Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’

This week saw the penultimate session of the online Translated Fiction Book club in which we talked about Thirteen Months of Sunrise, a collection of short stories published by Comma Press, written by the Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

The evening commenced with a conversation with Elisabeth Jaquette on her translation of the wonderful book. This was a very interesting beginning to the meeting, with Jaquette telling us a little about Rania’s quite astounding journey. To start with, however, she focused more on the translation side of things, discussing the ins and outs of the Arabic language, a diglossic language with many different dialects. Elisabeth learnt her Arabic in Cairo, a city that speaks its own dialect of Arabic, thus, when translating Thirteen Months of Sunrise, which is written in standard arabic, and peppered with Sudanese Arabic words and phrases, there were some points in which Elisabeth had to research words, or discuss them with Rania. Elisabeth says that Rania was very supportive through the translation process, and despite having never met in person, the pair corresponded a lot through email. Elisabeth then went on to tell us Rania’s inspiring story. Rania is very politically active, something that comes with great danger in Sudan. Therefore in the first steps of the translation of Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania was actually in the process of moving to the US, however, right at the same time that the pair received the great news that they had a PEN Translates grant in order to help translate the book, Donald Trump imposed the infamous travel ban on several countries, including Sudan. Luckily, however, after a very long process and help from many others, Rania finally made it to the US three years later.

As we moved on to the group discussions of the book, it was very quickly clear to see that we all loved Rania’s tender touch for storytelling. In each story, Rania introduces us to a person and a new theme. Despite the very short length of each of the stories, she manages to allow us to understand the depths of the character’s mind and personality, and whilst she doesn’t give a lot away, what does appear in the narrative is incredibly descriptive and poetic. Rania paints a beautiful picture with her writing, in fact, someone perfectly described her prose as like an ‘impressionist painting’, her stories delicate and graceful. Despite wanting to know more about these character’s and their stories, Rania leaves you to write the rest of the story, leaves you to figure out the significance and the meanings (of which I am sure there are a vast amount) behind each story. The collection explores a range of themes, for example, in the story ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ Rania tells of finding connection in differences, in ‘Passing’ she speaks of loss and religion, and in ‘Woman Asleep on a Bundle’ she writes of morals. All three of the themes explored in these stories continue to resonate throughout the beautiful collection.

I absolutely loved this week’s discussion, and am looking forward to next week’s meeting where we will be talking about Singer in the Night, published by Istros Books, written by Olja Savičević Ivančević, and translated by Celia Hawkesworth.

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Restless’

In this week’s Translated Fiction Book Club, we were discussing Restless, published by Nordisk Books, written by Kenneth Moe and translated by Alison McCullough. This week’s discussion was great, as Restless was a book that divided opinions and welcomed some very interesting debates.

In brief, Restless is a one-hundred-page letter, or perhaps even a journal entry written by an angsty young man after being rejected by a love interest. The letters or journal entries appear in short, fleeting blasts, and offer an insight into the mind of a young man struggling with rejection which he tries (and fails?) to overcome. The fragmented structure lends itself well to the protagonist’s fleeting obsessive thoughts based on his relationship with this particular woman and they sometimes enter into potentially controversial territory as we begin to understand his obsession in more depth.

Opening the session was a discussion with the director of Nordisk Books, Duncan J. Lewis and the translator, Alison McCullough. Nordisk Books was set up only four years ago with the aim to publish creative fiction from the Nordic countries – not crime fiction, the Nordic countries have much much more to offer! Alison discussed her translation of the book, explaining that one of the more difficult tasks in this translation was with the difference in the Norwegian and English languages. With Norwegian being a more concise language, it was sometimes difficult to render this preciseness in English. She also touched on her method of ‘inhabiting the narrator’s mental space’, something that may prove to be quite challenging with a book such as Restless.

As we broke off into smaller groups to discuss the book, it became clear that opinions on it were divided. I for one enjoyed the sporadic structure of the book, something that I felt lent itself well to the themes and emotions explored within. However we felt that the difficult nature of the book and the narrator’s thoughts and words ultimately didn’t make for a very enjoyable read.

We held some very interesting discussions on the epigraph that appears at the start of the book:

“The amorous subject cannot write his love story himself.”

