Postcard from my bookshelf #1

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Wow. What a fantastic response there’s been to my pledge to send a translated book to a stranger each month throughout 2017.

To date, nearly 170 people have applied to be part of the project, which marks the fifth anniversary of my year of reading the world. I have heard from fellow literary explorers – among them 13-year-old Aisha in Pakistan and Sally in Maine, US, who is cooking her children meals from the countries she reads books from. There have also been comments left by physical adventurers, such as Michelletrinh9, who is cycling around the globe with her boyfriend.

Teachers and students, librarians and booksellers, bloggers and writers, and teenagers and retired people have all been in touch.

Many have shared powerful accounts of the importance of books in their lives and the difficulty of accessing literature in some parts of the globe. And I have read moving personal accounts from people facing enormous challenges.

Just as in 2012, I have been amazed and humbled by the enthusiasm of booklovers. The experience has reminded me that sharing stories is a universal human activity. It has shown me again the enormous potential of storytelling to connect us across political, social, religious and geographical divides.

Choosing my first recipient has been tricky. For a while, I had no idea how to begin deciding who would get a book. Reading the comments, I wished I could pick out something for everyone.

Then it struck me that many of the messages were from people who represented groups that were essential to the success of my original quest. As Postcards from my bookshelf  is about giving back and saying thank you for the kindness of so many strangers who helped me read the world in 2012, it seemed to make sense to pick an individual from each of these categories to send a book to throughout the year.

And so this is what I have decided to do. There will be a few entirely random selections along the way, so everyone who entered has a chance of winning a book. For the most part, however, the postcards will be sent to people who in some way stand for groups that proved essential in my project to read a book from every country.

As such, my first book goes to a person from a profession that is vital for stories to cross borders: a translator.

I have chosen Laimpresionista, who translates prose and poetry from Spanish, English and occasionally French into Greek, to represent this group. She told me:

I think I would go for a nice thick novel of a Turkish, Syrian or Egyptian writer. I live on a greek island and during these past two or three years, our life has been changing rapidly. War refugees keep arriving in Greece on a daily basis and I feel I should somehow get to know them a bit better. I don’t mean to get political or anything but my daily contact with people from Pakistan or Syria or Afganistan sometimes makes me think that the only thing I know about my new neighbours is the capital city of their country and, maybe, part of their cuisine.

This got me thinking about a lot of the Arabic and Turkish literature I have read in recent years. There are, of course, many marvellous long novels in English and English translation by Turkish and Egyptian writers who are household names in many parts of the world. Authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk need little introduction to many people.

However, I was pretty certain that Laimpresionista would already have heard of these writers. I also felt that, while their books are wonderful – as is the work of Rafik Schami, whose Damascus Nights I read as my Syrian choice back in 2012 – they would not necessarily provide insight into the issues she mentioned.

For a while, I thought I might send Khaled Khalifa’s hard-hitting novel In Praise of Hatred. I read this book a couple of years back and, although it is set several decades ago, it was banned in Syria after it was published in 2006 and is felt by many to bear on contemporary events.

But, in truth, the most powerful work I have read about the horrific situation that has displaced millions of Syrians is not fiction, but a non-fiction book: A Woman in the Crossfire by Samar Yazbek (translated by Max Weiss). The journalist and novelist’s account of the collapse of normal society in her home town of Jableh haunts me many months after I read it.

When I looked Yazbek up, I found that another of her more recent works has since made it into English. The Crossing (translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) draws on a number of secret journeys that the now-exiled Yazbek has made back into Syria to document the ongoing devastation and arrival of ISIS.

I knew it was the book I had to send. And so, hoping that my recipient wouldn’t mind a non-fiction book in place of the novel she asked for, I picked up two copies from the picturesque Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly – one to send and one for me.

Laimpresionista, I’ll be reading it with you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be chosen on February 15.

Book of the month: Najwa Barakat

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Since my visit to Dubai at the start of December, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Arabic fiction. The last few weeks have seen me venturing into stories by writers from several of the 22 Arab nations, but particularly from Egypt. These have included popular contemporary titles such as Alaa al-Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt, as well as revered classics like Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley. (Incidentally, Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate, is one of the writers people contact me about most frequently and after this, my first foray into his acclaimed body of work, I can see why: the man was a consummate storyteller and I have no doubt that I’ll be working my through many of his books in the years to come.)

