London Book Fair: a blogger’s-eye view


London Book Fair has a special place in my heart. Three years ago, when I was in the thick of my year of reading the world, I took a day off from work and ventured there clutching a long list of countries that I had yet to find books from.

I had no idea what to expect and I’m sure I must have seemed like a crank to many of those I spoke to that day (the people at the Sultanate of Oman’s stand certainly weren’t impressed). Nevertheless, bumbling from stall to stall on the trail of national literary associations, publishers and agencies who might be able to help, I did make some useful connections. These included a fascinating discussion with Justin Cox from the African Books Collective, who ended up pointing me in the direction of several of my reads for the project. I came away from that day tired but happy, and clutching an armful of books.

The great thing about the Book Fair, as I discovered that day, is that it is vast and diverse enough to have something to offer all comers (well, certainly all those who like books). If you want to spend the day finding out about threats to writers in authoritarian regimes, you can do that. Interested in the latest gizmos and reading accessories? Look no further. Passionate about Mexico? You’ve come to the right place (particularly as that’s the focus country for this year). Keen to find out how you can best self-publish and market your novel? Check.

As a result, everyone does come, from the most tentative of aspiring newbies to great literary stars, and from one-woman back-room publishing outfits to the biggest names in the game. You’ll see them all: agents, authors, bloggers, editors, publicists, readers, translators and even a few lost tourists milling around under the great arched roofs of Kensington Olympia, holding meetings, sealing deals, helping themselves to sweets from little bowls on the end of counters, trying to work out where they are on the floor plan (see below), and generally talking, reading and thinking about books.


This year, as I wasn’t on the trail of titles from particular nations, I decided to focus my attention on the packed programme of talks and events. So I spent yesterday flitting between small areas of seating with names like the English PEN Literary Salon, Author HQ and the Literary Translation Centre to catch as many things as I could.

I covered a lot of ground. I watched interviews with leading Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska (who told me afterwards as she was signing my copy of her novel Leonora that she had been very nervous about speaking in English – it didn’t show) and bestselling British debut novelist Emma Healey. And I listened to a fascinating talk on whether television drama is the new literature – apparently not, I was relieved to hear, although the more fluid way that people consume stories these days (from short-form snippets to binges on box sets) has opened up the possibility for metanarratives that dwarf even the chunkiest Victorian novels. In extreme cases, these pose the risk that writers committing years of their lives to creating the screenplays for certain shows might burn out, a scenario that sounds almost Kafkaesque.

I also caught a discussion on crime and thriller novels. According to critic Jake Kerridge ‘discussability’ is key to many such books’ success. And, by the way, if you have a crime novel or thriller on your computer that you think should be published, Harper Collins’ Killer Reads imprint is accepting unsolicited manuscripts until this Friday.


However, as I’ve found in previous years, the most interesting Book Fair events had to do with translation and the way books travel across borders (or don’t). I was intrigued by a discussion about ‘What Not To Translate’. The participants seemed to agree that while translators should not censor or control which works travel according to their personal political views, time pressures inevitably mean that they are more likely to accept commissions for books with which they feel a degree of sympathy.

A talk on the role of literary agents in connecting continents was similarly fascinating, particularly as agents are still a relatively new concept outside the English-speaking world.

The final event of the day was among my favourites. Bringing together translators Daniel Hahn, Deborah Smith and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and Syrian author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, it picked out the titles they had worked on for Reading the Way, a project by Outside In World to find, translate and try out children’s books from around the world with UK audiences.

I was particularly taken with the sound of El cuento fantasma, a Costa Rican story that Hahn translated about a book in a library that is afraid of being read. They also passed round a French/Arabic version of Elle et les autres by Nahla Ghandour, which, as you can see from the picture of the title page below, is read from right to left – an added challenge when you’re translating illustrated books from languages like Arabic and Hebrew into English because it means the illustrations may have to be altered too.


But perhaps the best thing about the day was the number of friends and acquaintances I bumped into. From fellow writers and bloggers to people I’ve met through events and those who helped me read my way around the world, it seemed I could barely turn a corner without seeing someone I knew.

It was a far cry from the experience of three years ago, when I wandered nervously around the stands, plucking up the courage to introduce myself. As I stood on the gallery of the main hall, looking down at the Bloomsbury stand and imagining what it will be like to see my novel Beside Myself  there next year, it struck me once more how far this journey has taken me.


London Book Fair runs until Thursday April 16. With thanks to Literature Across Frontiers for giving me a ticket.

Democratic Republic of Congo: bewitched

I stoogled upon Frederick Yamusangie’s website when doing a bit of preliminary research into literature from the DRC earlier this year. Born in what was then Zaire (the country reclaimed its name in 1997 after the ousting of President Mobutu), the Congolese writer studied Communication Engineering at the University of Kent and now lives in the UK, where he has self-published several poetry anthologies and his novel Full Circle. As it turned out, after several more hours of searching and sending out queries, he is one of the very few DRC writers to have work available in English today.

It’s hardly surprising when you consider what the Francophone nation has been through. Home to the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II, Africa’s second-largest country has seen more than 5.4 million of its people die as a result of the fighting since 1998. Despite being rich in natural resources, DRC is the state with the second-lowest GDP per capita in the world. Small wonder then that promoting a publishing industry does not figure very high in many people’s priorities there.

With so little to go on, it seemed perverse not to give Yamusangie’s novel a try. And so, swallowing those die-hard qualms about self-publishing – which have turned out to be misplaced in several cases this year – I downloaded the book and set to.

