Nadeem Aslam Posts

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

Interviewing authors

Interviewing authors

John Freeman, How to read a novelistRead. Read. Read. Read.

The mantra that most writers suggest is the best way to hone one’s craft. The same holds true for reviewers, publishing professionals and anyone else in this profession of letters. In order to improve the skill one seeks to excel at, it is best to read as much as possible. Yet there is always more to learn about an author. Usually a good interviewer creates a portrait of the author that is deftly written and sharp in its analysis of their writing. ( It is fascinating to observe the interviewer being influenced by the writer, evident in the style of writing, the form the interview takes shape and at times even in the vocabulary.) With the internet becoming a repository of information about authors, their lives and anything else of remote interest to them and being at times to connect with contemporary authors in real time via social media platforms, the need to publish a book of author interviews seems to be futile. Having said that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman and British Muslim Fictions by Claire Chambers. Two exquisite collections of excellent interviewers engaging with authors. In a matter of few pages they are able to introduce the author, give a bit of personal history (if required and relevant to the interview), a perspective on their oeuvre and highlight at least one essential aspect of the author that makes their writing unique. When John Freeman interviews Sarajevo-born, now settled in Chicago, Aleksandar Hemon, Freeman observes: ‘Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images this style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. “I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.” He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.’ (p.134) Or what he has to say of Michael Ondaatje — “Genres bleed between books in Ondaatje’s work.” Or about E. L. Doctorow that “his novels don’t read like researched books but restored originals, recently rediscovered.” Similarly Claire Chambers too has wonderful insights about the authors she meets whether it is Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Aamer Hussein or Mohsin Hamid to name some of them. The hard work that both John Freeman and Claire Chambers put into familiarize themselves with the authors is masked so well that each interview seems to effortlessly done. Yet it is obvious that considerable thought has gone into the preparation for every interview. They seem to be acutely aware of not being “over-prepared”, instead focusing on having “an actual conversation with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one”. British Muslim Fictions

The beauty of each interview is that there is something for every reader to glean—it could be a person discovering an author for the first time or of a reader familiar with the author being interviewed. There is a restraint and a respect that each interviewer has for their author that shines through every profile. It also helps achieve the fine balance of the professional and personal dimensions of an author being presented without it seeming to be voyeuristic. Just enough of the authors personal lives, descriptions of their homes or even of their peculiar habits, such as Kazuo Ishiguro never likes to discuss what he is writing till he is done with it. These are two books worth buying, treasuring, reading for pleasure, to ponder over and if a student of creative writing, essential reading.

Women writingWhile reading these books, there were two other books from India that I recalled — Just Between Us: Women speak about their writing and The Big Bookshelf . Books published a long time ago, but continue to be relevant since they too consist of author interviews. The Big Bookshelf is based upon the years of experience Sunil Sethi had as host of NDTV’s Just Books. (http://profit.ndtv.com/videos/watch-just-books)  It ran for many years to finally end in summer of 2013. All though in October 2013, the state television channel, Doordarshan, launched a books programme called Kitabnama:Books and More. ( Link to episode 2:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPCp8QyqAD4 ) It is a weekly programme, designed and curated by author Namita Gokhale. ( She is also one of the directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival.) Sunil Sethi

 

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

DSC Prize for Literature logo15 BOOKS MAKE IT TO THE DSC PRIZE 2014 LONGLIST

New Delhi, October 21, 2013: The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 was announced at the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan today, by noted Indian editor, writer and literary critic, Antara Dev Sen, who is chairing the jury panel for the prize. The final list of 15 chosen titles includes 3 works translated from Indian languages and comprises 4 debut novels along with the works of established writers. The longlist reflects a rich and healthy diversity of publishers across geographies including representation from the UK, US and Canada. With several acclaimed novels on the longlist, choosing the final winner for the 2014 edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature would be an interesting and challenging task for the jury panel.

There were over 65 entries for the coveted US $50,000 prize this year, from which the jury has compiled the longlist of 15 books that they feel best represents the eclectic and vibrant voice of the South Asian region. The jury panel comprises international luminaries from the world of literature and books- Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer and literary critic and chair of the DSC Prize jury, Arshia Sattar, an eminent Indian translator, writer and a teacher, Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, Rosie Boycott, acclaimed British journalist and editor and Paul Yamazaki, a veteran bookseller and one of the most respected names in the book trade in the US.

The longlisted entries contending for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 are:

  1. Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India)
  2. Benyamin: Goat Days   (Translated by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India)
  3. Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India) 
  4. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (Hogarth/ Random House, UK)   
  5. Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of other people (John Murray, UK & Harper Collins India)
  6. Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  7. Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India)  
  8. Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka & Hachette India)
  9. Nilanjana Roy: The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, India)
  10. Philip Hensher: Scenes from Early Life (Faber & Faber, USA)  
  11. Ru Freeman: On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, USA)
  12. Sachin Kundalkar: Cobalt Blue (Translated by Jerry Pinto; Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  13. Shyam Selvadurai: The Hungry Ghosts (Double Day Publishing, Canada)
  14. Sonora Jha: Foreign (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
  15. Uzma Aslam Khan: Thinner Than Skin (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, USA)

Speaking on the occasion, Antara Dev Sen, Chair of the jury commented “We are delighted to present the longlist for the DSC Prize 2014, which offers a wonderful variety of experiences from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and reflects much of the exhilarating and bewildering diversity that is the hallmark of South Asian fiction. The list includes celebrated, award-winning authors as well as powerful new voices, and I am particularly happy that it includes novels in translation from other Indian languages.

The novels range from the conventional to the experimental, from amazing tales sprawling across continents and generations to stories brilliantly detailed in a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. Several of these books are about violence – many about war, terrorism, conflict – underscoring what the contemporary South Asian experience is inescapably defined by. Many examine otherness – due to migration, caste or sexual identity, terror, alienation. Through extraordinary storytelling and sensitivity, these novels offer us a sense of history, a sense of loss and the invincibility of hope.” she added.

The jury will now deliberate on the longlist over the next month and the shortlist for the DSC Prize will be announced on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at The London School of Economics in London. The winner will be subsequently declared at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014.

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