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

My evening with Helle Helle

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I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

Audiobook giveaway*

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Yes, it’s official: the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, written and narrated by yours truly, is now published. It is available for listeners in the US and non-Commonwealth countries to buy here.

And if you’re curious to hear how my four days in the studio turned out, you can listen to the first half-hour of the book below. (As you might be able to tell, I particularly enjoyed reading the word ‘rattling’.)

For now, rights reasons mean that those of us in the UK and Commonwealth (including me), can’t buy it. However, Audible has kindly given me some CDs, in addition to a code for a free copy accessible to those outside the Commonwealth.

In honour of this fact, I am running a giveaway for readers anywhere in the world to get their hands on a copy of the audio version. All you have to do is leave a comment at the bottom of this post, telling me about a book you’ve enjoyed reading recently.

On August 1, I will put the names of all those who leave a book tip in a hat and pull out two winners. They will each receive the audio version of The World Between Two Covers in the format that works best for them.

If you live in a Commonwealth country this could be your only chance to get your hands on a copy without travelling beyond your borders. So make my day and share a favourite recent read below!

*iPod and physical book not included…

This giveaway is now closed. Find out the names of the winners here.

Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

The first Amazon rating (or what the book isn’t)

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It’s a moment every debut writer waits for: that first reader review on Amazon. The point when an ordinary person, somewhere out there in the world responds to your work.

For me, that moment came yesterday afternoon. I’d clicked onto my book as I do most days (all right, every day at the moment) to see how it was performing and found that Reading the World had scored its first rating: one star.

Anxiously, I flicked down to the write-up. Had the reader thought the writing was bad? Did they hate my ideas?

No – at least they didn’t say so. As it turned out, the one-star rating was down to the fact that the book wasn’t what the reader expected. They had been hoping for an account of the 196 books I read in 2012 and because the book didn’t conform to their expectations they had marked it down.

The Amazon reviewer isn’t the first person to have expected Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer to be a blow-by-blow description of my year of reading the world. In fact, when I first got the book deal back in 2012, I assumed that that was the form the narrative would take. I even wrote a first draft to that effect, weaving in a lot of material from my online reviews and roughly following the chronology of the year.

Then (with the help of my editors at Harvill Secker) I realised two things. The first was that anyone who wanted a story-by-story rundown of my literary quest didn’t need to go to the bother of buying a book: that material was already online for free. Anyone who went to the list and clicked on a country name could find my account of what I read for that particular nation. It seemed rather limited to package all that openly available material up and expect people to pay for it.

The second realisation was that the 196 books I read that year (well, 197, counting Kurdistan) were sort of beside the point. They were my solutions to the challenge at a particular time and place, but someone else reading the world would find and pick very different things – as the ever-growing selection of recommended titles on the list demonstrates.

I had never set out to source the definitive work for each country (given that I’ve only read one book from many nations, I’m certainly not qualified to do that). Instead, I was interested in exploring and seeing what I could find.

What intrigued me most, I discovered, was not the specific choices, but how they changed my thinking and the big ideas they brought up along the way. I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest.

To this end, I decided to structure the book around these ideas. I would refer to many of the texts I read during 2012, but I would also bring in lots of other stories and research too. And I would weave in some of my own experiences as a reader throughout my life.

I hope it makes for a more substantial and longer-lived work than a simple collection of stitched-together reviews would do (it certainly required me to think a lot more deeply than the initial project). But that’s for readers like you to decide.

For now though – until a hopefully more enthusiastic rating appears – I’m perversely enjoying the distinction of my book having the worst-possible average rating on the world’s biggest bookselling website. That’s surely got to be an achievement in its own right?

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