Book of the month: Mieko Kawakami

There are novels that force you to recommend them. My latest featured title is a case in point.

I first heard about Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs several months before it was published. A number of writers and readers whose opinions I respect were buzzing about it on Twitter and their enthusiasm for what was billed by its British publisher Picador as a ‘radical and intimate portrait of contemporary working class womanhood in Japan, recounting the heartbreaking journeys of three women in a society where the odds are stacked against them’ was enough to persuade me to preorder it.

Something in the pre-publicity hype clearly stuck because, by the time the title spiralled down onto my e-reader in late August, I was eager to get into it. As soon as I did, I became engrossed in protagonist Natsu’s account of her tortuous search for fulfilment over years spent carving out a career as a writer in Tokyo.

Had this novel been written and edited in English, I suspect it would have been slanted rather differently. Given the anglophone market’s preoccupation with story hooks, I think it’s likely that, if it had been written by a British or American author, this book would have been presented not as a portrayal of the heartbreaking journeys of three working-class women but rather as an account of the struggle of a sexophobic single woman to have a child (which it also is). That more sensational and grabby premise would have been front and centre in an effort to tempt readers to pick the work off the shelves.

Instead, however, the novel starts slowly with a series of meandering encounters. Perhaps partly because the first half was originally published as a novella in its own right, the threads connecting the various elements and characters are so fine as to be almost imperceptible. Indeed, there are times when it feels as though we might be reading a collection of interlinked short stories, with intense accounts of experiences erupting for a few pages only for their subjects to disappear never to be referred to again. There are elements of the surreal and the random in the mix too – weasels drop from the ceiling of a restaurant and the three central characters finish one evening cracking eggs over one another. Through it all, however, Kawakami remains in control, drawing the threads ever tighter until at last she reveals the rich tapestry of the conclusion.

One of the author’s many gifts is her skill at depicting relationships that cannot easily be categorised. She gives us professionalism blurred with friendship; romance without sex; love in a range of hard-to-define forms. These ambiguous connections allow her to shine a light on the cracks and gaps in human society, interrogating – sometimes shockingly – many of the actions and processes most people take for granted. Yet there is a wonderful warmth underlying even the most clear-eyed of these explorations, coupled with a poignant awareness of the fleetingness of the opportunity we have to make sense of our surroundings. ‘We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world,’ as Natsu puts it.

As a writer, I particularly enjoyed the novel’s exploration of creativity and the publishing world. From Natsu’s time in obscurity keeping a blog ‘collecting dust in a corner of the internet’, through her struggles with writing and dealing with feedback, to the outrageous behaviour of the literati at book-world parties, Kawakami’s insights are witty and illuminating. (Indeed, they made me rather sorry that I only had lunch with my Japanese publisher when I met him a few years ago in Tokyo!)

The irony is, of course, that all these struggles are captured in compulsively readable prose, flexible enough to be by turns hilarious, thought-provoking, moving and beautiful (credit to translators Bett and Boyd here). ‘We’d like to think that the books that merit attention find a readership – but after what happened with my collection, it felt safe to say that merit had nothing to do with it,’ reflects Natsu. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure writers the world over share. However, Breasts and Eggs, which was a bestseller in Japan, is proof that sometimes wonderful novels do get the recognition they heartily deserve.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bookstore in Tokyo. They are not extinct!’ by chewy travels on flickr.com

A literary explorer’s guide to blogging

In October 2011, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and started this blog. I didn’t know it then, but the website would change my life.

The original quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year turned out to be mind-blowing in ways I’d never anticipated: it reconfigured my imagination, reading and writing, and brought me into contact with authors, translators and readers around the globe. What’s more, the international following this blog received initiated a stream of thrilling invitations and opportunities that continues to this day.

Highlights from the past eight years include speaking at TED Global and the launch of my career as a published author, now with three books to my name.

With much of the world on lockdown for the foreseeable future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it strikes me that many people might use the time at home to start a blog. As such, I thought I’d share some tips gleaned from my experience. Feel free to add yours at the end!

  • Choose an obvious name It can be tempting to be funny or clever with website titles. That’s fine if you’re setting up something just for yourself, but if you want to create a site that will appeal to a broad range of people, you need to make sure that no-one feels excluded by in-jokes that don’t translate. A simple, clear name that gives some idea of what your blog’s about is good. It also means that if someone searches for your subject area, your site will have a chance of featuring in the results.
  • Be specific There are hundreds of millions of blogs out there and an awful lot of them are brain dumps. Again, that’s fine if you’re just looking to make a site for your amusement (and of course there are some blogs like this that draw huge numbers of readers), but if you’re keen to develop something with greater reach, this approach will make it harder for your website to find an audience, at least at first. A better strategy is to pick a specific interest, goal, or issue and focus on that. You can always broaden out further down the line.
  • Keep it simple It’s possible to spend hours and a lot of money on designing your blog (and most platforms offer technical guides and support with using their tools – also, often, for a fee). However, my advice would be to avoid unnecessary embellishments – at least until you have more of an idea of whether blogging is going to become a habit. Select a basic template and start drafting your first post. Use (properly credited) pictures to illustrate your posts if you have them, but don’t worry about sticking to text if no obvious illustrations suggest themselves. If you want, you can add more images and upgrade the site once you’ve got a better idea of what works and how people use it.
  • Start small When you launch a blog, it can be tempting to contact everyone you know and tell them to check it out immediately. Indeed, this is what I did when I published my first AYORTW post in October 2011. If you’re not launching a project that needs participation, however, try to resist this urge, at least for a few days. Even if your subject matter and approach is clear in your mind, it’s likely that it will take a little time for the tone and format to settle. Be prepared for a few lonely days when you hardly get any clicks and make getting some good, consistent posts in place your first focus, so that, when the readers do flood in, they’ll have plenty of great content to enjoy.
  • Be boundaried Think carefully about how much of your information you want to give away on your blog. If you’re writing about sensitive or personal subjects, you might want to consider anonymising references to the people in your life or even giving yourself a pseudonym. One of the earliest ever blooks (blogs-turned-into-books), the now-defunct Diary of a London Call Girl, took this approach with great success.
  • Keep it accessible The language of the internet is informal and conversational. If your blog takes off, it will get readers from around the world, many of whom may not speak fluent English. As a result, it’s best to avoid unnecessarily complicated expressions and to explain references that may not be obvious to everyone.
  • Edit obsessively Conversational does not mean sloppy. The best writing often reads simply but communicates complex ideas. It has precision and power. In most cases, this comes from painstaking reworking. I’m a big fan of reading aloud. Once I have a complete draft of a post, I always read the whole thing out. It’s amazing what your ear catches.
  • Credit borrowed content properly Lots of people don’t do it, but I think it’s important to credit any images or other elements you use that are still in copyright and weren’t created by you. (You should also make sure that the picture in question has an appropriate Creative Commons licence, which you can filter for on photo sites such as flickr.com.)
  • Be kind to yourself Even with meticulous editing, reading aloud and double-checking, you are going to make mistakes. In my time, I have published posts about the non-existent countries of Dijibouti and Cormoros. I have misspelled writers’ names and made countless other slips. It feels awful when you realise you’ve messed up like this (and, if you’re unlucky, someone out there will leap on it as an opportunity to give you a good kicking). But try not to worry about it. As my time sub-editing for newspapers and magazines has taught me, not even the best writers are immune to bloopers. And at least with a blog, you have the opportunity to correct your mistakes after you’ve hit ‘Publish’.
  • Have a policy on changing published posts One of the lovely things about blogging is that it is an extremely forgiving medium. If you spot a typo or a missing word once a post goes live, it is easy to fix the mistake. I don’t think there’s any issue with correcting technical slips like this. The journalist in me, however, does have a bit of a problem with changing the argument or factual written content of posts after publication without being clear about what you’ve done. I think we bloggers have a duty to be transparent about what we publish and so, if I have to alter the content of something I’ve written after I have pushed it live, I will add a note explaining what I have changed. An example is the entry I wrote describing how I decided which countries my year of reading the world would involve: midway through 2012, I altered the list to include Palestine, so I changed the post accordingly and added a sentence in bold at the end to explain this.
  • Accept that not everyone will like your stuff I’ve been incredibly lucky that almost every interaction I’ve  had as a result of this project has been positive. All the same, it’s inevitable that when you put yourself out there in the way blogging requires, some people won’t like it. When you get unpleasant feedback, bear in mind that some of it will be valid (and will give you an opportunity to improve what you do). Some of it, however, will say more about the person who wrote the comment than about your blog. It might take a while to work out which category applies, so resist the urge to fire off a barbed response until you’ve had a bit of time to process what you’d like to say. If nothing else, a nasty comment is evidence that what you’ve written has made an impact.
  • Feel free to ignore me It’s your project, after all. The joy of a blog is that it’s your own free space to do with as you wish. Who am I to tell you how to arrange yours?
  • Have fun If this blogging thing takes off, you could be doing it for a long time, so you might as well enjoy it!

