Book of the month: Duong Thu Huong

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers. Reading the world is such an enriching and mind-expanding experience that I’m keen for as many people to do it as possible.

Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it. People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period.

Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate. Sophie Baggott’s Reading Women Writers Worldwide is a prime example. Having challenged herself to journey through some 200 books by women by 2020, Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. (This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in 2014.)

Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations. She came back with several suggestions, including La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, and The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw, both of which I have already reviewed enthusiastically on this blog.

One title was completely new to me, however: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. I chased down a copy of the controversial Vietnamese novel – banned in the author’s home country – and was quickly hooked.

The story is told from the perspective of Hang, a young woman who is one of the many Vietnamese ‘exported workers’ sent to the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties. When her Uncle Chinh summons her to Moscow, she embarks on a train ride that unlocks a wealth of memories, enabling the reader to piece together the mystery around her father’s disappearance and fraught relationship with her mother, and ultimately freeing Hang from the historical guilt that has bound her.

Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot. Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters – with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them – there are some striking cameo appearances too.

In particular, I found myself itching to know more about the married couple who put Hang’s father up for one night and ‘must have been linked by some crime that kept them there, far from their village. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.’ By the middle of the next page, however, they had been left behind, never to reappear.

This engrossing storytelling also stems from the author’s sharp grasp of the way multiple, and sometimes conflicting, motivations can lead people to act against their better nature. There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers. However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts.

None of this gets in the way of the novel’s brilliance, however. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. When set alongside the equally heart-wrenching yet deeply masculine The Sorrow of War, which was my choice to represent the country back in 2012, it reveals a strikingly different side to Vietnam.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (William Morrow, 1993)

Book of the month: Shehan Karunatilaka

A few weeks ago, Mohammed left a comment on this site: ‘Ann after these long years did you finish reading all the list?’

He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my 2012 quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I – and anyone else who was interested – could refer to them. At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.

However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books (many of which have been published since my list was drawn up).

That’s the thing with reading. One book leads to the next. You plunge into a story about a woman’s struggle to relocate to Johannesburg and find that leads you on to an intriguing memoir about growing up under Apartheid. This piques your interest in literature written and spoken in South Africa’s ten other official languages, which in turn leads you to discover a trend for sunshine-noir crime writing. Before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still nowhere near to exhausting the leads that sprouted from that original book.

Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in 2012 are still waiting their turn.

Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. This happened to me most recently with Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman.

The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in 2012. I had heard very good things about it – not least that it had won several awards, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English (and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books) and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan. As a result, I jumped another way, picking Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta as my Sri Lankan choice.

That might have been it for Chinaman. But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book.

Centred around WG Karunasena, an aging alcoholic journalist trying to track down the elusive Pradeep Mathew – the greatest Sri Lankan spin bowler you’ve never heard of – the novel takes readers into the heart of the nation’s most popular sport. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things – fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate. What’s more, it makes a bold claim, a ‘Sales Pitch’ appearing in the opening pages:

‘If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.’

Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. He does so by inhabiting his characters’ obsessions – a perspective he says he gained by spending many hours hanging around bars with old, drunk cricket fanatics – so completely that we live and breathe them too. Deftly working in the necessary explanations of cricket’s mechanics alongside numerous quirky facts and pieces of trivia (how test matches came to last five days and the surprising identities of the first teams to play an international game, for example), he opens up a world and invites us in.

The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. From word-play and witty one-liners through to amusing sleights of hand in the plotting and even jokes at the author’s expense (by the end of the narrative characters have not only criticised the novel as being ‘rubbish’ in places, but also dismissed Karunatilaka’s name as ‘common’), the book sparkles with good humour.

Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.

Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption. From racism and the violence and injustice that has marked Sri Lanka’s history through to the personal tragedy of being unable to connect with those we love, Karunatilaka presents us with a broad range of human experience and makes us feel its weight.