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes

We talked about what this meant for the themes covered in the book, and for the narrator’s ultimate aim. In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes explores the idea that there is no ‘order’ to love, there is no universal rhetoric with which to discuss or understand love, and perhaps this is what the narrator eventually comes to realise. I think the quote also speaks to perhaps a more simplistic idea that love is something out of one’s control, it is impossible to ‘pin it down’ and write one’s own love story, so perhaps it could be considered that this quote alerts you to the ‘unreliable narrator’ who is attempting the ‘impossible’ in writing his own ‘love’ story, or trying to find ‘order’ in love. There were also discussions on how ultimately, the point of love is reciprocation, something that was not at all apparent in this book. One more interesting point to make is that the structure of Restless could perhaps be considered as mirroring the layout of A Lover’s Discourse, consisting of short extracts and fleeting trains of thought.

I loved this week’s interesting discussion, and am excited to begin reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, written by Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Comma Press in preparation for next week!

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Fate’

This week for the Translated Fiction Book Club, we had the pleasure of reading Fate, from Charco Press, written by Jorge Consiglio, and co-translated by Carolina Orloff.

Set in the city of Buenos Aires, Fate follows the lives of a group of very different characters. First, we meet Amer, a taxidermist, who later falls for Carla, a younger member of his therapy group for smokers. Then we meet Marina a meteorologist, and her husband, Karl with whom she only seems to communicate through text or voice message. Karl, a German-born oboist, and Marina have a son together, Simón. On a field trip, Marina meets Zárate, a man she embarks on an affair with. The novel follows this set of characters as they make a series of potentially life-changing decisions that leave us questioning whether the results occur thanks to fate or chance. The novel’s main focus is on the relationships between both Marina and Karl, and Amer and Carla, the former being an established, long term relationship, and the latter being very new. Fate explores decisions made by each of these characters that effectively change the course of their relationships. Marina, for example, decides to enter into a romantic relationship with another man Zárate. This ultimately ends in her deciding to separate from her husband Karl and making him leave the house. Was it fate or chance that led Marina to meet Zárate? Amer first sets eyes on Carla at a smokers group therapy session, attending for a second time only to see her, he is disappointed that she is not there, yet after Amer attends the meeting a few more times, Carla finally reappears, once again, is this fate or chance?

In the last few pages of the book Karl decides to take his son on a trip to a funfair, they take the train to get there, and go on one of the rides, a Ferris wheel. On the Ferris wheel, Simón is watching the clouds in the sky…

“There were a few clouds, maybe five, and one of them, stretching across the horizon, reminded him of his teddy bear’s head. […] This image, both distinctive and fleeting, awakened something undefinable in his body, without knowing quite how, that bought him face to face with uncertainty. Perhaps this was why he quickly looked away, searching for a reference point. His gaze lit upon the sight of a passing train, its progress neither fats nor slow. The railway tracks were so close that he could make out the faces of the passengers through the windows: transient figures that entered his emotional mesh and anchored him to reality.”

Jorge Consiglio, Fate

The train that Simón focuses on is the exact train that Amer is travelling on. He is on his way to buy beekeeping equipment for a new property he has inherited, Carla was supposed to join him, however, after cancelling last minute, Amer is left disappointed and alone on the train. He too takes to gazing at the clouds…

“After many years, things had fallen into place for him, and those clouds in the corner of the sky, so limpid and serene, were symbols of his state of mind. He looked at them again – not to decipher anything, but just to confirm that these good things had come to stay. He noticed that one of the clouds, abundant, intricate – was neatly curved, forming a shape much like the head of the grizzly bear he’d recently seen in the documentary. […] When he lowered his gaze, he saw a funfair. A funfair! He was surprised. He stared at the Ferris wheel, struck by its design and stylishness – he mistook slowness for sophistication – as it turned in the air. He was so close to the ride that he could make out the faces of the people on it. […] Yet what was remarkable, truly remarkable, is that he didn’t see Simón, who at that very moment was turning his head – like a tiny satellite – slightly to the left. They missed each other by seven seconds. A mere seven seconds. A trifle, a smidgen, an iota, a fragment of time that, amid the vertigo of the evening that seemed to last forever, was absorbed like any other detail into the imperfections of the day.”

Jorge Consiglio, Fate

What is the significance of this almost encounter? Why did they not see each other? Was it fate that they were not meant to lock eyes, or was it simply chance?

To start things off, Carolina Orloff talked about her translation process. Orloff discussed the ‘rule’ of translating into your ‘mother-tongue’ and how she defies this, for many translators, it is not a case of translating into the first language you spoke, but the one you now feel most comfortable with. Speaking specifically about Fate, Orloff said that “some books grab you, and you start hearing them in your target language, this happened with Fate.” On co-translation, Orloff said her and Petch’s method was for Orloff to do a rough first translation into English “attempting to capture as many layers of the Spanish as possible” before passing it on to Petch to edit. This, she says is when “new layers are built” and the “new book begins to form”.

Moving on to the group discussions, we discussed whether fate or chance prevailed in the novel. This was a difficult question to answer, however, we eventually leaned more towards fate, as the characters often seemed to resign themselves, letting fate take its course. We then talked about what we thought of the ending. For myself, upon first reading, the ending left me wanting more, especially as this book is framed by an author’s note discussing that fate and chance often lead to big changes in the course of someone’s life. So, when a big event does not occur in the final pages of the novel, this is unexpected. Upon taking time to reflect on the ending, it is clear that this seemingly ‘eventless’ end is intentional, in fact, this is the point of the entire novel, all of the minute decisions we make, that we barely even think about, can lead to huge consequences, or consequences that are so small we don’t even realise.

I really enjoyed the reading for this week’s Translated Fiction Book Club, and will definitely be ordering some more brilliant books from Charco to see me through the rest of the lockdown. For now, I look forward to reading Restless, from Nordisk Books, written by Kenneth Moe and translated by Alison McCullough for next week!

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Where the Wild Ladies Are’

This Thursday saw the latest translated fiction book club, and this week we were reading Where the Wild Ladies Are from Titled Axis Press, written by Matsuda Aoko and translated by Polly Barton. Once again, it was wonderful to be part of such a lovely discussion with readers from around the world, and so I thought I would write another blog post on the meeting.

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a feminist retelling of a collection of short Japanese ghost stories, however, the ghosts are not quite as one would expect them to be. The stories that these retellings are based on are rooted in a long tradition of Japanese ghost stories, passed down orally through generations, and normally told in summer around one-hundred candles. For each story told, one candle gets blown out, slowly making the atmosphere scarier and scarier. In most of these traditional stories, the ghost is almost always a ‘wronged’ woman, unable to reach the afterlife because of something still linking her to the real world. Aoko takes these discourses, and bringing them into contemporary society, introduces us to modern ghosts, with a whole heap of agency. Aoko subverts the typical narrative, and in fact, it is the ghost that is often there to help the humans navigate the issues and pitfalls that come with modern life – particularly the issues that come with being a woman in contemporary Japan. As well as usurping the ‘wronged woman’ trope, Aoko also deconstructs the horror genre, writing stories that are full of wit and humour, rather than shock and horror. It is clear from this collection that Aoko wanted to write an accessible feminist literary piece that addressed feminist issues in modern-day Japan.

The discussion started with us all sharing our favourite stories from the collection, mine being ‘Smartening Up’ which offers a criticism of Japanese ideals of beauty, perhaps influenced by Western ideals, and ‘Enoki’ an interesting and very short story that gives life to a tree named Enoki whose ‘sweet dew’ (sap) is believed to give women the power to start producing breast milk, an idea that even the tree herself finds ridiculous, ‘Give me a break!’ she says. We then moved on to discuss Aoko’s use of humour in the retellings, as well as the apparent importance of work and ‘the company’ and how this may reflect Japanese society. ‘The company’, as we slowly begin to discover through the subtle interweaving of the short stories, is a company comprised of both ghosts and humans, directed by the elusive Mr Tei. Not a great deal of information is divulged about the company, however, what is clear is that Mr Tei outsources ‘talented ghosts’ that can help humans that may be a little lost, or trapped by modern issues. This is where the subversion of the ‘wronged woman’ ghost trope really comes into play, Aoko flips the narrative, and rather than it being the female ghosts that are trapped in the living world, it is, in fact, the human characters that appear lost or confused. The ghosts have been sought out by Mr Tei for their talents, and use their powers to guide the humans who are ‘lost’ or ‘trapped’. The ghosts help humans navigate issues such as constructs of beauty, love, and jealousy.

I loved reading Where the Wild Ladies Are and found it to be a fun and unique collection of stories!