I’m trying to take my own advice at the moment because, nearly nine years since I launched this site, I have just started a new blog project. It’s still at a very early stage and I’ve no idea how it will develop, but if you’d like to take a look, I’d be delighted to know what you think.

Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.

My next novel: Crossing Over

One of my earliest memories involves an audiobook. I must have been about three or four when, on a trip to my local library, a cassette of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet caught my eye. My mother let me take it out and I remember sitting upstairs playing it over and over on a huge metal tape recorder. I couldn’t understand most of the words but I remember being impressed by their urgency and rhythm: something powerful was being expressed here.

Over the years that followed I listened to many story tapes. Even after my eyes learned to read words faster than the snappiest narrator could deliver them, I would still sometimes drift off to sleep to the strains of an old favourite. At one stage in my teens, I could often be found sitting in my bedroom knitting (I was an extremely cool kid…) while a classic novel played. Passages of Lorna Doone and The Mayor of Casterbridge still ring in my ears from time to time.

In my thirties, I rediscovered the joy of listening to stories and now frequently take audiobooks with me on my runs – recent highlights have included Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

So it is with great pleasure that I share the news that my next book, a novel called Crossing Over, will be coming out as an Audible Original title this month. Centred around an encounter between 87-year-old dementia sufferer Edie and Jonah, a traumatised Malawian migrant hiding in her barn, the book explores how, though we may never be able to comprehend other people perfectly, our interactions may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. Bringing in research into British and Malawian history, and my experience of life on the UK’s south coast, where small boats of migrants have been arriving for several years, it builds on my interest in testing how altered mental states can disrupt storytelling, language and memory.

This is a subject I first ventured into with the help of my bi-polar heroine, Smudge, in my debut novel, Beside Myself. Just like that book, Crossing Over owes a great deal to my year of reading the world and the many extraordinary stories I have since read from beyond my national borders, which have taught me to imagine further and take greater risks in my writing than I would ever have otherwise dared. I hope it’s also a jolly good read.

What’s more, I’m thrilled to have a brilliant narrator reading my words. British actress Adjoa Andoh has brought to life parts in everything from Shakespeare plays to Doctor Who. She’s also a star in the world of audiobooks, with such outstanding novels as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Naomi Alderman’s The Power to her name. I can’t wait to hear what she does with my work.

Crossing Over is available for preorder. If you are able to purchase a copy or tell your friends about it, you’ll make my day.

Book of the month: Herman Koch

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A while ago I got an email from a reader. She had enjoyed my novel, Beside Myself, she told me. But she particularly wanted to congratulate me on not having put a writer in it, this authorial habit being one of her pet hates.

Her message got me thinking. Stories featuring storytellers are pretty common. They’re also fairly universal. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Stephen King’s Misery, and from One Thousand and One Nights to Alice Munro’s ‘Family Furnishings’, the international literary landscape is thronged with imaginary wordsmiths. And, unfortunately for my correspondent, many of us seem to enjoy reading about them.