The result is a reading adventure as gripping and memorable as attending a brilliant test match must be for a cricket fanatic. I marvelled at the technical ingenuity, gasped at the surprises and moments of drama, chuckled at the back and forth between the players and the umpire, and luxuriated in the ability to be taken out of myself by something truly fascinating for a few days. It is a wonderful, joyous book… and a strong argument for digging out a few more of those recommendations from that there list.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

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Brahmaputra Literary Festival

This project has led to many extraordinary experiences for me. From speaking at TED Global and delivering TEDx talks in Geneva and Hanoi to having a book translated specially for me by a team of volunteers and appearing on a panel with the deputy prime minister of Jordan at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai, my quest has opened up many more things than I could ever have imagined when, one rainy night in October 2011, I decided to try and read a book from every country in the world.

Last weekend brought another first: seeing my face on a large cube sculpture (pictured above). The cube was one of a number of installations at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, India, where I and some 130 other writers from 20 countries met at the invitation of the Publication Board of Assam to engage in three days of panel discussions about books.

At least, I was supposed to be there for three days. In the event, however, a cancelled flight meant my journey got rather delayed and, after an erratic, three-stop hop across the world (taking in Cairo, Kuwait and Hyderabad), I arrived in Guwahati with just 34 hours to go until I was due to leave again.

The experience was worth the effort, however. From the moment I was met at arrivals and driven through the city, where banners advertising the festival fluttered from almost every hoarding and the faces of the writers taking part smiled at me from giant arches over the road, I knew I had been invited to join in something extraordinary.

The celebratory mood was heightened by the fact that the date of my arrival was a special day in India. As my wonderful guide, Pourshali, one of the many young volunteers helping to make the festival a success, explained, that Sunday was Saraswati Puja, a celebration of the goddess of knowledge. As a result, the women of the city, Pourshali included, were wearing their finest saris.

Along with the occasional glimpses of my face on advertising hoardings, I was delighted and occasionally unnerved by the sight of many exquisitely dressed people in flowing skirts riding pillion and side-saddle on the back of mopeds weaving through the traffic.

Generously, Pourshali gave up her share in the festivities to show me around. Our adventures included trips to the science museum – a thought-provoking monument to the discoveries of the mid-twentieth century, featuring a display of planets minus Pluto – and a mall where, under the bewildered eyes of the shop assistants, she took the role of personal shopper, advising me on purchases. ‘They are thinking, “What are these two people doing together? They look like they’re from different worlds,”‘ she whispered to me with a laugh.

The highlight, though, was the festival itself. Despite my late arrival, I managed to sit in on several fascinating sessions, including a discussion of fictional portrayals of sport, and a consideration of literature by prisoners of conscience, featuring the courageous Burmese writers Dr Ma Thida and Nyi Pu Lay.

The next day, after an evening of chats over dinner with Australia’s YA author Neil Grant and Indonesian novelist Ahmad Fuadi, among many others, it was my turn. My first session brought me into conversation with one of Pan Macmillan India’s senior commissioning editors, Teesta Guha Sarkar, author and editor Sutapa Basu and author and editor KE Priyamvada to discuss why writers need editors. We agreed on the need for trust and respect between writers and editors, and explored the tricks you might use to bring texture to a threadbare manuscript. Chief among these were giving characters quirks and applying fiction techniques to non-fiction.

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hotseat, moderating a discussion on the role of research in creating fictional worlds. My panel were an international bunch, comprising Latvian bestseller Janis Jonevs, Lithuanian novelist Gabija Grusaite, award-winning Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka, celebrated and prolific Indian novelist Arup Dutta, and Assamese prizewinner Jayanta Bora.

An hour was only long enough to scratch the surface of the topic. Nevertheless, the discussion generated some excellent insights into the writing process, shared to a packed audience largely made up of students from schools and colleges across the state. While Jonevs talked about the pain of emotional research and the challenge of projecting himself back into his teenage self, Grusaite explained how a new development in a real-life Malaysian murder case had changed the course of her plot. Karunatilaka raised many a laugh with his tales of hanging out with drunk old men and watching cricket, Dutta described observing elephant trapping, and Bora talked about the 25 years of research that went into his debut.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk I participated in, however, was not on stage but during a conversation with festival curator Rahul Jain, during which the reasons for the effort that had gone into arranging and promoting the festival became clear.

‘We don’t have a literary culture,’ he told me. ‘But if these young people come here and see writers being glorified and people running from tent to tent as though literature is their lifeblood, they will realise that writers are important for a civilised society.

‘They can’t all be writers. But they can all be readers.’

Book of the month: Rita Indiana

This book came onto my radar by way of a tweet from Gary Michael Perry, acting head of fiction at the famous Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road. Having found translations from the Dominican Republic to be fairly thin on the ground during my quest, I was delighted to have the chance to sample this Caribbean nation’s Spanish-language literature (back in 2012, I read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written in English with elements of Spanglish thrown in).

Roving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past and distant history, Tentacle, Achy Obejas’s translation of Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé, is a bold and startling exploration of many of the big issues facing humanity today, including the role of technology, climate change, religion and colonial legacies. It takes the aftermath of a series of ecological disasters in the 2020s as its starting point and follows the fortunes of maid Acilde and troubled artist Argenis as they travel back and forth between 2037 and 1606, in search of ways to save themselves and head off the catastrophes that precipitate the story’s beginning.

Indiana’s technical ingenuity is this novella’s greatest strength. Rather than simply jumping between narratives in different time periods, she crashes the experiences together, playing out several story lines in one go. The most impressive example is when Argenis, who has been invited to participate in a residency to generate artwork that will hopefully raise funds and awareness to promote oceanic conservation, begins to experience ‘involuntary projections’ in his mind that lead him to function on two planes simultaneously. Indiana manages a rare feat: communicating a coherent experience of confusion, such that readers are able to inhabit Argenis’s bewilderment at being at once in his present and among buccaneers in the distant past without evoking the sort of frustration that would render the story unreadable.

There are also instances of wonderful playfulness. Indiana’s exploration of the possibilities of technology in the near future – where we might, for example, have access to a PriceSpy that will enable us to spot whether someone’s clothes are fake – are joyous, thought-provoking and sometimes alarming. Presenting us with a reality where access to data is as necessary to human survival as food, the author invites us to join her characters in stepping outside the present, so that we can look in and view much of what we take for granted about our contemporary reality with wondering and sometimes wary eyes.

The virtuosity of many of the descriptive passages is striking. The section where one of the characters undergoes an organic sex change as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy stands out for the way Obejas and Indiana find formulations for experiences beyond the reach of common human conception, bringing the seemingly unimaginable into words.

As with most, ambitious works, however, this marvellously inventive novella comes with a few health warnings. It deals with extreme situations and ideas, and its language registers and the events it contains reflect these.

In addition, for all Indiana’s technical ingenuity, Tentacle is not an easy read. Those who venture into it will have to work to keep abreast of its multiple threads, as well as accept that sometimes meaning may drop off a cliff edge, disappearing where we cannot follow. It is perhaps best enjoyed like the ocean that washes through so many of its pages – with a readiness to immerse ourselves, balanced with an awareness of how far we have ventured from the shore.

Tentacle (La mucama de Omicunlé) by Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bavaro Sunrise, Dominican Republic‘ by Joe deSousa on flickr.com

Book of the month: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This week saw a gap filled in on the literary world map. Yesterday, the first ever novel from Mauritania to be translated into English was published by Dedalus, at last making it possible for anglophone readers to access traditionally published storytelling from Africa’s eleventh-largest sovereign state.

The release of Rachael McGill’s translation of Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s Amadou-Kourouma prize-winning The Desert and the Drum makes the West African nation the latest of several countries to have a literary work made available for the first time in the planet’s most published language since my 2012 quest to read the world. Other examples include Turkmenistan and Madagascar.

Watching the first of what I hope will be many such works come to market has been a great joy. My project taught me that storytelling is not only a universal human impulse but a vital tool for building understanding across cultural, geographical, political and religious barriers. When countries do not have a presence on the global bookshelf, we all lose. So, when Jethro Soutar, whose translation of the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be commercially available in English was published last year, got in touch to let me know about The Desert and The Drum, I was of course eager to take a look.

