Seagull Posts

One to One: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vol. No. 7, No. 8 & 9, Jul – Aug 2013

One to One: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vol. No. 7, No. 8 & 9, Jul – Aug 2013

PubSpeak, JayaMr S.K. Ghai, Managing Director, Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd is responsible for the Institute of Book Publishing and Publishing Today, A monthly of the book industry and its professionals. In Vol. No. 7, No. 8 & 9, Jul – Aug 2013 ( http://www.ibpindia.org/p/Publishing-Today-July-August-2013 ) he interviewed me. This is what he wrote in his introduction: “For One to One I have interviewed Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing and literary consultant, there are a very few professionals who write on publishing regularly and she is one of them and having a regular column in Business World. She is quite active on social media and had over 250,000 visitors in less than a year.” I am c&p the interview below. 

4 Sept 2013 

SKG You have been interviewing publishers, authors; is it the first time that you are being interviewed? 
JBR No. Not at all. Some of the interviews that come to mind are by Samit Basu in 2006  (http://samitbasu.com/2006/07/03/jaya-bhattacharji-interview/) and by Anupama Krishnakumar in 2012 (http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=4379).SKG When, how and why did you choose publishing as a career?
JBR I cannot even recall when I fell in love with books. But I wanted to delve in to publishing from as long as I can remember.SKG You were once selected in the editorial team of Penguin, but you decided not to join. Any reason? 
JBP Yes I was. This was immediately after I had completed my BA (Hons) English from Jesus and Mary College. David Davidar had interviewed me, Renuka Chatterjee called offering me the job. But I refused since I decided to pursue my MA (English) at St. Stephen’s College.SKG You prefer to be freelancer as compared to being in a regular job. Any reason?
JBR I prefer being a freelancer since it allows me to balance my time between professional commitments and bringing up my daughter Sarah Rose. Plus the independence it brings allows me the freedom to comment on the industry, without any bias. It can be challenging at times, but I certainly prefer it.SKG I remember meeting you briefly at Zubaan. How long did you work there and any memorable experiences or incidents that you would like to share?
JBR I joined Zubaan the day it rose from the ashes of Kali for Women. I was there for more than 4 years, but those were the formative years. It was during this time that the significant books like Baby Halder’s A Life Less Ordinary, Anil Menon’s The Beast with a Million Feet and Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma were published. I enjoyed working on various projects. Some that come to mind immediately are creating a mini author website for Kunzang Choden. It was done at a time when such intiatives were still rare. (http://www.zubaanbooks.com/circleofkarma/) I also helped in the branding of Zubaan by circulating monthly newsletters, creating a database, conceptualising and  launching the official website (zubaanbooks.com); inheriting the womenwriting.com website from the British Council and revamping it (http://www.womenswriting.com/WomensWriting/AboutProject.asp); curating the visual history of the women’s movement in India via posters called PosterWomen (http://posterwomen.org/Posterwomen/ ) ; helping out with the Words of Women series at the India Habitat Centre and lots more. It was definitely a packed and exciting schedule.There are so many memories to share, but difficult to choose one.SKG You also worked for Routledge and then Puffin for a short while – any special memories ? 
JBR I worked as Editorial Manager, South Asia, Journals for Routledge, Taylor and Francis and as a Consultant Editor, Puffin Books India. Both the assignments were very different to each other. The journals assignment was an eye opener since it taught me a great deal about academic publishing, especially the methodical manner in which journals are published.Whereas with Puffin Books the joy of working with children’s and YA literature was thrilling. It is a genre that I have worked with ever since the 1990s, from the time I was asked to be the Guest Editor for the Special issue of The Book Review. It was an issue published every November. I expanded the focus to include literature from South Asia and got publishers to send in review copies from abroad. All this was done before the internet and emailing was possible. I remember even getting the third volume of Harry Potter. It was mailed from London and arrived a couple of weeks after it was released. Yet the review copy reached me a few months before it was released in India. A far cry from when the last volume in the series was released. It had a simultaneous release in India and UK.SKG You have interviewed many publishers – national and international CEO’s like Naveen Kishore-Seagull, Liz Calder-Bloomsbury, Peter Booth- Wiley. Any unique experience you would like to share?
JBR With every publishing professional I meet whether from India or abroad, I enjoy my interactions. It is learning, sharing of experiences and understanding how the business works. Many times I continue to be astounded at how the basics of the business remain the same. It is only the technology of production and communication that changes. Of the three you mentioned I learned a great deal about translations from Naveen Kishore; from Liz Calder what it takes to be a woman publisher, setting up Women in Publishing, co-fouding Bloomsbury Publishing, how her firm discovered J K Rowling, establishing the Paraty festival in Brazil etc; with Peter-Booth Wiley it was discovering how a successful family business operates and continues to be ahead in the game of publishing. He is the sixth generation of the Wiley family who is managing the business, 200 years after it was founded.SKG When you assess and recommend manuscripts to publishers, what are the points you generally highlight? 
JBR It really depends upon the genre and style of writing. It is very difficult to comment in general terms. But I think it has to be a fine balance between what is a good story/narrative and whether it will work in the market.SKG Your comments on the recent amendments to the copyright act?
JBR The recent amendments to the copyright act were mostly in favour of the music industry except for the clause about the use of photographs and images. The parallel imports clause too that was causing much concern in India has now been referred to a Parliamentary committee for review.SKG Your comments on the highlights/missing points in the recently formulated India’s National Book Promotion Policy? 
JBR I wrote about this in my column. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/08/01/national-book-promotion-policy-where-are-we-nov-2011/SKG What are your views on India’s digital publishing and how do you think they can monetize ? 
JBR I don’t think anyone really has a clear answer to this. Digital publishing, IMHO, should be seen as a unifying factor in publishing. It allows publishers to streamline operations and access various markets that hitherto were inaccessible. Monetization will happen depending upon the publisher’s requirement and an understanding of the market. For now there is a lot of experimentation in the business models of publishing particularly in academic publishing. Trade publishers are as yet to figure out what works for them. If the latter had a system of impact factors as is in journal publishing, probably they would be able to strategically explore and execute alternative streams of revenue generation.SKG You review books regularly. What are your comments on ‹The art of book reviewing›?
JBR Read, read, read. Review books without any biases, but with knowledge, honesty and fairness. All criticism must be constructive, whether positive or negative. Also never damn a book however annoying it may have been to read. The book is an author’s baby. Be kind. And if it has been a pleasure to read, be balanced in your assessment rather than packing your review with hyperbole.SKG Many publishing professionals have godfathers in the industry; do you have one or consider some one who helped/guided you? 
JBR Hmm. I am not sure if I have had a godfather. Mentors certainly. Many of them women. I have always been passionate about publishing. But I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to explore publishing by Uma Iyengar and Chandra Chari of The Book Review; Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan; Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited; and Gordon Graham, former Chairman, Butterworth Publishers and Founding Editor, Logos.SKG Where you would like to be after five years?
JBR A successful international publishing and literary consultant and columnist.SKG You know the publishing industry inside out. How do you see the future of book publishing given the current scenario of digital verses print? 
JBR I do not see it as a digital versus print game in the publishing industry. I see the entry of digital technology as a game changer that will encourage publishing to evolve to the next level. Initially it will be viewed as a disruptive element since the traditional modes of production, publication and dissemination have been working very well for generations. But to survive in the future, it is important to adopt and adapt.The future of book publishing is not bleak especially for those professionals who are smart about taking up challenges and capitalising upon opportunities. But today there is no scope for complacency. Unfortunately the truth is that to commission, create and produce high quality books you need to have time and be methodical about it. It is a process that cannot be hurried. Yet the consumption patterns of readers are changing so rapidly that publishers need to strike a balance between the two arms of business — commissioning/editorial and marketing/selling. There are many ways to do so. Most importantly exploring new opportunities for revenue generation. It will come from selling the books in innovative ways, accessing new markets but also focusing on good, reliable content, ensuring that the long tail of business continues. Also never forgetting that the core of the business of publishing are the authors. So it is important to manage author relations, irrespective of their being on the A, B or C lists.SKG You are very active on social media networks- Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and writing blogs. How useful do you find social media what would be your suggestions for young publishing professionals? 
JBR Social Media is an integral part of one’s life now. In order to access, network with like-minded professionals you need to know how to use these platforms. I use them only professionally. But it requires strategy and learning every single day.I started a blog sometime ago focused on publishing and literature. On 27 Aug 2012, I installed a visitor counter. Today, 9 Aug 2013, it shows 2,61,563 visitors. All of these are real digital footprints since I have a SPAM blocker. I am told that it is an “extremely impressive” count.My advice for young publishing professionals is to be passionate about publishing, always be alert and receptive to new ideas, think out of the box, do a bit of homework every single day and definitely use and explore the social media platforms. But by merely plonking stuff on to a platform, without understanding and updating it, will be insufficient. You have to challenge your limits.SKG What are your hobbies? 
JBR Cooking/Baking, listening to music – it used to be gardening, painting and playing with my dogs, but no more. No time for the first two and I no longer keep dogs. And I have to add, reading. I actually love it.SKG How would you describe a good book? 
JBR Fiction or non-fiction – it has to be one that sustains the reader’s interest till the very end. It cannot be a book where the author polishes the first fifty pages and then forgets about the rest.SKG Apart from manuscripts, do you get the time to read & what do you like to read?
JBR I make the time. Carpe diem is my motto. My reading is eclectic. It can range from periodicals, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, young adult and even picture books. Anything and everything to do with words.SKG In fiction, what makes a bestseller? 
JBR Tough question. Does anyone really have an answer to it? If it is the Rs 100 novel or commercial fiction that is extremely popular today in India, then I would attribute it to the conversational style of English used by the authors. The readers are able to comprehend and understand and respond well to the content. But it is not a given that a consumer of a Rs 100 novel can be termed as a “Reader”, one who reads substantially, not necessarily voraciously. For literary fiction it is the quality of the work, the complexity that lies in the treatment of the story. Similarly other genres like translations, science-fiction, children’s literature, YA literature, thrillers, etc will have their own peculiar characteristics that help in determining its viability in the market. Probably the standard for all would be the content should be good, the treatment by the author/translator above par. Technicalities like editing, production quality, distribution, price points also play a crucial aspect in the rapid consumption of the book. If it is a “good” book but unavailable and unaffordable, the whole point of investing time and patience in producing it will be defeated.

ONE TO ONE with Jaya Bhattacharji RoseInternational publishing and literary consultant who also has a monthly column, “PubSpeak” , in BusinessWorld online. Her blog http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/ has had over 2,50,000 visitors in the 11 months since the visitor counter was uploaded.

 

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

4_GM2013_Kishore_Foto_Schuck (1)( From the Goethe Institute website. In an outstanding way and at the highest level, Naveen Kishore represents dialogue and cultural cooperation between India and Germany, according to the statement by the Goethe Medal commission.

He is the founder and director of Seagull Books in Kolkata, which, with branches in London and Chicago, is established internationally like no other Indian publishing house. The house owns the worldwide English-language publishing rights for authors such as Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Mo Yan, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Naveen Kishore is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions. By launching the German List book series, a collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, he lastingly altered prevailing circumstances for the reception of German-language literature in the English language not only in India, but worldwide. Over the past five years Seagull has acquired the publishing rights to over 60 books from German publishers. Seagull Books is the first to publish German authors such as Brigitte Reimann and Ralf Rothmann in the English language, in carefully edited and excellently translated editions. I am reproducing this speech with Naveen Kishore’s permission. )

Medaille

I found the words that had escaped.
Rounded them up at gunpoint.
Marched them into the compound ringed by barbed wire.
Knocked them senseless with the butt of my gun.
Watched them collapse into a heap of meaninglessness.
Lit a match.
Flicked it on to the heap.

It took several lifetimes.
But at last I succeeded.

To set the words on fire.

The rising smoke drew across the sky
the meaning of my life.

To write is to delve. To hope. To write is to set off on a journey. There’s no arriving. There’s no ‘getting there’. Just the tramping. The walking. The dust tracks as signs of life. Someone has walked this way before. The reassurance. The comfort of friends. And of course the words. Words as solace. Words as recollection. Incomplete words seeking salvation. Broken words in limbo. Premature ones spewed into the gutter even as they are born. Words without moorings. Or roots. Homeless words seeking shelter from the storm. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Words that act like an opiate. Words that sing a lullaby. Unashamed words. Naked and stripped of veils. Harsh and therefore often truthful words. Words of the people. Words that refuse to die. Or be buried. Fighting words. Words with a cause. Borderline words strutting to a neutral tune. Neither-here-nor-there words. Our words. Their words. Words of attrition. Those that feast on anger and prejudice. Words of war. And those that want nothing but a happy ending.

The freedom of language as we used to know it is under a cloud. The very clouds that we grew up turning into sentences are now under suspicion. Trusting words to mean what they say is no longer an option. Sure, we hear them. Often, we even ‘see’ them as they sway down the ramp of language. Stony eyed and anorexic in their transparent gowns. Unblinking in the harshness of the flashing lights. A dull salute to conformity. Or words in the grip of fear. Wrap your tongue round such a word and you see it thrashing and struggling to slip away. The desire to spit out words is unadvisable. Surreptitious tip-toeing after a cautious glance to the left. The right. Then scurrying across the road to safety That’s the way, today’s way, with words.

I have a disease, I see language. I was reincarnated as a publisher in my eleventh birth. In my tenth, I was born in the land of frostbite in upper Alaska and my mother taught me how to chisel the frost off my words as swiftly as the cold north wind froze them once again. In my seventh, I was a lighting designer, learning to backlight words that other people wrote and spoke. Sometimes, I simply lit the silence and waited, with the empty stage, for the entry of a new sentence.

How do you find your way without a compass or a map? Especially when you have set out to grasp that which is intangible? I say to you what others have said to me:
Let intuition be your compass.
Look for a credible (or incredible) way to slip out of the confines of your head, your brain, your training—to unlearn all that you have learnt.

Why does this magazine page or catalogue or book cover look the way it does? Is the designer in me expected to come up with an answer that will make you gasp with admiration at its insight, its erudition, its grasp of designer theory? YES! I’m afraid so. When you ask me ‘Why?’ I’m often tempted, even compelled, to say things like ‘I was attempting to render through a visual metaphor the metaphysical doctrine of XYZ . . .’ or ‘The poststructuralist theories of something-something ‘. Anything.
The sad thing is that I would never have the guts to simply look you in the eye and say: ‘The air above my head and yours is full of lots of somethings. I’ve just learnt to pull out the odd one and spread it evenly across a page. Like butter. Or jam’.
I would love even more to say: ‘Because . . .‘

I am often asked about ‘sustainability’ and ‘structure’, about ‘vision’ and the ‘ability to reinvent’. I never have convincing answers simply because I have no scientific or rational methods to explain my life’s work and the choices that have come with it. I live hand in hand or hand in glove, and therefore complicitly, with ‘the uncertain’ and ‘the intangible’. With the opposite of ‘structure’. I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of your belly often referred to as the ‘gut’. Instinct is frowned upon, even in the arts.
Each new engagement brings with it a new insight, both in its execution and with its response. Over the years, this style of working has developed into a strategy that:
a) responds flexibly and immediately to a perceived need, be it that of an individual or a group;
b) cuts through the bureaucracy of thought that usually strangles such a dialogue and acts quickly and decisively to meet it; and, more importantly,
c) refuses to get jaded. Nothing is static. Everything has a dynamic plasticity about it.
This award recognizes my life’s work. My life. And, like life, the work is ever evolving, changing, coping, dying, renewing, responding, sustaining, nurturing . . . The closest I can come to describe the Seagull vision is to say: ‘Think of animation’—not a frozen piece of text nor a well-articulated, expertly crafted, neatly phrased all-encompassing legend that can be engraved on a brass plaque. The Seagull way of life is a mercurial, flexible, broad-minded, tolerant and philosophical practice. We respond, therefore we practice. The urge to keep doing, to keep working away at something that enhances things cultural in some form or the other; that benefits those that practice ‘things cultural’ and helps take them further, from Point A to Point D— that’s what drives us at Seagull. Every day.

Ours is therefore a practice that will always remain vulnerable. Not the vulnerability of the weak but of those receptive to new impressions. Our vulnerability to ideas makes us receptive to all that is new and untried. Especially in these dark times when culture is slowly but surely being hijacked by forces that are anything but benign. I do feel watched in a way I never have before. And I am afraid that a technology that I do not understand is both spying on me and entertaining me. I am under surveillance even as I am seduced by It. The all pervasive It of our lives. The It as State. As a state of mind. As a powerful presence that will have its way. It as Corporation. It as newspapers. As television. As theatre and cinema. It as Media with a capital ‘M’. It as power that knows no boundaries. It without conscience. Yes. It is like listening to music that is both hypnotic and evil. That attracts. That refuses to let go of my attention.
I listen to the songs but I do not understand the words.
The space for our songs is not as free as it used to be.

I have a flaw. I want to do everything. Don’t you wish that you could do everything? Or, at least, a lot of things? I want to experience. I want to be part of a process that has no apparent game plan. I want to be part of something that does. I hate the thought of being restricted. Allow us this day our daily attempts—at anything and everything. Why not?

Underlining all of this is an urge to survive and to do things. Not just any thing but ‘something in the arts’. And this is precisely what we have been doing for the last 40 years or so. ‘Survival’ carries with it a sense of the precarious, a kind of ‘just about keeping your head above water’. This is true but it need not necessarily make you unhappy! As long as you manage to take care of what you define as your daily necessities—the urge to produce a certain kind of book that few wish to buy; or organize an experimental performance because you feel it needs to be seen; or exhibit an artist’s work that needs to see the light of day—the rest will fall into place.

One day I will write something where each word is made up of a million waves and each wave sings its own story and each story sheds its own tears and the tears do what they must to carry on they smile and smiles come bearing the strings that make music and strings quickly learn to caress the bark of the finest violins which in turn play melodies that weave a magic spell over the hearts that beat and throb and every throb breathes new life into words words that bear echoes echoes that sound like the bells that adorn churches bells crafted out of the finest metal safeguarded over centuries for its ability to turn word into sound sounds that are pregnant with words words that bear the seed of silence silence that accompanies stillness stillness as we know is the mother of echo echo that every word carries within it of a life before the birth of language language that was once sensed rather than heard like the morning breeze celebrating a birth the birth of poetry

I am a man of words.
To me, the words matter most of all.

Naveen Kishore
Weimar, August 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

PubSpeak, Jaya
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit

What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.

Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.

New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.

Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”

Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.

Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.

As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee