world.

A few weeks ago, another distinction that I had imagined was clear-cut crumbled before my eyes. I have long held great admiration for translators. In my book, Reading the World, after considering the many images often used to try to encapsulate what practitioners do when they move a story from one language to another, I reached the conclusion that reading a translation was akin to borrowing another person’s eyes. That person, I felt, should be credited as co-creator of the work – something that the #namethetranslator campaign has done a lot to encourage. Still, it had never occurred to me to question whether the boundary between translated and non-translated might itself be permeable.

That changed when I attended the Multilingual London Festival, a collaboration between SOAS University of London and the Museum of London and part of the ‘Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature’ project. Celebrating the fact that the UK capital is home to more than 300 languages, the online event featured conversations between multilingual, London-based writers such as Aida Eidemariam, Selma Dabbagh and Aamer Hussein, as well as readings in a range of tongues from poets including Caasha Luul Mohamud, Nada Menzalji and Jennifer Wong.

Speaking to a shifting gallery of Zoom audience members (who numbered around 80 at any given time during the two hours I was logged on), the speakers in the first session shared insights into their process and the way their multilingualism had informed, challenged and enriched their writing. ‘Language is always a political issue,’ said Shazaf Fatima Haider, describing how her novel, How it Happened, became a place to lay to rest the tension she’d experienced between Urdu and English growing up in Pakistan.

Using the textures of spoken Urdu, she had embarked on a process of ‘Urduisation’ of English that helped her to reconcile the languages and the power imbalance they represented. Nevertheless, this fusion was not without its critics – ‘you’ve destroyed English,’ one relative told her when he read the book.

In response, Ethiopian-Canadian Eidemariam talked us through the labyrinth she had to negotiate in order to plait together Amharic and English in her award-winning memoir about her Ethiopian grandmother, The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History. It was, she explained, a process of challenging her own assumptions and looking for resonances between the two traditions – a process in which the linguistic cultures’ shared biblical roots proved invaluable. Often, things turned out to have rather different meanings than their surface translations might suggest. The Amharic term that translates literally as ‘breast mother’, for example, signifies a patron rather than a maternal figure – something that caused a degree of confusion in the research process.

Both writers had to decide the level of Amharic and Urdu that a non-speaker could cope with in the nominally English text. With some publishers being rather conservative about the level of foreignness they believe readers will tolerate, this was not easy. In the end, however, they arrived at similar conclusions. Although she accepted having a glossary, Eidemariam decided to ‘push back against the need to explain’ and trust the context of the story to supply the understanding readers needed. Shafaz, meanwhile, took the decision to ‘write for the people in the know’ because ‘they are the ones who will notice’.

I found these insights particularly illuminating, as they chimed with certain decisions I’d been making about technical language in what I hope will be my next novel. While the terms I was working with were not from a foreign language, they were nevertheless from a linguistic sphere that may be unfamiliar to many general readers. Like Eidemariam and Shafaz, I had opted to write for those in the know, trusting the context to supply the sense.

On that basis, although I was moving between registers and they were moving between languages, we three writers were doing similar kinds of work – using language to bridge gaps and translate experience between different groups of people. Perhaps instead of being a binary concept, translation (much like memoir and fiction) was more of a sliding scale, moving from books in their original languages, through books infused with the rhythms and terms of other worlds and tongues, then works in fusion languages such as Spanglish and Hinglish, to volumes in which the words were written by someone other than the original author in order to make them intelligible to a fresh audience.

Once again, the concepts I thought I understood were shifting and remaking themselves before my eyes. After nearly nine years of international literary exploration, I still had so much to learn.

Picture: ‘London 11-08-2012‘ by Karen Roe on flickr.com

Book of the month: Deepak Unnikrishnan

A few years ago, when I was in UAE for a conference, I took a taxi to check out one of the city’s bookshops. The driver on my return journey was an Indian national who had been in Dubai for more than three decades, having started out on the city’s building sites. As we swept through the sun-bleached streets, past numerous skyscrapers under construction, he painted a picture that jarred sharply with the luxurious surroundings of the hotel to which I was returning.

‘No money, no honey,’ he told me, before explaining the way the average construction worker sweltering on one of the building sites we passed would survive. After rent had eaten up the majority of their income, the worker would have enough to afford to cook some rice and gravy for an evening meal, which they would eke out over several days, taking portions to the building site for lunch. During a 12- or 13-hour shift in temperatures that reach as high as 50 degrees C in the summer, the worker would probably only have one drink, the cost ruling out any more. Any excess money would be sent to family overseas. ‘Life is nothing,’ the driver said. ‘What kind of life can you have like that?’ 

This is one of the questions at the heart of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Stemming from the UAE-born and raised writer’s awareness that the experience of temporary workers (who make up around 80 per cent of the UAE’s population) has rarely been depicted in fiction, the book explores what it means to live at the margins of a society you never have the right to call your home. The many characters who throng the work’s pages vary enormously, from young girls caught up in abuse scandals to would-be dictators, yet they all share the quality of being sidelined, overlooked and denied the space to express themselves and answer their needs.

Language and word play are central. Although writing in English, Unnikrishnan folds terms from tongues including Arabic and Malayalam, as well as a wide array of references (everything from Fawlty Towers to the Ramayana), into the text. In so doing, he creates a series of idiolects informed by the experiences of the characters they depict. Meanwhile, the pointed misspelling of terms such as ‘Amreekun’ and ‘moonseepalty’ in certain mouths, implies a reader fluent in Global English, making many of the speakers outsiders even in their own stories.

The book itself does not fit the form prescribed for it. Although it is set out as a novel and divided into ‘chabter’s, each section presents a new situation and register. Poemlike lists jostle with gritty accounts of police harassment; Kafkaesque depictions of cockroaches becoming increasingly human sit alongside sharp, satirical (and extremely brave) attacks on the regime. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the writing and yet certain episodes feel startlingly real. The bizarre and the bathetic rub shoulders with the poignant and powerful. There is beauty and humour too.

Inevitably, in such a varied work, some pieces come over more successfully than others. In the case of this book, the resonance and power of many of the ‘chabter’s will depend as much on the knowledge of the reader as on the quality of the writing. With so many references and linguistic games at work, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand everything on a first pass – like the characters on the page, we are excluded from some things too.

The writing is also, at times, disturbingly brutal and graphic. The force of the frustration of so many lives eroded by the perpetual absence of the people and places that define them bursts out in violence and cruelty. From the misogynistic, racist taxi driver whose monologue fills an entire section to the annual purge in the desert (carrying echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’), the text is awash with long-suppressed desires breaking loose with often devastating consequences. For some readers, this will be too much.

But the humanity that flows through the text is ultimately this book’s most powerful force. From the celebration of the ingenuity that allows those denied the space to build a meaningful existence nevertheless to find humour and connection to the possibility of recognition between those coming from entirely different worlds.

Angry and damning though it is, this book is ultimately hopeful. These stories are worth telling, it insists. They are worth recognising and learning from. They deserve to be part of our imaginary universe. They are far from nothing, after all.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, 2017)

Picture: ‘Dubai Marina Construction’ by Anton Bawab on flickr.com

Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)

Book of the month: Mieko Kawakami

There are novels that force you to recommend them. My latest featured title is a case in point.

I first heard about Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs several months before it was published. A number of writers and readers whose opinions I respect were buzzing about it on Twitter and their enthusiasm for what was billed by its British publisher Picador as a ‘radical and intimate portrait of contemporary working class womanhood in Japan, recounting the heartbreaking journeys of three women in a society where the odds are stacked against them’ was enough to persuade me to preorder it.

Something in the pre-publicity hype clearly stuck because, by the time the title spiralled down onto my e-reader in late August, I was eager to get into it. As soon as I did, I became engrossed in protagonist Natsu’s account of her tortuous search for fulfilment over years spent carving out a career as a writer in Tokyo.

Had this novel been written and edited in English, I suspect it would have been slanted rather differently. Given the anglophone market’s preoccupation with story hooks, I think it’s likely that, if it had been written by a British or American author, this book would have been presented not as a portrayal of the heartbreaking journeys of three working-class women but rather as an account of the struggle of a sexophobic single woman to have a child (which it also is). That more sensational and grabby premise would have been front and centre in an effort to tempt readers to pick the work off the shelves.

Instead, however, the novel starts slowly with a series of meandering encounters. Perhaps partly because the first half was originally published as a novella in its own right, the threads connecting the various elements and characters are so fine as to be almost imperceptible. Indeed, there are times when it feels as though we might be reading a collection of interlinked short stories, with intense accounts of experiences erupting for a few pages only for their subjects to disappear never to be referred to again. There are elements of the surreal and the random in the mix too – weasels drop from the ceiling of a restaurant and the three central characters finish one evening cracking eggs over one another. Through it all, however, Kawakami remains in control, drawing the threads ever tighter until at last she reveals the rich tapestry of the conclusion.

One of the author’s many gifts is her skill at depicting relationships that cannot easily be categorised. She gives us professionalism blurred with friendship; romance without sex; love in a range of hard-to-define forms. These ambiguous connections allow her to shine a light on the cracks and gaps in human society, interrogating – sometimes shockingly – many of the actions and processes most people take for granted. Yet there is a wonderful warmth underlying even the most clear-eyed of these explorations, coupled with a poignant awareness of the fleetingness of the opportunity we have to make sense of our surroundings. ‘We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world,’ as Natsu puts it.

As a writer, I particularly enjoyed the novel’s exploration of creativity and the publishing world. From Natsu’s time in obscurity keeping a blog ‘collecting dust in a corner of the internet’, through her struggles with writing and dealing with feedback, to the outrageous behaviour of the literati at book-world parties, Kawakami’s insights are witty and illuminating. (Indeed, they made me rather sorry that I only had lunch with my Japanese publisher when I met him a few years ago in Tokyo!)

The irony is, of course, that all these struggles are captured in compulsively readable prose, flexible enough to be by turns hilarious, thought-provoking, moving and beautiful (credit to translators Bett and Boyd here). ‘We’d like to think that the books that merit attention find a readership – but after what happened with my collection, it felt safe to say that merit had nothing to do with it,’ reflects Natsu. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure writers the world over share. However, Breasts and Eggs, which was a bestseller in Japan, is proof that sometimes wonderful novels do get the recognition they heartily deserve.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bookstore in Tokyo. They are not extinct!’ by chewy travels on flickr.com