Alternating between past and present, the novel follows Rayhana, a Bedouin girl who has fled her camp, taking with her the ceremonial drum that is her tribe’s most prized possession. As the narrative unfolds, we travel with the fugitive to the author’s home city of Atar, learning what has driven her from her community as we witness her increasingly desperate efforts to recover the only thing that can restore her peace.

The novel was an excellent choice for translation. As a journey narrative, many of the episodes it describes are as unfamiliar and strange to the protagonist as they will probably be to most anglophone readers, making discovery part of the emotional arc of the book.

This means that the rituals and practices described in the text do not have the dutiful, anthropological air that often characterises such passages in translations of literature from less widely known cultures because they play a role in advancing the action. The best example is the extended account of Rayhana’s marriage ceremony, in which the role that the bride is supposed to play – pretending to be indifferent as the groom and his friends try to steal her away – cruelly matches her feelings.

That said, this episode does give rise to what I suspect may be an editorial intervention designed to bridge the gap between western sensibilities and the unsettling nuances of the wedding-night tradition:

‘It was up to the husband to overcome the distance between them, to quell her fears, to oblige the ignorant young girl to receive him. It was a rape of sorts, but it was tradition.’

Unless Beyrouk wrote with an eye to the international market, or unless his urban Mauritanian readership is so utterly divorced from the Bedouin community that their rituals are unknown to them (which I find unlikely having encountered descriptions of similar ceremonies in other West African literature), it seems improbable that this explanation about the ritual being akin to a rape would have featured in the original.* Still, I would be delighted to be corrected – do tell me if you know better!

Such jarring notes are rare. Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt  long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.

This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.

The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation – and while I hope we will one day look back with amazement on the era when there was only one story available in English from many nations – there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.

Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, Dedalus. Where next?

The Desert and the Drum (Le tambour des larmes) by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated from the French by Rachael McGill (Dedalus, 2018)

* I would also urge Dedalus to rethink its policy on footnotes. Many of them seemed unnecessary and distracting, and the information they contained would have been better cut or placed in the body of the text, even if that meant dispensing with a few of the original terms.

Book of the month: Esther Gerritsen

Some books stay with you. I wasn’t going to feature another Dutch novel for a while, having written about Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M relatively recently. But then I got sucked into reading Esther Gerritsen’s Craving (translated by Michele Hutchison) after World Editions sent it to me along with a couple of other titles to mark Boekenweek (an annual festival of literature in The Netherlands). Four months later, it’s still on my mind.

In fact, Craving is one of several memorable Dutch novels I’ve read in recent years, among them Sam Garrett’s long-anticipated translation of Gerard Reve’s classic The Evenings and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love, brought into English by David Doherty. Powerful and atmospheric though these books are, however, they didn’t quite get their claws into me in the way that Craving managed to do.

On the face of it, this is a very simple novel. The erratic Coco returns home to live with her terminally ill mother after years of estrangement. Their renewed proximity forces a re-examination of their troubled relationship and something of a rapprochement that sheds fresh light on both their lives.

As with several other contemporary Dutch novels, including Robben’s and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (translated by David Colmer), Craving focuses on filial relationships. It has the feel of a film shot exclusively in close-up, with small details representing dramatic shifts. This means that although Craving does not share the isolated settings of Robben’s and Bakker’s books, it possesses a similar quiet intensity, which comes from the narrative containing a minimal amount of background noise.

The words work hard here. Credit is due to Michele Hutchison for the way she has managed to present text that is as powerful as it is spare, where almost every phoneme seems to perform multiple functions – conveying the action, revealing specific emotional truths and acting as broader statements about the human experience. Even the comma splices that would usually have pedants bristling seem to work within the context of the narrative voice.

The efficiency of the dialogue is testament to the power of the language. Normally, I get frustrated by reams of unattributed statements and struggle to remember who is saying what without a reminder every three or four lines. In Craving, however, the character of each speaker comes across so clearly that I barely noticed the lack of signposts.

