Postcard from my bookshelf #10

Without the millions of people putting stories into words around the planet, my quest to read a book from every country in the world would never have got off the ground. In consequence, this month, I’m sending a book to a writer.

I was encouraged to find a number of people with literary ambitions among the entrants to this giveaway. As I wrote when I got my book deal for my first novel, Beside Myself, my journey through a wide range of the globe’s stories was the key that unlocked writing for me. Prior to that project, I had spent years churning out cramped, inward-looking little half-books. Reading the world blew my imagination open and let the fresh air in.

There were many aspiring wordsmiths to choose from for this venture. A large proportion of the people who have commented on the project post maintain their own blogs or write about reading in other ways. What’s more, a significant minority of these stated explicitly that they want to be writers (NB to those of you who said this, if you’re putting words on a screen or page, you already are a writer. Writing isn’t a state of being; it’s something you do. Keep going!)

In the end, however, it was the following comment from Cheche in the Philippines that caught my eye:

Hi Ann! I’m really hoping that I could take part in this fun adventure of yours!

I’m Cheche and I’m from one of the distant provinces here in the Philipppines! I’m 25 and diagnosed with leukemia last year. Thankfully, I’m now in remission but still under maintenance treatment. Before, I have always wanted to read books that are not related to school or medical stuffs (I graduated with a degree in Medical Technology) but didn’t had enough motivation to do so and ended up reading very very few ones only. Then came my diagnosis that made me stay in my bed and at home for most of my days. It was then I finally did the thing I’ve always wanted to do – read. But mostly as a distraction from depression or a time- killer. I was surprised to find myself able to finish a book in just one day! I know this is pretty much nothing for you guys who are bookworms but I have never done that before, especially that I was on weekly chemo at that time. I discovered how much I truly love reading. And now I have my blog which has been up for a few months now. I write about my experiences and also tried one daily prompt by WordPress out of desperation. Hahah! I don’t write fast and don’t publish in a daily or weekly basis. I learned that I am able to write better if I read more. I dig up the right inspiration to start a blog after reading stories of other cancer survivors as well. I admit I’m sort of running out of motivation again and I kind of beat myself up for this since I have only started writing for just a few months. It hasn’t even been a year and I can’t seem to find the words now.

Anyways, every time I go to the bigger city, I always try to find time to drop by at Booksale to rummage through some quality second hand books from US, Canada and other places in the world at very cheap prices. For months now, I haven’t been reading a book, physically, as I find myself enjoying the blogs and Long reads from WordPress. But I am really looking forward to getting myself smelling the pages of a book again! I’ll be going to the big city probably by the end of this month for a procedure and I’ll make sure to buy books good for 2 or 3 months. I like reading inspirational books, fiction or non-fiction, real stories of survival of whatever kinds of adversities. Also I would like to read books about cancer, healthy eating, lifestyle and healing.

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to share with you how reading made do something I have never thought I would ever do in my lifetime. And THANK YOU too for your utmost love for reading!

When I clicked through to Cheche’s blog, I found that her corner of the virtual world contains posts covering everything from making museli to tricycle rides. She writes a lot about her condition too. In particular, one post on the homepage stands out: To Be a Young Adult With Cancer in the Philippines. In this, Cheche describes the challenges that her condition brings, from the specific logistical issues that come with having leukaemia in her region to frustrations that must be familiar to young people battling illness everywhere:

‘With cancer, one thing is always certain- the sense of being a burden to everyone. People my age are supposed to be earning enough or maybe just starting out, but my circumstances called for unemployment. I can’t help but be angry at myself. Health and youth are supposed to go hand-in-hand, but in my case they don’t.’

I wanted to choose a book that might be a good source of companionship through the next stage of Cheche’s treatment. However, when I thought about the novels I had read to do with illness – from Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness to Seeing Red by Lina Meruane from Chile – I realised that, while many of them are brilliantly written, the majority are rather pessimistic in outlook.

As a result, I turned my mind to stories concerning people facing other extreme challenges. This made me remember the various books I have encountered about child soldiers. Although several of the fictional accounts, such as Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma from Côte d’Ivoire, are understandably bleak, one very uplifting narrative sprang into my thoughts: the memoir A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone.

(Indeed, this exercise made me realise something about memoir that had never occurred to me before: by its nature, it is an optimistic form. In order to write their story, the central personage has to have survived whatever challenges they describe and got to a place where they are able to look back, process and understand.)

Cheche, I hope this book inspires you. Like, The Circle of Karma, which I sent to Ashlee back in July, this is not a translation in the literal sense of the word because it was written in English, but in many ways it does the same work: it finds the language to take us into an experience that is thankfully alien to most of us. It is not an easy read because it deals with the full range of things that make us human, from the ugliest to the most beautiful impulses. But from what I know of you, I’m sure you’re able to cope with that.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on November 15.

Postcard from my bookshelf #9

This month, the random-number generator led me to an intriguing comment. It was posted back in January by Rachel Unklesbay and went as follows:

I’ve just started your challenge to read a book from every country (not in a year, though. I have a toddler. I’m giving myself more time than that.) I love the idea of getting to know different peoples through their literature!

I would love to receive a book – or just recommendations. I sometimes struggle to find books that aren’t overtly sexual – I’m okay with some sex, but nothing pornographic – and sometimes authors try to make their books “edgy” and only succeed in making them really awkward. Is this something I just have to get over? Is this a worldwide trend, or just something Americans do to try to look grown-up?

Rachel’s words posed me something of a head-scratcher. After all, I have no way of knowing what counts as ‘overtly sexual’ in her eyes or whether our definitions of ‘pornographic’ match. Among many things, reading the world has taught me that people can have very different thresholds when it comes to a whole range of sensitive issues and if you attempt to second-guess someone’s sensibilities you can often end up extremely wide of the mark.

It’s a dilemma I’ve encountered many times over the last five years. One of the most common queries I receive is from people – often teachers – asking whether the books on the list are suitable for children of certain ages.

I’m sure they find my replies frustratingly vague, but the truth is I can’t answer definitively as I do not know what they would deem acceptable. Apart from the fact that individual children vary hugely in what they are capable of appreciating, there is the problem that what I consider harmless might be beyond the pale for my correspondents and visa versa.

It’s a point that was neatly illustrated when I looked into Chinese children’s literature and chose the award-winning Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (translated by Helen Wang) as my Book of the month back in April 2015. According to Wang and several other translators I’ve been in touch with, it can often be challenging to find Chinese children’s books that will work in the anglophone market because standards are so different: while Chinese stories can often seem rather simplistic and old-fashioned about things like gender roles, they can also be far more violent and graphic than is usual in English-language works aimed at similar age groups.

However, one thing I could very much identify with in Rachel’s comment was her comment about sex coming across as awkward in a lot of the titles she’s tried. That’s certainly an issue as far as British writers are concerned. Indeed, so much terrible writing about physical intimacy is published each year in my home country that the Literary Review magazine even runs an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.

I can’t say for sure whether this is a problem exclusive to English-language writers, although it’s certainly true that my international reading has introduced me to some of the best writing about sex that I have ever encountered (indeed, my post on the book I read for Guyana, which I naively titled ‘Guyana: sex and how to do it’ unintentionally brought a lot of people using dubious, sex-tourism-related search terms to my blog – but that’s another story).

Still, I wanted to choose a book that Rachel would be likely to enjoy and so didn’t want to run the risk of selecting something that she would find too explicit.

Instead, I’ve opted for a book that, while it might appear overtly sexual, is in fact far from it. The novel in question is The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated by Alison Anderson), which was my pick for Algeria.

As I wrote in my 2012 review, its provocative title made for some awkward moments on public transport – and was a neat demonstration of the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.

Witty, inventive and beautifully written, this is a treat of a novel. Rachel, I hope you like it!

 

Book of the month: Olga Tokarczuk

As with last month’s pick, July’s Book of the month came by way of a recommendation. I have known Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the London-based Polish Cultural Institute for five years – ever since we both took an English PEN evening class about translation. Few people know more about what’s coming into English from Poland than Magda, so I always pay attention to her bulletins.

A few months ago, however, her email was particularly enthusiastic. A novel by one of Poland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Olga Tokarczuk, had been translated into English by Jennifer Croft and was being published as Flights by Fitzcarraldo Editions in May of this year. As is often the case with many of the best books I read, something in the tone of her recommendation told me that this novel was special.

I lost no time ordering a copy. When it arrived, my inkling that this was no ordinary book was reinforced by a single endorsement printed on the back of Fitzcarraldo’s trademark minimalist blue cover: Tokarczuk is ‘a magnificent writer’, according to Belarusian Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer astonished me last year.

