This month, the random-number generator led me to an intriguing comment. It was posted back in January by Rachel Unklesbay and went as follows:
I’ve just started your challenge to read a book from every country (not in a year, though. I have a toddler. I’m giving myself more time than that.) I love the idea of getting to know different peoples through their literature!
I would love to receive a book – or just recommendations. I sometimes struggle to find books that aren’t overtly sexual – I’m okay with some sex, but nothing pornographic – and sometimes authors try to make their books “edgy” and only succeed in making them really awkward. Is this something I just have to get over? Is this a worldwide trend, or just something Americans do to try to look grown-up?
Rachel’s words posed me something of a head-scratcher. After all, I have no way of knowing what counts as ‘overtly sexual’ in her eyes or whether our definitions of ‘pornographic’ match. Among many things, reading the world has taught me that people can have very different thresholds when it comes to a whole range of sensitive issues and if you attempt to second-guess someone’s sensibilities you can often end up extremely wide of the mark.
It’s a dilemma I’ve encountered many times over the last five years. One of the most common queries I receive is from people – often teachers – asking whether the books on the list are suitable for children of certain ages.
I’m sure they find my replies frustratingly vague, but the truth is I can’t answer definitively as I do not know what they would deem acceptable. Apart from the fact that individual children vary hugely in what they are capable of appreciating, there is the problem that what I consider harmless might be beyond the pale for my correspondents and visa versa.
It’s a point that was neatly illustrated when I looked into Chinese children’s literature and chose the award-winning Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (translated by Helen Wang) as my Book of the month back in April 2015. According to Wang and several other translators I’ve been in touch with, it can often be challenging to find Chinese children’s books that will work in the anglophone market because standards are so different: while Chinese stories can often seem rather simplistic and old-fashioned about things like gender roles, they can also be far more violent and graphic than is usual in English-language works aimed at similar age groups.
However, one thing I could very much identify with in Rachel’s comment was her comment about sex coming across as awkward in a lot of the titles she’s tried. That’s certainly an issue as far as British writers are concerned. Indeed, so much terrible writing about physical intimacy is published each year in my home country that the Literary Review magazine even runs an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.
I can’t say for sure whether this is a problem exclusive to English-language writers, although it’s certainly true that my international reading has introduced me to some of the best writing about sex that I have ever encountered (indeed, my post on the book I read for Guyana, which I naively titled ‘Guyana: sex and how to do it’ unintentionally brought a lot of people using dubious, sex-tourism-related search terms to my blog – but that’s another story).
Still, I wanted to choose a book that Rachel would be likely to enjoy and so didn’t want to run the risk of selecting something that she would find too explicit.
Instead, I’ve opted for a book that, while it might appear overtly sexual, is in fact far from it. The novel in question is The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated by Alison Anderson), which was my pick for Algeria.
As I wrote in my 2012 review, its provocative title made for some awkward moments on public transport – and was a neat demonstration of the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
Witty, inventive and beautifully written, this is a treat of a novel. Rachel, I hope you like it!