The economy of expression allows for some great comic moments too. Bathos and distraction are favourite devices for Gerritsen, who delights in reminding us how the monumental and banal coexist and colour one another, gilding significant moments with foolishness and elevating mundane happenings to precarious importance.

Through it all, Gerritsen never loses sight of the pattern she is weaving. She threads story deftly through the text, so that the whole picture comes into focus gradually. Instead of the neat reveal common in more commercial books, the central meaning emerges in such a way that it cannot be condensed or explained but can be comprehended only by reading the words set out in precisely the order the author has chosen. No more, no less.

Craving (Dorst) by Esther Gerritsen, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (World Editions, 2015)

Buddy reads, kipper sandwiches and 1984: Meeting the man who prompted me to read the world

Last Friday was a special day. Nearly seven years on from launching my quest to spend 2012 journeying through a book from every country, I had the chance to meet the man who gave me the idea to read the world.

His name is Jason and the concept of exploring international literature came out of an exchange we had in the comments section of a blog I used to write about women’s literature. Jason suggested I read Cloudstreet by the Australian writer Tim Winton and everything spiralled from there.

Over the intervening years, Jason and I have kept in touch, mostly through Facebook. When my first book, Reading the World (titled The World Between Two Covers in the US), came out, I sent him a copy as a thank you for his part in inspiring what turned out to be a life-changing project.

As Jason lives in Wyoming, US, and I live in the UK, however, there was never much prospect of us meeting… until last week. Jason was coming to London for Man Booker 50, a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. It was the perfect chance to say hello.

We met at the Sail Loft in Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames. Jason was accompanied by his friend Ben, who took the photograph above (thanks Ben!) and is married to Ana, one of the volunteer translators who made it possible for me to read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012.

Although we’d never met in person, the conversation flowed freely, centring around books. I was particularly interested to hear about Jason’s experience as a BookTuber – his channel is called Old Blue’s Chapter and Verse. Never having explored this world, I was fascinated to learn about some of its conventions. The concept of ‘buddy reads’, for example, struck me as very interesting – the idea is that two BookTubers read the same title simultaneously and post videos about their experiences.

When Jason revealed that he is engaged in a buddy read of 1984, the conversation took flight. All three of us turned out to be big admirers of George Orwell. It was amazing to hear how Jason was finding encountering the book as an adult when so many people, myself included, read it for the first time at school.

He reminded me quite how dark it is and said he was troubled by the idea of it being taught to children. In response, I suggested under-18s might actually be more comfortable with Big Brother’s dystopia than we would be: as most youngsters will be used to living with a degree of control and scrutiny, these ideas may not be as disturbing to them as they would be to independent adults.

From there, we moved on to taboos in books that readers fail to acknowledge. Jason gave the example of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which he is surprised that many people seem to read without realising that it involves incest. We wondered if this is a sign that we readers unconsciously censor references to subjects that we find too upsetting.

The conversation wasn’t all book-based. There were a few culinary detours along the way. Jason tried his first scotch egg – with great success – and shared some wise advice on not assuming that things you like in isolation will work well together. He had learnt this too his cost some while before when he attempted to construct a kipper sandwich and found that the addition of mayonnaise to the fish produced one of the most disgusting things he’d ever tasted.

I’m sure we could have talked for hours, but Jason and Ben had an evening appointment with Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker. Unable to compete with such brilliance, I bade them goodbye, hoping it won’t be too long before our paths cross again.

New TEDx talk: what I learned reading a book from every country

Earlier this month, I was honoured to be one of the speakers at TEDx Hanoi. Taking place at the city’s United Nations International School, the day-long event presented a fascinating collection of talks around the theme ‘Toward a Global Community’.

While Professor Kourosh Kayvani, founder of Aurecon’s Design Academy and mastermind behind the technicalities of Wembley stadium in the UK and the flagship football venue in Doha, reflected on the potential of engineering to solve problems, environmental activist Huong Le spoke about #SaveSonDoong, her campaign to protect the world’s largest cave from insensitive commercial development. There were also talks on career advice, architecture and the role that history can play in helping us live wisely – this last presentation was given by former diplomat Madame Ninh, a very inspiring person and prominent figure in Vietnam, who was constantly surrounded by young women eager to learn from her.

