Madmans Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosties from Historyis an utterly magnificent book. It is a fabulous collection of odd manuscripts and books made over the centuries. It has a wide display of images gathered from private collections and libraries. Books that aren’t books, books made of flesh and blood, cryptic books, literary hoaxes, curious collections, works of the supernatural, religious oddities, curiosities of science, books of spectacular size, and strangely titled books. While it is excellent documentation, this book itself is worth reading for the chatty, informative style of Edward Brooke-Hitching. He is the son of an antiquarian book dealer. Now Edward is a rare book collector too. The kind of information gathered here is not just that gathered by bookish research but imbibed through storytelling as a child. He dies not say so but the stories shared are told in a manner that he had heard of these legends, before he embarked on a quest to garner sufficient details. This is an information-rich book that can get tedious to read but does not. It is easily dipped into and read from any point. For once, the text in a beautifully illustrated book is as much of a joy to behold as are the phenomenal images. There is sufficient care to ensure that all elements in the book come together splendidly, as harmoniously as the books catalogued in it.
Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.
The question most often asked these days in the literary world and beyond is, “Are you going to Jaipur?” I know of authors, publishers, agents, aspiring writers and even friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with literature (not even to read a book) heading off to the Pink City. The attraction ranges from seeing authors “in the flesh” to gawking at talk-show celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. That said, I wonder how many would actually know what a phenomenal impact Oprah’s Book Club had on book sales in America — termed as the Oprah effect. She single-handedly recommended books that she enjoyed reading on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It is estimated that the 69 books she recommended over a 15-year period, saw the sale of 55 million units. But as with popular literary spaces, she too has had her fair share of controversies. Most notably being of her recommending James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, only for it to be revealed that the book was a complete hoax, but that is another story.
Literary festivals are spaces to have a great time — good conversation, plenty of ideas swirling about, good company, especially if accompanied by good weather, food and facilities. What more can one ask of a long weekend break? It is a mela time to listen to panelists, to be able to ask questions directly of one’s favourite authors and discover new ones. It is also a space that provides opportunities for aspiring writers to contact publishers, word-doctors, and literary agents. Rohini Chowdhury, author and freelance editor says, “I think literary festivals serve an important function in providing writers and publishers a platform on which they can come together, particularly writers who often need the visibility. It also provides them with a sense of community and turn into exclusive clubs.” William Dalrymple, director, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), says when he gets invited to international literary festivals as an author, he is always on the lookout for new voices or to connect with established names. It is easier to do it over breakfast than send off an impersonal email request.
A Costly Affair But there is no such thing as a free lunch. It is never clear from the media stories that bear the cost of putting up this extravaganza. Often the stories are about celebrities attending a festival, the political and literary controversies surrounding some participants (it helps to pull in the crowds!), but rarely about the investments involved. At most there will be references to “breaking even”, but hardly any numbers are mentioned. Yet, there is a cost, and a substantial one at that to the organisers of the festival: financial and human resources and infrastructure. There is also a cost to the city that hosts the festival; although, both parties stand to gain in the long run.
Internationally, festivals are ticketed and are not the norm in India. (This is set to change with JLF announcing modestly-priced tickets for the musical events this year.) The income from ticket sales is rarely enough to cover costs of producing a festival — in fact, it is not even close, probably only 15 per cent of the total budget. So donations and sponsorship end up paying most of the costs. In addition to these, corporate sponsorship and individual donations are incredibly important to enable the literature festivals to run. A great deal of time is spent developing proposals, targeting potential sponsors (including big businessmen, bankers and financiers), sending out those proposals and following up. A festival director can send out 50 or more proposals and get only 5 or 10 responses most of which are polite rejections. Most people who generally do respond are those that already know the core team, especially the festival director’s work, so one needs to spend a great deal of time making and developing contacts. Add to this are other “hidden” costs that involve huge amounts of labour and are not easily quantified. They include planning and organising the events, particularly bearing in mind the ratio of local to international authors, as well as the linguistic ratios; keeping abreast of backlists and forthcoming titles; networking with publishers and authors; and putting together a judicious mix of ideas and entertainment. Also important are building confidence amongst participants and audience, timing the participation of authors if they are going to be in town (it helps to have information in advance as it differs the costs of running the festival). Additional costs to be factored are an honorarium or an appearance fee to be paid, especially to the star performers; organising cultural events where the artistes are paid their fee; media and publicity; salaries of the staff (permanent and volunteers); rent of the space; catering at the venue; transport and accommodation; and infrastructure. In fact, every person who walks in has a cost — registration tags (electronic or bar-coded), brochures, chair, and a system to buy a book. According to Adriene Loftus Parkins, Founder/Director of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, “I think it’s fair to say that no one realistically goes into this business to make a lot of money. It is very important that we raise enough to cover costs, so that we can pay our suppliers and keep going, but we are running a festival for reasons other than profit. I rarely have the funds to produce the kind of festival I’d ideally like to and to do the marketing and PR that I feel I need, so I do the best I can with what I have.”
Fundraising is a crucial aspect of organising a literary festival. An efficient team will stick to the budget and realise it is organic. Part of the fundraising is in kind – offering accommodation, free air tickets, conveyance, sponsoring a meal or an event. If it is in cash, then it is by networking with businesses, financiers, cultural and arts agencies like the British Council, Literature Across Frontiers, multi-national corporations etc. But it is crucial to find the relevant links between the festival being organised and the agency’s mandate. For instance, the British Council literature team promotes UK’s writers, poets and publishers to communities and audiences around the world, developing innovative, high-quality events and collaborations that link writers, publishers and cultural institutions. Recent projects include the Erbil Literature Festival, the first international literature festival ever to be held in Iraq; the Karachi Literature Festival; and a global partnership with Hay Festivals that has seen UK writers travel to festivals in Beirut, Cartagena, Dhaka, Kerala Nairobi, Segovia and Zacatecas amongst others. This ongoing work with partners helps provide the opportunity for an international audience to experience the excitement of the live literature scene in the UK. And for businesses it is a direct investment into the community. According to image guru Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, “Corporates find that they can reach otherwise with Lit Fests. It’s also an audience that captures influentials who otherwise have little space for corporate Branding. The danger though is that literary festivals may be going the way of Polo…Money too easily caught, could stifle the plot.”
The Host City Makes Hay The business model of a literary festival depends upon who is it for — the city or the festival. According to The Edinburgh Impact Study released in May 2011, the Edinburgh “Festivals generated over a quarter of a billion pounds worth of additional tourism revenue for Scotland (£261 million) in 2010. The economic impact figure for Edinburgh is £245 million. Plus the festivals play a starring role in the profile of the city and its tourism economy, with 93 per cent of visitors stating that the festivals are part of what makes Edinburgh special as a city, 82 per cent agreeing that the festivals make them more likely to revisit Edinburgh in the future. The study calculates that Edinburgh’s festivals generate £261 million for the national economy and £245 million for the Edinburgh economy. To put this in to context, the most recent independent economic impact figure for Golf Tourism to Scotland is £191million. The festivals also sustain 5,242 full-time equivalent jobs. Although the festivals enjoy over 4 million attendances every year, the lion’s share of additional, non-ticket visitor expenditure is attributable to beneficiary businesses, such as hotels and retailers. 37 per cent (or £41 million) goes to accommodation providers, 34 per cent to food and drink establishments, 6 per cent to retailers and 9 per cent is spent on transport.”
Says Peter Florence, director, Hay-on-Wye Festivals: “We have done a hundred and fifty festivals over 25 years around the world. Just when you think you know how to do them, a new googly comes at you. The fun of it is working out how to play every delivery… .” He adds that since story telling is the basis for festival, they are open to exploring good writing in any form. Songwriters, comedians, philosophers, screenwriters and even journalists are treated with the same respect as are poets and novelists. It is all about great use of language. He clarifies that “We aren’t in business. We are a not a for-profit educational trust. We are the only part of the publishing-reading chain that is not out to make money. We simply aim to break-even and keep costs as low as possible.” Festivals grow only if the participants have a good time there. There has to be a word-of-mouth publicity for the festivals to get popular.
Frankly, it is very difficult to say that there is one clear business model for a literary festival. It changes from region to region. Yet it is obviously growing, otherwise why else would Harvard Business School be doing a case study on the Jaipur Literature Festival that is being studied over two semesters.
Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar has written his first picture book for children — The Big Thoughts of Little Luv ( Juggernaut Books). It stems from his experience of being a single parent to his twins, Yash and Roohi. In his preface to the story, Karan Johar states that his family debunks the notion of a traditional family as he is a single parent to his children, born through surrogacy. His mother also helps look after the twins. It is a sweet little story that attempts to challenge the very gendered notions of bringing up kids and permitting them their freedom to explore and develop as individuals in their own right.
But I have a couple of quibbles with this book. Children are very sharp and perceptive readers. They are also very literal minded. So when Karan Johar declares that he is a “proud mom”, the illustrations of the woman in the story fulfilling the role of a mother are pretty confusing. Secondly, he insists on referring to his set of “mixed twins” which is wrong. A boy and girl pair of twins is always referred to as fraternal twins. Mixed twins are non-identical twins born to multi-racial families and differ in skin colour and other traits considered to be racial features. This muddle is carried forth in the story where in the opening line Luv says “I am confused. Everyone says my twin, Kusha, and I are just the same.” Again, this is wrong. Fraternal twins are never identical. Boy and girl twins are always fraternal. Same sex twins maybe fraternal as well. Being a fraternal twin myself, these silly lapses in storytelling are plain annoying as it is perpetuating the myth of twins being freak shows and having this uncanny ability of being same-same.
Having said that I am pleased that Karan Johar has made his foray into storytelling for children. Ever since I first read his memoir-essay about learning how to tackle his stammer with his drama teacher, I have always wondered why he never wrote more often. I wish he did. Hope he writes regularly in the future, perhaps for a slightly older readership. He will be excellent at it.
In May 2020, I was sent a YouTube link by academic and novelist Tabish Khair. It was a short clip of film actress Shabana Azmi reading a story. I began to listen. I realised it was a brand new story written by Tabish Khair. Soon we were exchanging furious messages over WhatsApp. I had a 1001 questions to ask him about the project — The Decameron 2020. Ever since I discovered the project, I have been listening to the stories on a loop.
The Decameron 2020 is a collaborative project of like-minded creative folks. The unifying factor is their ability to tell stories magnificently. The differentiating factor is the medium they opt to tell their stories. This extraordinary project is the brainchild of the Italian novelist, translator and poet Erri de Luca. According to him, “We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.” His colleagues are producer Paola Bisson, filmmaker Michael Mayer, the Spanish publisher Elena Ramirez and Jim Hicks, Executive Editor, The Massachusetts Review. The Decameron 2020 project invites storytellers around the world to submit original stories for the project. These stories are then read out aloud by professional storytellers, mostly film actors such as Julian Sands, Fanny Ardant, Pom Klementieff and Alessandro Gassman. They read against a backdrop created by Richard Petit, co-founder and Creative Director, The Archers, whose mesmerising artwork unites these distinctive stories. Commenting upon the creation of these unique backdrops for the Decameron performances, Richard Petit says, “The experiences – both reading these extraordinary texts and responding to them visually – have marked this period of social isolation in an unforgettable way. Beginning by depopulating the masterworks of Florentine artists – in many cases, contemporaneous to Giovanni Boccaccio’s original setting – and collaging them with fragments from works by Italian Futurist painters, my goal has been to create beautiful but somewhat disquieting stage settings that visually connect these stories of quarantine, separated by nearly seven hundred years.”
It is an extraordinary layering to the original story. Much more than just a dramatic performance. There is something quite special about the telling. It is almost as if one has to as a listener be present “within” the storytelling, shut out all the sounds of life around one, and be wholly immersed in the storytelling. It is like recreating the experience of being “locked in” the story to experience it. I have no other way of describing it.
These are surreal times. I like the parallels drawn with a war zone by Jim in his essay since it enables an experimentation with the story form too. There are no expectations of the writer / actor / listener about the act of storytelling. The story gets completed in the classic sense by the listener’s participation. Yet it is storytelling at a global level with the stories/performances such as Luigi Lo Cascio’s having a very rich local texture. What comes through beautifully is the shock everyone feels at the sudden end of life as we knew it. There is no precedence for such a global catastrophe. So behavioural changes cannot be mimicked. Nor is there any memory of such an experience being handed down generations. There is no witnessing of it either by those alive today. As a disaster management expert told me recently, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
It is also precisely why I am very intrigued by The Decameron 2020 project as it tries to make sense of our new world. The creative experimentation of making writers and film actors to collaborate while in isolation and across time zones is extraordinary. It lends itself to many interpretations in the performance of putting the readings together. If everyone had been together in a room ideating, there would have been multiple layers and I am guessing a completely different output. Instead working remotely, across time zones, the onus is upon every individual involved at different stages of production to interpret the story for themselves. Ultimately every stage — writing, reading out aloud, recording, editing, adding a unique backdrop, publishing on YouTube, listening — add layers to the performance. It is palpable but not disruptive to the experience.
The Decameron 2020 team were very kind in replying to some of my questions. So here is an edited version of the interview:
Q1. What sparked this idea for The Decameron 2020? ( Btw, did you know that #DecameronCorona has been started by Daniel Mendelsohn on Twitter?)
Erri: The Decameron and Boccaccio are pillars of our literature, so the idea sprang shape to Paola Bisson and me. We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.
Paola: I can add that I had a personal need to reverse my isolation and discomfort in this “pandemic” time into a new alliance. I felt like a truck driver who sends radio messages looking for other drivers on the same highway, to share the journey.
Michael: When Paola talked to me about it for the first time I had to wrap my head around the logistics of such a project. We all knew it was going to be a challenge, but the creativity and ingenuity of everybody involved was really inspiring to me. Everybody who joined us has had such a positive and easy attitude that we were able to tackle all the practical obstacles.
Q2. How were the authors for this project selected? Who are the writers and actors invited to participate in this series?
Erri: As the epidemic covers the planet, we wished to invite writers of all the continents, to form an ideal chain with the exceptional readers of their tales.
Paola: The authors of this project were suggested by us (Erri, Michael and me), and by the precious help of professor Jim Hicks and the Spanish publisher Elena Rico Ramirez. The French publisher Gallimard (they publish Erri’s books) connected us with Violaine Huisman…but the “brigata” is still growing with new suggestions.
Michael: Erri and Paola know so many wonderful and talented writers and with the help of Elena Rico Ramirez and Professor Jim Hicks were able to reach even more.
Q3. What is the brief given to the author when commissioning the story?
Erri: We asked authors to write pages from the unpredicted siege, no limit to the argument, just to be read in around five minutes. Then the director Michael Mayer gave hints and guidelines for the video.
Paola: The brief was written by heart, at least for me…I learned English in the US, watching movies. For once in a while, I have been shameless writing to everybody.
Michael: No brief, except trying to keep it around 700-1000 words. Some writers submitted a short story, one wrote a letter, another a poem, while others gave us their personal journal entries. So far it has been an absolute privilege reading all their wonderful contributions.
Q4. Are the actors decided beforehand or are they selected after the story is submitted? Is it imperative that the writer and the actor have to belong to the same nation as in the case of Tabish Khair and Shabana Azmi?
Erri: There are no rules for the interpreters; with my story, the British actor Julian Sands accepted to give his voice and talent for the character of the tale.
Paola: Everything has been a pure collaboration and mutual suggestion. Still, The Decameron 2020 is growing this way.
Michael: Every case is different. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, asked that her poem be read in Arabic, by a woman. Fang Fang asked that her diary, originally in Chinese, be read in Spanish, or English. Other writers had no specific requests. Naturally, we treat every request with utmost respect, even if it means taking longer to find the right talent for each story.
Q5. When will the project conclude? Or will it continue as long as the lockdown continues?