Flights is a challenging book to review. Woven of many threads tracing different kinds of journeys through space and time – stretching back across several centuries and around the globe – this is a novel that defies attempts to summarise it. Instead of the familiar formula of a central character or small group of characters forging their way through the thickets and over the obstacles an author throws in their path to create a single, loosely coherent journey, this is a vast ensemble piece in which voices appear and disappear and new perspectives surface as late as tens of pages from the end.

Rather than characters tying the narrative together, this novel is held together by ideas: reflections on the body, travel, life, death and what it means to move through space. These are expressed through a variety of tropes that crop up repeatedly in the fragmented accounts that, among many other things, portray the story of the Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen, the journey of Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw and a mother’s abandonment of her chronically ill child to ride the Moscow metro and sleep rough alongside an eccentric homeless woman.

The whole is carried on a current of exquisite writing (credit to Jennifer Croft here), which captures objects and experiences in startlingly fresh ways yet without the showiness that so often attaches itself to works that make heavy use of imagery. Time and again passages such as the description of nightfall on the opening page – ‘Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park – had me reaching for my pencil to scrawl an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in the margin. In particular, the extended description of the death of a distinguished lecturer towards the end of the book is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen.

Although one of the many voices in the book claims that ‘describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear,’ Tokarczuk challenges this notion on almost every page, bodying forth life in all its vibrancy and strangeness so that we can recognise it anew. She makes us nostalgic for experiences we have never had – childhood holidays in rural Poland, trips to remote islands, conferences in far-flung corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the assuredness of her writing means that the frequent shifts between perspectives and the resumption of some storylines long after their last appearance is rarely a problem.

That said, the narrative will be too diffuse for some readers. Although the majority of the book is taut and compelling, there are odd sections that feel aimless or contain somewhat self-indulgent digressions that an editor might not have let a lesser-known writer keep. I also wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of maps, drawings and other illustrations, most of which are too small to interpret easily (and probably mean that this book is better read in hard copy than on an ereader).

But it almost feels churlish to mention these gripes in the face of such brilliance. The quality of the whole more than makes up for them. In sum, I can only echo the words of a far more discerning reader: Tokarczuk is magnificent.

Flights (Bieguni) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

Book of the month: Abdulai Silá

Hearing about new translations coming from nations that are underrepresented in the English-language literary world is always exciting. It’s especially pleasing when these titles are from countries whose literature I struggled to access in 2012 – places like Turkmenistan, Panama and Madagascar (which should soon have its first complete translated novel published in English).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was when I got an email from translator Jethro Soutar a few weeks ago. Seeing Soutar’s name in my inbox was a thrill in its own right: he is the translator of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s widely acclaimed By Night the Mountain Burns, only the second book to make it into English from Equatorial Guinea and my pick for Book of the month a year or so ago.

When I opened the email, my excitement grew. Soutar wanted to let me know that, in part prompted by discovering through my project that there were no novels available in English by writers from Guinea-Bissau, he had made it his mission to find a work to translate from the nation. He had done so and the resultant book, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá, was being published by Dedalus this April. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy?

Would I ever! Guinea-Bissau was one of the toughest nations to find something to read from. Back in 2012, I had resorted to a collection of mid-20th-century political writings by the revolutionary thinker Amílcar Cabral – the necessity of this was sadly ironic, as one of the points Cabral makes is how important the exchange of culture and stories across borders is.

Now, at last the first full-length work of Bissauan literature was available to many more of the world’s readers.

Ostensibly, the novel follows the fortunes of Ndani, a teenager who goes to work as a servant in the capital after a local magic man proclaims that she is cursed, only to find that the negative forces governing her existence are more difficult to escape than she hopes. In practice, however, the narrative brings in the stories and perspectives of a number of different characters who Ndani encounters and there are long stretches where we hear nothing about her at all. The tragedy that does ultimately affect the protagonist is a much more diffuse and meandering affair than many of us might be used to seeing in novels – certainly novels written in English.

This is one of several aspects of the book that those used to Western literature may find off-putting at first. Others include a rather unfamiliar approach to pacing – which sees the rapes and deaths of central characters skimmed over in a sentence or two, while football matches and long sessions of soul-searching about seemingly tangential issues can take up several pages – as well as leaps and double-backs in the chronology that can be bewildering.

