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Notas De Viaje - literature and the writing life in the Philippines
Associate Programme Director Kate Griffin reports on the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manilla; a three day international event entitled ‘Against the Grain’ which explored themes of struggle, social protest, regional/national voice and writing women’s lives.
In October I attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manila and enjoyed three days of intense exchanges and privileged insights into literature and the writing life in the Philippines. Writers in the Philippines are writing in English and Filipino, as well as in the regional languages, but literary translation is an incipient art in the archipelago. Geographically the Philippines is a little out of the way; writers there feel isolated from the global literary scene, and so welcomed the international attention brought about by this conference.
Writers and struggle
The theme of conference was ‘Against the Grain – difference, dissonance and dissent’. We were hosted by the University of the Philippines in their Diliman campus, a long-standing centre of dissent. Nicknamed the Republic of Diliman, the campus prides itself on being free of influence of government, church and military, offering a zone of critical thinking.
The conference opened with a keynote address by writer Butch Dalisay, who told us that writers in the Philippines have always had plenty to write about and struggle against. One of their heroes is the 19th century writer José Rizal, who published two anti-clerical novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which contributed to the rebellion against the Spanish colonisers and led to his execution in 1898. Today Rizal is a revered figure, with statues and museums celebrating his life.
Filipino writers continued to use literature to protest and raise social issues throughout the twentieth century, from feminism in the 1930s to the political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. During the decade of martial law, independent newspapers were referred to as the mosquito press, known for biting at the dictatorship until its collapse in 1986.
Now there is freedom of speech but against a background of poverty and powerlessness. Butch told us that there are no taboos or sacred cows: writers can write about sexuality and gender, identity, the diaspora, love and war, beauty and politics. That evening in the Conspiracy garden cafe, a popular hangout for writers and artists hangout, the readings by Filipino writers highlighted this lack of taboos, with sexuality a common theme.
Through fiction, writers can express their ideas and stay alive, but journalism is dangerous. In the Philippines, journalists face libel cases, even assassinations, especially in the boondocks
, still ruled by warlords, including the 2009 massacre of journalists and others in the southern island of Mindanao.
Filipinos are proud of their strong writing community and self expression is encouraged. Unlike other Asian countries, there are long-standing creative writing programmes and enrolments are rising; literary awards have been given for the past 65 years; there is a Manila book fair and two literary festivals; and new writers are given recognition.
However, there are few readers or booksales, in part due to poverty: the price of a paperback is higher than the average daily wage. There is also little real conversation across the languages and the classes, between the powerful and the disempowered; literary writing in English is often far removed from concerns of ordinary people.
The novel is historically under-developed in the Philippines and is a form readers do not find easily accessible. Rizal wrote two towering novels, with revolution in the background, a love story in the foreground and a cast of thousands. Contemporary Filipino writers are constantly trying to reproduce this, rather than aiming for writing that, while also dealing with big issues, is more intimate and allows readers to get to know each other across the different parts of the Philippines.
The reach of writing in Filipino is broader, but literature doesn’t sell well; people tend to prefer other forms of entertainment such as melodrama, films and television. Over lunch, I heard about a local bestseller by Jack Alvarez, a transgender sex worker based in Saudi Arabia who’s written his memoirs, self published in the Philippines in Filipino. My dining companions told me that Filipino-language non-fiction that tackles serious subjects but in a light and humorous style can outsell imported English-language bestsellers. The audience exists, but – as elsewhere – writers of literary fiction find it hard to reach the readership.
Notions of literary quality are imported from the west; according to Butch Dalisay, Filipino writers need to revisit and reconsider their ideas about literature and writing if they want to connect with the Filipino audience.
Voices from the regions
There are 173 distinct languages in the Philippines and a palpable tension between them. There is also tension between writers writing in the regions of the Philippines and those writing from Manila. In one of the conference panels, we heard from writers and translators based in some of the southern islands of Philippines, including Mindanao.
Playwright Roger Garcia spoke about translating Shakespeare into Cebuano, one of the languages of the Philippines. His students learn English and speak Cebuano in daily life, but not this lofty Cebuano; the translations need contextualisation and humour to make the plays accessible and the language recognisable.
Poet Christine Godinez-Ortega spoke about the writers’ workshop in Mindanao, which has been running for the past twenty years. Recognising that the national literature is multilingual, they are open to papers in all languages of the Philippines. The writer should bear witness to people’s lives and generate ideas in the language most intimate to them, with the creative freedom to interrogate the past. Many regional writers are steeped in native traditions and ways of seeing, using metaphors in indigenous languages, and sharing their writing with the rest of the world through the internet. Their topics include communities, politics, corruption, conflict, and the military. In Mindanao, Christine said, you find a showcase of indigenous literature untouched by Spanish colonialism; she believes that writing about present realities recreates the past for the future.
is a poet from the city of Tacloban, where the native language is Waray-waray. However, he studied in English, graduating without any knowledge of regional literatures, and didn’t know who he was as a writer or a person. And he was not alone in this; when he put together an anthology of Waray writing, he provided an English translation for local readers, as a way of reorienting them to their own language and literature.
Through the anthology Victor found himself returning to the cultural community of his father and grandfather and finding out about the fabric of his own social history. Oral poetry and song from the 1600s showed him that people in Tacloban had sophisticated ways of predicting weather, an advanced system of boat building, and witty songs. In the 1800s, men were shy and courtship rituals were complicated, they expressed their feelings though love songs that revealed their sad plight. From periodicals dating from the late 1800s to the 1960s Victor learned that the Waray language has changed little, incorporating just a few loan words from English. In the 1920s he read that the film-watching public adopted American dress but didn’t always get it quite right; women took a shine to bathrobes, thinking them fashionable, and wore them to market. In the 1940s poets ridiculed people who were adopting American language, and in the 1950s they wrote disapprovingly about women wearing make up, speaking broken English and flirting with Americans. Even then they were worried about the dominance of English language writing.
Victor translated Waray texts into English in the 1990s, for local readers who prefer to read in English rather than for a global audience. In Manila, he said, the English-language writers seek acceptance from critics, but this isn’t necessary for local writers, who publish on the internet. In theory they could be read by readers the world over, but they’re not – this is illusory. According to Victor, unknown writers in other languages generally become known only if they’re translated into English by an English-language writer or translator, a new form of literary colonisation. You can read the full text of Victor’s talk in the Leap+ magazine.
Playwright and composer Steven Fernandez
spoke about the concept of national literature, which should be the merging of all regional literatures, except that the centre dictates what is national literature. Classification also comes from the centre, but terms such as lyrical and narrative poetry don’t mean anything in regional languages and literatures, where engagement and performance is more important than form. Meaning depends on context, there are different definitions of the concepts of time and space in the regions, and humour doesn’t always travel.
Manila writers, particularly those who write in English, don’t make sense to people in the provinces, according to Steven. This is partly a language issue, as English sets the structure and frames the mind view. Meanwhile Filipino English has its own structure and meanings that are not always understood by US publishers.
Karlo David is a creative writing graduate from Davao, where there are three language groups: migrant settlers from the north of the Philippines; Muslim groups; and the indigenous residents of Mindanao. Karlo is a Tagalog-speaking migrant who lives in a linguistically diverse neighbourhood and often uses several languages. This linguistic turmoil is a challenge for writing. Writers who choose their mother tongue have to erase their other languages and as a result may have difficulty articulating their local identity.
Karlo chose not to purify his language but to write in the Tagalog he knows, mixed with words from other languages, such as Ilongu, Cebuano. In his writing he articulates local ways of cursing, flirting, and expressing cynicism. This doesn’t always go down well with university teachers, and it can be hard to get published, especially for pay. But Karlo fears that regional writers are becoming like writers from Manila, with enforced homogeneity; he believes that it’s important for writers to embrace regional diversity.
The conference closed with an absorbing keynote lecture by Christina Pantoja Hidalgo on ‘The Subversive Memory – Women Tell What Happened’. Few women in the Philippines have published literary memoir as candid self revelation makes Filipinos uncomfortable; much autobiographical work is written against the grain. In Manila, many personal documents were destroyed during the second world war; few were able to preserve their letters and diaries. Autobiography and memoir is not listed as a category in the Philippines, but is found embedded in other genres, such as poetry, essay, history, literary criticism.
The earliest Filipina memoir was by Gregoria de Jesús, born in 1875. Her ‘Notes on My Life’ was published in 1935. Much of her memoir focuses on her life as the wife and then widow of Andrés Bonifacio, a revolutionary fighting against Spain, rather than on her personal life and reflections.
Some memoirs were in the form of travel writing, including ‘Notas de Viaje’ by María Paz Mendoza-Guazón, who worked as a professional journalist in the early twentieth century. After a trip to the US, she felt that she had a duty to report on what she learned, in particular the level of ignorance of Americans about the Philippines. Another memoir was about of the Japanese occupation, the war seen through the eyes of a non-combatant, written first as a private diary. Other women recorded their lives through their cookbooks, collecting culinary notes, recipes, newspaper clippings, poems, all within the bounds of a traditionally female space.
Christina noted that Filipino men don’t like talking about their problems; they write about their profession and work, but not about their personal life. Most of the women memoirists that Christina discussed don’t talk about sex and intimate details such as marriage break up. Only one journalist and memoirist, Griselda Morales, writes about being abandoned by her lover.
For many of the women, writing memoir allowed them to find a core of stillness and stability within themselves, to reconstruct and rewrite their lives.
It took me three days to travel from Norwich to Manila but it was more than worth it, to spend three full days at the APWT conference learning about a distant literary scene and different ways of thinking, in such inspiring company.
Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'
Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year.
At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'
The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour.
I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches.
Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there.
When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.
On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.
East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive.
It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”
In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.
Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.
It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.
I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.
Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”
I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”
East Anglian Book Awards
Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
Listen to the provocation and debate here
Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?
In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?
I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road. That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal. There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably. All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”
Having said that, I thin
k all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function. And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality. They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.
Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real. Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe. It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share. It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.
It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.
That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve. The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy). We’re all agreed now that meaning
, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.
But still. Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world. If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three. Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it. And it’s the same with stories.
Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence
. It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence. It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable. You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.
What I’m saying is more about function. You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for. You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours. You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.
When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world. Be in there as yourself, not as someone else. And be honest. It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.
Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer. He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production. He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.
Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.
Shifting Debates and Modern Translation
Programme Director Jon Morley looks forward to our upcoming event Translation in the Margins. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, this practical symposium will investigate issues around translation. Tickets are still available at only £15.
Translation in the Margins, which I’m curating at the Free Word Centre on Saturday 3 October, will explore the radical edges of literary translation in an interactive, writer-led format.
When I used to study Postcolonial Literature in a Translation Studies department, it always seemed to me that there was something of a rift between the two fields. At the annual postgraduate conferences, I was often the lone postcolonialist, listening with fascination while translators outlined cutting-edge research. I remember illuminating presentations on the inadequacies of the classic English translations of Chinese poetry; on the pressure that Thai and Sri Lankan translators faced from Buddhist supremacists when they sought to bring narratives that challenged nationalist myths to a wider international readership; on unexpurgated English versions of Osama Bin Laden’s speeches, whose rhetoric seemed uncomfortably close to that of emblematic heroes of Third World liberation struggles (Mandela, Castro or Cabral). Like the history of empire which I was discovering more about, translation seemed to turn the world on its head.
With performance techniques borrowed from the Caribbean poets I loved (including samples of reggae music in an analysis of poetry, for example) I was able in turn to seize the attention of the translators, exposing them to New World perspectives on literature. It always struck me as strange that, for translators, there was such novelty in mixing up ‘literature’ and common speech in this way, given that multilingualism and ‘the oral tradition’ are conditions of the developing world.
The debate is shifting. International Translation Day, In Other Words and Modern Poetry in Translation regularly include discussion of postcolonial ‘englishes’ and how they might serve to bring texts from Africa or Asia into European markets. But our event (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) seeks to refine the issue a little more, by including translators, writers and political activists on the same platform and seeing what kinds of discussion, what lines of enquiry, emerge.
Jamaican poet Olive Senior will start the day off with a keynote lecture that explores the issues from a new world, Caribbean perspective. Bestselling Korean novelist Sun-mi Hwang will talk about setting children’s fiction – stories so dark and thought-provoking that they’re categorised as books for adults when the English translations hit the shelves of Waterstones – in war zones and disputed territories. Meena Kandasamy, Tamil poet, activist and agitator will argue that translation is a feminist act, speaking about the intimidation and threats she has received as a result of translating the political writings of ‘Untouchables’. Hamid Ismailov will reflect on the experience of being widely acclaimed as Uzbekistan’s foremost novelist whilst living in political exile, and how translation has facilitated wider access to his work. We’ll have a crash-course on how to translate poetry composed partly in Braille by Indonesian disability activist Khairani Barokka, radical publisher Deborah Smith will give her view on why the world still needs independent presses, Yrsa Daley-Ward will explore the new routes to publication that young, multiple-identity writers are experimenting with across Africa and the Americas, Francesca Beard will help us find new forms of expression through a live literature master-class, and we’ll close the afternoon with the announcement of the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize and an international poetry reading by several of our delegates.
Of course, there is much, much more that we could include. I hope the Q&A sessions will be lively debates where a multiplicity of writers, from different styles and different cultural backgrounds, can share their experiences and their hopes for the future.
The event runs at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon from 10.30am on Saturday 3 October. I hope to see you there!
Programme Director, Writers’ Centre Norwich
As Slowly as Possible: Han Kang Reports from the BCLT Summer School
In the summer of 2015, the acclaimed South Korean novelist Han Kang stayed in this Fine City as our latest UNESCO Writer in Residence, sponsored by the Arts Council of Korea. She attended Worlds, gave readings in Norwich, London and Edinburgh, translated poetry, explored the Norfolk landscape, met her publishers at Granta and prepared the proofs of her next novel, Human Acts (due to be published in the UK in January in Deborah Smith’s translation).
Following the BCLT Summer School, a practical symposium was organised to explore some of the issues around translation. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, Translation in the Margins will investigate the radical edges of literary translation. (Find out more about the event.)
Here, Han Kang reflects on the experience of being a guest author at the BCLT Translation Summer School in July. With additional support from the Korean Literary Translation Institute, a number of novice literary translators participated in a week-long workshop with Deborah and Daniel Hahn, testing different approaches to translating Kang's fiction in the presence of the author herself. Kang's fascinating diary entries form the basis of her account of the process. The below piece was translated by Deborah Smith.
Slowly, as slowly as possible
This summer just past, I spent two months in the small, peaceful British city of Norwich, supported by the British Council and the Korean Arts Council, ARKO. As it happened to coincide with my residency, I also participated as a writer in the translation workshop held for a week every July at the University of East Anglia
. That workshop was on a larger scale, and more intensive, than any other translation programme I had previously heard of or experienced. Translation sessions were organised by language, for Dutch, German, Norwegian, Italian, and even Korean, included this year for the first time. Workshops were also held under the name of ‘multi-language sessions’, translating literary works from a variety of languages into English, shared between poetry and prose classes.
On Sunday 26th July, the evening before the workshop commenced, the participants gathered in the campus bar for the opening event. It was scheduled to be led by Deborah Smith, who has translated my novels The Vegetarian
and Human Acts
, with help from the translator and author Daniel Hahn, who frequently dropped in on our sessions. After the writer and translators had shared brief introductory remarks, Daniel said with a smile, “My role in these sessions will be to obstruct the work of translation as much as I can, in order for it to progress slowly, as slowly as possible.” I nodded, because I liked the sound of those words ‘as slowly as possible’. I thought it was lucky that this was not to be a workshop where everything was done ‘as quickly as possible’. Of course, at that point I was unable to guess just how slowly our sessions were going to go.
Because the participants who were coming from Korea arrived late on the Sunday night, I was only able to meet everybody in our session first thing on the Monday. Sophie, Hyo-kyung, Victoria, and Celin, students from LTI Korea’s Translation Academy, and their professor Kim Chung-hee. Roxanne, who studies Korean literature at SOAS in London.
The text we were to translate that week was my short story “Europa”. At Deborah’s suggestion, I first briefly explained my motivation for writing the story, and what I had thought particularly important about it, and straight after that the translation began. After each member had translated the first sentenced, they took in it turns to present their translations. After Deborah had typed them up on the computer, she examined each individual word in minute detail - even down to the punctuation marks. She led the discussion tirelessly, neither agreeing completely with one person’s translation nor unilaterally dismissing another’s. In that first session, which took place from 11am to 1pm, I was shocked to see that we didn't even manage to fully translate one sentence. “The important thing is the process,” Deborah said.
The afternoon session was held from 3.30pm to 5.30pm; Daniel came in, and was entirely satisfied with the slow speed of our progress. He had the students read the sentence that was being translated out loud, and after also having me read the Korean, stressed the desirability of the sense of rhythm given by the length of the sentences in the two languages being as similar as possible. Eventually, once three sentences had been completed, when we parted having arranged to meet again the next day, Deborah said that as we continued with the translation, the sentences we thought were 'done' could in fact be revised almost endlessly, to make sure they matched with the following passage.
Instantly I realised that this extremely delicate, elaborate process was giving me a very particular sense of deja vu. All of this was what I myself did every day. Changing the position of a word, rearranging the order of sentences, cutting out unnecessary words, reading out loud, reading out loud again from the first sentence after writing the final sentence, cutting more words, taking out punctuation, putting it in, cutting again. Accepting dispassionately the fact that after writing the next day’s sentences, today’s might all have to be cut, forcing me to re-write everything from the beginning.
Tuesday and Wednesday
Various observers (people from the Writers’ Centre Norwich, the British Council
, teachers and students from the creative writing MA course) came in and watched our sessions, cautiously giving their opinions if we happened to be struggling with certain words, certain expressions. Their input almost always made our debates all the richer, and there were times when it enabled us to suddenly get to the nub of the matter and make progress.
The interesting thing, was the fact that, in direct contrast to the translated sentences given by the participants on the Monday being generally rather similar, the more time went by the more varied the expressions which appeared became. Rather than automatically transposing the original Korean sentence structure, they began to concentrate on the ‘feeling’ of that sentence and inventively seek an English expression which could vividly convey that feeling. Deborah continually encouraged them in this by saying things like “Isn’t this sentence a bit plain?” “What might be an expression that isn’t flat?” “Ah, that’s too bland”, “This expression is awkward in English”.
The result was that on Tuesday we succeeded in translating five sentences and connecting them with the previous three. Before we turned in for the day, everyone read it out loud and exclaimed how happy they were with it. Because we were all well aware of how difficult it had been to find a point of contact and come up with sentences which satisfied us all. Following on from this, on the Wednesday we translated a section of dialogue. We put our heads together to reach an agreement as to how colloquial it should be, what were the idiomatic expressions that are written in English in similar situations. Wanting to test that it was sufficiently natural-sounding, the participants even acted the conversation out, and burst out laughing in doing so.
In the early hours of the morning, I had a dream. Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them. Their face was covered with a white sheet, so I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. Somehow, I was able to hear what he/she was saying. ‘I have to get up now…no, that’s too flat.’ ‘I really will have to get up now…no, that’s too bland.’ ‘I have to leave this bed…no, that’s awkward.’
Having woken from the dream, I thought of the participants in our session, and thought of Deborah, who had translated two of my novels, and finally thought of myself. I thought about the lives of the struggling people beneath the white sheet that covered their faces, tenaciously asking questions of and answering themselves, ceaselessly rewriting sentences.
In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realise that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy). In the second session that day, we translated eight lines with surprising concentration, making it the day when our yield was greatest.
On Friday, which was the final day, after putting the finishing touches to our translation in the morning session, in the afternoon we shifted to the Writers’ Centre in Norwich city centre and had a session set aside for presentations. The translation sessions for European languages had translated quite a lot of pages in a week, as might be expected for languages from the same family, whereas we had managed to produce only a little over a single page, from the very beginning of the story. During the fifteen minutes allotted in the presentation session, the participants for our session stood up on stage and read their translation as slowly as possible, and took it in turns to speak methodically about the minute difficulties of the translation process. Sitting in the audience, I was quite moved.
People who delight in the intricacies of language. People who take even the most minute difference to be something large, important, significant. People who, through that keen sensibility, give a single text a new birth in another language. People who move forwards following that strange, beautiful rule which says that it is good to go as slowly as possible. People who ask questions of and answer themselves, alone beneath the white sheet, ceaselessly re-writing sentences. I felt touchingly grateful to everyone in our session, including Deborah - no, somehow to every translator in the world.
Each of the other sessions' presentations was also enjoyable. There was one group who, at the beginning and end of the passage, had the writer and translator read at the same time, producing an effect akin to music, and there was one who, after two people had translated the same text, read a passage from the various versions, so that we could appreciate the differences. There was one group who amused the audience by humorously disclosing that, as their session leader had been unable to attend due to personal reasons, and the only participant in the week who was able to speak that language had arrived late, the other participants had spent the entire week engaged in a bitter struggle, relying only on a dictionary, at the end of which they had managed to produce a grand total of three sentences. I laughed along with the rest, of course, but I also thought it was a bit of a shame. That there was a group who'd succeeded in going even slower than our session had...
National Conversation: The Science of Reading by Charles Fernyhough
A provocation by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, first presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 31st, 2015
Open a book and a chorus of voices starts back at you. I remember being asked as a bookwormish child whether I could hear a novel’s characters speaking in my head. ‘I hear them,’ I enthused (my own eleven-year-old son recently said the same). With a sheaf of printed pages in front of her, a reader settles in for an extraordinary internal performance. It’s an everyday happening that illustrates a deep mystery of consciousness: how someone sitting alone in a room, ostensibly doing nothing but silently turning the pages, can be hearing the voice of an unreliable narrator, listening into conversations that never happened, conversing with the dead.
I want to do more than propose that fiction transports you into a different reality: it can certainly do that. Rather, I’m interested in how reading for pleasure can have specific effects of something like an auditory quality. It leaves its sounds resonating in our minds and brains. I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is an engagement with simulated voices with a certain phenomenology (the ‘What is it like?’ qualities of experience). If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of its appeal.
Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of ‘inner speech’: the internal conversation that occupies many of our waking moments. Reading colonises that inner dialogue in varied ways. If you are asked silently to read words with long vowels (as in cape) you will do so more slowly than if the vowels are short (as in hat). If you are told about a certain fictional character who speaks fast, you will read their speeches more quickly than those of a character with a more leisurely speaking pace. Such findings show that you as a silent reader are nevertheless sounding out the words: you are not processing the text purely at some abstract level of meaning, but rather are articulating those voices for yourself in your head.
In this context, voice can mean a whole lot of different things. We speak of writers ‘finding’ their voice, or of succeeding (or otherwise) in channeling the right voice for a particular piece. One of the most influential figures in recent literary studies, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that novels work when distinct voices, manifested in language, come into creative dialogue with each other. When our team of researchers asked Guardian readers last year what the experience of reading was like for them, we wanted to be very specific about its phenomenology. When listening in to fictional characters, do readers actually hear something like a voice? It seems that many of them do. One in seven of our readers said that the voices they heard were as vivid as an actual person speaking. For some respondents, not hearing the voices of the protagonists was a sign that they were never really going to get into the book.
If hearing these fictional voices is a big part of the reading experience, you would expect that writers would have cottoned on. Any creative writing student will tell you that, if you want to make your characters’ voices resonate, you should use direct rather than reported speech (compare Jane said ‘I love you’ to Jane said that she loved him). Glasgow neuroscientists recently demonstrated a neural basis for the observation that direct speech is experienced more vividly than its reported form. But writers give us their characters’ silent, unheard voices as well as their externally uttered ones. They play with the fact that a character can think (in inner speech) something different to what she is saying out loud, and they build inner worlds through deft portrayals of the stream of verbal consciousness. They fill our heads with voices.
It stands to reason, then, that writers must hear those voices too. As the author of two novels, I am familiar with the experience of hearing my characters speak. They don’t talk directly to me, but I overhear them. I know their accents and tones of expression, their choice of words and how their voices betray certain emotions. I don’t confuse them with real people, but I do need to be able to hear them. It’s a common view about the creative process that writers need to hear their characters speak before they can really bring them alive.
Eager to put that idea to the test, our researchers teamed up last year with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to ask professional writers about the voices they heard. Seventy percent of the writers who completed our questionnaire said that they heard their characters’ voices; a quarter said it was as clear as if the protagonist were in the room with them. Two-fifths said they could enter into a dialogue with their characters. In detailed follow-up interviews, our researcher Jennifer Hodgson heard writers describing the experience as something like eavesdropping or taking dictation. One writer described it as a process of ‘tuning in’: ‘It is intimate, like being let in on their thoughts.’
We conducted these studies as part of Hearing the Voice, an ongoing interdisciplinary study of the experience of hearing voices, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Some of the writers we have been studying literally heard voices that no one else could hear. Dickens was pestered by his characters in all sorts of vivid ways. Virginia Woolf was troubled by auditory hallucinations related to sexual abuse, bullying and bereavement (she put some of her experiences into the character of her war veteran voice-hearer, Septimus Smith, in Mrs Dalloway). Thinking about the range and variety of heard voices points to measures for helping people who are distressed by their experiences, and some of these insights are being integrated into our cognitive behaviour therapy work with voice-hearers. Certain fictional characters can act as though they are beyond the author’s conscious control; understanding the psychological processes involved holds out the possibility of relief for those troubled by uncontrollable voices.
Writers hijack the voices of our ordinary inner speech in all of these ways. Part of the contract we make as readers is to simulate, in our own minds, the vocal hubbub of other consciousnesses. Writers stimulate our regular inner dialogue too; they make us talk back. I am actually a highly distractable reader. If I’m reading fiction that delights, I am constantly fighting the impulse to put the book down and do my own writing. Even beloved novels and stories have the paradoxical effect of making me disconnect from the text for moments or minutes. I don't think that makes me less of a reader. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of fiction is its capacity to make us wander off somewhere else.
To understand why that can be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to be easier on ourselves about this distractibility. A mind that is temporarily gazing away from a book is anything but disengaged. In our Hubbub project at Wellcome Collection in London, a diverse group of academics, artists and clinicians are taking an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to rest and its opposites, and finding that a mind that is ostensibly doing nothing is a lively and varied place to be. Our psychologists and neuroscientists are tying richly detailed descriptions of consciousness to the complex patterns of activation shown by a brain that is busy with nothing in particular. This focus on the so-called ‘resting state’ is one of the growth areas in cognitive neuroscience, and I suspect that reading—or momentarily failing to read—offers many of us a direct line into it. I mean that gorgeous moment of putting a book down, not from boredom or external distraction, but because one’s mind is full of new, unexpected wonders. Woolf herself, like plenty of other writers, enthused about the process of what she termed ‘woolgathering’, or what I would like to call creative mind-wandering. Watch me in my armchair: I may end up reading the same paragraph several times over, but in the process I am having delicious thoughts of my own.
Putting science to work on an experience as intimate, personal and deeply human as reading is a risky business. In a world of library closures and device addiction, it is natural to try to harness scientific evidence to prove a greater good. But we should tread carefully. I’ve suggested that some of the pleasures of reading fiction are its stimulation of the varied voices of our inner speech and its capacity to trigger creative mind-wandering. I’m not here to tell you that reading changes your brain (whatever that laughable statement might mean), or that books make you a better person, in the narrow definition of some inevitably limited research methodology. I am fascinated by how we sometimes seem to think that neuroscientific truth is somehow 'more' true than other kinds of knowledge, such that even literary people are disproportionately swayed by it. We don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you. Rather, let’s delight in the varieties of that exquisite internal performance: ‘the beautiful stillness,’ as Paul Auster described it, ‘that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.’
This provocation is part of the National Conversation series of events featuring thought-provoking original ideas from writers. Read more, and follow the discussion here.
On the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School
I have always felt grateful to literary translators: without their work I wouldn’t have been able to discover many great authors and read some of my favourite books, masterpieces which have somehow changed my way of looking at the world or texts which have just (just!?) made me smile during the reading – and sometimes, quite a long time after it. Now that I am a foreigner in the UK, using a non-native language on a daily basis, I am even more aware of the importance of their work, not only in a literary context, also in a cultural one: translated literature is a way of discovering new cultures, new ideas, different ways of seeing, thinking, living.
For that reason, I felt really lucky when I had the opportunity of collaborating in the organisation of the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School together with our colleagues from the British Centre for Literary Translation. From the 26th July to 1st August 2015 at the UEA and at the new home of the Writers’ Centre Norwich – the beautiful Dragon Hall-almost 50 participants from many different countries took part in a series of creative writing and translation workshops.
All of them translated into English, but from different languages depending on the workshop: from Dutch (led by David Colmer and Jeroen Thijssen), German (with Katy Derbyshire and Kristof Magnusson), Italian (Howard Curtis and Andrea Tarabbia), Korean (Deborah Smith and Han Kang) and Norwegian (Kari Dickson and Brit Bildøen), but also two multilingual, one for prose led by Sarah Bower and Daniel Hahn; the other one for poetry with George Szirtes. In every single workshop participants and tutors organised their work in a different way, but sharing the same goal: not to translate in just a literal way, word by word, but to go beyond that and translate the cultural context, the feeling, the sensibility of the writer. A very enriching point in this summer school was the fact that in most of the workshops the authors of the texts being translated were involved in the working process and answering the queries that the translators had.
This year for the first time the summer school also included creative writing workshops with Sarah Bower, Sharlene Teo, Cecilia Rossi, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Eliza Robertson. Sessions where the translators were invited to develop their own writing, adapting texts to different voices and contexts, reinterpreting them and also, being aware of the constraints that a translator can face when working.
Whilst the 2015 summer school has finished, the translations and texts created by the participants – and successfully presented during the last afternoon at Dragon Hall - will remain, and are a good souvenir of a very intensive and fulfilling week.
See you next year!
Kate Griffin, WCN Associate Programme Director, reports back from Link the Worlds in Myanmar, and discusses the issues faced by Burmese writers, translators and publishers.
Myanmar has only recently emerged from a long period of isolation. Throughout the week, we explored ways to revive the flow of contemporary writing and ideas between Myanmar and other countries, particularly in South East Asia.
Literary exchange in Burma – now Myanmar – flourished in the years after the declaration of independence in 1948. The Burma Translation Society was established in Rangoon in 1947, and high quality translations of the best literature from other countries became available to readers and writers in Burma. Despite the opening up of the country three or so years ago, in today’s Myanmar many of the translations available in bookshops still date from this period. Censorship has meant that since the 1960s, little world literature – other than Soviet literature – has been translated into Burmese. Since the 1990s, translators have been making an effort to change the situation, but in Myanmar, translation tends to be a labour of love, with little or no financial remuneration. Although there is a need to nurture a new generation of literary translators, there is no systematic support in the form of workshops, or skills development in schools and colleges.
This means that Burmese readers have difficulty gaining access to more contemporary writing and ideas from around the world, and Burmese writers find themselves isolated from their international counterparts. At the same time, little contemporary Burmese writing is translated into other languages as there is a shortage of experienced literary translators who can translate out of the languages of Myanmar. We hoped that Link the Worlds would be a first step towards changing this.
Since its establishment in late 2013, PEN Myanmar has aimed to encourage dialogue between writers
and readers, reaching out to different parts of Burmese society by holding literary discussions in public places across the country, including on trains and at bus stops. The level of education in Myanmar is low, so people read very little. PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida
said that children need to be encouraged to read and write short stories and poems.
As part of its drive to open up the Burmese literary scene, PEN Myanmar holds literary evenings in Yangon (in English), presenting non-Burmese literature, as well as writing from the other ethnic states of Myanmar. Little ethnic literature is available, because of censorship; PEN would like to help develop more writing and translation between Burmese and ethnic languages. This is also the focus of the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds
There are four main barriers to publishing in Myanmar, according to San Mon Aung. The distribution system is terrible; the lack of a reliable postal system makes it difficult to get books to readers, either via bookshops or direct. It’s also difficult to collect money from bookshops, and therefore to survive.
Secondly, the reading rate is very low; a book that sells 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Thirdly, publishers struggle to find quality writers and translators; even when they do, high quality and literary style don’t necessarily attract a lot of new readers. Finally, although official censorship is in the past, there are still a lot of laws that control publishing – in effect an alternative version of censorship.
Generally there is not a strong culture of editing in the Burmese publishing industry, and many of the small independent publishers cannot afford to hire editors. Most Burmese editors work for periodicals rather than publishers. Myo Myint Nyein, one of the few experienced editors in Myanmar, told us that until two or three years ago there was an official censorship bureau overseeing publications. The editor was captain of the ship, navigating the waters of censorship. And in daily life, whenever people had a conversation they felt had to self-edit before they spoke; this atmosphere of caution has left its mark on writers. Burmese writers are still resistant to editing when they see it being used as a form of censorship.
Nowadays, editors are more able to focus on style rather than policing content, but even this can be complicated, for a number of reasons. Spoken Burmese sounds smooth, but when the informal language is written down it can be full of grammatical mistakes. Readers in Myanmar don’t mind this, but if the translation echoes this informality, international readers may be less understanding.
Another barrier for many publishers in South East Asia more generally is the linguistic diversity of the region; translation is very important for books to travel even to neighbouring countries. There are no literary agents in Myanmar to promote either Burmese or other writers. It is expensive for Burmese publishers to pay for copyright, as books have such a low circulation and make so little money.
Link the Worlds was welcomed by all concerned, as a first step towards improving the situation for
literary translation in Myanmar. At the core of the five-day event were two workshops, each with ten participants from different parts of Myanmar. The Burmese to English group worked with workshop leader Moe Thet Han to translate work by UK author Suzanne Joinson
and Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at
into Burmese. The English to Burmese group translated work by Myanmar writers Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San into English, under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum.
‘I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people from Myanmar,’ said Suzanne Joinson. ‘Using the process of translation as a common task, what really opened up was a range of narratives: stories, explorations of language, communication. I have already edited a short story for one participant, and have been in touch with another about Burmese writers. It’s a unique chance to make friends from a distant part of the world.’
Alfian Sa’at said he ‘really appreciated the experience as someone living in Southeast Asia. There haven’t been many initiatives to understand the region and I have to admit that Myanmar was never really in my radar as a writer. But now I’m really keen on reading works from Myanmar writers and hoping that these little acts of connecting with one another will lead to greater cultural integration among the Southeast Asian nations.’
One of the senior translators praised Link the Worlds as the first major translation event in Myanmar since 1969. We hope that we won’t have to wait as long until the next time.
Never never never never / Shame - Worlds 2015 Part IV by George Szirtes
George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festival, sharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. Reflecting on the fourth day, he discusses literary translation, and writing as an act of political resistance.
After the Wednesday salon there was a two hour session on translation in which three authors appeared with their translators.
The authors read a sentence or two in the original language then the translars read longer passages in translation. Each author was then invited to ask their translator three questions.
This session was led by Erica Jarnes. The three writers - Geir Gulliksen, Han Kang and Sigitas Parulskis - write in quite different ways about quite different things. The translators were asked the normal but vital translation questions and each answered differently. Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang, argued that the translator should feed the text through her blood stream by accessing the experience described. Deborah Dawkin, who had just one week to translate a longish passage of Geir’s book about gender and sexuality thought it was the original text one should go back to time after time. Translation, she said, was like acting, a fascinating if unexplored idea. Romas insisted that the translator should know the full cultural and historical context, be utterly at home in both languages, and that translators never never never never improved original texts or, if there were mistakes in the text they should be left to the copy editor. (This concurs with Nabokov’s view of translators as mischievous and incompetent servants who think they know better than the genius writers they serve. Max Sebald too kept his eye closely on what his translators were up to.)
In the Salon on Thursday, Mamta Sagar and Sigitas Parulskis gave the provocations.
Mamta talked of India with its many languages of which her own, Kannada is one. One may make a name for oneself in one language alone, but that name may be extended by translation into other Indian languages. Being translated into, or writing in English made one available to an international public and offered the chance of international reputation. However, there were many complications such as religion, caste and gender. Reputation, she argued, was rooted in imagined memory, a memory that was exclusive and omitted anything it didn’t want to admit, particularly the writing of women and the Dalit (or Untouchables). Social and gender roles would be defined by ideals derived from sacred or mythological text, the Ramayana. Male roles were defined by Rama: female by Sita. If individuals departed from these models their reputations were ruined. The current government of India led by Modi emphasised the martial aspect of Rama and looked to very conservative interpretations of the Ramayana. The women’s movement had brought progress but the major roles were still all male (Bhavit argued that this was not the case now and that all the major festivals had equal numbers of men and women as well as Dalit writers.)
Afterwards there were questions about women-only publishers. Mamta didn’t like the idea of special spots for ‘women’ poets feeling that this meant they were expected to produce ‘women’s poetry’and be like the flowers at a reception. Indian writing should not be looking to package particular groups in specific ways but focus on diversity. India was after all a secular democratic nation. (Mamta’s work is much translated but generally in workshops at festivals or universities.) There was talk of the tension between Hindu and Muslim and Mamta mentioned but did not expand on the episode of the Godhra train blaze. Marion Molteno argued that the increasing popularity of the ghazal verse form in Urdu was evidence of an essential anti-fundamentalism. Jon Morley wondered how far writing was a form of resistance. Someone else asked whether there were examples of writers forging a reputation in one language than forging a different one in another.
Sigitas’s provocation was read by his translator, Romas. It was the story behind his current book which is about the murder of Lithuanian Jews, as much by Lithuanians as by German Nazis. It was in the Imperial War Museum in London that he discovered how, in his own small home community of just over two thousand, over a thousand Jews were executed. No one had ever mentioned this or chose to remember it, partly because years of Soviet occupation had implanted the idea that it was the Germans alone who were the murderers and that the victims were not so much Jews as communists. This became a matter of “shameful knowledge” in Lithuania and for him too personally. Not even his mother - who had lived through it - believed that Lithuanians could do this. Sigitas went on to resist the idea that literature should by ideologically committed which was not surprising in view of years of ideologically committed or controlled literature. There was no repentance in Lithuanian society, he said, only denial. How much time did it take for a corpse to become a historical corpse, he asked. We are, he said, parasites living on the corpses of the past. Lithuanians, he added, had certainly suffered but suffering can make you more cruel. There was a constant referring back to Christian belief in both Sigitas’s novel and his provocation. Religion was a form of resistance to the Soviets. It is deeply embedded in Lithuanian people.
James asked whether the book was unusual for Sigitas. It was important to irritate yourself, Sigitas replied. Without irritation, no literature. Erica wondered whether it was odd that he should be promoted by the state when he was writing something that questioned the narrative of the Lithuanian nation. The state did not determine culture, argued Rita Valiukonyte, the Cultural Attaché at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. Was the opposite view - a guiltless version - expressed in Lithuanian literature, asked Dan? There is an anti-Semitic spirit in Lithuania, said Sigitas, but it is not overt in literature. Jack Wang said his own book - about Vienna’s Kristallnacht - began at the opposite end, with a pride in saving Jews. What, asked Deborah Dawkin, was the effect, on both nation and writer, of the awareness that once a book like this was translated everyone outside would be invited to view the nation’s dirty washing. (I would have answered that the role of some Lithuanian people in the extermintations has long not been a secret and it was just that Lithuanian authors hadn’t referred to it). Sigitas replied that he gets panned for it and called a lot names. Kyoko made a very interesting remark at the end: We like to take the side of the victim, she said, but that makes it very hard for us to imagine ourselves as perpetrators, and went on to ask whether the obscenity referred to by Sigitas in his provocation consisted of the act itself or of the describing of it. It was the describing, said Sigitas, but it had to be done for didactic reasons.
What is it we identify with in stories of atrocities elsewhere? In the case of Sigitas and Lithuania we were moved to hear that truth could be spoken in a place where previously there was concealment. But are we glad to hear such things only because they confirm our superiority? Would we have acted better than the Lithuanians? Perhaps the story should inspire us to tell truths about our own circumstances rather than feel too comfortable about our sympathies for distant victims.
Sigitas’s angle on reputation concerned the reputation of his own society, not so much in the outside world but at home. Reputation could be a lie. In Mamta’s case reputation was a social status you could lose, a repressive force. Was Creative Writing about the power of partially closed societies - such as universities, but also publishers perhaps - to make reputations that that flattered their own preferences and extended their own power?
This is the fourth in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. The first blog, "Introducing the Octopus", the second, "The Whirligig of Time", and the third, "Solitude and the Racket", can be found on our website. Alternatively, you can watch the provocations on YouTube or listen to them on SoundCloud.
Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.Visit George's website
Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes
Solitude and the Racket - Worlds 2015 Part III by George Szirtes
George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festival, sharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. Reflecting on the third day, he discusses taught Creative Writing degrees, and the role of professional writers in academic institutions.
This is the third in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. The first blog, "Introducing the Octopus", and the second, "The Whirligig of Time", can be found on our website. Alternatively, you can watch the provocations on YouTube or listen to them on SoundCloud.
Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival
On Wednesday morning the attention turned, as it often does, to Creative Writing (henceforth CW for short) and its place in university. Did this relate directly to reputation or was it something quite separate, an intruder in our menagerie? Jon Cook quoted Malcolm Bradbury on the unlikelihood of transforming small talent to big talent more of establishing a significant climate within which writing in general might prosper.
D J (David) Taylor led the attack via Cyril Connolly’s 1938 book, Enemies of Promise. What Connolly - a “romantic, classicist, sensualist and anti-academic” in David’s words - offered us in his book was mostly a critical view and a personal memoir, but in the middle section of the same book, he examined factors militating against the production of great literature and the writing life proper: these included hack-work, political committment, escapism, the pressure of ‘promise’, sex, domesticity (the famous pram in the hall) and last, and possibly worst of all, success itself.
David invented a family, the Littlejohns, one member of which in an earlier generation wrote neglected books but survived by hackwork. A later, contemporary figure in the same family proceeded from a CW degree to book publication then returned to university to join what David called a racket, wherein academics write for each other and lose contact with the greater public. He preferred the earlier generation if only because they did things in the real world, the academic world not being considered real.
Instead of asking questions at this stage, Jon Morley, in the chair, asked Vesna Goldsworthy to respond with her own provocation. Vesna talked of her early youth of writing poetry and of her parents’ determination that she should be a doctor. She studied Comparative Literature instead, but the study of it led her to write less and less as the course went on. Studying literature as a subject of criticism did not make one a writer, she said: vets don’t make jockeys. She referred to Hanif Kureishi’s contemptuous dismissal of CW while teaching it. There were the natural comparison with other Arts subjects such as music and visual art where no-one thought to question the idea of formal, institutional education. Was CW a vocational course that prepared you for the life of a wage-earning writer. Would it help you to succeed, to gain a reputation?” Or was it something else? Was the respectability of academic opinion actually one of the underwriters of reputation, I wondered? Vesna herself did not make too high a claim for institutions and shared a certain writerly wariness of them.
In the discussion afterwards Geir Gulliksen suggested that the best a CW course could do was to create good readers, and added that publishing - the field in which he worked - was also a kind of institution. Jonty Driver said he had heard that the Norwegian state bought a thousand copies of all literary books. True, said Geir, the state does intervene to save the literature that it recognizes as literature. Jack Wang has long experience of teaching CW and referred to an essay by Chad Harbach comparing the MFA culture of universities with the NYC culture of writing in a world of publishers. Neither was free of limiting considerations he said but at least the university allowed for experminet and the avant-garde. Ana Clavel talked of the problem of commercialisation in Mexico, Mamta Sagar of the tension between Comparative Literature and straight Literature Departments. James Shea remarked that CW was hardly new since there were ancient schools of haiku in Japan and China and that CW was currently expanding in China and Singapore. Anna Funder wondered how teaching might affect one’s writing while Erica said publishers (and she had worked in publishing) don’t really like CW. This may be so, I thought, but if they really didn’t like it they wouldn’t be publishing as many graduates as they do.
Lauren K Alleyne commented that institutions bestowed a kind of respectabilty in the eyes of the outside world (as for example in the eyes of her own parents). Kyoko Yoshida had done an MFA course and returned to Japan to find that people back home no idea what that meant. She did however emphasise that there existed in CW an ethical contract that agreed your writing, and desire to write, were legitimate and guaranteed that it would be taken seriously. I suggested that not only had writers always met, albeit informally and without institutions, but that before CW started it had been a matter of luck if you happened to come across senior writers willing to discuss your work in person, I also suggested that teaching was essentially intelligent conversation. Dan - whom I had in fact taught at one time - agreed but rightly pointed out the increasingly high cost of such courses.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett wondered why CW should not be regarded, almost incidentally, as a kind of vocational training providing transferable skills just as other humanities degrees did. You did not necessarily have to become a writer. Thinking and reading were the important things. Amit pointed out that CW classes were the only ones where no one ever bunked off. Students wanted every minute they could get. He also noted a certain tension between literary theory in reading, and reading for literary style. Deborah Smith agreed with Kyoko and imagined CW must be a great deal better than straight English Literature which was a matter of ploughing through work by a lot of dead white men.
Romas Kinka worried about the lack of support and respect for translators. Jack said it was a matter of earning a living. All writers had to do it one way or the other and modern pedagogic practice was far from the racket DJT had called it: it was a profession with high professional standards. Bhavit Mehta surprised us by arguing that there no shrinking readership, that readership was wider than ever, it was just that readers weren’t all reading in hard-copy book form. DJT ended on a different note: that of a necessary solitude. He lamented its loss in the climate of workshops, social media and public forums. The notion of writers not just writing but developing in solitude was, I thought, worth considering.
Are you interested in creative writing? Writers' Centre Norwich has teamed up with the world-renowned University of East Anglia and developed new Creative Writing Courses to help you advance with your writing. Available both online, and face-to-face, these Creative Writing Courses are taught by critically acclaimed professional writers and are open to writers of various levels and disciplines. Find out more and book your place.
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.
Visit George's website
Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes
Brave New Reads: #ReadingSpot Competition
To coincide with our Brave New Reads summer programme, we've been running an exciting competition on our Twitter and Instagram pages. WCN Communications Intern Miranda tells us more, and explains how finding a new #ReadingSpot can be just as exhilarating as finding a new read.
Sometimes allowing ourselves time to sit down and relax with a book is a hard thing to do. We often say that we don’t have enough hours in a day, that time reading is time that could be spent doing something more productive, like finally replying to those emails, clearing out the cupboard under the stairs or giving the dog his long-overdue bath. Placing our undivided attention on a new novel, memoir, or collection of poetry seems just too indulgent. As Arthur Schopenhauer said: ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them’. Consequently, we often end up opening our books whenever and wherever we get a spare moment, and can find a relaxing reading spot in the most unlikely of places.
In the summer I usually find myself waking up earlier than usual, and recently I’ve started to dedicate the first half hour of my day to reading. I sit down in a comfy chair and squeeze in a chapter or two while I have breakfast (and an all-important bucket of coffee) and, for a little while, my mind is allowed to drift off somewhere else. My book stays with me throughout the day, often in a heap at the bottom of my bag, getting dog-eared and damp as I carry it around and wait for another moment of quiet. Ideally, I would spend an entire morning sat back in that comfy chair, turning page after page of whatever I’m reading that week without having to re-renter the real world, but I can’t deny that I have found some imaginative and varied ad-hoc reading spots over the years.
I’ve read Jack Kerouac on a transatlantic flight to New York, Jane Austen in a Hertfordshire park, Ian McEwan in the Student Union at UEA; I’ve taken books to beaches, bars, banks and birthday parties, and even carried a tattered copy of Harry Potter in my backpack whilst climbing a volcano in Costa Rica. Reading spots can be as diverse as the books being read. Sometimes, I’ll want nothing more than to curl up in an armchair reading Gatsby for the tenth time. Other times, I’ll be on a train heading somewhere new and unexplored, courageously reading a new book by an author I’ve never encountered before.
To coincide with our Brave New Read
s summer programme, here at WCN we’ve been running a competition on our Twitter
pages to see where our followers are devouring their books this July. From rugged countryside in Yorkshire to pebbles on Brighton beach, from a cosy bedroom chair to a seat on the number 28 bus, we’ve seen some great reading spots all over the UK, and have become quite envious in the process!
Every Wednesday we are sharing our favourite two pictures from the week on our social media accounts, and sending the lucky winner and runner-up a Brave New Reads book or tote bag.
Are you reading something new and brave in your usual, comfy spot? Or an old favourite in an exciting new place? Wherever and whatever you’re reading, we’d love to see it!
To enter our competition, simply tweet @WritersCentre
with a picture of your #readingspot,
using the hashtag #BraveNewReads
. You can also follow our Instagram account @WritersCentre
, and tag us in your #readingspot
Here are some of our favourites so far:
The first week's winner was @HattieLC on Twitter, with this enviable view of Calder Valley, Yorkshire.She described it as a 'perfect reading escape' and we have to agree - it looks idyllic!
was our second winner. She tagged us in this picturesque snapshot of the Norfolk Broads over on Instagram - her prize was a copy of Badgerlands, a Brave New Reads title
by Norfolk author Patrick Barkham.
Our first runner-up was @gettingtonomi on Twitter. It seems there was a strong 'tea' theme that first week!
We had two runners-up as a special treat for week two. First, @leanne.rio tagged us in this breathtaking bath picture on Instagram. There really is nothing better than a good book and a long soak!
Our other runner-up for the second week was @MrStuAnderson, who tweeted us this picture of him and William Faulkner sharing a bus journey. All runners-up win a Brave New Reads tote bag, which will no doubt prove useful for carrying their various books around!
National Conversation: Lost Stories, Unheard Voices - Diversity in Literature
By Kerry Hudson.
On Thursday 9th July, Kerry Hudson presented a rousing provocation to a full house at our National Conversation debate on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute. Here is the provocation in full.
As a working class, queer, female writer I was welcomed with open arms into the publishing world. My debut novel was received with enthusiasm, nominated for prizes and I was invited to teach at respected institutions. The industry has been nothing but kind and supportive of my work and though I earn less than I did when I worked in a call centre, I’m rich in getting to do what I love for a living and I’m very grateful for that.
So for a while I forgot to look around and check the level of the playing field for others like me. Now I’ve viewed the skew of that field – which turns out to be more of a mountainous plane – I realise I am one of the lucky few and I am angry.
We are losing stories in the UK. We are narrowing our literary culture. We have a publishing industry which continues to perpetuate its failure to reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country and so we are losing that potential vitality, social exploration and innovation in the books we publish.