Erri: Paola Porrini Bisson and Michael Mayer decide the terms.
Paola: I hope it will last forever, like an anti-pandemic vaccine.
Michael: We originally intended to do 10 stories, but soon realized we had so many beautiful tales, we had to extend the project. To me, The Decameron 2020 is no longer about the pandemic, but about the connections created among artists and about having a chance to collaborate with people you wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity, or even the reason to collaborate with.
Q6. How was the production team selected? How did the collaboration happen? What are the pros and cons of working remotely to put together such a magnificent creative project?
Erri: Paola was the producer of last Michael Mayer’s movie, Happy Times, so the essential team was there. We got the strong help of Elena Rico Ramirez, Spanish publisher. From my point of view, there is no pro, working in distant time zones, which reduces the mutual exchange of a few hours. To match it, we are engaged at every hour.
Paola: I work since ever with Erri. I am also the President of his Foundation. With Michael, I started collaborating a few years ago in a film project. With time we became friends too. Last year we made a movie together.
Michael: Paola, Erri and I recently finished working on a feature film together, so luckily we had a pool of talented people we already had a relationship with.
A big con is the challenge of communication.
The biggest pro for me is the necessity to learn to let go. This project forces me to let go a lot of control, as actors film themselves on the other side of the world. It’s a humbling experience as a director.
Q7. How do you accommodate diverse languages?
Erri: In my case, my Italian has been translated into English by professor Jim Hicks, a good friend who has supported in every way the project since the beginning.
Michael: Between all the members of our little team, we cover 6 or 7 languages.
And we’re not shy when it’s time to ask for help!
Q8. How is The Decameron 2020 being promoted across platforms? How do you find your audience?
Erri: I am poor in this matter; I just agreed about everyone’s free contributions, and the network.
Michael: Social media, personal contacts, press announcements and word of mouth.
Q9. What are the pros and cons of creating stories solely for the Internet?
Erri: No publishers, no paper, no cellulose from trees: I think that a writer has to be generous and share for free a part of his tales.
Michael: The ease of use and the ability to reach a global audience. For a project of this sort, I can’t think of a con.
Q10. In the past year there have been major shifts in the way films have been released in theatres and on subscription TV. Now the pandemic has forced many film producers (at least in India) to consider releasing their films first on television and later when cinema halls reopen via traditional distribution channels. Plus, the Global Film Festival has been made available for free on YouTube. Do you think these rapid shifts in storytellers finding their audiences will impact the future of storytelling? If so, how?
Michael: I am not much for making predictions but I believe there is room for all types of media and formats and I believe new technologies add to our media landscape rather than cannibalize it.
Q11. What next? When the world opens up, will you develop similar projects?
Michael: Having worked now with all this diverse talent from all over the world I can’t imagine restricting my work to just one nationality or language. So yes, I definitely hope so.
Jim Hicks sums up the project beautifully in this note he emailed:
I suspect that, like most good ideas (and, of course, Margaret Mead is invariably quoted in such contexts), everything begins with a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” You begin by working together, and inevitably each person brings in others, and the network expands progressively, sometimes exponentially, getting richer and stronger as it grows. Though I believe that Erri’s original idea was for a “Decamerino” of ten writers and ten actors each telling one story, and I also believe that there are already at least that number in the pipeline, as Paola writes, when something is clearly working, there’s certainly no reason to quit, so this “Decamerino” could well add additional rooms, even becoming a house with many mansions, so to speak. And it is exciting to see Boccaccio inspiring so many projects today… another is unfolding at the online magazine Words Without Borders.
Personally, what excites me most about this project is Erri’s idea that from a variety of corners, all across the globes, collaborators can come together, sharing a great variety of stories and styles that, like a grand quilt, create a record and response to this global lockdown, but also a refusal of imposed isolation. Breaking the siege. Years back, I heard a talk given by another friend and frequent collaborator, the activist, poet, essayist, and translator Ammiel Alcalay; he described how a rather simple project of translation and editing, in the right place and time, could have a truly profound effect, and help to break a different sort of siege. Not that long ago, Ammiel worked to put together an anthology of Israeli Arab writers, some of whom had never before appeared in print, and some of whom lived literally blocks away from each other, but had never even met until their work appeared in the pages of a single book. For me, the chance to find great work, and great souls, from all around the planet, makes Decameron 2020 an incredibly exciting project, one that I’m both honored and enthused to put my energies, and what little talent I have, into…
For now, have a listen to the stories uploaded (at the time of writing) on YouTube:
Luigi Lo Cascio – “A message for my friends in isolation.”
Julian Sands reading Erri De Luca – “A Novella from a Former Time”
Shabana Azmi reading Tabish Khair “River of no return”
Pom Klementieff reading Violaine Huisman – Field Munitions
Mouna Hawa reading Dareen Tatour – “I… Who am I?”
Alessandro Gassmann reading Álvaro Rodríguez – “The Eternal Return of Chet”
The Booker Prize is to be announced on Monday, 14 October 2019. This time it consists of very well established writers and previous Booker winners like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. The other writers shortlisted include Elif Shafak, Chigozie Obioma, Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evaristo. Every single title shortlisted is unique and that is exactly the purpose of a shortlist — to highlight the variety of writing, experimentation in literary forms and the author’s ability to tell a fresh new story.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie is a modern enactment of Cervantes Don Quixote and involves a salesman of Indian origin, Ismail, who travels across America on a quest — in search of his beloved, a TV show host. It is at one level a bizarre retelling of the popular story with big dollops of magic realism also thrown in. But most importantly it is the commentary offered on the global rise of despots, notion of dual identities, migrations, what it means to be a refugee in modern times, status of women, patriarchal ways of functionining, sexual harassment etc. It is like a broad sweep of events set in three nations — USA, UK and India. At the same time it is a commentary that is very relevant to the socio-political turmoil evident globally. These are also the three countries that Rushdie has lived in and migrated to. So Quichotte in many ways is a triumphant storytelling but it is also a sharp commentary on contemporary events that are taking a horrific turn. In many ways this is a sad reminder for someone like Rushdie, a Midnight’s Child, born soon after India gained independence from the British in 1947 and wrote about it in his Booker winner and Booker of Bookers The Midnight’s Children. He has witnessed modern history for more than seven decades and to see history more or less come full circle with the rise of fascism and blatant acts of genocide, construction of concentration camps in the name of detention centres for migrants is a more than unpleasant. It requires a storyteller of his stature who has himself lived under the very real threat of death while the fatwa issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses existed, to write confidently and offer his commentary on modern times. If the garb of magic realism, a quest and relying upon many literary references that at times allow Rushdie to offer his thoughts while making Quichotte seem disjointed, well, ce’st le vie — it is a reflection of our reality and needs to be articulated. Read this extract from the novel. Also listen to this fascinating podcast on the Intelligence Squared website where Salman Rushdie spoke to BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in front of a live audience in London on 29 August 2019.
Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a reference to the time the brain waves continue to be sent after a person has been declared clinically dead. This is the duration during which the novel’s protagonist, a prostitute called Tequila Leila, who has been killed and whose body has been placed in a sil, reflects upon her life and her friendships. It is a stunning book for its immediate preoccupation with refugees as epitomised by the small circle of friends of the narrator. It is also a story that touches upon gender issues, patriarchy, censorship, rise of fascist despots, freedom of expression, marginalised groups, sexual freedom etc. While it is a novel that raises many issues, it is unlike Quichotte, restricted to Turkey and its immediate vicinity. In an interview to the Indian Express, Shafak said, “The novel is one of our last democratic spaces“.