There were also several great presentations and performances from school students, among them Minh Quan Do, an aspiring poet and poetry translator, and South Korean yo-yo player, Hyunjoon Choi. And for those keen to do more than simply sit and listen, there were improv comedy workshops and self-defence classes in the breaks, as well as the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the majestic Son Doong, about which Huong Le spoke so powerfully.

For me, the event was special for three reasons. Not only did it give me chance to visit a new country and meet some fascinating people, but it also allowed me to reflect on what reading the world has taught me six years on from my original quest. This was exciting as there have been so many interesting things that have happened since the project, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share some of the more recent insights I have gained from interactions around stories from elsewhere.

Thanks to the organisers of TEDx Hanoi for a very inspiring day and a wonderful trip.

Picture by TEDxHanoi on flickr.com

Advice for world readers

One of my favourite things about this project is the way other people have taken it on and made it their own. Several times a week – and sometimes as much as every day – I hear from booklovers who have been inspired to launch their own international-reading ventures.

These can sometimes be very individual and specific – such as the Mexican students who gave away books in their town to promote reading or the horror fan keen to sample something of that genre from as many nations as possible. Usually, however, the messages come from people who, as I did back in 2011, have realised quite how narrow their reading has been and are keen to broaden their horizons by exploring stories from elsewhere.

Sometimes they just want to let me know what they are planning. Sometimes, they ask questions. And, though the questions can be very varied, the most common are these: What advice can I give people trying to read the world? How can you read so much so quickly? Where do you find books from nations with little or no published literature in English? What do you do if you can’t afford to buy books? Can I help?

Much as I’d love to be able to help with individual quests, time and money factors usually make this impossible. During my ‘Postcards from my Bookshelf’ project last year, in which I sent books to 12 strangers in celebration of the fifth anniversary of my quest, I received comments from more than 200 people keen to take part. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to buy books for everyone.

However, there are a few tips and bits of information that I’ve learnt over the past six years that might be useful for would-be literary explorers. I’m putting them below. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

  • Be curious and open to changing your ideas Reading the world requires you to let go of your assumptions about many things – from morality and history to what counts as a book in the first place. This can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. As far as possible, try to keep an open mind. In particular, when you find yourself reading something that feels difficult, remember that your reaction may reveal more about your own cultural conditioning and blind spots than about the book or country it comes from.
  • Make the quest your own Many of the people I hear from tell me that they’re using my list as a guide. It’s great to know that it’s useful and I hope that the Book of the month reviews help keep it fresh. However, there are so many amazing books out there and a huge amount has changed since I read the world in 2012. Thousands of brilliant new translations have been published, in some cases opening up the literature of countries that had nothing available in English during my quest. Meanwhile, other titles have gone out of print and are harder to find. So, although people are welcome to use my list, I would urge them to explore for themselves too. There are many great resources out there but three good places to start are English PEN’s World Bookshelf, Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
  • Go at your own pace You don’t have to read the world in a year. You don’t have to read it in ten years. It’s much better to go at a pace that you can sustain rather than to drive yourself frantic by trying to cram reading into every spare moment and turning it into a chore. Instead, find a window of time (even if it’s just 15 minutes a day) that you can dedicate to reading and stick to that. And if you find yourself wanting to spend more time reading as you go along – great!
  • Use libraries and other reading resources to read for free Reading can be expensive. Even with the generous book gifts I received from strangers, my original quest cost me several thousand pounds. This can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a part of the world where books are relatively expensive. There aren’t always easy solutions. However, where they exist, libraries can be a fabulous resource for bookworms. Not only do they make books freely available, but they will also often order in titles you request. For people in particularly difficult circumstances, there are charities such as Book Aid working to supply books. It may be worth researching what is available in your area and contacting the relevant organisations to see how international their offering is. Whatever you do, please avoid the temptation to resort to pirated versions of texts. The inequalities in the international publishing industry that mean that some literatures are much more widely read and translated than others will only be reinforced by this. It’s important that authors are paid for their work.
  • Be patient and use your initiative It’s very difficult when you come to a country that has no commercially available literature in English. What you do about this will depend on how much time and energy you have. During my quest (as you’ll see if you read the posts for the Comoros, Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe, to name a few), I resorted to all sorts  of outlandish things to try to source texts, including contacting charities, academics and students working in the region, and tracking translators down through social media. There is no magic solution to ticking off these countries. However, the good news is, it’s getting easier. Since my project, literature from several previously off-limits nations, including Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, has been released in English. I’m hopeful it won’t be long before every UN-recognised nation has something available in the world’s most-published language. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. Watch this space!

Picture: ‘One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on flickr.com.

Book of the month: Prajwal Parajuly

One of the joys of this project has been the number of people who have shared their book recommendations with me. Even now, six years on from my year of reading the world, I usually get several messages a day from readers telling me about literature from different parts of the planet.

I wish I had the time to follow up on them all. But even if I were still reading at my 2012 rate of four books a week, I would not manage to keep pace with the volume of suggestions I get. Still, I’m always delighted when someone posts a good recommendation on the blog: even if I can’t get to it, I hope it might catch the eye of some of the other adventurous readers who pass this way.

From time to time, however, a suggestion stands out. This is particularly common when the messages concern countries with little published literature in English. As I’m always keen to help increase the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard, I do my best to pursue these leads.

That’s how I came to read The Gurhka’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly. Suyasha from Nepal emailed me with several suggestions of books available in English from her country. Of these, Parajuly’s short-story collection most intrigued me because it promised to contain depictions of a diverse range of characters and experiences.

This proved to be the case. Ranging from the woes of a paanwalla in the north-east Indian hill station of Kalimpong, to the troubles of an ambitious young property owner in Manhattan, the collection, which was written in English, is impressive in its scope. Yet, there are two common threads, neatly encapsulated by the name of the title story: familial ties and cultural heritage.

For Parajuly, the distinction between ethnicity and nationality is a major theme. Several of his characters comment on what it means to be Nepali and how this should dictate life choices such as whether to stay married and the duties owed to relatives. Others, meanwhile, find themselves frustrated by outsiders (usually Westerners) who exist in ‘uninformed bubbles’ and cannot understand that it is possible to be Nepali even if you were born in a different nation. Nepal is not so much a country as a physical inheritance – and perhaps, also, a state of mind.

Alongside these cultural concerns, anxieties about status, class and caste are key sources of momentum that drive the narratives. Delighting in hurling his characters into scenarios that destabilise the social norms they have absorbed, Parajuly reveals the petty hypocrisies that can erode and divert the course of lives. We see a daughter so bent on marrying a fellow Brahmin that she sacrifices her happiness on the altar of tradition in ‘A Father’s Journey’ and a young man driven to cruelty by his fears about how his wealthy cousins will respond to his small home in ‘Missed Blessing’. There is also a beautiful rapprochement in the final piece in the collection, ‘The Immigrants’, in which a relatively wealthy man and a poor village woman are brought together by virtue of both being Nepali outsiders in New York.

Although many of the stories have tragic currents, they also carry a great deal of humour. Parajuly has a keen eye for inconsistencies and foibles, and makes use of these both to endear his characters to us and at times to ridicule them. Mock grief, insecurities about bad teeth and naked greed all parade through his pages. Often the only distinction between likeable and unlikeable characters is whether they acknowledge these imperfections in themselves. There are some wonderful examples of bathos too.

This is not a perfect collection. The stories are a little uneven and occasionally topple into a kind of journalism in the passages where Parajuly deems it necessary to include a great deal of contextual information  Sometimes they feel stagey and a little bald, particularly when characters step forward to deliver fluent speeches about what has led them to a particular point.

Overall, though, this is a rich and intriguing book. For those keen to discover something of the multiple layers of Nepali society, it is a good place to start. And you’ll get some chuckles, surprises and moving moments along the way too. Thanks Suyasha!

The Gurkha’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly (riverrun, 2012)

Picture: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye on flickr.com