However, much as I enjoyed these well-known works, I was keen to find something less widely covered to tell you about. And so it was that I picked up Oh Salaam! by the Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat, a title I heard about first through M Lynx Qualey, who runs the Arabic Literature (in English) blog and has just released a tempting list of 15 notable titles appearing in English translation next year.

Set in an unnamed, war-torn city (which many readers will inevitably identify as Beirut), Oh Salaam! follows the fortunes of former bombmaker Luqman and his surviving associates as they try to make the best of an uneasy peace. The game-plan is to capitalise on their killer instincts by setting up shop as rat exterminators – a much-needed service in a city where the destruction of basic infrastructure has created serious vermin problems. But as Luqman, Najeeb and the female title character Salaam attempt to build new lives for themselves, it becomes clear that the devastation surrounding them is only a mild reflection of the ruination of their own minds.

This is a book of wildly contrasting registers. Writer Eyad Houssami has called it ‘pulp fiction’ and it’s easy to see why: there is a rough, picaresque, graphic caste to much of the storytelling. Violence is unflinchingly and copiously described, sex scenes are unapologetically vivid, and there is much greater explicitness around bodily functions than many readers of Anglophone literary fiction will be used to.

However, the novel is much more than the sum of these parts. It is funny, insightful and challenging. Some passages of interior monologue recall the paranoid, self-questioning of the creations of writers such as Salinger, Orwell and, yes, Mahfouz. And amid the narrative’s cacophony and at times almost breathless recounting of incident, there are odd flashes of beauty in the writing.

In many ways, this collision of styles is an entirely fitting way to portray life in this ‘end-times city’. In a place where public executions become the setting for casual sexual encounters and doormen turn blackmailers, where once-grand buildings lie broken and important archaeological sites are threatened by bulldozers, violent juxtaposition is the only constant.

This plays out particularly interestingly in Barakat’s treatment of gender dynamics. Seeing the world at first largely through Luqman’s eyes readers are exposed to a cold, calculating and deeply misogynistic perspective, which is redeemed only by the protagonist’s awareness of his own limitations. However, when the camera shifts, we see something of Salaam’s views on men and discover a much more nuanced and layered reality than the opening chapters might suggest.

Inevitably, however, the hotchpotch nature of the narrative carries risk. At times the plotting feels loose to the point of ragged. There are odd repetitions and overuses of certain phrases that may have been present in the original or may have crept in at the translation stage. Though some of Barakat’s similes spear ideas precisely, others clatter wide of the mark. The swinging between perspectives and registers can also make for a disorientating reading experience, in which it can be hard to know where to pin our sympathies.

Some of this is no doubt deliberate, however. Because Barakat clearly does not intend her book to be a comfortable read; it is too full of urgency, anger and despair at humankind’s inadequacy in the face of great disaster for that. Instead, those who give themselves over to her narrative will be swept into a powerful simulation of the mental havoc that physical violence wreaks and the blinkers that people often have to assume in order to survive. A difficult but vital insight, particularly for those of us sitting in comfort half a world away.

Oh Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink Books, 2015)

Picture: Bombed commercial centre by M Asser on flickr.com

World bookshopper: #11 House of Prose, Dubai

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I am a little worried when I arrive at Jumeirah Plaza. The first bookshop I find – a small boxy place with transparent walls overlooking the escalators – is empty. There is nothing to it but bare shelves and a sign on the door declaring: ‘Closed. Please call again.’

Given that I have spent 40 minutes finding the mall on Jumeirah Beach Road with the help of Google Maps and a bewildered taxi driver who, when I asked him if he knew where he was going, told me rather mysteriously that he wasn’t a computer, calling again seems unlikely. I wonder if I have made a mistake picking this place to visit from the list of ‘8 Best Bookstores’ listed on LivinginDubai.org.