This session was yet another wonderful addition to the book club and was a great way to spend a Thursday night in isolation. Now, in time for next week’s meeting, I am off to read Fate published by Charco Press, written by Jorge Consiglio, and translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch…

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘The Mussel Feast’

The last few weeks have been incredibly strange, for reasons we all know too well. I don’t want to dwell on this, as at the moment, this subject seems to be all we are receiving in our newsfeeds and the only topic of conversations with friends. I will say that I have been feeling quite anxious in these isolating times, for the same reason everyone else is feeling out of sorts. However, one thing that is getting my spirits up is seeing the translation and literature communities pulling together to make this time a little more enjoyable for everyone, and this translated book club is just one example of that!

Last week Peirene Press announced that they were joining up with Charco Press, Tilted Axis Press, Comma Press, Nordisk Books, and Istros Books to set up an online Translated Fiction Book Club, free for anyone to join. I for one could not pass on this wonderful opportunity to engage with people from around the world, all in the name of brilliant translated literature from independent publishers.

Peirene Press kicked things off this week with a discussion on one of their books published in 2013 (original German publication 1990), The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. (WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!)

This short novella (100 pages) is written from the point of view of a nameless teenage girl in the form of a continuous monologue. The girl, her mother and her brother are preparing a special celebratory dinner in time for the arrival of their father from his business trip, certain that he will have gained the promotion he has been working towards and expecting for a long while now, hence the special dish of mussels, which, despite lovingly preparing them for her husband, the girl’s mother ‘does not care for’. As the three prepare the mussels and the chips to go alongside them, the narrator recounts scenes from her past, including the family’s exodus from East to West Germany and interactions with her two very different grandmothers. The most important points of the girl’s childhood however, are those in which we get to know her father. We soon learn that he imposes patriarchal ideals onto the girl, her mother, and her brother, all as part of his desire to be a ‘proper family’. The mother submits to this, and as the monologue develops, the father’s actions in the flashbacks become more violent, both mentally and psysically. We slowly discover that neither the girl nor her mother and brother enjoy being part of this make-believe ‘proper family’ and are much happier during the times that the father is away on business trips. Without his presence, the mother lets her hair down, relaxes and doesn’t comply with the normal schedule put in place by the father, however, as soon as he is back, the mother reverts to ‘wifey mode’. Back in the present, and the mussels are ready for the celebratory dinner, as they are placed in the middle of the table, the girl, her mother, and her brother sit down together, contemplating the mussels and waiting for their normally prompt father. Where is he? Why is he so late? As time goes on, the three slowly admit to each other that actually, they are glad that he hasn’t yet come back, in fact, they all tell each other, they prefer it like this. They begin to speculate on where he could be, about what could have happened. This is something that the reader never gets to find out, as, hours after 6 pm (the time of his scheduled arrival) the mother chooses not to answer the ringing phone, instead, she takes the mussels, which have slowly turned ‘poisonous’ and throws them away. The Mussel Feast was written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this is clear to see through the narrative, as the ‘mussel feast’ itself mimics an actual revolution, a realisation that the father is imposing a regime that the rest of the family no longer want to submit to.

I read this incredible monologue in one sitting, and although not a lot necessarily ‘moves’ in the narrative, the novella is incredibly fast-paced, weaved with repeated words and phrases, and unnervingly light-hearted and jovial in its descriptions of quite distressing scenes. The Mussel Feast explores themes of submission, patriarchal ideals, and suffering, yet it is not until you have put the book down, that you begin to consider the weight of what you have just read.

To open the book club Maddie Rogers (Peirene) and Jamie Bulloch discussed the translation of the novella. Bulloch explained that there were sometimes difficulties in translating the long and winding monologue form, as whilst ‘German lends itself to this breathless style’, English does not. Therefore, in order to tackle this, Bulloch had to make the decision to break up some sentences or use more ‘definite’ punctuation.

During the ‘discussion’ section of the book club, we talked about what might have happened to the father, and what the mussels represented. There were so many wonderful ideas and it was great to hear everyone’s different takes on these topics. Some ideas were that the mussels represented the wall, the ‘poisonous’ father, or the willingness to submit to suffering. In terms of what had happened to the father, there were some really interesting thoughts – maybe he didn’t get that promotion after all and was too ashamed to return to his family, or perhaps he was in the next room all along, listening to his family’s slow realsisation that they hated him and the ideals he imposed on them…

I thoroughly enjoyed the first online Translated Book Club, and will definitely be back to discuss Where the Wild Ladies Are from Tilted Axis Press next week! Huge thanks to Maddie Rogers at Peirene for putting this together and taking our minds off what is going on out there for an hour!

Japan Now East: Reading and Workshop with Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles

This week I was lucky enough to attend a discussion and reading with renowned Japanese poet and writer, Hiromi Itō, and her friend and translator into the English, Jeffrey Angles. The following day, I also attended the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’, which focused on the difficulties of translating Japanese culture and language specifities into English culture and langauge.

The reading and subsequent workshop took place at the astoundingly beautiful Dragon Hall, part of the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. Upon arriving, I had no idea what to expect, having heard very little about Hiromi Itō, and simply buying a ticket for the event with an interest from the perspective of a translator. It is safe to say that I am very glad I decided to buy the ticket, as I have now discovered a new favourite poet in Hiromi Itō, and an awe at the lovely poet-translator relationship Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles have formed.

The evening of the reading began with a brief discussion on Hiromi Itō’s and Jeffery Angles respective works, and their collaboration in translation. Hiromi Itō is a notorious figure in Japan, writing poetry on provocative subjects that in Japanese culture are often considered taboo, and Jeffery, her long term translator into English, and a poet in his own right. The evening then drew towards the main focus, a bilingual reading of the new volume of Hiromi Itō’s poetry collections ‘Killing Kanoko’ and ‘The Wild Grass on the Riverbank’, just published by Titled Axis Press.

The first collection in the volume, ‘Killing Kanoko’ covers topics such as sex, abortion, and post-partum depression. This was met with a sort of horror, and whole heap of critisicm in Japan, in particular from male critics. For this, Hiromi Itō became notorious, and somewhat of a feminist icon in Japan. The language is harsh, yet sad, troubling and unnerving. The second collection deals with a different theme, over the past twenty years, Hiromi Itō has divided her time between Japan and Southern California, and therefore, the second collection in the volume explores the ideas of discriminiation and immigration. Wild Grass on the Riverbank is written from the point of view of a narrator shuttled between the Riverbank (Japan) and the Wasteland/Wild Grass (Southern California). Hiromi Itō explores this through the weaving of weeds and plants into her langauge, the plants coming to life and experiencing trauma just like the narrator. The bilingual reading of excerpts from these two volumes was simply astounding. Hiromi Itō’s improv performance could almost be described as erratic, but resulting in a real, passionate, and striking reading that was utterly mesmerising and deeply moving. The poet and translator bounced off of each other, reading each other, and proving that this was more of a friendship than simply a poet-translator relationship, they had a deep understanding of each others art.

The next day, at the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’ the pair discussed the difficulties of translating between two such vastly differing cultures and languages as Japanese and English along with translator and writer Polly Barton. The workshop was chaired by Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned translator of contemporary American literature into Japanese, and current writer in residence at the National Centre for Writing. The group discussed the difficulties of translating elements of a text such as gender, and the need to be careful not to apply anglocentric gender norms to works in translation. For example, the Japanese language can tell an entire story about someone without revealing the characters gender until the very end of the text – something almost impossible to render into English – however something that for many texts may be essential to the meaning, and therefore, should somehow be worked into the English. Jeffery Angles also discussed how translating Hiromi Itō was particularly difficult as she often uses non-standard Japanese in her writing, and this unusual language is very difficult to work with in translation.

The afternoon came to a close with another reading from Hiromi Itō and Jeffery Angles that was as brilliant as the previous nights. For this reading Hiromi Itō took her older translation of the Sutra and retranslated it, proving, as Jeffery Angles stated that…

“A translation is never a completed process.”

I left both the reading and the workshop with a new found desire to read more Japanese literarture (in particular poetry) in translation, and with my own ideas of the difficulties in translating elements such as gender from French into English. And of course… I also left with the new book, an absolute must!

What is the contemporary?

What is the contemporary, and how do we define the contemporary novel?

These are two questions that are difficult to answer, two questions that many literary theorists have struggled with. In this post I do not attempt to do the impossible (or incredibly difficult) and define the un-definable, I do however wish to discuss some potential answers, some potential theories surrounding what the contemporary novel is, and where it fits in in this world.

The contemporary should be considered as fluid, as something that is not still, something that is constantly moving and evolving. It is something that we are experiencing and living through right now, meaning that it is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to comprehend. Whilst our time has substance and shape, it seems almost impossible to see this, because we are too close to it. Therefore, in order to find and understand the contemporary, one must gain perspective and consider it from a distance.

It is not necessarily temporal distance that is needed in order to be considered contemporary, metaphorical distance is key. According to Giorgio Agamben:

“The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness.”

Agamben continues to explain that all eras have obscurities and that the contemporary is the person that knows how to see this obscurity.

“This obscurity amounts to a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch, in order to discover its obscurity, its special darkness, which is not, however, separable from those lights.”

Is Agamben saying here that the contemporary is the opposite of the popular? Could the contemporary be considered as a reaction to the zeitgeist? One could consider that the zeitgeist at present is extremely negative, lead by the rise of fascism, racism, climate change denial and the rise of technology to name just a few. Is contemporary fiction, therefore, a reaction to these feelings that saturate the present with their light? Does contemporary fiction emerge from the darkness, the obscurity that these feelings cast, offering a critical reaction, an opposing ‘contemporary’ commentary? I think so, yes. In fact, I am quite certain. Agamben considers that:

“The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity.”

In a time of Donald Trump, Brexit and climate change denial, I think that this quotation is quite perfect. The contemporary then, offers opposition to this light that blinds so many. The contemporary writes having seen the ‘intimate obscurities’, they write critically of the feeling and mood of our time, critically against the rise in right-wing politics, against the climate change deniers, against technology.

So what is the contemporary? Someone who does not allow themselves to be captured by the ‘lights’ of the zeitgeist, instead, discovering the shadows and obscurities of their time, as a result, gaining the ability to write literature that opposes and critiques it. So, how do we define the contemporary novel, and how does it fit into our time? If we take Agamben’s theory, the contemporary novel is a novel of perspective, a novel that does not conform to the popular, that does not contribute to the ‘lights’ of the time. In allowing themself to disconnect, and distance themself from present rhetorics, by not allowing themself to coincide or adjust to the demands of their time, the writer creates their own opposing rhetoric, the writer creates a contemporary novel, a novel that submits to the shadows of the epoch and opposes the lights.

SOURCES CITED: Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, trans. David Kishisk and Stefan Pedetella, (Stanford University Press, 2011)

Review: ‘La Naufragée du Lac des Dents Blanches’, by Patrice Gain

Written by Patrice Gain, and published by Le Mot et le Reste in 2016, La Naufragée du Lac des Dents Blanches explores serious issues both within France and Canada in a delicate and quite remarkable manner. Patrice Gain takes the dreadful and long-standing issues of the European refugee crisis, and treatment of indigenous Canadians, and intertwines them with a beautiful story of friendship and aid that restores hope in humanity.

Within the first few chapters of the story, we meet the narrator and his friend Elias, two old Breton fishermen recovering from an almost fatal shipwreck in waters just off Belle-Île, a small island in Brittany. Having been hailed local heroes, the town mayor offers to let them recuperate in his mountain chalet in the French Alps where they meet mountaineer, Leon. A few days into their séjour in a chalet on the edge of Le Lac des Dents Blanches, the three men discover Saamiya washed up on the shores of the lake and after the trio take her in, she recounts her horrific story. Saamiya is a refugee from Somalia who decided to flee her country with her small daughter in tow after the killing of her sister. As Saamiya’s story unfolds, we learn that her daughter was kidnapped by a Swiss children’s organisation in Tripoli, it is this terrible act that has bought Saamiya to the Swiss border: the search for her daughter. The group immediately decide to offer their aid, and embark on a long journey through mountains and snow, across borders and oceans, all in order to find Sahra.

This wonderful story unfolds alongside Gain’s vivid descriptions of the snow and the sea, two imminent forces that appear throughout the book. This makes for an easy-to-read yet wonderfully immersive tale where the incredibly eloquent and beautiful images of the snow and the sea offer a striking juxtaposition to a heart-wrenching story of horror and loss. In perhaps a somewhat divisive time, this story brings together an unlikely group of people, two old fishermen, a retired mountaineer, and Somalian refugee, as they embark on a very unlikely journey. The story explores two areas of modern day division, that of the refugee crisis, and though perhaps on a smaller scale, that of the segregation of indigenous Canadians. La Naufragée du Lac des Dents Blanches takes these two issues, and offers a rhetoric that one is not used to seeing in relation to these issues, one of union, co-operation and friendship, a refreshing perspective, especially in a time when the world feels more divided than ever before. Gain manages to show that no matter what differences exist between countries and communities, unity and friendship is possible.

