Monday, 30 November 2015

Reading the World - an Interview with Ann Morgan

by Catriona Troth

2012 was the year that the world came to London. Two hundred and four countries took part in the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Royal Shakespeare Company put on performances of 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages. And Ann Morgan began her marathon Year of Reading the World, undertaking to read 196 books representing all the countries of the United Nations (plus one territory, for luck).

Meeting the World Through Books

It was a chance remark from another blogger, recommending a book from Australia, that started her on this journey.

“I had always thought of myself as quite a cosmopolitan person. But I realised that when I looked at my shelves, they told a rather different story. Pretty much all the books on there were by British and North American authors, and there was almost nothing in translation. That came as quite a shock to me. It seemed like such a narrow thing to do, to limit myself to such a small selection stories the world had to offer. So as 2012 was going to be London’s Olympic year, I thought, why not use this as my opportunity to go out and meet the world through books and try and correct that bias in my reading.”

The blog began on 1st January 2012, with a story from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which was celebrating its first New Year. As you can imagine, there hadn’t been time for the country to build up a body of literature. Instead, Julia Duany, former refugee who had returned to Sudan in 2005 to help prepare for independence, wrote a short story especially for the project. ‘To Forgive is Divine Not Human’, looks back at a ‘pantomime of hell’ in her homeland and looks forward with hope to a brighter future. You can listen to Duany reading her story here:

It was, says Morgan, “one of many examples of people going to extraordinary lengths to help me.”

Evidence that the project was capturing imaginations around the world came just four days after Morgan launched an appeal for book recommendations, in late 2011. A woman called Rafidah wrote to Morgan from Malaysia, promising to go to her local English language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose a book for the project.

“I thought this was just something I was doing for my own interest. But then here was a stranger more than six thousand miles away doing this generous thing. And from that point on I was committed to the project, because someone had made that investment in me.”

In due course, a parcel arrived in the post, containing Ripples And Other Stories by English-language writer Shih-Li Kow, a short story collection which had been shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Morgan describes it as “more like a novel in which moments in characters’ lives are explored as they weave in and out of each others’ existences, tracing a web of associations that stretches across Malaysian society and out around the world.”

The first media interest in the project came around World Book Day 2012, when Morgan wrote a piece about the project for the Guardian, where she was freelancing. One thing led to another, and soon other papers noticed her. CNN international became interested. And the whole thing took off from there. “It was extraordinary. You start a project in your living room, and then there comes a point when you realise it’s bigger than you are.”

Impossible Choices

Making the selection of a book from each country must have been extraordinarily daunting. As Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie pointed in her 2009 TED talk, there are grave dangers in allowing a single story to define country or a people. How had Morgan overcome that challenge?

“I made it clear from the start that this was a personal project. I wasn’t trying to find a book that represented a country. I’d be pretty cheesed off if someone tried to find the definitive British novel. So what would give me the right to try and find, say, the definitive Mongolian novel? For me it was about exploring and seeing what voices were out there. And hopefully opening that door for other people. That was one of the reasons that I put all the valid recommendations people gave me in one big list on my blog. And I continue to update that list.”

So how were the selections made?

“It wasn’t an exact science. Sometimes several people recommended the same book. Sometimes the description someone had given of the book was so intriguing I was really drawn to it. The Girls of Riyadh, for example, was described to me as ‘the Saudi Arabian Sex and the City.’

“Or it might just seem particularly fitting. My book from Lesotho, for example, was Basali! – a collection of short stories by women. Lesotho is one of the few countries in the world where the female literacy rate is higher than the male, because boys are taken out of school and taken away to learn hunting and farming, while the girls stay in school and learn to read.

“Or sometimes someone would make a compelling argument for one book. One of the hardest countries to make a selection from was India. Such a vast country, such a varied country, so many stories written in English. As the year when on, people kept adding to the list. It was just a ridiculous thing to try and do, to choose one book. And then a journalist, Suneetha Balakrishnan, wrote to me and pointed out that all the books that had been recommended were written originally in English, and that I was missing out on all the literature written in India’s 22 other official languages, to say nothing of the couple of hundred other languages spoken across the country. The book she recommended was one of her own favourites - M T Vasudevan’s Kaalam, translated from Malayalam It was a light bulb moment.”

Some of her choices were deliberately controversial – such as picking British born Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to represent the United States.

“Because most of my reading up till then had been British or American writers, I decided to use my UK and US choices to push the boundaries a bit.

“Often I would find that, if there wasn’t much literature from a country, people would recommend books by British or American ex-pats, who had lived in the country of maybe ten years or so. I was not convinced if that counted or not. What does it mean to say a book is ‘from’ a country? Does the author have to be born in that country? Do you have to have lived there all your life? Or how long do you need to have lived there?

“So Gaiman was in interesting example. British born and British raised – but he has lived in America for more than twenty years. If we are not comfortable with Gaiman’s book being considered American literature, then should we be comfortable with an American author who has lived in, say, Kenya for twenty years being considered as a Kenyan author?”

Letting Go the Fear of Translation

Apparently only 4.5% of literature (and 2.5% of all books) published in the UK each year are books in translation [Publishing Perspectives, Feb 2013]. So what would she say or do to open up Anglophone readers (and publishers) to books in translation?

“One of the big stumbling blocks for readers is feeling intimidated by books from cultures they are not familiar with, or by languages they don’t read in the original. They worry they are somehow not going to be cultured enough or knowledgeable enough to understand the stories. Actually the thing is not to be afraid, and just have a go. We don’t understand all the nuances of everything we read, even in British and American books. But even if you don’t get all the references, or have first-hand knowledge of all the places– there is still a lot you can take away. Letting go of that fear of not knowing is really important.”

What book NOT commercially available in this country would she fight tooth and nail to get a publisher to produce in translation?

Without hesitation, Morgan picks out a book from Mozambique: Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa. The book had won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction and was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, drawn up in 2002. The only trouble was that no English translation had been published. Amazingly, Morgan was able to contact translator Richard Bartlett, who happened to have an unpublished translation of the book and was willing to let her read it. The good news is that several people are now interested in bringing out the book in English.

“It has a lead character who is a tragic hero of the stature of King Lear. And yet in the Anglophone world we are unaware of this book.”

What about the idea of going round the world in languages, rather than in countries?

“It would be an almost impossible task. There are something like 6 thousand languages in the world, and we are losing on average 1 language every two weeks. Only a few hundred are spoken by a relatively large number of people. Many have no written literature.

“On the other hand official languages, in South America and Africa especially, are often imported European languages, and literature from quite widely spoken indigenous languages gets even less attention. So there is a great deal of mileage in the idea if anyone wants to take it on.”

A Web of Readers

Morgan now finds herself at the centre of a web of readers and writers. People around the world continue to send her recommendations, and she now features a book of the month on her blog

“The project was so much about involving people, and valuing people’s input. So I wanted it to feel accessible, and something anyone could engage with. I wanted to encourage people to engage with books they might otherwise have found unapproachable.”

What’s more, her blog has inspired others to set out on reading adventures of their own. Suneetha Balakrishnan, the journalist who recommended Morgan to read a book translated from Malayalam, is now writing her own blog, ‘Reading Around India’, discussing books written in each of India’s indigenous languages, with a special focus on books written by women. Others are exploring books from different countries written for children, or books translated from indigenous languages.

“I frequently get contacted from people all over the planet, saying they have been inspired to read more widely, or telling me ‘I’ve set myself this challenge or that challenge...”

On March 12, 2015, at a conference in Switzerland with the theme ‘Mindshift’, Morgan gave one of the prestigious TEDx talks, entitled ‘How Ignorance Can Change the World’.

Speaking in advance of the talk, she told me, “Realising that you have a blind spot, that you don’t know something, can sometimes be an opportunity and a source of strength, not a weakness. We are brought up in a culture where it is embarrassing to admit that you don’t know all the answers. Obviously knowledge is important, but actually there is no shame in not knowing. So long as you are open to learning, it can be the start of an extraordinary experience.”

It certainly was for Morgan. Summing up the year, she tells me, “It was life changing. Stories can take you out of yourself and show you the world through someone else’s eyes – not only the richness of life in other places, but the narrowness of your own assumptions. So I think it’s made me more sensitive to my own blind spots and more alive to the complexity of life elsewhere.”

If you want to follow in Ann Morgan’s incredible footsteps, you can read the full list of all the books recommendations she received here, with links to her blog posts on each of the selected books.

Her book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, is now on sale in the UK, published by Harvill Secker/Random House. In the US, it will be published in May 2015 by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co, under the title, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe.

UPDATE: You can now view Ann Morgan's TED talk here.


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