However, those who persevere will be rewarded. As the pages turn, you begin to find your way into the world of the book. The problem, you come to realise, is not with the writing, as you might have first thought (a common knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar that we literary explorers must always be careful to interrogate). Instead, it is we who need to learn how to read it.

Fundamentally, the plot is secondary to the ideas Silá wants to illustrate. Chief among these are the damage wrought by colonialism and the resultant doublethink with which generations of Bissau-Guineans have been indoctrinated. Sometimes these issues are stated explicitly, but often they are woven through the thought processes of the characters. The best example is the ambitious Régulo. Full of plans to get his compatriots to recognise and throw off the shackles of their history, he nevertheless can look at the mixed-race wife of an official and conclude that the man must be a ‘second-rate white’ for marrying her, revealing the way he has internalised the prejudices he rails against. Similarly, though he rages at the atrocities perpetrated by the Europeans, his sexual fantasies about his reluctant sixth wife are riddled with the language of conquest.

The idea-led quality of much of the narrative may make the book sound dry, but that is not the case. Silá delights in using humour to spear hypocrisy and there is some startling imagery at play in many passages. He also demonstrates a flair for technically adventurous storytelling, with the novel featuring one-sided conversations here and deft uses of repetition there. The passages in which Ndani falls in love at last are beautiful and joyous, as are the descriptions of her discovery of sexual fulfillment.

Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar. In addition, he has woven in some delightful language play. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the story that ‘had nothing to do with Senhor Machado’s work in customs and excise, [but rather] concerned customs exercised in his house’.

Those looking for the smooth, literary narrative beloved of many anglophone book reviewers won’t find it in The Ultimate Tragedy. But nor should they. This is not a Western novel, but a Bissauan one, told on a Bissauan author’s terms. As such, it is an important addition to our bookshelves. Though he would no doubt have been horrified at the thought that it would take until 2017 for a novel by one of his compatriots to be translated into the world’s most published language, I suspect Amílcar Cabral would have approved of this choice.

The Ultimate Tragedy (A última tragédia) by Abdulai Silá, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, April 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the world through libraries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

Women in Translation month

WIT

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.

Messages from authors


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One of the great things to have come out of this project is the fact that I have been in touch with many of the authors of the works I have read during and since 2012. Some of these people, like Juan David Morgan (whose novel, The Golden Horse, I picked for Panama) and Ak Welsapar (whose Tale of Aypi was my read from Turkmenistan), sent me unpublished translations of books not available to buy in English.

Others, including Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Burundi), Hamid Ismailov (Uzbekistan) and Cecil Browne (St Vincent and the Grenadines), were gracious enough to allow me to interview them at length for Reading the World, the book I wrote to explore some of the bigger themes and stories behind this quest.

In a number of cases, these contacts have led to lengthy correspondences and friendships. Pictured above is a collection of postcards showing the artwork of Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán. He posted these to me after I wrote about his short-story collection, Points of Light, along with a letter telling me that if I ever wanted to visit him, all I needed to do was get the bus to his town and ask for ‘El gringo Yuscarán’.

As time has gone by, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Whereas I contacted most of the people above during or shortly after my project, in the years that have followed more and more authors have found their way to me. Often, they do this by leaving comments on the posts about their books. For example, Barbadian author Glenville Lovell popped up with the following: ‘Wow! Thank you! I think I’m going to read my novel again.’

Then there was this from the writer of Kenya, Will You Marry Me?: ‘Philo Ikonya the author here, i saw this review months after it was published. Time flies… I enjoyed it and the fact that this project found my book! No greater thing than feedback! Thank you. :-).’

Luís Cardoso from East Timor left a note in his native Portuguese: ‘Ann, gostei imenso da tua apreciação. Muito obrigado. Eu sou o autor.
Luis Cardoso.’

And Olinda Beja (whose short-story collection A casa do pastor was translated by nine volunteers especially for this project so that I could read something from the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe) contacted me to tell me about a new volume of tales set in her birthplace.

There have also been some touching interactions with people connected to the authors of many of the books I’ve read. As recorded in Reading the World, I spent a moving hour sharing a drink with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, who drowned in Lake Zurich in 2002. Unfailingly open and generous, Nielsen told me about their extraordinary relationship, the trauma of Veteranyi’s depression and suicide, and the work he has done as executor of her estate. Once Reading the World was published, he even arranged for a copy to be deposited in Veteranyi’s collection of work in the Swiss National Archive, where my writing will stay alongside hers for at least the next 300 years.

Now and then, comments from authors’ and translators’ friends and acquaintances pop up on this blog too. I was delighted with the following message from Ahmed in response to my Maldivian read: ‘Hi, Ms Morgan, I am from the tiny islands of Maldives. You chose one of the best books to read about our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. Just now informed Mr. Abdulla Sadiq of your choice. He was delighted. What a great idea!’

And this note from the tiny island of Vanuatu, left under my post on Sethy John Regenvanu’s wonderfully exuberant memoir Laef Blong Mi, made me smile: ‘He’s still as young as ever.’

Given that it’s now more than three years since I officially stopped reading the world (although I continue to read widely and select one book to review here each month), I had assumed that these comments had probably come to an end. It turns out I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, the following message was left by author Sarah Mkhonza under my post on Weeding the Flowerbeds, my pick from Swaziland:

Thanks for the review. The school and mission were celebrating 100 years and I felt compelled to write about their contribution to our lives. I am grateful that you were able to give the book an honest review. I never really thought it would be read beyond Swaziland and the mission. Most of the teachers have passed away. It makes more sense to have written something about their contribution to our lives I am grateful that you were able to have something to read on a country which is struggling to create writers and give the people a voice. Political parties are still banned and journalists are still being imprisoned. Thanks for mentioning some of these facts in the review.

Nearly four years after this project began, its ripples continue to spread.

Giving books away

 

One of the most common queries I get is whether I can share e-versions of the books from my year of reading the world for free.

This question always provokes mixed emotions in me. I can well understand the excitement and eagerness that prompt it. The idea of broadening your horizons through reading is thrilling. When you realise how much world there is out there and that books could enable you to explore it, you can feel as though a whole new reality has opened up to you (as I did when I put an appeal out to the planet’s bibliophiles to help me read the world one rainy evening in October 2011). You’re impatient to get started and if someone can send you files that can speed you on that journey, why wouldn’t you want to jump at the chance?

The problem for me is that, in their excitement, these would-be literary adventurers often don’t realise that what they are effectively asking for is pirated copies of books. If I were to scan and make available e-versions of the books I read, the writers, translators and publishers behind them would not receive any money.

This would not only be unfair but also, cumulatively, could be very damaging. If I were giving away unlimited free versions of books, it would make those titles less likely to be kept in print and available for commercial sale (and it would make anglophone publishing deals very unlikely for those titles that are not yet published in English). Over time, it could further reinforce the economic imbalance which sees English-language writers like me much more widely published than those writing in other languages (and consequently much more likely to be able to live off writing – although, according to a 2015 survey, only around 10 per cent of UK authors do so).

But the mixed feelings don’t stop there because, while I’m very conscious of the financial challenges facing writers in many parts of the world, I’m also aware of the economic difficulties facing a lot of readers. I’m lucky that I’m able to afford to buy the books that intrigue me. My year of reading the world wasn’t cheap (it cost me several thousand pounds – perhaps a little more than a month’s salary at the time – to track down all those books, several of which were quite rare), but it wasn’t impossible. These days – rare books aside – most of the titles I buy cost less than £15, a small fraction of my weekly income.

That is not the case for readers in many parts of the world. Even though cheap e-books for smartphones are making much more literature available to people in a large number of the world’s poorest countries, the cost of physical books relative to income is still prohibitive. When I interviewed Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov for my book, Reading the World, he told me that translated books in the unofficial markets in Tashkent during the Soviet era often used to sell for about the same money as he made in an entire month. In other words, it cost Ismailov proportionally the same amount to buy one translation as it cost me to read the whole world.

So, although I do not share versions of the books I read during my project (except the titles like my Maldivian read, which the creator has chosen to put online), I am always very glad to hear about and support initiatives that make literature freely available to others. These include Chinese translator collective Paper Republic’s excellent project to put one English translation of a short story by a Chinese author online each week ‘for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water’, as their website says.

As a result, I was delighted to hear recently from a group of students in Mexicali, Mexico, near the US border. Inspired by hearing about a year of reading the world, they decided to do something to help people in their community who might not be able to get hold of many books. They collected  a load of secondhand titles and created El Librero Communitario, a community bookshelf giving away books for free. The film above shows what happened when they took the bookshelf to a bus stop in town.

The project has been such a success that the students are looking for more donations, so if you have some books you no longer need, why not contact them through their Facebook page? I’m sure there are many readers who would appreciate it.