Unless we tackle this lack of inclusivity, the mountains marginalised writers must climb in order to get and stay published, we may never reach our true potential as an industry.
Let me tell you about how stories are lost, how voices remain unheard.
Imagine four writers. For our purposes let’s agree that they are talented and that they’ll write brilliant, sales-worthy books. They are BME (black, minority, ethnic, 14% of the population overall and 40% in London), LGBT (5-7% according to government figures), working-class (in the Great British Class Survey 48% were catogorised as ‘below’ middle class), have a disability (19% of the population according to the Disability Rights Commission).
The BME writer studies for a creative writing MA, but only a handful of professors are BME and this is also reflected in the number of fellow-BME students. Our working class writer simply can’t afford the fees for an MA or even a part-time writing course. This writer works two jobs and writes in the evenings and on weekends even though they’ve seen few books that represent the world they want to write about. Likewise for the writer with a disability who sees few disabled characters in books, few writers with disabilities profiled in newspapers. These writers think: ‘Perhaps, my stories aren’t meant to be heard. I don’t belong.’
Still our writers persevere. They have written excellent, unique books and go in search of a literary agent, a publisher. However, the people who will read these books to decide if they are good enough and grant access, might not ‘connect’ with these books. In Spread the Word’s recent ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’ report only 11% of publishing house respondents had recruitment ties with non-Oxbridge universities, suggesting that for 89% this was the sole graduate recruitment method, surprising given that Oxbridge graduates make up only 1% of the overall population.
Unlike many industries, audits for diversity and support groups, for instance LGBT groups, aren’t a standard in publishing. Additionally, publishers are overwhelmingly London based and entry into the profession is largely by unpaid internship, excluding those who don’t have family or spousal support to work unwaged, often for substantial periods.
Feedback comes in for our writers, variations of, ‘the writing is good, the story is original, but it didn’t speak to me. I don’t know how I’d sell this’. This is natural, to love a book it must resonate personally, it must, on some level, be representative of a society we recognise, have characters we relate to. Still, after many submissions, three of our authors do gain representation. Not so the BME writer who, like 53% of BME writers surveyed in ‘Writing the Future’, remains unagented. Instead, they find a home for their book through the hit and miss of unsolicited submission – without the support of an agent.
And so our writers are through the gates, into the kingdom. They had good stories to tell and they sell their books. Of course there are commercial concerns and the LGBT writer is asked to ‘straighten’ a few of their characters, while the BME writer’s editorial notes urge for ‘authenticity’ by which they seem to mean more ‘urban/African/recognizably “ethnic”’ though the writer is sure that the semi-autobiographic novel is authentically about their world. When it comes time to publicise the book, the disabled and working-class writers are asked to talk frankly about their personal experiences and childhood. While one welcomes the opportunity to speak about issues important to him, the other doesn’t wish to be defined by this single trait: publicity column inches reflect this decision.
Finally, the books are sent to reviewers, bookshops, Amazon warehouses. It hasn’t been easy, they’ve made compromises, but our writers are finally authors. But there’s an important detail which will affect some authors’ likelihood of achieving reviews in the broadsheets and prize listings which both contribute to getting enough sales to enable a second book – two of this gang are women. And since women are still reviewed less than their male counterparts and earn averagely 20% less, these books and authors have a greater struggle.
Where there are debuts there should naturally come second novels. Unfortunately, our BME author remains unagented even after publishing a book and is unable to place his next novel. Our disabled writer suffered from her lack of press coverage, especially since she also got fewer reviews than expected, and so didn’t sell enough to get a second book contract. The working-class writer, though accepting that he’d have to live on very little, ultimately couldn’t sustain the added unpredictability of that small income and so took a salaried job. His first book was successful; he had the best intention of writing another book but never did. The LGBT writer was nominated for two LGBT awards and was supported by the LGBT community, she had a two book contract and, though her advances reduced as years progressed, she developed a loyal readership and was able to write without concern that she might alienate the presumed ‘mainstream’ reader.
Four writers. One stays in print. The others, their future stories, are lost. The consequence? The consequence is that other emerging writers will look and fail to find voices like their own. It is young people in non-Oxbridge institutions who will have no idea that they may have potential careers in publishing and contribute to a literary culture. It is stories lost; voices unheard and a book buying public who have no idea how much of the possible spectrum of choice they are being denied.
Without making change and making change now we risk turning our proud literary legacy into a factory producing mono-cultural, ‘safe-ish bets’ based on the success of previously published books in similar models. An industry where books are viewed as ‘units’ to be shifted, things of financial checks and balances. And of course in part they must be; this is a business. So perhaps the case for the safeguarding of culture isn’t enough? If you are thinking of the bottom line then consider an industry that benefits from the potential disposable income of £300 billion for the BME community and approximately £80 billion each for ‘Pink Pound’ and those with disabilities . I believe the best books are created to entertain, to inspire both rational and revolutionary thinking, to contribute to an emotionally richer, better informed, intelligent society. But, if you think in pound signs then consider that even as our own books market is saturated we are able to harness our inherent diversity to perform within an increasingly competitive global market specifically because of this unique quality of our nation’s literary output.
Yet no matter how profit driven the publishing industry is compelled to be, we all understand what is being produced and sold here are not jumpers or smartphones. Books and stories are not just a business; they are a fundamental element of any evolved society. The reason that those who write, who communicate, who represent society in words are often the first to be persecuted by oppressive regimes is because words have immense power to change, influence and shape. And we must not relinquish that power by reducing it merely to profit and loss calculations.
Let's harness the enormous power of our diversity not only to meet our current financial objectives but fulfil our future responsibilities for generations to come.
Let’s make sure a career in publishing is seen as a viable option for people of all backgrounds – ensure secondary school work experience is offered, that publishers are represented at non-Oxbridge university career fairs. For writers, let’s identify talent early and nurture that talent with mentoring schemes, official or unofficial.
In an industry where the annual profits of the Hachette Group were €197 million and Penguin Random House was €363 million , we can afford, and have a responsibility to, give more support to libraries, 337 of which have closed since 2011 in England alone, and offer book donations to the most deprived areas. Not only to inspire, plant a seed of hope and expand horizons but, more practically, to stimulate the habit, and thus the business, of reading. If we shift focus to portray the true multiplicity of society in books, young people will grow up immersed in a British cultural life that reflects their world and which fosters a creative environment that has inclusivity, innovation and collaboration at its heart.
Bursaries should be available to enable students from marginalised backgrounds to study creative subjects thus bringing the proven benefits of creativity and diversity not only to publishing but to all industries. Peer mentoring is possible if writers are recognised as being skilled workers, contributing as they do an important function to any developed society, who deserve to be paid a living wage (in the UK writers averagely earned £11,000 in 2013 which is £5000 less than the living wage), giving them time and resources to support new writers.
For the sake of both our cultural evolution as a nation and our industry's ability to compete in a global market it’s essential to promote more diversity in agenting, editorial, marketing and sales teams.
Much of this provocation owes a debt to the excellent research conducted by the ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK’
report and I would call for similar reports relating to working class, LGBT and disabled individuals and communities working in publishing. I echo many of the report's recommendations, particularly regarding the improvement of diversity ratios by publishers signing up to the Equip Publishing Equality Charter which helps promote equality across UK publishing, bookselling and agenting, by driving forward change and increasing access to opportunities within the industry. Like most industries, audits on diversity retention and progression, diversity training, LGBT groups and wider recruitment avenues should be implemented. Alongside an industry ban of unpaid internships and introduction of a living wage for entry level publishing employees. This could herald the start of a movement to create a workforce which is able to relate to, and champion, more diverse voices thus making them more visible.
I don’t believe anyone in the industry is unconcerned by its lack of diversity. I have nothing but respect for my colleagues in writing and publishing who I know to be incredibly hard working, passionate and intelligent with genuine integrity regarding the books they produce. I know that many will share my fears for the future of our literary culture, my frustration regarding a model which sets the odds against the representation of a huge proportion of our society. But it’s not enough simply to agree. This is our society and from the top down (more diversity in our boardrooms, an investigation into the glass ceiling existing for senior management) and grassroots up, each of us must take an individual responsibility to ask ‘what can I do?’
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus and was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award. It was also shortlisted for the Southbank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and the Polari First Book Award. Kerry’s second novel, Thirst, was published in 2014 by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. Her books are also available in the US (Penguin), France (Editions Phillipe Rey) and Italy (Minimum Fax). Kerry founded The WoMentoring Project and has written for Grazia, Guardian Review and YOU Magazine. She has led writing workshops for the National Academy of Writing, Arvon Foundation and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
The National Conversation
events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you. Find out more about the National Conversation here.