I suspect this is because where there are writers you usually find readers (or listeners) too. There can be few more satisfying things than recognising something in a book you are reading. Whether it’s an observation about an experience you have gone through or a truism about a particular sort of person or situation you know well, that flash of connection when a writer captures something you have long felt is a joy.

As a result, books that feature readers have a head start because they automatically contain subject matter that has the potential to resonate with every person who picks them up. This is a double-edged sword, however, because the sheer volume of literary works containing readers and writers means that any new contribution has to do something special to stand out.

At first glance, it seems that bestselling Dutch writer Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M, which hinges on the real-life and fictional accounts of the mysterious death of a school teacher several decades previously, may be a competent yet unremarkable addition to the genre. A number of familiar tropes and characters greet us in the opening chapters – the sinister fan with ‘certain plans’ for the object of his attentions, the jaded, ageing, white male author fearful that his greatest work is behind him, the suggestion that certain fictional events may bear more than a passing resemblance to real life.

Yet, as the pages turn, this literary novel in thriller’s clothing opens out like an umbrella, becoming something much more elaborate and impressive than its beginnings promise. Far from reading a neat and compulsive – yet ultimately familiar – account of the working through of a literary obsession, we find ourselves in the grip of a story that questions not only its own framework but the foundations of storymaking itself.

Looking and watching sit at the novel’s heart. Koch turns these themes around to explore their many angles using the ingenious device of having one of the central characters film various key events and then play them back at different points. The result is that we read several scenes from diverse perspectives, discovering how certain details recede or become accentuated depending on who is looking and why.

Although dark in tone, the book is not without playfulness. The jibes at the Amsterdam book-club scene (there is a particularly excellent sequence in a library, where Mr M is invited to do a reading and we are let in on his gripes about everything from the librarian’s haircut to the dog-haired blanket in the car that will drive him home) are as hilarious as they are daring. Similarly, numerous misanthropic observations about many of the lesser characters recall the delicious, if somewhat jaundiced, humour of recently translated Dutch classic The Evenings.

The complexity and sophistication of the narrative’s construction – it switches perspective and timeframes frequently – means that this is a more demanding read than its marketing might imply. Those wishing to be swept along by a comfortable whodunnit should opt for something else. It’s also the kind of book that repays lengthy reading sessions rather than brief dips in and out. There are so many threads that it’s easy to get in a tangle if you don’t keep a firm grip.

But for those with the time and energy, this story will more than reward the effort. Smart, stylish and beautifully controlled, this is one of those rare books that at once offers a great story and moves its genre forward.

Dear Mr M (Geachte heer M.) by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Picador, 2016)

Picture: ‘Diamond 530 NS4‘ by *Physalis on flickr.com

A book club with a difference

A few weeks ago, I had an exciting invitation. Audible, the UK’s largest providers of digital audiobooks, were launching a Listening Club. Once a month they would select one title to invite readers to discuss. They had decided to launch the club with the audio version of my debut novel Beside Myself, narrated by the wonderful Lisa Coleman. Would I be available to come to their London studio to take part in a recorded discussion with a small group of listeners to help get the conversation started?

The studios were in one of a number of glamorously converted warehouses near the Barbican. Brightly decorated, with bird-print wallpaper on the kitchen ceiling and large breakout spaces containing foosball and table-tennis tables, they were a world away from the tiny cluster of little black booths where I recorded the audiobook of  The World Between Two Covers in 2015.

They also contained the most beautiful piece of book-related art I have ever seen: Storylines, a huge reworking of the London Underground map, with book titles replacing station names. I was amused to find that the novels populating the area of north London in which I grew up seemed particularly dark, and included The Exorcist and Psycho.

The experience of talking about your work with readers can be mixed. Although it’s always nice to hear that people have engaged with your work, you often find yourself answering the same questions over and over again. When it comes to Beside Myself, a psychological drama about twins who get trapped in the wrong lives, I rarely get through a conversation without having to explain that I’m not a twin and that I have never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, unlike the main character of the novel.

This discussion was entirely different. Attended by three listeners, among them my friend, writer Rosie Fiore, who had received an invitation entirely by chance, and chaired by Audible editorial assistant Holly Newson, it explored many of the novel’s themes in great depth: nature versus nurture, the role of education and whether personality consists of what we are or of what others project onto us.

I particularly enjoyed talking about what the audio form can add to a novel, as my experience has been that narrator Lisa Coleman brought a huge amount of interpretative richness to the text. Indeed, as I explained in the discussion, it was her idea to make some of the voices in the central character’s head those of people in the novel – an extra layer that had not occurred to me.

The first Listening Club question went up on the Audible UK Facebook page yesterday and the recording of the discussion will be released soon. Watch this space!

Translation as transhumance

Being wordy people, translators often turn their hand to writing their own work. From David Bellos to Edith Grossman, many of the big names in the field have set down their thoughts about their craft in articles, essays and full-length books.

Blending their experiences with broader theoretical reflections about what it takes to transport meaning from one language to another, these works are often enjoyable and illuminating. Nevertheless, they can feel daunting to readers not directly engaged in working with words. Consisting largely, as they often do, of the writer’s efforts to find the terms to express the mechanisms of their art – to translate the concept of translation – these meta-narratives sometimes feel a little inward-looking, as though they can only be grasped fully by fellow practitioners.

As a result, when award-winning translator Ros Schwartz contacted me about her translation of French translator Mireille Gansel’s book Traduire comme transhumer (which hits the British bookshop shelves as Translation as Transhumance on November 1), I hesitated. A translation of a book about translation? Where would it all end?

The publicity material that accompanied the book wasn’t calculated to dispel my reservations. According to its opening sentence, the work I held in my hand was ‘half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation’s potential for humanist engagement’. My thoughts strayed to the translation of the Boris Akunin mystery I had just downloaded to my Kindle in advance of the Russian superstar coming to the Folkestone Book Festival next month – surely it would be more fun to put this worthy volume aside and crack on with a highfalutin tale of murder in nineteenth-century Moscow?

Luckily, Translation as Transhumance proved to be nothing like the dry, self-referential treatise I feared. Instead, what I discovered when I turned to the first page was an urgent, human work, blending together lived experience with insights so precise that they would make booklovers of all stripes gasp.

The writing is often exquisite. Presenting her memories and the reflections they inspire in a series of brief chapters, many of which run to no more than a page, Gansel (through Schwartz’s lens) has the knack of pulling us into a scene with a handful of words. We are there with her, beside her father’s armchair, on the night she first discovers the magic of unspooling the meaning in the letters that used to arrive from relatives in Budapest; we stand in the spartan rooms of her elderly relations dispersed across Europe by the cruel events of the twentieth century; and we discover the life-saving power of the work of Brecht as she relates her youthful encounter with it.

The immediacy of these descriptions means that we not only understand Gansel’s argument that human experience is encoded into words; we feel it too. Her portrayal of the way history has devastated and rebuilt the German spoken by many of Europe’s displaced people is as moving as it is beautiful:

‘This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.’

Language, we learn, bears the marks and scars of those who have used it before us. Even innocuous-seeming words can, with a little probing, be made to bleed.

Using this passionate engagement with the inner significance of words as a starting point, and tying it to detailed examples from her career, Gansel presents interpretations of translation at the end of many of her chapters. Several familiar tropes appear – bridging and smuggling both feature. But Gansel quickly leaves these behind, encountering and moving past image after image in an effort to elucidate what she does with words. Translation is an attempt to reach the language of the soul. It is an effort to communicate a work’s humanity. It is a ‘seismograph at the heart of time’. It is, as the title suggests, akin to the seasonal movement of flocks from pasture to pasture in search of nourishment.

Each of these formulations is illuminating and yet none of them entirely encapsulates the writer’s meaning. In many ways, that is Gansel’s point: language shifts constantly as words accrue associations that gradually bury others, such that a phrase written now will read very differently to someone encountering it in fifty years’ time.

