Children’s literature Posts

Female Literacy and Empowerment in the sub-continent through Life Writing

I have spent an incredible four days (26-29 Jan 2021) in a webinar, spread across four countries and multiple time zones. The participants included 8 academics, 5 NGO reps, 21 students and 3 media consultants. It was organised and chaired by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Prof. of Global History, University of Sheffield, to discuss Female Literacy and Empowerment in the sub-continent through Life Writing.

“Life writing” is a loose term as it is documenting lives of women who do not necessarily document their lives in the straightforward linear narrative that is so often associated with predominant narratives. These are life stories created out of bits of evidence and stories gathered from the community and strung together to at times rescue women’s histories from the past or cobble together contemporary accounts. It is exciting, adventurous, relies on documentation and oral histories and is tough to define within the rules of traditional biographies. All of us gathered virtually to discuss material created so far, some of it has been made into draft stories, and we tried figuring out how best to work with the existing material to create these stories, perhaps even in a publishable format. There is a huge range of skill strengths and experiences in this team. This has to be garnered and capitalised upon in a constructive manner. The point being of sharing histories of women for future generations, something that Siobhan has been passionate for years!

It was fascinating hearing the learnings gleaned by the students and the partner organisations. The stories that have been created and the immense possibilities that lie in making these available to children, neo-literates and women in multiple languages, including Hindi, Urdu and English. The challenges that exist in making these available easily to many people and in many formats — print and digital. More importantly, passing on the learnings of the student in gathering oral histories, creating stories, learning to illustrate for children’s stories, creating a range of products, if necessary, translating them as well and learning about copyright.

So much was shared and discussed that it is impossible to put down in a few words. Hopefully the project will move beyond the pilot stage which has been incredibly successful in ensuring that most of the goals it set, were met. 

29 January 2021

“The Nameless God” by Savie Karnel

The Nameless God by  Savie Karnel is an extraordinary novel for little kids. It is simply told. Set in Dec 1992 but in a nameless town where communal tensions erupt after the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December. It is a story about two friends — Noor and Bachchu — who find themselves caught in the communal riots that have broken out. On the eve of the riots, the boys had created a nameless god of their own and very sweetly, not knowing what items to use to decorate their makeshift altar, had gathered items associated with Hinduism and Islam. The boys saw no wrong in assimilating the two cultures they were intimately familiar with.

It is a story set in the near past but is so obviously a story that is affecting our present every day. It is a simply told story about very tough subjects that are not always openly discussed with children — religion, communalism, politics, secularism, the Constitution etc. At the same time, the basic messages of friendship, respect, kindness, humanity and India’s syncretic character come through strongly in the novel. It is obvious it is in our citizen’s DNA. And yet children are being slowly indoctrinated by the toxic prejudices of their elders. This has to be countered by sharing histories that are being scrubbed out of the public conscious and are being rapidly replaced by new ones that are being created. This is done effectively in The Nameless God.

This is a powerful story by a debut novelist with a strong voice, Savie Karnel . The author does not mince words. A story that will resonate with many and should be adopted by schools as a middle grade reader. It must also be translated and made widely available in the local languages. We need more of our own stories and histories being made available to school children than bombarding them with stories from other lands especially about Nazi Germany. Those too must be heard but we are at such a critical juncture of our nationhood that books like The Nameless God are essential to kick-start difficult conversations. It is time.

30 Jan 2021

“Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins” by David Ashby

This book arrived today — Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby. My daughter immediately picked it up and was glued to it. Refused to budge. Ever so often one heard snorts of laughter and giggles. Or she would turn up with eyes shining and read out snippets from the book and repeat to say how much she was loving it. Made no difference to her whether I had understood the snippet or not, she was just very delighted with the story. It had magic, goblins, an invisible dog, children and the pace was just right.

Now I have been instructed to read it. You must.

Oh, BTW, David Ashby wrote this book to disprove a fortune teller who had predicted that David would never write a book. Well, now he has and if kid is to be believed, it is an “AWESOME BOOK!”

Cover illustration is by Jen Khatun and cover design by Anna Morrison.

25 Jan 2021

Update: On Instagram, David Ashby spotted the post and has been delighted with my daughter’s response. This is what he wrote:
I am so happy to hear that Sarah enjoyed reading #Gribblebob – and especially that she read bits of it out loud to you! When I wrote it I read each new chapter out loud to my children as a bedtime story and so it’s lovely to know that it still works that way. Please tell her that I think she’s an AWESOME READER!!

Children’s library, Armenia

A couple of years ago, my mother, Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji, went to Armenia to attend a conference on Byron. It is the annual gathering of Byronists that is held every year in a different country. While there she came across a library for children. It looked like an ordinary building on the outside. But once in, it was stupendous. Mum loved it. Here are some pictures from her visit.

2 Jan 2021

Teaching a tiddler how to read English

Last year Scholastic India published a marvellous collection of essays on reading. It is called Why I Love to Read: Real Stories about the Joy and Power of Reading. It is in keeping with the firm’s fundamental principle that reading opens up a world of possibilities. Reading is a lifelong skill. This anthology had a broad spectrum of contributors from across India. It included politicians, educationists, journalists, writers, publishers, poets, sociologists etc. I too contributed an essay. It was on how I managed to get my little girl to read modern English by introducing her to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The moment I introduced Sarah to medieval English where everything was spelt phonetically, the pennies dropped and she was able to make the relevant connections while reading modern English. So here is the essay that I am reproducing with the permission of the publisher.

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“They even have books in their bathroom!” exclaimed a friend to other classmates while describing our childhood home. Little has changed. Recently my daughter reported how her classmates describe our home as being full of books wherever you look! My nine-year-old is convinced that books are her birth right. She demands books she issues from the library and enjoys immensely to be bought for her personal collection as well.

My family loves books. We have done so for generations. We have inherited books that are now more than a century old. My childhood bedroom which I shared with my twin brother had an entire wall made of deep wooden bookshelves. I had rows of books three deep and more stacked on top.

I do not know what sparked my love for reading. It could have been my mother who decided to read out the texts she was teaching to her undergraduate students. Mum is a fantastic storyteller. So by the time we were six we knew our Shakespeare, Dracula along with breathless Piglet saying “Heff, Heff, Heffalump” from Winnie-the Pooh or she made up wonderfully imaginative tales. Or it could be my maternal grandfather who after lunch would tell us about the outrageous escapades about Laurel and Hardy traipsing through North East India – all totally made up of course! (My Nana as a senior civil servant had visited the region in the 1960s and 70s.) Or my paternal grandmother who would tell us stories about Shaikh-Chilli and other folktales at bed time. Or it could have been my bedridden great-grandmother who would tell us stories about Delhi and Dalhousie during British Raj including of C.F. Andrews or Charlie Dada as she referred to him fondly. He would arrive regularly at her home in Dalhousie with nothing except the clothes on his back. After every visit she would send him off on his travels once more with a bistar-band/ bedding holdall and clothes but he would inevitably distribute them to a more needy soul. My father is not much of a storyteller in words but as a photographer he is astounding. He brought home interesting guests, inevitably mountaineers and photographers, who would regale us with amazing tales of climbing some of the highest peaks in the world or taking photographs under extraordinary circumstances.

It was a short step from being surrounded by stories to reading the books lining our shelves. My mother too developed a neat trick of stocking our bookshelves with books just a little ahead of our biological years so we were never out of reading matter. Alternatively she would borrow huge piles of books from her college library and suggest books of all kinds – ranging from Georgette Heyer romances, Gerald Durrell’s animal stories, Homer, Malory, historical fiction to science fiction. We were well brought up kids. We even knew Asimov’s Three Robotic Laws fairly soon! Once mum realised I was getting frightfully bored by sixteenth century English Literature, she suggested a range of historical novels of the Elizabethean period. I developed a lifelong soft corner for it. As children we were encouraged to read anything that came our way. We spent most of our free time reading.