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is described as a one-sentence, 1000-page novel, which seems daunting to read, but it is the interior monologue of a woman. A narrator who merges her thoughts as most women do while contending with their daily mental load of managing responsibilities and offering commentaries upon the world around them. She flits between her immediate preoccupations with general reflections upon global politics, especially Trump. While reading the novel there are moments that one punches a fist in the air to say, “Yes! Ellmann got this right about women and their reflections.” Then there are other moments where one wishes that like James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript written in colour-coded crayons, Lucy Ellmann too had figured a way of colour coding her novel by making the perceptive observations of a woman being highlighted for at times the meanderings into political landscapes and beyond can be a tad tedious. Lucy Ellmann’s writing style in this novel has often been compared to James Joyce by critics for whom the author had a fantastic reply in an interview she gave to The Washington Post:
Thrilled. But again, to me the connection seems remote. Many reviews have mentioned that my father was a Joyce scholar. Actually, my sister’s one too. But . . . I’m not! My father [ Richard Ellmann] did talk a lot about Joyce when I was growing up, when my mother didn’t put her foot down. But mostly, I tuned it out. I regret that now — especially when people come to me with their Joyce questions!Still, I think it’s weird for reviewers to bring up what my father did for a living. How often is the parentage of male novelists in their 60s mentioned?
Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a “novel” about 12 black women characters, most of them British. As an example of literary experimentation in terms of form, using blank verse as prose, to tell loosely interconnected, intergenerational, stories is fascinating. There is a rhythm that is mesmerising and lends sections of this novel to performance poetry. These are voices that suddenly make apparent the distinctions that exist amongst individuals in that “broad” spectrum of “black British women”. There are many instances in the book that make the women across generations offer their opinions about living in a patriarchal society, the position of women and the challenges it offers on a regular basis. Many of these questions are often raised and discussed even by feminists and many other ordinary women who do not necessarily wish to be labelled as feminists. The fact remains these are issues linking women across the world. Yet while the author’s heart is in the right place of creating this landscape, too much energy seems to have been invested in crafting the form rather than ensuring that the women’s conversations are at par with the magnificent form. At times, their observations sound too thin or as the Guardian review puts it aptly, “naive”. This mismatch in quality of craftsmanship and getting the tenor right of the women character’s preoccupations was not to be expected in such a talented writer. Evaristo is widely tipped to be one of the favourite of bookies and critics, like John Self in The Irish Times, in tomorrow’s announcement of the Booker Prize.
The only other writer on this year’s shortlist, apart from Rushdie, to have won the Booker Prize is Margaret Atwood with The Testaments. It is a sequel to her iconic book The Handmaid’s Tale which went through an immense revival achieving almost cult-like status in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It led to a TV adaptation where Atwood had a cameo role too. The red and white dress rapidly became a symbol of resistance in many a young woman’s mind. Atwood wrote The Testaments while the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale was rife. It is undoubtedly a smoooooooooooth read and is justifiably so the “dazzling follow-up” to The Handmaid’s Tale as affirmed by Anne Enright in her review in The Guardian. Nothing less is to be expected from Margaret Atwood, the High Priestess of modern sisterhood, as she so marvellously creates this story even with its painful moments. It is a story that can be read as a standalone or in quick succession after The Handmaid’s Tale but the skill of Atwood’s storytelling comes to the fore in this novel. It is also probably easier to read, stronger in the punches it delivers and richer for its details, given that it is very much a product of modern times where many debates regarding women, their rights and freedoms within a patriarchal social structure are being questioned. The audience is now receptive to such tales. Hence it is no surprise that bookies are tipping this to be the favourite to win tomorrow’s Booker Prize.
Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the form of Igbo storytelling. It is a kind of storytelling associated mostly with male storytellers. It merges many well known traditions of storytelling and is mostly anecdotal, relying a lot on folklore elements. It is a form that was used by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart too. Obioma has been referred to in a New York Times article as the “heir to Chinua Achebe”. Nonso, a chicken farmer, is the protagonist in An Orchestra of Minorities who travels out of Nigeria and gets involved in many adventures including becoming the victim of a scam. It can get a little convoluted as presumably this Igbo art form is mostly meant for oral performances and not meant to be read as the printed word, a form that exerts its own set of rules and demands upon the reader — most noticeably being that of making limited allowances for digressions and purple prose. This constant tussle between the two forms of storytelling — Igbo and the English literary tradition of the novel— makes for a challenging read with only flashes of brilliance. Perhaps Obioma who has been most fortunate in having both his novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize will win this prestigious literary accolade with his third novel and not succumb to being “three times bridesmaid never bride”.