Luckily, before I lose heart completely, two passersby recognise my dismay and ask if they can help. When I say that I am looking for House of Prose, one points confidently to a space diagonally below us. Two minutes later, I am standing outside the reassuringly book-stuffed House of Prose, a sweet, wood-fronted place with rectangular-paned windows that looks as though it might have been more at home in Diagon Alley than in the glittering mall.

An unattributed quotation on the chalkboard on the door sets a cosy, personal tone: ‘I really like it when a second-hand book I’ve bought has an inscription inside. It makes me feel like I haven’t just purchased a story, but got a tiny piece of another person’s life as well.’

The cosy impression continues inside, where I am greeted by Diana who tells me about the store where she has worked for more than four years (‘I’m not bored yet!’ she says with a twinkle in her eye). Over its nearly two decades in the city, House of Prose has become renowned for the distinctive approach it takes to buying and selling second-hand English-language books.

When the store acquires a title, the assistant stamps the flyleaf with the shop’s mark. This enables the buyer to return the book for a 50 per cent cash refund when they have finished reading it. The volume will then be put back on the shelves to await another purchaser.

The store is able to offer this service because its staff are very selective about the titles they stock. Driven by what is likely to sell well, they generally only accept fiction by big-name authors or novels with a copyright date within the last calendar year. Agatha Christie, Diana tells me, will always find a place on the shelves, whereas little-known authors with books out a few years before are unlikely to be accepted.

Nevertheless, they are sometimes forced to draw a line when their stocks of certain writers’ works become too plentiful. Pointing out two shelves bursting with James Patterson novels, Diana explains that House of Prose is now only accepting his very latest publications for fear of getting inundated with the prolific American author’s books.

While the store’s non-fiction selection tends to skew towards sport, travel and history – I spy books about the Grand Prix and travel memoirs by Michael Palin, as well as Imran Khan’s Indus Journey and The Bombers: The Illustrated Story of Offensive Strategy and Tactics in the Twentieth Century by Robin Cross – certain more specialist genres are surprisingly popular. According to Diana, books about pregnancy and birth are always welcome. The same goes for children’s story books. ‘People will not stop having babies,’ Diana explains.

And though commercial big hitters dominate the shelves, there are some less obvious titles in the mix. You’ll spot more than a few Booker prize winners and shortlisters among the beach reads. And in the biography section books on global figures such as Obama jostle with works on less well-known (usually British) personalities, among them actors Shane Ritchie and David Jason, and the late TV presenter Roy Castle.

Translations are pretty thin on the ground – limited mostly to crime giants such as Jo Nesbø and Deon Meyer – but I do spot some Isabel Allende. I am also very pleased to find English-language versions of both my Saudi Arabian and UAE reads – even if Mohammad Al Murr’s The Wink of the Mona Lisa is filed slightly confusingly under ‘Miscellaneous’, where it rubs shoulders with Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan – and The Path to Victory. 

And in classics, I find the translation I decide to buy. No, not Don Quixote, although he is there (he does get around, that would-be knight-errant). I plump instead for Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead. It will plug a notable gap among the Russian greats on my bookshelf – unless, of course, the next time I’m in Dubai, I decide to take advantage of House of Prose’s partial-refund returns policy and trade it in…

Turkmen book published in English

the-tale-of-aypi-72dpiI’m often contacted by fellow literary explorers keen to know if the unpublished books I read during my quest are now available so that they can read them too.

Sadly, I frequently have to answer no: the manuscript translations I read from the Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, are still unpublished. And although I have heard from several publishers interested in bringing out an English-language version of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi, an anglophone text is yet to appear.

However, there has been some good news this summer when it comes to the book I read from Turkmenistan, the whimsical novel The Tale Aypi by exiled writer Ak Welsapar. This has found an English-language home with Slavic literature press Glagoslav Publications and is on sale now.

This means that Welsapar’s novel, the first book to be translated directly from Turkmen into English, is now accessible in the world’s most-published language. Great news for its author – who lost so much when his work was blacklisted in his home nation – and for curious readers everywhere.

As such, The Tale of Aypi joins The Golden Horse, my then-unpublished Panamanian read (now available on ebook), on the anglophone global bookshelf. Let’s hope we soon see many others follow suit.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (Glagoslav Publications, 2016)

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Postcards from my bookshelf (or A year of sending the world books)

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Exactly five years ago today, I did something eccentric. Sitting in my living room in south London, I decided to spend 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world.

To this end, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and posted a short appeal online asking the planet’s book lovers to suggest what I should read from different parts of the globe.

On that dank October day, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested. Yet within hours of my request going live, I had numerous comments and messages from people I’d never met offering all sorts of ideas. Just four days later, a stranger in Kuala Lumpur had volunteered to go to her local English-language bookshop to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me.

What followed was an extraordinary quest that challenged and remade me in ways I could never have imagined. It introduced me to writers and translators around the planet. It established friendships and professional connections I cherish to this day. It reshaped the way I read and write. And it taught me a huge amount about the extraordinary power stories have to connect us across geographical, political, social and religious divides. It also transformed me into a published author.

A year of reading the world changed my life. But it could never have done so without the generosity of the hundreds of book-loving strangers who went out of their way to do research, send me books, and even translate and write things specially for me from countries with no commercially available literature in English.

The project prompted the most extraordinary outpouring of altruism I have experienced.

And so, as the five-year anniversary of A year of reading the world rolls round, it seems only fitting to take a leaf out of those generous volunteers’ books and pay some of that kindness forward.

As such, this October 24, I have decided to spend next year doing another eccentric thing. Once a month throughout 2017, I will send a translated book to a stranger – a sort of postcard from my bookshelf.

You can apply to be one of the recipients by leaving a comment below. All you need to do is tell me a bit about you, the sort of things you like reading and why you want a book from me.

On the 15th day of each month I will choose one person to receive a book translated into English and use the information they have given me to select something I hope they will enjoy. I will post or courier this title to the recipient wherever they are in the world.

It would be great to hear from as many readers as possible, so please share this with anyone you think might be interested. As I discovered five years ago, the more people who get involved, the better reading the world can be.

World bookshopper: #10 Aida Books&More, Valencia

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A while ago, Miguel left the following comment on this blog:

Hi Ann,

If you ever come to Valencia (Spain), I volunteer in a second-hand bookstore called “AIDA Books & more”. It is fully run by volunteers, all books are donations and all profits go to support the projects of the charity organization AIDA. The projects are mainly focused on countries like Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh, Cambodia and more. And there are more AIDA bookstores in Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia and soon in Castellón.

You are warmly welcome!

Well, in September I spent two weeks in the city and so, one glorious afternoon when the sun shone done more warmly than we ever experience in the UK, I made my way to the shop where Miguel volunteers.

Situated north of the Jardines del Real, an offshoot of Valencia’s Jardines del Turia (one of my favourite places in the world), AIDA Books&More is in a parade of shops on the Carrer de Molinell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it if you were walking past – indeed, the trolley of books on the pavement is so casually placed that it almost looks as though it might have been left there by a passer-by.

Once you go inside, however, it’s clear that this is a place run by booklovers. There is a buzz of enthusiasm in the air, tangible even to someone with only about 20 words of Spanish like me. What’s more, the curation of the stock is impressive, with sections neatly organised.

The place is clearly popular. When I visit, numerous customers are drifting up and down the aisles and in and out of the back room, browsing to the accompaniment of music by Elton John and the Pet Shop Boys playing throughout the store.

Second-hand bookshops can provide interesting insights into the reading habits of those living nearby because much of what they sell often comes from the collections of local people looking to downsize or declutter.

If the shelves of AIDA Books&More are anything to go by, the reading tastes of Valencians are diverse and wide-ranging. Alongside an extensive fiction section, featuring Spanish and Catalan versions of numerous international favourites, as well as regional bestsellers such as novels by Andorran author Albert Salvado whose The Teacher of Cheops I read for this project, there are a lot of areas catering to niche interests.

Chess lovers will find a table of books devoted to strategies for achieving the perfect check mate; those curious about new-age philosophies and spiritualism will discover several shelves devoted to works on this. There are bookcases holding erotica and various kinds of cookery books, as well as an extensive selection of poetry and plays.