Initially I read what existed at home but slowly developed a passion for buying books and later even inherited personal libraries. I have an eclectic and vast collection of books. Now an entire floor in my parent’s home has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls. In my marital home I have a study (and more) that is lined with bookshelves — anything to prevent my forming book towers! Even now my happiest moments are when I am surrounded by books and reading. It gives me peace. It is also as a parent I realise excellent role modelling. Children imitate their parent’s actions.

As a parent now I encourage my daughter to read anything she likes. Digital entertainment is rationed. When she was struggling to understand how English is written and spoken, I introduced her to my beautiful of Aubrey Beardsley’s Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Very soon the kid was able to “read” the story as Middle English was written exactly as phonetics is practised. It made it even more fascinating that the stories were about her favourite trio – King Arthur, Merlin and Queen Guinevere. One of her favourite past times is to read the spines of my books. (She even began reading this essay and wanted to know why I was writing about reading? It puzzled her – why on something as basic as reading?) The best inheritance I can give my daughter is of reading as a valuable lifelong skill and not just for leisure.

For now she is a happy kid who said to me reading out aloud from Diary of a Wimpy Kid “This is so easy to read. It is like an early learners reading!”

Shhhhhhh! We have a reader in the making!  

17 April 2020

Interview with Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books US

Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books

Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.

Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature. Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.


1.        How did you get into publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when it was not very much in the public eye?

I never stopped reading children’s books, even as a teen and young adult.  I have always been in love with story.  I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people I admired.  I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in college, had the idea of helping to make them.  I applied to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview.  Though I couldn’t type at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate conviction that the best children’s books are great literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create readers. 

2.        How do you commission books? Is it always through literary agents?

Most of the books I publish come from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently, I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.

3.        How have the books you read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)

What a good question. I definitely look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage, whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability. I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott.  I have never met a character like Agatha before—she’s all momentum and loyalty.  Readers will love her.

4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing career/choices?

I am very influenced by brainy, hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie Blackall and Jillian Tamaki.  I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional beings with more at stake than many adults.

5.  As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the boundaries of creativity?

There is so much pride at Walker and Candlewick.  Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us. And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston, New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.

6.  You have spent many years in publishing, garnering experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing changed from when you joined to present day?

Oh, definitely.  When I started, children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on library sales.  There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars.  And not really much YA.  YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!

7.   Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the market?

I think we are in a great time for illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, or graphic novels.  And now children can move from reading picture books to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations as they age.  And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our internet age—an important way to communicate online.

8.  One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s publishing?

I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published under, Amulet Books.  Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so immediately.  I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out of them in two weeks.  It showed how hungry readers were for that strong play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed but who didn’t have to learn a lesson.  Adult readers have many such protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.

9.  Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated? If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?

Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been sold in a dozen languages.  I think illustration can be a big plus in conveying story in a universally accessible way.

10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world of children’s publishing? If so, how?

I think they incredible efficiency of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges.  That sort of thing.  Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.

11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?

First, thank you for saying so!  I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough to have stories that work across many forms of media.

12.  Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?

Yes.  In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality.  I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be.  So I came to be proud of the designation.  Nothing is scarier than the truth.

Bibliography:

Hannah Lambert (2010) Sebastian Walker and Walker Books: A Commercial Case Study, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 15:2, 114-127, DOI: 10.1080/13614540903498885. Published online: 03 Feb 2010.

25 Sept 2019

An interview with Cordis Paldano

Cordis Paldano’s debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a must read. Story apart, the pace, the rhythm, the storytelling – everything comes together stupendously. This is a new voice to look out for in the coming years.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

1.    What is it about storytelling that fascinates you?

CP: For me, a good story is one that draws the audience in… It removes them from the banality of their everyday lives and transports them to another world. It moves them, outrages them, delights them… and then when the story is over and behind you, you are a little bit wiser than before.

We may not always succeed but I think that is what storytellers aim for. Because we have all been in the audience and we have all had great stories told to us and because you want the play to go on, at some point you get up and start telling a story of your own, because you don’t want to break the spell and because you really think that this is the most valuable thing you can do with your life – tell a story well.

I think of storytelling as a vocation, a calling, so I tend not to put it on a pedestal. But what I really find fascinating about it is how pervasive, ubiquitous and absolute it is! Honestly, I don’t really know if there is anything is this world which is not a story! Who you are is a story, your country is a story, your religion is a story… (This is not to deny the validity or the truths contained within those stories…on the contrary!)

I love the story you’d written some time ago of your little girl coping with the death of her great-grandmother. If I remember correctly, she finally comes to terms with her absence by concluding that her badi nani has become a bright star in the sky. The story never fails to move me for a host of reasons, but it also illustrates two things beautifully. One, that stories are how we make sense of the world around us and two, when we’re dead and gone, that is all that will remain of us, we shall have become stories too, to those left behind.

2.    How does your work in theatre inform your novel writing? What kind of theatre do you specialise in? 

CP: I do not do theatre any more. But for ten years of my life (soon after passing out of school), theatre is nearly all that I did. I am very much a child of theatre and so yeah, it does inform my novel writing in a big way. I approach writing the way a good actor approaches theatre — give centre stage to the characters and then wait patiently for them to tell their stories through you.

I guess the kind of theatre we specialised in could be called ‘Physical Theatre’ though we ourselves never used such jargon. The actors told stories mainly through their bodies. Make-up, costumes, sets and dialogues were all secondary, the primary storytelling tool was the actor’s body. So naturally all the actors received frequent training in Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Therukoothu. The theatre company that I used to be a part of – Indianostrum Théâtre, continues to stage plays in Pondicherry under the aegis of the brilliant Franco-Indian director Koumarane Valavane. When we started out, Indianostrum was nothing more than a rundown shed near the beach, and now, it has become an indelible part of the cultural landscape of Pondicherry!

3.    Would you venture into adult fiction as well?

CP: Oh yeah, for sure, in a decade or two… once I’ve written some good children’s books!

4.    What drew you to children’s literature?

CP: I love children and I understand them best. I know dozens of kids who are crazy about books whereas I hardly ever meet an adult who gets excited about novels. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t understand why any author would bother to write for adults at all!

Jokes apart, because I grew up speaking many languages (like most Indians do), the choice to write in English was neither obvious nor easy. Children’s literature still allows you to get away with a less than adequate grasp of the language. Of course, the quality of language matters in children’s fiction, but I don’t think authors necessarily have to master the language. Another reason I write for children is because the narrative structure of children’s novels closely resembles the Aristotelian dramatic structure that I am more familiar with.

5.    Every storyteller has a soft corner for a particular kind of story. There is a vast gamut of stories to be told but what are the few you wish to play with and retell?

CP: I’m not really sure, I’m still discovering myself as a writer. When I started writing my first novel, all I originally had were the true stories of three women from three different countries – one was a child, another a young lady and the third an old woman – I was inspired by these three women and really wanted to share their stories with others! So I then went on to weave a larger narrative encompassing these three stories — the story of a girl seeking to save her mother and rescue her goat, and this little girl draws strength from these three stories in her moments of crisis. And by the way, the central characters of my second and third novels (still in progress) are also strong-willed girls, so I think maybe that’s a story that I’d like to tell. Stories with strong female protagonists. Another theme that has emerged consistently in all three of the novels (much to my surprise) is collective violence. At some pivotal point in each of the three works, a mob goes berserk and threatens the safety of the main characters. So ‘collective violence’ also is a theme that I’m perhaps interested in or I don’t know… maybe that theme is just a reflection of the times we live in!

6.    Does the medium of communication impact the story being told? Do you make minor changes to your styles of narration depending on the medium?

CP: Oh yes, each medium is like a language of its own. So a story told on the stage would be very different from a story written on paper. Usually, the story grows organically from the medium and I’ve so far never had to translate a story from one medium to another. But if I had to, I guess major changes would be required – you’d have to rethink the story in the new language.

7.    Would you ever explore film to tell stories and I do not necessarily mean a mere recording of your story performances?

CP: What a delightful idea! I’d love to explore film but before that I’d like to gain some mastery over the craft of writing that I’ve just ventured into… By all appearances, it seems like it will take anyone a few lifetimes before they can achieve some level of mastery in this craft!