Read a blog by Nikesh Shukla on his experiences of diversity here.
National Conversation: Four Examples of Diversity In Publishing by Nikesh Shukla
Nikesh Shukla writes about some of his experiences in the publishing world in advance of our National Conversation event on diversity at Bloomsbury Institute this Thursday.
1. Agents and Authenticity
Before Quartet Books picked up my first novel Coconut Unlimited – as a direct, unagented submission – and published it, I had sent it everywhere. I sent it to every agent and every publisher I could find. At the time I worked in the industry and so I met people all the time. My submissions weren’t always unsolicited, often it was someone I met at an event who seemed interested. They all rejected me, because, they said, the story of three hip-hop obsessed Asian boys was too niche. One agent, white, told me that she didn’t feel the characters were ‘authentically Asian enough’. I asked what she meant. My characters were drawn from my own authentically Asian observations and experiences. I was baffled. She said that none of them acted in a way that readers would identify as Asian.
2. The Madness of Meritocracy
At London Book Fair four years ago, I sat on a panel about diversity. All the panellists agreed that one of the biggest problems with the industry was that because the make-up of the people in the houses was mostly white, the books they published by non-white writers felt like a romanticised or fetishised experience. We all agreed, as a panel, that the industry needed to be more diverse, so that the types of writers published were too. Someone (so ridiculously high up in the industry at the time it’s embarrassing) said that it was a meritocracy, because they tended to hire people through their internship programme. I told him that only a certain type of person can afford to do a free internship in London so a meritocracy is a fallacy. Later that day, at a party, he mistook me for another Asian male who worked in publishing.
3. Reviewing the Situation
A reviewer once said of one of my short stories that he was glad to see Indians going through the universal experience. That stuck with me.
The characters weren’t Indian; one was Bengali, one was Pakistani, one was from Watford. That wasn’t even the issue for me – that generic catch-all of the continent as country (cf ‘African dress’, ‘Asian spices’) is not new. The thing I found most problematic about this comment was that it was even a question – that an entire subcontinent might miss out on ‘the universal experience’. It’s ‘universal’. That means it applies to everyone. That’s not a revelation. The universal experience isn’t an entirely Western concept. It’s a universal one. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or universal plug adaptors.
It made me realise what the problem was with the wider literary establishment. The universal experience is for white people; other cultures have culturally specific experiences.
4. Questions I’ve Been Asked In Interviews/At Events/At Launches
What do my parents think of me wanting to be a writer?
What do I think of [insert name of Pakistani/Bengali/Sri Lankan writer]?
Did I find it easier to get published because my partner is white?
Do I think by getting more Asian boys to read, it will make them less prone to being radicalised?
Do I think the term ‘people of colour’ is offensive to white people?
Thank you so much … your work really reminds me of all the yoga retreats I’ve been to in India.
The way diversity is viewed is not just an issue for people of colour to combat – it needs to be challenged in all its forms by all of us. That’s how intersectionality works. I recently wrote an essay as a provocation to white writers
, asking them to help normalise the experience of others by occasionally including non-white characters in their work, not as a token, but because you recognise that it’s pretty messed up that people in books tend to be white unless they have to do something culturally/racially specific. Now, that’s a provocation for a utopian time when things like the above aren’t still happening in 2015. But they are. And you need to help me call it out, friend.
Do join us to continue this fascinating debate on diversity and publishing on Thursday 9th July.
is a writer of fiction and for television. His new novel is Meatspace
, the Guardian
saying of the book that 'like Douglas Coupland's Generation X, this novel captures a cultural moment.' His debut, Coconut Unlimited
was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010. Nikesh’s short stories have been featured in: Best British Short Stories 2013
, Five Dials
, The Moth Magazine
, Pen Pusher
, The Sunday Times
, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine
and Teller Magazine
. He has written essays (‘Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don't Tell Us About Our Nation's Youth’), a novella (The Time Machine
, 2013), and for TV, including ‘Two Dosas’ with Himesh Patel, and his Channel 4 Comedy Lab ‘Kabadasses’. Shukla has written for the Guardian
and BBC 2 and hosts the The Subaltern podcast, the anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing.
The National Conversation
events feature a full provocation, panel discussion and audience Q&A and are form a wide-ranging debate taking place around the country. Over the last twelve months we have been discussing pertinent literary issues with Ali Smith, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Gwyn Jones, Meg Rosoff, a host of national partners and writers and now you.
Have your say on twitter, (@writerscentre
#NatConv), at the event or online below:
The Whirligig of Time - Worlds 2015 Part II by George Szirtes
George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festival, sharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. On the second day, he discusses the provocations from Chris Bigsby and Lucy Hughes-Hallett, on the distinctions between literary success and literary reputation.
Gabriele D'Annunzio in Fiume
The whirligig of time was very much the subject of our first provocation, by Chris Bigsby, who started by exploring and expanding on the term reputation, by adding estimation and notoriety, to which others eventually added fame, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. There were at least eight tentacles for our octopus here. Chris went on to consider those whom we now regard as great but who were neglected at the ends of their lives: Hermann Melville and John Williams (who wrote Stoner), among them, but concentrating on the writer he himself has written about with such distinction, Arthur Miller, the estimation of whose work has gone up and down depending on where you were, in the US or in Britain. Was Miller accepted by Americans as the representative of all they considered best? Probably not. Was he regarded by Brits as what we thought a good liberal American should be? Probably yes.
But who is this ‘we’? Are we the only ‘we‘ worth talking about? That question did arise afterwards, as did the notion of value, a much more complex term depending on who assigns it, and Erica Jarnes' fine distinction between success and reputation. Is selling more books an indication of reputation, or indeed of value? Amit Chaudhuri talked of the way reputation was constructed in terms of nationhood, but also of how some were required to run counter to the established narrative. How do revivals of reputation occur, asked Cathy Cole. Jack Wang pointed out that despite not being regarded as a true-blue or red-blooded American, Miller was still on school reading lists.
Susan Barker lamented the lack of women among those considered important (importance being another term related to reputation), a problem pointed out in private discussion later by Dave Wilson, who remarked that all the names discussed at this session were white, male, and anglophone. Anna Funder did, on the other hand, confirm the substantial reputation and stature of the Australian writer, Christina Stead. She talked of the importance of history and wondered how far literature was perceived as an aspect of history (or vice versa for that matter). Deborah Smith brought us back to the question of women’s writing and how it was evaluated according to different criteria in different places: in the west along feminist lines, but differently in other places with other histories and cultures (Catholicism and Buddhism were offered as examples in later sessions.) Reputation might simply be a kind of noise, a form of agreement. It might in fact be constraining if if meant publishers would demand more of the same from any successful author.
The dangers of success were (briefly) to reappear in D J Taylor’s provocation the next day.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s provocation on D’Annunzio was spellbinding and very much to the point, since her subject not only pursued reputation but understood perfectly how to get it. He was the genius of the publicity stunt, a polymath, brilliant at many things including poetry, seduction and rabble-rousing rhetoric. Reputation is not a sufficiently grand term for him: celebrity, superstardom, megastardom need to be introduced. D’Annunzio is born into the first age of mass media. He steps on people, he exploits people, he charms and discards people, he leads them into battle and into a fierce nationalism anticipating Il Duce whom he regards as vulgar. There was a lovely phrase Lucy used about D’Annunzio giving action the lasting power of symbol - and maybe that is what it takes. Dan then added another word to the growing lexicography of reputation by referring to D’Annunzio as a brand. Branding and mass media are very much of our age, but they begin with D’Annunzio. The poet as life as mask as symbol.
In the discussion afterwards Vesna talked of “the art of lifemaking”. Others talked of the way suicide fixes the author as identity, fate and destiny and how it makes us read their works in a different way. Stefan Zweig was mentioned as an example of fame arrested and amplified by suicide. Mishima was another such. Jon Cook suggested that Allen Ginsberg’s public life was an extension of his poems. Lucy pointed to the line from Romanticism to Fascism. Amit mentioned Tagore who became a world celebrity, admired chiefly as a sage and purveyor of mysticism, rather than as was what he was in India: a poet. Chris Bigsby pointed to Mailer and Hemingway as conscious constructors of their own images. Consideration of the image and the self-image led us in the direction of social media. At one level inflation of the self appears comical: at another, venal and potentially disastrous.
This is the second in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. Alternatively, you can watch the provocations on YouTube or listen to them on SoundCloud. Find out more about Worlds Literature Festival
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.Visit George's website
Follow George on Twitter @George_Szirtes