Full Circle follows city boy Dada, who is sent to live in the village of Bulungu and learn about his culture when his father leaves the country to take up a diplomatic post in the US. The community seems pleasant enough at first, but as time goes by Dada discovers dark secrets and deep rifts beneath its peaceful surface that threaten to destroy him. Will secular Dada survive this superstitious minefield? Will his peers accept him as one of their own? And will the shapeshifting human-crocodiles in the nearby river get to carry out their wicked plans?

Yamusangie presents a nation divided by money. On one side sits Dada, who, because of his privileged upbringing, has ‘more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country’ and has never travelled in Zaire before. On the other is the rural population with its strong tribal traditions, loyalties and beliefs. At the start of the book, Dada is convinced that he knows enough about his culture and could ‘live in the USA[…] and still know how to relate to [his] own people’. Yet as the book goes on, he discovers he has much to learn.

The customs Dada discovers are eclectic and sometimes surprising. Magic, superstition and animistic beliefs weave through everything and are treated as part of normal life. When Dada goes for lunch at his teacher Mrs Betika’s house, for example, she tells him not to worry about a snake in the henhouse because it is the reincarnation of her auntie. Indeed, enchantments are big business, with many of the local spiritualists jostling to corner each others’ shares of the market and even plotting to murder a newcomer who seems to be too successful for his own good. The discussions of these customs and how they fit with the prevailing religion of Christianity, as well as the pressures on young people to abandon the old ways are fascinating, as are the glimpses into the rites of the secret society that tries to recruit Dada.

At times, however, the author’s sociological and historical insights hi-jack the narrative and send it hurtling off on long detours, sometimes threatening to derail it. This is not helped by an increasingly outlandish plot, which is sometimes held together with rather flimsy logic. For example, the reasons the police give for releasing Dada when he is accused of murdering a friend – that a child would never admit to doing such a thing and that children are incapable of killing anyone – are rather questionable.

It’s a shame, because there are some great moments in the story. The scene where the dead boy’s relatives converge on Dada’s guardian’s house seeking revenge is gripping. And by using a quote from that most famous of Congo-based novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Yamusangie makes his ambitions for the book clear.

With some robust editing and another eye on the work, he might have got there. As it stands, though, this is a fascinating and surprising book that opens up a little-known part of the world to English-language readers. It is rough round the edges, as many self-published books can be, but it contains some good things. I’m glad I chose it.

Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie (iUniverse, 2003)

Montenegro: home truths

Around the end  of May, I was mooching about on Twitter trying to drum up leads for some of the gaps on The List when @markbooks swooped in to recommend The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis for the small South-eastern European country of Montenegro. @stujallen had just read it, he said.

I was in the process of thanking them when @MissCathO joined the party to say that, on the subject of Montenegrin literature, she was hoping to get an English translation of fiction by @ksenijapopovic shortly. Soon after that @ksenijapopovic popped up with the news that her novel was being proofread as we spoke and should be ready in ebook form in the next few weeks. I asked  her to keep me posted and she duly did, tweeting at me excitedly on 16 July to say that A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf was now available on Amazon.

In the meantime, I’d done a bit of research on Ksenija Popovic (or Xenia Popovich as her name is rendered on the e-cover of the English version). It turns out she’s something of a Montenegrin literary star. Her first novel was a bestseller, won an award (the name of which I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory translation for) and was made into a film. She also did the translation of her latest book, the only one so far available in English, herself. Sorry though I was to have to bypass Andrej Nikolaidis, about whom I’d heard several good things, I was going to have to check this out.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf unpicks the backstory of Klara, a classical pianist turned housewife, who at the age of 30 is already ‘old and tired’. Taking us back through her tough childhood in an orphanage, or ‘home for mistakes’, in an anonymous semi-American, semi-European town, the narrative explores the horrific events that led to the collapse of her relationship with her first love, Vuk, and her subsequent lonely marriage.

The wit and cynicism of Klara’s voice is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. ‘Born bitter, unwilling to indulge in childish deceptions’, she looks the calculating mechanisms of the children’s home, where wards of the state are ‘spared the pressure of attending high school’ by being sent to work in the neighbouring factory, full in the face. The early passage where Klara introduces us to the staff’s manipulative method of getting visitors to donate money pulls no punches:

‘The director’s impeccable system, which she liked to call her only child in a sea of other people’s children, triumphed whenever one of us pulled the lady by the sleeve and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you my mommy?”‘

The robustness of the storytelling means that the narrative is able to take the weight of the traumatic events that later crowd in upon it. While the gear change into graphic descriptions of abuse may be too abrupt and shocking for some readers’ tastes, Popovic’s fearlessness and frankness carry it through. Her insight into the way extreme experience warps the dynamics of human relationships is particularly impressive, and I found myself repeatedly typing ‘great’ and ‘wow’ into the notes on my Kindle as I read her account of the mental labyrinth Klara wanders through in the latter half of the novel.

The secret of the book’s success is that, unlike most authors writing about under 18s, Popovic is not an adult writing about children but a person writing about people. Her work is entirely free of that coyness writers usually seem to feel about children’s emotions, meaning that love, fear, anger, sexual attraction and hatred are every bit as raw, present, shocking and enthralling for her young characters as for adults, if not more so.

One or two strange words like ‘pianism’ and ‘snobbism’ have slipped through the translation net. These stick out, however, because the rest of the work flows so well – helped no doubt by the years Popovic spent in the US as a child. In fact, as the book goes on, you begin to wonder if they aren’t meant to be coinages by Klara, so atypical are they of the rest of the text.

But this is splitting hairs. As a whole, this is an outstanding piece of work: raw and fearless. If anyone needs proof of the value of authors being able to self-publish to ebook, it’s right here in this novel: the second self-published translation of a work published commercially in another language I’ve read this year. A fantastic achievement. More please.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf by Xenia Popovich, translated from the Montenegrin by Xenia Popovich (Xenia Popovich, 2012)