Here and there, old editions of classic works, such as Don Quixote, peer down from ledges and window sills. And for the thrifty, sale tables offer bundles of books at bargain-basement prices. For a handful of euros Javier L. Collazo’s three-volume English-Spanish Diccionario enciclopédico de términos técnicos could have been mine.

Although I assumed there would be little else that I could read in the shop, I was wrong. In the back room, I happened upon a shelf devoted to books in English, with smaller selections of books in French and German beneath.

There were some surprises here too. Although the majority of the English-language titles were mass-market crowd pleasers, with the inevitable Dan Browns and James Pattersons cropping up several times alongside offerings by Sue Townsend, CS Lewis and Rudyard Kipling, there were some more obscure works in the mix. I suspect it might be a while before S. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (volume II) finds its next home.

Among the smattering of works aimed at younger readers, I was delighted to find my childhood favourite, LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Clearly, not far away, there was a reader after my own heart.

In the end, I plumped for VS Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira, handing over the princely sum of €1 to a cheery woman at the till. She took my monosyllabic Spanish in her stride and sent me on my way with a merry smile.

I wandered back through the beautiful parks confident that if the charitable work of AIDA is carried out with anything like the enthusiasm that goes into running its bookshops, its projects are in very good hands.

Thanks for the tip-off, Miguel!

Reading the world through libraries

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Last week I had the great honour of delivering the 26th Annual Mortenson Distinguished lecture at the University of Illinois in the US. The Mortenson Center was founded through the generosity of C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, who believed that librarians sharing information is one of the shortest and surest roads to world peace.

Since 1991, the organisation has provided training to 1,300 librarians from more than 90 countries. It has also raised $2.5m-worth of grants to strengthen skills and modernize libraries. So you can imagine my delight at being asked to contribute to the final celebrations marking its first quarter-century.

The visit turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Shortly after I landed at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself sitting with a group of librarians in a Chinese restaurant. They had been attending a workshop on global studies and were full of ideas

The next morning, following a jog round campus and a brief spell going over my notes, I was picked up by Rebecca from the centre and taken to the library in which the Mortenson Center is housed.

Although the no-gun signs on the doors felt forbidding, the library was anything but. I was delighted to see a large number of students enjoying the space in the subterranean building – built that way so as not to overshadow a historic experimental corn field, one of the first of its kind.

I particularly liked the board of questions posted up for graduate researchers to answer, featuring a query as to whether Jack and Rose would both have fitted on the floating door in the film Titanic. This, along with several others, was addressed in great detail.

There was no time to ascertain the answer, however, as Rebecca whisked me off to the Mortenson Center, a small but intriguing space filled with gifts brought by many of the librarians who have visited over the years. A string of prayer flags hung over the sofa area, while a cabinet by the door of director Clara M. Chu’s office boasted ranks of trinkets, dolls, ornaments and mementos.

After lunch, the first of my events was a Chai Wai (or public dialogue) with former Mortenson Center director and author Marianna Tax Choldin. Her latest book, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia, is a compelling and moving account of her decades-long fascination with the Soviet Union and Russia, which she has visited more than 55 times over the course of her career. It considers the personal and social effects of censorship and reveals the importance of a concerted effort to understand the past.

Chaired by former American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director Barbara M. Jones, the discussion proved lively and wide-ranging, as you can see from the video of it here. Though the audience was small, there was no shortage of questions and we covered everything from the intriguing Japanese film Library Wars: The Last Mission (definitely on my to-watch list) to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic to which both Tax Choldin and I refer in our books.

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Next came the investiture of the Mortenson Center’s third director and distinguished professor, Clara M. Chu, and a celebration reception. Then it was my turn (you can watch the video of the lecture if you’d like to see how it went – my presentation starts at about 17.53).

Saturday was my last day in Illinois and Clara Chu and I spent it visiting Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, often said to be the US’s greatest president. There, alongside a welter of insights into Lincoln’s rise from lawyer to world leader, his efforts to champion the abolition of slavery, the horror of the American civil war and the pity of the great man’s assassination, I learned an interesting fact: each president has his (or perhaps one day her) own library. For every American leader, there is a small army of people sorting, ordering and safeguarding the historically significant documents associated with their time in office so that others may learn from them.

Important though books are, my visit to Illinois reminded me, they are limited without the people who organise, promote and – all too often – have to fight attempts to keep others from reading them. Librarians are at the forefront of these efforts. And as books such as Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories demonstrate, they have been essential in drawing out and shaping many an aspiring wordsmith.

This is one of the reasons why I’m also delighted to have got involved with another library-centred organisation recently. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative aims to make more resources and techniques available to librarians to help them encourage readers to explore books from around the world.

Founded this year and already numbering 345 members, the project will run workshops, produce catalogues featuring excellent translated books and suggest tactics such as pairing unfamiliar works with popular titles to help readers venture further.

‘It’s about recognition,’ says translator and publisher Rachel Hildebrandt, who founded GLLI. ‘Very often librarians know what the patrons like. It’s sometimes enough to get someone to pick up a book that they might never pull off the shelf.’

Both the Mortenson Center and GLLI are funded by donations and would appreciate any help you can give (click the links to find out more). Hopefully, soon librarians everywhere will have the tools to help anyone who wants to to read the world.

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

Farewell to the shelf

 

A week ago, almost five years after I first asked book lovers to help me read the world, I packed up the bookshelf that stored all the paper volumes I accumulated during the project. It was still arranged almost exactly as it had been when I finished my quest on December 31, 2012.

Yet last Friday everything from the massive hardback photobiography of Grace Kelly that I read for Monaco to the printout of ‘To Forgive Is Divine Not Human’, the story that Julia Duany wrote and read for me to represent her nation South Sudan, went into boxes.

I was moving out of the little south London flat in which I read the world and where, huddled at my desk in the corner, watching bin men and delivery lorries come and go out of the window, I wrote two books: Reading the World (known as The World Between Two Covers in the US) and my first novel Beside Myself.

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Packing up is a strange thing. You encounter objects that you haven’t looked at or noticed properly for a long time.

Picking up each of those books and loading them into boxes – it took four and, as you can see from the pictures, James Joyce proved particularly problematic (plus ça change) – was a touching, joyful and meditative experience.

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Handling the volumes brought to mind many of the stories of what people did to help me in my quest. Ripples and Other Stories recalled for me the generosity of Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, who chose and posted it to me from the other side of the world; the striking black cover of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta made me think of the afternoon I spent discussing author Aglaja Veteranyi’s extraordinary life and tragic death with her former partner Jens Nielsen (a conversation recorded in Reading the World).

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I remembered the many generous people who sent me unpublished manuscripts and self-published works, as well as the team of volunteers who translated a short-story collection so that I would have a book to read from São Tomé & Principe.

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I also found other things. Buried in a stack of notebooks that had languished on top of the bookcase long before the AYORTW shelf took shape, I found scraps of a diary from early 2009.

It was not a happy time for me. Having given up my job with the ambition of earning my living purely from writing and editing, I was feeling lost and very doubtful of my ability to achieve my goal. In one entry, I wrote:

A feeling of real depression, uselessness, worthlessness and rubbishness. Have I been here before? I’m not sure to this extent. I feel a fraud. Always a fraud. What can I write? I’ve spent a year twiddling with ideas, churning out words, some of which are half-decent but none of which go anywhere. […] I need to get myself out of this, prove I can do it. […] Sit down at the computer and go on through. This is getting to life and death now. Honesty, that is the key. To write something honest and fearless. […] Sit down tomorrow, brainstorm and write. Not be afraid that the chain of words will break.

 

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At the time, I couldn’t have guessed that the chain of words that would ultimately pull me out of that funk would be written not by me, but by hundreds of strangers around the world.

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It’s taken a few days, but at last I am relatively well-established in the place that will be my home for the next few months. For the first time in my life, I have my own writing room.

The AYORTW books have their own temporary shelf too. It’s rather ramshackle and constructed mostly out of packing boxes, but it has managed to stand up for 24 hours. Arranged in a different order (just imagine the exciting conversations they must be having with their new neighbours), they are staring out at me now.

They will watch as I continue with my next project, another novel. If ever the writing process gets difficult, inspiration will be close at hand.

Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)