8.    How do you work on the voices of the characters? Do they play out as you write them out or do you see them first as dramatized versions before writing them? 

CP: Hmm…character voices… I don’t think I’m particularly good at it and it’s an area that I’d like to work on but I don’t really know how, because yes, I see the characters and the story as a dramatized version before writing them. Plot, setting, characters and their voices, all come in a large ‘take it or leave it’ bundle and I don’t know yet how to delicately unwrap the bundle, perform a surgical strike and then seal it up again. Maybe I’ll learn or better still – I won’t have to learn, it’ll all get better on its own as time goes on!

9.    The pace and timing of your debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is superb. Did you test parts of it on younger readers before publishing? 


CP: Thank you! Your words mean a lot to me… No, it wasn’t tested on younger readers before publishing.

10. What next? 

CP: I’m very familiar with the Mahabharata but not so much the story of Ram. And so I decided to go through Valmiki’s Ramayana and as I was reading it, I got the idea for my second novel – the story of a little girl who absolutely wants to play the role of Ram in her school’s Ram Leela. Her story is interspersed with tales from the Ramayana, of the adventures of Hanuman and others.

1 June 2019

“The East Was Read: Socialist Culture in the Third World”

The East Was Read is an anthology of essays on the impacts of socialist culture in various parts of the Third World. Wang Chaohua and Pankaj Mishra recall with fondness the meaning of these books for their very different lives in China and in India respectively. Deepa Bhasthi goes on an emotional journey into the library of her grandfather, a communist intellectual. Rossen Djagalov writes a short history of Progress Publishers. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o talks about how he wrote Petals Of Blood in Yalta on the sidelines of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in 1973. Sumayya Kassamali writes about Faiz in Beirut, giving us a sense of the cultural worlds that drew in both the Soviet Union and the Third World Project. Across the Third World, people grew up reading inexpensive beautifully-produced books from the Soviet Union — children’s books, classics of world literature, books on science and mathematics, works of Marxist theory. One such prominent publisher responsible for producing beautiful books, many in translation, was Progress Publishers. The following extracts from the essay have been reproduced with the permission of the publisher.

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(p. 78)

As an heir to the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia’s literature-centrism, the Soviet state, down to its very bureaucracy, believed in literature’s capacity to change society and made an enormous investment in literacy campaigns and the wide accessibility of literature through publishing houses, bookstores, libraries, and public readings. As a testimony to that belief, by the time the USSR ceased to exist, its Writers’ Union had approximately 10,000 members, that is, 10,000 professional writers who could live off their literary work—a number probably never matched in history, before or after. It was not only a matter of financing: through street names and monuments, school curricula and press reports about writers, the state helped to institutionalize the idea of the intelligentsia as the spokesperson of the people. It also helped to cement the idea that literature is an authoritative source of values. And yet from the second half of the 1920s onward, Stalinism also did much to compromise that ideal by increasingly using literature instrumentally, censoring it to better reflect its talking points, and otherwise controlling it.

(p. 81 – 83)

Progress’s origins could be found in the utopian visions of the immediate post-Revolutionary period. In the realm of literature, one of the main generators of these was Maxim Gorky, who proposed a World Literature publishing house that would translate all foreign literatures into Russian, Russian literature into all the major languages of the world, and finally, all of the above in to the languages of the Soviet Union. An economically devastated and politically isolated Civil War era Russia, however, was not a place where such visions could be realized. A World Literature publishing house did appear between 1919 and 1924, focused only on one part of Gorky’s vision: the translation of world classics into Russian. While it offered much-needed employment to Petersburg writers as translators and editors, paper shortages, organizational difficulties, and lack of funding ultimately meant that most of their translations remained unpublished.[1]

With time, however, the resources at the disposal of the Soviet state grew and elements of these early visions began to be realized even if compromised to one degree or another by the growing Stalinist stratification. Founded in 1931, a Moscow-based literary magazine with issues in several languages, Literature of the World Revolution (renamed in the beginning of the Popular Front period to International Literature) may have been the most visible structure of Soviet literary internationalism. Yet more significant, especially as far as non-Soviet readers were concerned, was the establishment that same year in Moscow of the Publishing Cooperative of Foreign Workers (ITIR), Progress’s predecessor, which translated books into foreign languages.[2]By that time, there were already several other foreign-language newspapers in the city: the Polish Tribuna Radzecka, the French Journal de Moscou, the English Moscow News as well as The Communist International, which was publishing issues in German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Besides, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCE) was already translating and printing the works of Lenin and other political literature in different languages.[3]

ITIR drew its translators and editors from both polyglot Soviet citizens with foreign experience and political refugees, often with Comintern connections. Indeed, its staff reflected the composition of Moscow’s foreign community and its shifts: from the influx of Spanish refugees in the late 1930s to their retirement or departures for Mexico, Cuba, or Spain in the 1960s and ’70s, from the return of the Moscow-based East European exiles to their countries in themid-1940s to the increasing numbers of non-Western subjects in post-Stalin-era Moscow such as the main translator of nineteenth-century Russian literature in Hindi—Madan Lal Madhu (1925–2014).

(p. 83 – 84)

In the history of publishing, there has probably never been a press so linguistically ambitious. In its first year (1931), it published in 10 West European (English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese), seven East European (Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian), and five Asian languages(Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Persian, and Turkish). And while the first post-Second World War decade saw the emergence of an Afro-Arab (Arabic, Amhara, Yoruba, Hausa, Swahili) and Indian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu) sections, it was in the post-Stalin era that non-Western languages came to dominate the overall publishing plans. Over the course of the1960s alone, the number of ‘Eastern’ languages doubled, from15 to 28. By 1980, the Indian section was producing more titles than the English one, which had led the publishing house since its foundation. (Throughout this period, books in the colonial languages—English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—were also being sent to Africa, Asia, and Latin America by ITIR’s distributor, Mezhkniga.) By the time it came to an end in 1991, Progress was a behemoth publishing yearly close to 2,000 new titles with a print run approaching 30 million copies.[4]

(p. 85-86)

It was publishing in foreign languages, however, that accounted for the vast majority of Progress’s output. Many around the world fondly remember Progress’s cheap, high quality editions of otherwise unavailable Marxist literature. In addition to the classics of Marxism and Leninism, the other three areas Progress published in were politics, textbooks & illustrated materials, and fiction. Fiction emerged as a distinct field of the publishing house only gradually, as the classics of Marxism-Leninism and contemporary political studies had initially been the main focus of ITIR’s work. Over the course of the 1930s, however, some of the publishing house’s more distinguished translators such as Alice Oran, George Rui, Maximilian Schick, Hilda Angarova, Jose Vento, Angel Errais, Margaret Amrome, Ivy Litvinova (Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov’s wife) began to translate the classics of Russian and early Soviet literature into foreign languages. Slowly, over the post-war era, the literature section became the largest of Progress’s four thematic sections, reaching in 1981 a volume of 404 titles. The following year, 1982, it evolved into an independent publishing house, Raduga (Rainbow). By that point, the editorial choices for texts to be translated could easily veer away from the safe classics to include more debatable contemporary Soviet literature such as Valentin Rasputin and Chinghiz Aitmatov’s novels. There has never been another publishing house worldwide that could compete with its ability to popularize Russian and Soviet literature abroad, or more generally, any publishing attempt of such scale to create a direct translation link between two non-Western literatures, bypassing the monopolies of London, Paris and New York. And yet, together with all other Soviet projects for world literature, this one has been largely forgotten, except maybe for the occasional volume in public libraries and private collections.


[1]Maria Khotimsky, ‘World Literature, Soviet Style: A Forgotten Episode in the History of the Idea’, Ab Imperio, vol. 2013, no. 3, 2013, pp. 119–154.

[2]Petr Petrov, Kistoriiizdatel’stva ‘Progress’, Moscow: Progress Publishers,1987.

[3]For more on Moscow’s cosmopolitanism of the 1930s, see Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[4]Ibid., pp. 67, 108.

28 May 2019

French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains: An interview with the ambassador about plans for translations of French literature into Indian languages and collaborations at books fairs.

I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.

What’s brewing between Indian and French publishing? French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains
The Ambassador of France to India, Alexandre Ziegler at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019.

Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.

The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.

This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.

Publisher Kannan Sunadaran, Kalachuvadu. Jury member Chinmoy Guha with R. Cheran, poet.
Jury members Annie Montaud, Renuka George, Michèle Albaret

The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.

Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, 25 January 2019

Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:

Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too?
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.

In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.

The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.

France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain?
Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.

Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.

What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers?
The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.

The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.

France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue?
There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.

Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? 
The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.

In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers?
The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.

Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.

Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well?
We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.

How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India?
The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.

Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event?
We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.

What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of?
The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.

3 February 2019

Publishing & GST: Making the book fair & square

My article on “GST and publishing” has been published in the Economic Times on 12 January 2019. The original url is here. I am also C&P the entire article below. I had first written about the impact of GST and publishing within a week of the new taxation system coming into effect on 1 July 2017. My article was published on 8 July 2017. Here is the link.

Publishing is part of the creative economy. Books are made by transferring knowledge, information, data and ideas into a defined valuable product. According to Nielsen, the Indian book market is worth $6.7 billion. It is the third-largest English language market in the world, and many regional language markets are thriving.

It is broadly categorised into school publishing, academic (books and journals), trade (fiction, general non-fiction, graphic novels, etc) and children’s literature publishing. From independent players to large MNCs with varying business models — traditional, self-publishing and hybrid publishing —there is a broad spectrum of publishing firms.

No industry that sells its products commercially can be indifferent to costs. But in book publishing, the input costs are so high that everyone in the supply chain (from publishers to distributors and booksellers) operates on slim profit margins. In some cases, even these don’t exist, as the idea in the book becomes more important to publish.

On July 1, 2017, the goods and services tax (GST) came into effect in India. Many taxes imposed in previous systems have continued under GST, but new taxes have also been introduced. Asignificant one is the 12% tax on author’s royalties that has to be deposited as part of the reverse tax mechanism by the publishing firm on behalf of the author with the income-tax authorities. Unfortunately, publishers do not get any benefit in this arrangement, since most authors do not have GST certificates.

Other input costs, too, have increased, as GST has to be deposited on all invoices raised by vendors to whom publishing services are outsourced. There has been an effective increase of cost across the board of about 12-18%. Given that publishers don’t benefit from input tax credit as books are not taxed, some of the increased costs have had to be passed on to readers by increasing the price of books, which have increased by 10-15% since GST was imposed.

Overhead costs like rents, travel and communication have also increased from 15% to 18% due to GST. Those firms that can afford to pay for extra manpower to contend with the extra paperwork and monthly filing have hired extra staff to ensure smooth operations. But this monthly filing of returns impacts the cash flow of smaller companies badly, at times even bringing publishing to a momentary halt.

Every age of mechanisation has produced more texts, and with it a stupendous growth in reading. First, it was the invention of the moveable type that made ‘books’ easily available and a ‘reading public’ was created for the first time. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, mechanised printing presses sped up publishing dramatically. Currently, we are in the middle of yet another major dislocation: the Information Age.

On principle, GST is a destination based tax that aims to build better cash flows and working capital management for proprietors. Ultimately, it is also meant to help the consumer by reducing the tax burden on the product at point of sale. Unfortunately, the benefits of input tax credit can only be gained if the book is taxed.

Printed books are a non-taxable commodity primarily to make education affordable. For now, there is an uneven taxation policy on the different forms in which books are made available: print books (0%), e-books (5% if it has aprint component) and audiobooks and journals (18%). But, in India, the primary consumed product is the printed book. Survival of firms will depend on how much financial stress they can bear. Perhaps levelling a minimal GST on books across all formats will help contain the financial burden on most publishers. Ironically, technological advancements will further propel the divide. For, only those readers who can afford books — in any form — will be able to access information.

Both publisher and reader have been affected by GST. The question is whether publishing houses on all sides of the tax issue can sort out their differences, and present a united alternative to GoI —one that preserves the key benefits of GST, but removes its unintended side-effects.

12 January 2019

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