As such, true translation must be a living, ongoing process; a constant effort to find the mot if not exactly juste then at least acceptable. It is for this reason that we need retranslations of classic works. And, yes, it is for this reason that there will always be room for new publications of translators’ reflections on their craft. If only they could all be as powerful as this.

Translation as Transhumance (Traduire comme transhumer) by Mireille Gansel, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2017)

Being translated

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent the past five years thinking a lot about translation and how important it is, I’ve been delighted to have a chance to observe the process from a different angle over the past twelve months. My novel Beside Myself has received book deals in around nine language territories, which means that I have had the privilege of seeing my writing translated into other tongues.

This has been a strange experience. As I don’t speak Thai, Polish, Chinese or Italian (some of the languages in which my work now exists), I have no way of knowing how the respective translators have rendered my story. I have had to trust them and my publishers to produce a fair representation of my original work, one that I hope will convey the kernel and spirit of the narrative to readers in their respective language markets.

From my own research and experience with reading translations, I am aware that this might involve a degree of alteration or the inclusion of extra bits of explanation in order to convey concepts that may not be familiar to people in other parts of the world.

As such, the process has brought home to me once more the generosity and fragility of translation – that it is essentially an exercise that relies on strangers reading your work with sympathetic and discerning eyes.

However, although I can’t read the foreign-language versions of my novel (apart from the French – of which more soon!), I have been able to consider the different book jackets and titles that publishers have chosen to give my work. This has been an education in the way that different book markets operate and so I am sharing a selection below. Above, from left to right, are the UK hardback, UK paperback, US hardback and US paperback covers for comparison.

(For those who don’t know, the novel centres around a pair of identical twins who swap places in a game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to change back.)

 

Vida robada

This is the cover of the Spanish edition. I like the sepia feel of the picture, which harks back to my central characters’ childhoods in the 1980s.

The literal translation of the title is ‘Stolen life’. This is interesting as it makes a more definitive statement about who is to blame for what happens in the novel than the original title. Spanish readers will have the sense that someone has done something wrong before they even begin the first page.

 

 

Moja siostra …czy ja?

The Polish cover is intriguing. We’re in thriller territory here. The mirror gets across the idea of twinship and doubleness. However there is a much darker feel to everything, as though the beautiful woman in the reflection is about to come to serious harm.

The title (‘My sister… or me?’) is much more direct than the English or Spanish versions. In Poland, readers know that this is a story about choosing between sisters as soon as they glimpse the spine of the book.

 

 

Beside Myself

The Taiwanese edition seems like a halfway house between the two previous versions. We have the slightly retro-feeling little girls, but the fragmenting of the picture lends a dark feel as though everything is about to fall apart.

The Taiwanese publisher has kept the English title on the cover (apparently this is common practice in this part of the world), but I’m not sure whether the Chinese characters are a literal translation of it or a different title – can anyone help me out?

 

 

The Person Who Stole My Name 

The Chinese cover is the most unusual of the ones I have seen. In fact, when I was first sent it, I was so intrigued that I asked my agent to find out what the thinking behind it was (in case you were wondering, there aren’t any flamingos in the novel).

The answer came back that the separation of the species – the little girl and the birds – was intended to indicate loneliness. This is a central theme in the novel, so that makes sense to me.

As with the Spanish title, Chinese readers of ‘The person who stole my name’ will have the sense that a wrong has been done to someone before they turn to the first page.

 

À sa place

The French cover also prompted a question, as to my British eyes it seemed to have slightly erotic overtones (again, not a strong feature of the book). My French editor, however, assures me that this is not the case in the French market.

I really like the ambiguity of the title (‘In her place’), which leaves open the question of which twin’s identity is under threat.

As I can read French (very slowly and with a big dictionary), I will be able to see how the story has been carried over into this new language. I’m planning to get stuck in as soon as I finish editing my next novel.

I’ll let you know how I get on…

Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

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.