La Naufragée du Lac des Dents Blanches left me with a warm feeling of hope, and a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

UEA Literary Festival: Tash Aw in Conversation

Last week Tash Aw visited the University of East Anglia as part of the UEA Literary Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the wonderful event and thought what better way to start my blog than with a short piece on the talk!

The evening was centered mainly on Aw’s new release: We, The Survivors, but the author also offered an insight into issues in Malaysia, as well as his experiences as an author, and as a UEA student. Luckily enough for me, the chat did not give away too much about Aw’s new novel (I am only halfway through reading it). He did however, discuss his reasons behind writing the novel, the meanings that the story evoked, and his personal connections to the book.

We, The Survivors explores the story of Ah Hock, a poor Malaysian man who commits an unforgivable crime towards someone far different. The reader follows Ah Hock as he tells his story to Su-Min, an educated journalist from the city. As the story unfolds, we learn of the vast differences in the morals, history, and lives of each character.

To start off the talk, Tash revealed to the room that the inspiration for his new novel came from wanting to represent what he called the ‘two Malaysias’. Aw was born in 1971, just over a decade after Malaysia (like many other Asian countries) had won back independence from Britain. During this time of decolonisation (the 70’s and 80’s) Malaysia became very rich, however, this was a process of rapid change and soon came to a grinding halt. Aw’s family has a poor background in the countryside, however his parents were lucky enough to have the opportunity to leave this lifestyle behind when they moved to Kuala Lumpur. This is where Aw grew up whilst the remainder of his extended family stayed in the countryside.

In Kuala Lumpur, Aw was exposed to to a brand new world, he discovered different cultures, literature, music, and film, but along with the rest of his family, his cousins the same age as him did not experience this. Whenever he spent time with his cousins, Aw said that he could sense this difference between them. This was the case for many in the country, there were huge contrasts between what Aw dubbed the ‘two Malaysias’: rich and poor, cultured and uncultured, educated and uneducated. To an extent, this divide in society still exists today, and is exactly what Aw wished to represent in We, The Survivors: the two Malaysias and just how drastically different they are.

“The reason I wanted to explore division between the privileged and the under priveleged world is because I come from a very mixed family. It is not always easy to represent a certain group of people. Ah-Hock and Su-Min represent two very different groups of people, and I hope that somehow represents the country itself.”

Aw stated that it took him a while to perceive this difference, and in order to do so, he had to be away from his home country before he realised that such a difference existed, and that this difference was not so normal.

“Some writers need to be close to their subject to write it, some writers need distance and perspective from their subject. I needed distance in order to recognise my subject, in stepping away from Malaysia, I realised the schism in Malaysian society was not normal.”

After moving to the UK to begin his undergraduate degree in Law at Cambridge, Aw was finally able to identify the societal divide in Malaysia. Although there are apparent divides in society within the UK, more often than not, they are not so drastic, and the differences are not so huge. Aw soon realised that the cultural and educational divides in his home country were not at all normal, and when his writing career eventually began he made the conscious decision to write about situations and characters familiar to him.

“I wanted to be a writer to write about the people I know, the people I recognise, I want to give them visibility.”

Aw continued to discuss the importance of representation of minorities in literature and how positive he feels in adding a Malaysian perspective and narrative to the literary world.

To end the brilliant talk, Aw divulged a little about his experiences on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, describing his first workshop as ‘battering’.

“After the first workshop I felt battered. The key skill to being a writer is resilience – and I learnt that here at UEA.”

Personally, I found this very reassuring, as I myself also felt destroyed after my first MA class this year! It is comforting to hear that someone in Aw’s position felt the same when he was first starting out too.

Tash Aw in conversation was insightful and thought-provoking. That evening I left inspired and with a head full of ideas for my own writing. I would highly recommend anyone to pick up a copy of Aw’s outstanding first novel The Harmony Silk Factory, and also to join me in reading the wonderful We, The Survivors.