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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

*NEW SERIES* World bookshopper: #1 Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, NYC

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Late last year, I asked for your help. I was planning a trip to New York City and wanted to know which bookstores you thought I should visit while I was there.

As ever, the response was impressive. Suggestions flooded in for intriguing wordmongers all around the Big Apple.

There were more than I could hope to hit in a month, let alone during the few days I was going to be in town. Nevertheless, despite the blizzard’s best efforts, last week I managed to get to five of the shops you recommended in Manhattan. And I enjoyed the trips so much that I’ve decided to write up my visits in a series of World bookshopper posts on this blog – a kind of mystery bookshopper review, if you will. (See what I did there?)

I’m hoping this will become a regular feature (in fact I’ve already visited three bookstores in another soon-to-be-revealed part of the world and plan to write about those too). So, if you have a favourite bookshop in your neck of the woods –wherever that might be – why not tell me about it below?

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll stop by one day.

In the meantime, let me introduce the subject of my inaugural World bookshopper review: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street, Manhattan.

This was a recommendation from Grant and, when I looked it up, the store’s premise intrigued me. Established a decade or so ago, the shop deals entirely in donated merchandise. Its profits go to support Housing Works, a charity set up to tackle homelessness and support those living with HIV/AIDS.

What’s more, the place is run almost exclusively by volunteers. As Elisabeth Kerr, my editor at Liveright/Norton, told me when I met her for coffee after my trip to the shop, these unsalaried booksellers come from a huge variety of fields. Now and then, you might even be served by folk from inside New York’s publishing scene, who are eager to get a taste of life on the literary market’s front line.

On the day I went, the shop was busy. Nearly every table around the cafe counter at the far end was taken up with people chatting over coffee, cake and – more often than not – piles of books. Elsewhere, customers milled around the wood-lined space, browsing the shelves, tables and trolleys, and climbing up the curving metal staircases to the galleries above.

The titles were arranged in sections that you might expect to see in any number of bookshops – literary criticism, comics/graphic novels, health and so on. However, there were some more unusual shelves too. I was particularly taken with the ‘Cool & Quirky’ stand, which offered vintage editions of such classics as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Chessmen of Mars and Doc Savage’s The Terror in the Navy for the bargain-basement sum of $3 a pop.

Knock-down prices were by no means the rule, however. In glass cabinets near the front of the store, rare editions commanded three-figure price tags. I spied a signed, uncorrected proof of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for $150 and an early edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a cool $300.

Curious to see what sort of presence international and translated fiction had in this shop made up of donated, second-hand reads, I made my way to the general fiction section. I searched in vain for many of the usual suspects. No Haruki Murakami or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie met my gaze here, although I did see a copy of Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia.

Moving to crime, I found more surprising gaps and inclusions. The great Scandi godfathers of gritty whodunnits, Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson, were conspicuous by their absence, but there were several copies of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

And though the work of the most famous Larsson was not represented, a novel by another writer with the same surname stood in its place: Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy), winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award.

It was a snip at a little over $6. Intrigued, I hurried it to the counter and handed over my money to the smiling, grey-haired volunteer there. For all I knew, she might have been a publisher, a schoolteacher or an astronaut the rest of the time.

You get the feeling that, at Housing Works, the bookshelves aren’t the only source of fascinating stories…

Picture by Crystal Luxmore on Flickr

What’s your favourite NYC bookstore?

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I’ll be back in one of my favourite places in late January: New York. The trip is partly for a holiday, but I’ll also be celebrating the US publication of my debut novel, Beside Myself.

I already have a reading lined up at wonderful WORD in Brooklyn, where I did an event in May when The World Between Two Covers came out (you can see me outside the store in the picture above). But I’m keen to visit some other bookstores around the city too – whether for readings and events or simply to browse.

Over the many trips I’ve made to New York since I was 18 (when I first visited and fell in love with the city), I’ve got to know quite a few of its bookstores. I have a fond memory of taking over the world literature section in McNally Jackson one afternoon back in January 2012, at the start of my year of reading the world. Under the eyes of the bewildered sales assistants, I pulled heaps of titles off the shelves in an effort to identify works that might be suitable for my quest.

It was really quite funny, looking back. While most people were out sales shopping and trying to bag the hottest ticket in town, there I was, panic-buying books!

The trip proved worthwhile. Several of the titles I found that day ended up being my choices for the project, including Germano Almeida’s witty The Last Will and Testament of Senhor Da Silva Araújo for Cape Verde, and Nuruddin Farah’s engrossing Secrets for Somalia.

No doubt I’ll pay another, less disruptive, visit to MJ while I’m in town (I can still remember the thrill of popping in last spring and seeing The World Between Two Covers displayed on one of its tables).

But one thing I love about New York is the way new things are happening all the time and there’s always more to discover. So I thought I’d asked your advice about what stores and initiatives should be on my radar.

New start-ups or old faithfuls would be equally intriguing. As ever, I’m particularly interested in places that have a good selection of translated works. But I’m keen to hear about anywhere you think is great. And if there are other book-related places (cafes, libraries, community projects, festivals – you name it) that you’d like me to know about or that you think might be interested in hosting an eccentric British wordsmith for an hour or two, tell me about them below.

Ooh, this is going to be fun!

Picture by Steve Lennon

News from Madagascar

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Towards the end of my year of reading the world, I made an appeal. I’d been shocked to discover that not a single novel from Madagascar had ever been translated into and published in English, obliging me to fall back on the anthology Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa, as my read from the nation.

It seemed astonishing to me that the world’s fourth-largest island nation, which is home to more than 22 million people, should have no full-length books available in the planet’s most published language, particularly as the short stories and extracts in the anthology proved that it had many great writers. So I called for your help: which Malagasy novels should be translated? I asked.

For a long time, I didn’t hear much. I finished the project and went on with writing my book. Perhaps Madagascar was just one of those places that the anglophone publishing industry would continue to fail to reach, I thought sadly.

Then, almost a year after that post, I received an email from a US-based translator called Allison Charette. She said she had stumbled upon this blog and had been particularly drawn to the post on Madagascar. As a French-to-English translator, she was keen to do something about the lack of literature from the nation in translation, but she didn’t know where to start. Did I have any contacts or ideas for where she could go from here?

I made a few tentative suggestions from my own, very minimal knowledge of the situation and wished her luck. She had set herself an enormous task, I felt.

This year, Allison Charette was back in touch with extraordinary news. She had not only found a novel from Madagascar to translate, but had secured a PEN/Heim translation grant and was working to bring the book into English, with high hopes that it would secure a deal with a US publisher soon.

I caught up with her over Skype a few months back and she filled me in on what had happened since we were last in contact.

After speaking to Sophie Lewis at And Other Stories, the publisher who helped me in my search for a Malagasy book, and Susan Harris at wonderful online international literature magazine Words Without Borders, Charette threw herself into reading books that she might translate. But there was a problem:

‘I started getting out as many [French-language] Malagasy books as possible from my library. The more I read, the more I went “Oh, I need to do this. They’re fantastic!” and I started translating. Then I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the culture whatsoever, so I tried to email the authors, but they were unreachable. So I decided, well, let’s go to Madagascar.’

At the point where many people might have been tempted to give up, Charette redoubled her efforts. She persuaded Swiss NGO Humanium, which had just announced a partnership with Madagascar, to allow her to go and be their in-country representative for a while, using their contacts to arrange a homestay that would enable her to research the country’s literature in her spare time.

During the five weeks she spent there, she discovered the reason for the lack of responses to her messages to authors: as its electricity supply is very unreliable, Madagascar still operates largely offline, meaning that email communication is patchy.

In person, however, it was a different matter. Charette was welcomed warmly and met more than two dozen local authors, who were keen to share their work. Despite the island’s logistically difficult publishing situation, which means that writers have traditionally self-published in small print runs and supported themselves by other means, she went home with a whole suitcase of books.

It wasn’t long before one title in particular caught her eye: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, a historical novel exploring the controversial and sensitive subject of slavery in Madagascar. Despite the shocking subject matter (Malagasies are usually reluctant to talk about this chapter of their nation’s past, which many regard as shameful) and Madagascar’s relatively low literacy rate, the book had sold well at home.

What’s more, according to Charette, the author’s style, blending local and Western characteristics, made the book a particularly strong candidate for translation: ‘He has done an incredibly good job of mixing Malagasy ways of storytelling, which are based on the oral traditions, with something that Westerners will understand,’ she says.

Now, with the endorsement of the PEN/Heim grant and interest from publishers, Charette hopes it won’t be long before her rendering of Naivo’s work is available for English-language readers to enjoy, becoming the first ever novel from Madagascar to be published in the anglophone world.

And the good news doesn’t stop there: inspired by her efforts, Words Without Borders has devoted its December issue to Madagascar, carrying a range of fabulous translated extracts, as well as an essay on the nation’s literature by Charette, who is this month’s guest editor. If you’re keen to sample Naivo, there’s a piece of his work there. And if you have time, I’d really recommend ‘Abandoning Myself’ by Magali Nirina Marson (also translated by Charette) – a spine-tingling read.

Charette hopes this will open the door for many other Malagasy works to make it into English. She already has her eye on several more books she’d like to translate. And her ambitions go far beyond simply sharing Madagascar’s rich literature with a wider audience. In time, she hopes her efforts – and those of other translators and publishers engaged in bringing work into English from underrepresented nations – will help broaden and complicate the rather simplistic way that a lot of us English speakers talk and think about books from many parts of the planet.

‘If we can flood the market with enough African books, whether they’re in English originally or translations, then maybe people will stop talking about “African literature”,’ she says. ‘If I can start getting books from Madagascar to the public, this is one more way of helping this problem.’

Photo: ‘Char à Zebu’ © Franck Vervial on flickr.com