In 2012, the world came to London for the Olympics and I went out to meet it. I read my way around all the globe’s 196 independent countries – plus one extra territory chosen by blog visitors – sampling one book from every nation.
I read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nicaragua, a book from Brunei, a… well, you get the picture.
It wasn’t easy — according to research by literature exchange platform Literature Across Frontiers, just 4.5 per cent of poetry, fiction and drama works published in the UK every year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tuvalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where not much is written down at all.
Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.
And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?
Frankly I didn’t know. But I hoped I’d figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.
What I did know was I couldn’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I used to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature was shamefully anglocentric.
So I asked for your help. I invited you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. The books could be classics or current favourites. They could be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. They could be novels, short stories, memoirs, biographies, narrative poems or a mixture of all these things. All I asked was that they had some claim to be considered part of the literature of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they were good.
If you want to know more about the quest, check out my TED talk below or go to the List and click the country names to discover what I read for each nation.
With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea