reading Posts

An interview with Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting

Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige  Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.


  1. How and why did you get into publishing?

The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.

2. Why did you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be multi-lingual as you are?

I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.

There are many differences between scouting and agenting but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job – their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights agents in house or in agencies. 

3. How and when was London Literary Scouting established? What are the genres you specialise in?

As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages, on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages. London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously. Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow and in the future.

London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio

We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis in the other languages.

4. What are the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be gleaned from every experience!)

I think our successes are all in the breadth of our client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am proud.

5. How important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals to a literary scout?

Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when. Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.

6. You are an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?

Carefully. I think network and intelligence and understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more important.

7. As a signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely? Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of women writers?

This is a hard question to answer properly. I think the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.

8. The porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers, increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV & videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or commissioning a book?

I think that most publishers acquire and publish the books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian evangelical publishing houses.

9. A mantra that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into other book markets?

I think that the explosion of digital platforms and perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.

10. In your experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the trends to look out for in the coming years?

I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.

11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?

How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.

17 June 2019

“Hijabistan” by Sabyn Javeri

Again that dark, piercing look, the shine in her pupils which made me sense that she was smiling behind her veil, as she said, “Did you ever read those books as a kid where you got the power to become invisible?”

I laughed. ‘Your veil draws more attention than a woman in a bikini.’

‘Yes, perhaps. But still. Inside, it’s my own little private world. No one knows what I look like, what I wear, how I style my hair. . .”

‘So, are you saying it makes you feel powerful?’

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan is a collection of short stories exploring the idea of wearing a hijab / head scarf. It also manages to open conversations whether real in the story or imagined in the reader’s mind about the position of women in families and society. Somehow it does not seem to matter which nation the protagonists reside in – whether Pakistan or Britain – it is the mind sets that they carry with them that are critical for defining their identity. The protagonists can choose to evolve or remain where they are—caught as if in amber with a conservative outlook that literally shackles them to a god-fearing life.

Years ago, The Guardian, published an article by a young journalist who opted to wear a hijab for one week. She did this in London and documented the reactions to her dress by people on the street and her friends. It also transformed into a diary of her changing outlook. One week is all that it took for her to question so much around her. (I have been trying to locate the link for you but failed to do so.) It would be an interesting article to share given how the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern had covered her head while meeting the relatives of those killed in the recent mosque attack or while attending the memorial meeting. Wearing the veil is a complicated topic that has been tackled by many writers, most notably Rafia Zakaria in her wonderful book Veil.  

Hijabistan is fascinating for the fact that Sabyn Javeri chose to explore alternate viewpoints while respecting those who opt to wear the garment out of choice. The multiple perspectives the author offers from the young child (“Coach Annie”) to the young wife (“The Good Wife”) to the young office goer (“The Date”) are illuminating. Of course there is the accepted view that Islam demands it of women but Sabyn Javeri presents alternative options in her fiction as to why the women choose to wear the hijab. It is a great way of offering readers’ different viewpoints. More importantly what shines through her stories are that the women are strong individuals in their own right despite donning the hijab and looking the same outwardly– a “sea of burkhas” — as the younger brother grumbles to his Api in “The Date”. What is fascinating is that the women characters come across as strong women, radiating sexuality, are feisty and exercise their individual choice. “Fifty Shades at Fifty” is a fantastic example of this. It is a story about a middle-aged wife, bound to the house, looking after her bedridden mother-in-law but exercises her freedom in choosing to read what she desires much to the bewilderment of her husband. Lovely!

Many times the stories take one’s breath away as with “Radha”, “The World without Men”, “Full Stop” and “Malady of the Heart”. Somehow the reader gets the sense that the twists will come but when they do, they are sharp. At such moments in the stories I marvelled at how much the author must have observed, heard, recorded, remembered and written down probably as she heard/witnessed it. If it was pure fiction, there would be a dull edge to it since in fiction one tends to smoothen the edges. Reality is cruel. A fine example of this is the evocative “Only in London” where Sabyn Javeri encapsulates so brilliantly the sights and sounds of Tooting, “this forgotten SW17 ghetto that doesn’t even have the novelty value of a China Town or the East End”. The tiny details about the protagonist being a desi and called out as “sister” by the locals although she really does not feel a part of the crowd. She is a desi and yet not. So confusing, so lonesome.

But truly the tour de force is “Coach Annie” and its last few lines. What a superb story! It is as if it belongs to the later batch of Sabyn Javeri’s writing, so her skills as a short story writer have been honed. There is much, much more in the story than the previous ones. “Coach Annie” has layers to it, it has details, in a few lines she captures the hostility of the boys to the head scarf to the change in attitude and their protection of their coach when the newcomers try and tease her. It is a triumph!

Hijabistan is bound to get visceral reactions to this book. Some readers would love it for the writing, many others would be either mildly amused or shocked to see mirrors of their lives in your stories and yet others would be appalled at giving women a voice, an identity and their individuality, even to go so far as exploring sexual freedom, all the while wearing the hijab — a sacrosanct symbol of Islam and its connotations of a “good” woman. 

The anger at the injustice Sabyn Javeri perceives, witnesses and perhaps has even experienced has been channelled brilliantly to write these stories. It would be worthwhile to see what she crafts in future. It would also be fascinating to watch how in her future stories she sharpens her literary skills to use her words sparingly but deliver quite a punch. “Coach Annie” shows the beginnings of that skill.

Hijabistan will always have a shelf life. The issues raised are so relevant. So topical. They will never go out of fashion. Sometimes fiction achieves that which no other form of literature or conversation can ever achieve. These are thought provoking stories.

Hijabistan is an utterly stupendous book. It is! Short stories are amongst the toughest literary prose form to create. So much to pack in such few words. And yet Sabyn Javeri achieves it. 

I look forward to more of Sabyn Javeri’s writing!  

31 March 2019

Interview with Markus Zusak, author of “Bridge of Clay” and “The Book Thief”

Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons – Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.

Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness. It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”

I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed to do an interview for my blog.

Here is an edited version of the interview conducted via email.

****

Markus Zusak, Jaipur Literature Festival 2019
Picture by: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

JBR: Bridge of Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story?   How do you work out the voices of the characters?

MZ: I had this story in my mind since I was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.

The voices of the characters came the way all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d written The Book Thief, I realised it was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that, I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the multi-generational story, and I took it from there.

JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid, calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special in Bridge of Clay.  Did it take many revisions to achieve?  What was your routine to write this book? Did it differ from your other books?

MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.

JBR: Did this book involve research? 

MZ: It took a lot of time researching this book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves. Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re writing for them – the characters inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys, and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.

JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events? 

MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two is called Cities + Waters, rather than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.

The second part of the structure is tidal – where the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out. I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born. Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.

As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind us.

JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun — “Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific literary technique? 

MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope, died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a nickname like that, that there must be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?

We spend this entire novel getting to know its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its protagonist.

JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.

MZ: Why follow a trend of continually making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where we feel like we deserve to know everything right now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention. They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.

JBR: What came first — the story or the narrator? 

MZ: The story was always there. I had several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come home.

JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?

MZ: Clay was always there. He was always there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this book to measure up to him.

JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?

MZ: All characters become completely themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.

As for not being a based on the exact template of Penelope in The Odyssey, she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons

JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine it? 

MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics, translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I decided one day that I needed to read The Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters and language…the overwroughtness of it!

As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’, which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.

JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in India when you visited the country in January? 

MZ: To be in India with a book is like being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no other place in the world. I loved every minute.

JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has been labelled as #yalit?

MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love – orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for. You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully understand him.

In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing, which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.

Either way, the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.

28 March 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

“Ma Huateng & Tencent: The Story of an Online Chinese Empire”

The story of billionaire Ma Huateng and the company he co-founded, Tencent, reads like a modern fairy tale. It’s tag line on the homepage of the company’s website is “Connecting People for a Greater Future”. LID Publishing that specialises in business books has published a biography of the 14th richest man in the world ( according to Forbes) in collaboration with China Translation and Publishing House.

It is a mesmerising tale of a young middle class computer programmer who driven by ambition, focused hard work and bold strategy realised the potential of the Internet in the 1990s. He also astutely recognised that the pager company he was employed in was a sunset industry but the future lay in instant communication using technology and the internet. Innovation was required in localising existing programmes as most of the population in China was monolingual whereas new apps and programmes being released in the global market were dependant on English as the mode of communication.

Through his grit and determination, astute strategy and long term vision, Ma Huateng was able to build a business empire that within years has grown into a billion dollar enterprise recognised worldwide. Its rise and influence in the global economy is unparalleled. He copies and innovates existing ideas to make his existing customers satisfied. His vast user base is what has enabled him to experiment and be bold in his strategies while also attracting investors who know there is no other player in Tencent in China who has such deep penetration and impressive impact in the country.

Ma Huateng & Tencent is a fascinating account of the man behind the firm who built his fortune on enabling instant messaging for Chinese users to creating a global brand integrating its PC and mobile gateways. Now Tencent is also known for its pan-entertainment services by offering a range of services from online games, books/publishing, reading websites to transforming the more successful works into movie projects. In its early days when word spread about Tencent and its instant messaging, it was registering an average of over 370,000 new users every day!

There is plenty to glean from this book about how to develop businesses, innovate and remain relevant to changing tastes and expectations of customers. Although it is a rivetting read there is plenty not said too about Tencent’s engagement with the Chinese government which as anyone who attempts do business in China is a must. Thus making this book a hagiography rather than a sharply told biography of a successful businessman.

4 January 2019

Julia Donaldson in India, Jan 2018

Julia Donaldson

Universally adored children’s writer Julia Donaldson toured India in January 2018. The reception she received was heartwarming. Wherever she went there were crowds of excited children and parents. Even at the specially organised event by Scholastic India of school librarians and teachers there were many who while learning from Julia Donaldson’s performance were completely star struck — you could see it in their eyes and later when innumerable group photographs were being clicked. It was an incredible experience to witness.

Here is an article I wrote about Julia Donaldson’s trip in January. It was written days after her departure from India but never was published till today. It was an honour to meet Julia Donaldson for her humility shone through as did her vast amounts of experience in inculcating the love of reading in children. She was keen on telling a good story to the children and infecting them with the joy of reading. While being a fantastic storyteller she also shared her experience of working on the technically-sound phonetic books like the Oxford Reading Tree ( ORT) books that are introduced as part of school curriculums worldwide. According to her it was a big learning curve for it taught her how to focus on telling a story within the limited number of consonants prescribed for a particular level without losing her trademark touch of creating rhyming and play books. 

Note: Follow the links embedded in each title and it leads to the book page on Amazon India. 

Julia Donaldson MBE and former UK Children’s Laureate is to the world of picture books what Stephen King is to horror stories and both have an enviable fan base. Like Ed Sheeran, Julia too began her career busking. She enjoys performing and always has a repertoire in mind before going on stage but willingly adapts if the occasion demands it. As Julia says “audiences and moods vary depending on whether you are performing in a bar, a street or in schools.” She usually performs with her husband Malcolm who accompanies her on the guitar. Their thorough professionalism at managing crowds was evident after a performance ended when Malcolm picked up his guitar and sang while going up and down the queues of eager yet restless folks awaiting their turn to have their books autographed by Julia.

When Julia Donaldson’s tour of India was announced excited adults squeaked “Her picture books are fabulous! The illustrations! AndGruffalo…Will he be there as well?” Chirrups of delight from the children who became eager volunteers at every performance! She would call upon children from the audience to come up on stage to play minor roles in the stories she enacted such as SuperwormThe Ugly Five,and What the Ladybird Heard. Ideally Julia prefers it if her audiences have read some of her “play books” in advance as it enriches the experience. This fear was put to rest in India. Whichever city she visited the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults alike sang with her. It was like being at a pop concert where the  hysteria of the audiences upon seeing Julia Donaldson in flesh was worth witnessing.

The crowds in India were far larger than any she has performed before anywhere else in the world. Yet the warm, cuddly, grandmotherly figure with a radiant smile that lit up her already twinkling eyes remained unperturbed. She performed happily even though some of her little extras decided to plonk themselves on stage to read the pile of picture books placed in a pile rather than participate in the sing-along!  Despite battling terrible bronchitis Julia Donaldson managed to mesmerise folks with her storytelling. Certainly she had sophisticated props; mostly recognizable characters sketched by her long time illustrator Axel Scheffler, yet she relied mostly upon vast dollops of imagination to make her stories come alive.

Julia Donaldson’s magnificently magical storytelling is technically perfect in using rhythm and wordplay. She demonstrated to teachers that while sharing light-hearted stories with new learners it is easy to convert a simple classroom into a vibrant one with music and colour. A happy child learns fast. The importance of reading is critical to her and has always been — she taught her younger sister to read! Of the nearly 200 books Julia Donaldson has written the bulk are phonic readers; requiring her to blend vowels and consonants precisely according to early learning rules of phonetics. This is in keeping with her fascination for sound patterns and letter stories.

Julia Donaldson grew up in a home filled with music and poetry with her grandmother instilling a lifelong passion for Edward Lear’s nonsense language —in The Giants and the Joneses Julia invented Groilish! (Later to her delight she was commissioned to write a sequel to Lear’s “Ówl and the Pussycat”.) Age 5 she was presented by her father, a still treasured edition, of The Book of Thousand Poems inculcating in her a dream to a poet/lyricist. Her mother would play a version of “antakshri”, encouraging her daughter to find a word beginning with the last syllable of a word she had uttered. All of which helped Julia while writing her books in blank verse.   

In the 1970s she worked in a publishing firm while contributing songs and plays to radio. One of these was A Squash and A Squeeze which an editor recollected two decades later persuading Julia to turn it into a picture book.

Julia Donaldson’s fascination lies in experimenting with well-known folktales. In the Gruffalo it was the retelling of an ancient Eastern tale where a little girl goes into the forest and tames a tiger that follows her meekly home. But Julia was stuck for an appropriate rhyming word for “tiger” so used “Grrr… “ Rest they say is history! She recalls fondly that her sons could never cross a bridge without enacting the Three Billy Goats, now she hears of picnic expeditions that revolve around a Gruffalo hunt!

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, translated into many languages. She structures each book carefully paying close attention to her conclusions: “She does not like rosy endings that tell the child that it was all a dream. Sealed endings are not to her liking.” In 2014, 40p of every pound spent on buying picture books in UK, went to Julia Donaldson. It was more than spent on Harry Potter books! On Christmas Day 2017 The Highway Rat premiered on television as an animated film, fulfilling an annual ritual of converting a Julia Donaldson picture book into film since 2012 when Room on the Broom was nominated for an Academy Award. ( For Christmas 2018 it will be Zog and for Christmas 2019 The Snail and the Whale are to be adapted.) 

Running on the Cracks is the only young adult novel she has written. It has her characteristic gentle empathetic touch without underplaying hard issues such as immigrants, mental health, sexual predators and runaway kids. Even so “she would rather make picture books that allow her the freedom to play with words that get made in a shorter time than writing a novel which takes some effort.”

Ultimately Julia Donaldson firmly believes that children should read a variety of genres including comics – give them anything that appeals to them!

And yes, Gruffalo came. Many selfies were taken!

8 Dec 2018


Times Lit Fest, Delhi, panels on “Cultivating the passion of reading in children” and “What India Reads”

The Times LitFest Delhi ( 1-2 Dec 2018) was organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I moderated two sessions with the both panel discussions focussed on reading.  The first panel was on how do cultivate the love of reading amongst children.

TOI, 2 Dec 2018

My co-panelists were Saktibrata Sen, Programme Director, Room to Read India Trust; Manisha Chaudhry, co-founder Manan Books; Sonya Philips, Founder, Learning Matters Foundation and is a reading specialist and Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor (Hon) to the Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi, India. The freewheeling conversation was on ways to promote reading. Every panelist spoke about their strengths and initiatives. From being a part of the government as is Mr Sharma and realising that it is critical to have a reading corner in every class and every section. So much so that the Delhi government has now allocated a handsome budget of Rs 10,000 / section to buy books.

L-R: Manisha Chaudhry, Shailendra Sharma, Sonya Philips, Saktibrata Sen and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Fact is that even today few families can afford to buy newspapers, magazines, let alone books. So the first time many children particularly in the government primary schools hold a book is their school textbook. Few have any role models in the adults and older children in their immediate environment and as Principal Advisor to the government, Mr Sharma’s job is to introduce the love of reading. Both Mr Sharma and Mr Sen were of the view that reading is a lifeskill that is critical and needs to be learned beyond just being able to identify your name in whatever written script the individual is familiar with. Mr Sen, representing Room to Read, is involved in setting up partnerships with the governments to set up libraries. In India the Room to Read India Trust is working with 11 state governments. Ms Philips stressed on how till Grade 2 a child learns “how to read” but after that the emphasis is on “learning to read”. Ms Chaudhury with her many years of experience in publishing, looking at multilingual publishing and the critical need for children to have books in their own languages rather than only in English is what spurs her on to create new material every single day. She has recently launched two new magazines in Hindi called Mithvan and Chahak, the latter is meant for the early grade reader.

Everyone was of the agreement that it is important to create the joy of reading and align it as closely as possible to the child’s lived experience rather than alienate him/her from using complicated language in the written word. This was illustrated beautifully by an anecdote Mr Sharma shared about the complicated language used in a Hindi textbook to describe food which was a far cry from what is commonly used at home on a daily basis. Manisha Chaudhry spoke of her earlier initiatives to publish in tribal languages.

Alas we ran short of time otherwise it was promising to become a wonderful conversation on how to cultivate the joy of reading in children.

Join Sonya Philip, Manisha Chaudhury, Shailendra Sharma and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose in conversation with Saktibrata Sen – brought to you by Room to Read in the session, 'Cultivating the Habit of Reading in Children' at #TLFDelhi

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

L-R: Ranjana Sengupta, Parth Mehrotra, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Udayan Mitra and Himanjali Sankar.

The second panel discussion was on “What is India reading?”. The panelists consisted of commissioning editors of four prominent publishing houses — Himanjali Sankar, Simon & Schuster India; Ranjana Sengupta, Penguin Random House India; Parth Mehrotra, Juggernaut and Udayan Mitra, HarperCollins India. Once again a freewheeling, adda-like, conversation about trying to figure out what India reads. The role of a commissioning editor has changed quite a lot in recent years. Traditionally commissioning editors were responsible for forming reading tastes but as Udayan Mitra pointed out that at times now the editor has to commission based on events and trends too. It is a kind of commissioning that did not exist earlier.

Today readers are accessing books through multiple platforms and in various formats — ebooks and audio books. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain how and what anyone is reading, let along a sub-continent like India where so many languages abound and there is rich regional literature too. Measuring reading tastes as Juggernaut is doing with their app and also because they are able to control their production pipeline while platform is something few are able to do even now. Most editors and publishing houses rely on print products that once released into the market are impossible to track. Some may be sold through brick-and-mortar stores, others through online spaces and yet other copies get sold as remaindered copies and secondhand books.

Listen to the conversation. So much was said. Many important bases within the Indian publishing landscape were touched upon. So much to think about.

What is India Reading? watch the conversation live at #TLFDelhi with Udayan Mitra, Himanjali Sankar, Ranjana Sengupta and Parth Mehrotra talking to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Posted by Times Lit Fest – Delhi on Saturday, December 1, 2018

All in all two fantastic conversations that I was glad to be a part of.

2 December 2018 

Trevor Noah

Comedian and Daily Show talk  show host Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime is a moving, at times funny, at times brutal and hardhitting account of his childhood in South Africa. Born to Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a Xhosa, who chose to have Trevor out of wedlock with a Swiss man made Patricia a criminal. For her crime as a native female was to have “illicit carnal intercourse” with a European white male as stated by the Immorality Act, 1927. She made a fine mother and being a single parent had its share of ups and downs.

Born a Crime  is to be turned into a biopic with Lupita Nyong’o playing the role of Patricia.

Here is a powerful extract from Born a Crime when Trevor recounts how his mother taught him to read and be independent.

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My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.

Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. …

When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.

She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated — picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good FriendHow to Be Honest. She bought a set of encylopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.

My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lose in worlds that didn’t exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that, Give me Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That was my fix.

I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didn’t like them.

“this lion,” she said, “he isa  false God — a false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets . . .”

“Yes,, Mom,” I explained, “but the lion is a Christ Figure. Technically, he is Jesus. It’s a story to explain Jesus.”

She wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, no. No false idols, my friend.”

Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win.

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does that passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think. (pp. 66-68)

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Buy it on Amazon

Hardback and Paperback 

On readership by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman is a selection of his essays and speeches delivered during the course of his career. There is a lot of wisdom buried amongst these pages. A book to dip into and think about. For instance the following extract is from his essay “Intention” discussing the author’s intention on when he embarks upon writing a book. A question he says that is usually reserved for authors at literary festivals where the audiences need to be entertained. He illustrates the problematic nature of such a question by extending the argument to that of labelling books with an age figure.

The final aspect of ‘intention’ I shall look at here is to do with audience. ‘What age of reader is this book written for?’ is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say, ‘It’s for sixth and seventh graders’, or, ‘It’s for thirteen and upwards.’ Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in teh UK announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in non-specialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a passionate and determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of ‘intention’. Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of a reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve seen the first sentence to me presumptious in the extreme. 

I too have my reservations about this given that this principle is increasingly being turned on its head by bracketing the child’s reading to what is deemed as “age appropriate” rather than allowing them a free run of book collections whether at the school library or at bookshops/ bookfairs. Off late this basic principle is being turned on its head by adults discouraging children to pick up a book that has been labelled in this manner as not being age appropriate. Horrific turn of events given that this was not the intention at all. Age-guidance numbers were merely that — guiding principles. These numbers are not meant to bracket the child’s reading and thereby curtail their enthusiasm in reading. Children ( like adults) test themselves constantly and evolve in their reading habits by flitting between easy and challenging books. Whereas emprical evidence as collected in the bi-annual Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Reports ( KFRR) show that if children are allowed to pick up books for themselves there are greater chances of them becoming lifelong readers. ( These reports have been published across continents including India after conducting surveys in various cities, tier 2, and tier 3 towns too.) So it is not a good idea to prevent children from accessing books. If they do not understand something they will ask or drop it and return to the book later. But don’t straitjacket their reading in this manner.  Philip Pullman is absolutely correct in expressing his reservations about the intention of publishers on printing age-guidance numbers on the back cover of children’s literature.

Philip Pullman Daemon Voices ( ed. Simon Mason) David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2017. Hb. pp. £20

27 February 2018