Literary shortlists serve many purposes. Most noticeably of showcasing the variety of literature available in that particular year of the prize announcement. These shortlists are increasingly becoming relevant to the socio-political events that seem to influence writing and reading patterns too. Within this context, the 2019 Booker shortlist is a formidable gathering of experienced writers. Everyone, even the most seasoned of writers, likes a win and the value of this prize is £50,000. Irrespective of how the bookies are placing the writers for tomorrow’s win, it will in all likelihood be a close call between Rushdie and Shafak. If Evaristo wins, it will only be because of the jury taking into consideration hyper-local factors of being a black woman writer in UK particularly during the Brexit phase. It would be perfect if Rushdie wins this prize once more, making it a hat trick for him at the Booker. He deserves to win for his literary fiction such as The Midnight’s Children and now Quichotte have not only documented critical moments in modern history but these novels are timely and relevant for the wisdom they impart. The characters in Quichotte are migrants like Rushdie and many others, “the broken people …are the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth“. Quichotte offers much more than just looking at a narrow canvas of one topic or one region but broadens the horizons to highlight many of the issues gripping the world are not bound to a nation state but are spread like a rash globally. What is even more horrific is that Rushdie has in his lifetime of three score years and ten witnessed crimes against humanity that one thought were rid off but seem to have returned with despicable vengeance. Quichotte is a triumph of literary craftsmanship as Rushdie is writing about these moments in history that he has witnessed while maintaining a firm grip on imbibing and merging many forms of literary traditions and storytelling to formulate a new one. There are far too innumerable to list in this round up. Suffice to say that if any novel in the shortlist deserves to win, it is Quichotte.
Krishna in Rhymeis a fabulous retelling of the story of Krishna by Kairavi Bharat Ram and Ananya Mittal, published by Scholastic India. It is in couplets. Ishan Trivedi’s sumptuous illustrations fit so beautifully with the text, making the reading experience magical. Gift it now. Gift it in Diwali hampers. It is a book for children and adults to read, whether already familiar with the stories or not, is immaterial.
He is always remembered for the fun he had, For being a playful god, beyond the good and the bad.
He represents the child in us, who enjoys life and is free, He’s the balance between fun and responsibility.
He taught us that to your fate you are bound, This idea’s called karma, what goes ’round comes around.
The Gita is perhaps his most famous speech, In this all about duty and dharma he does teach.
When you do what you must, things will always be okay, Following your heart will never lead you astray.
We hope this epic story you all have understood, Remember this forever: evil never beats good.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes.
Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.
Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often?
A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child.
Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages. Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.
2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about? Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?
For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.
My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.
Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of.
Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.
3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words?
When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.
4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories?
These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself.
This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,
5. How would you define a compelling story?
stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your
life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even
more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into
producing the best story they can.
6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act?
I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it.
7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve?
To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.
A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.
8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?
My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them.
9. How did you get into bookmaking? Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?
In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.
My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world.
I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died — Mister Whistler.
10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated?
My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.
Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage. Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori.
But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission.
Award-winning writer Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivajimakes the history of Deccan very accessible. It is a region of India that has been ruled by many dynasties from the north and south. It is also a a region that is strategically important and many vie for it such as the Vijayanagar kingdom and the Mughals. In Rebel Sultans, Manu Pillai narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth; the Bahmanis, the Mughals and the Marathas including Shivaji. There are interesting titbits of information such as this one of Firoz Shah or of Ibrahim Adil Shah II or “habshi” Malik Ambar, an African slave who rose to power.
In an Economic Times article he wrote to coincide with the publication of his book, Manu Pillai says of Firoz Shah that he came to power because of a coup but was an interesting person. He was a polyglot who spoke everything from Turkish to Marathi, reading the Hebrew Bible and composing Persian poetry. Later in 1406, after war with Vijayanagar’s emperor, a princess of the Sangama dynasty was also given to Firoz Shah as a bride. But for her dowry, the sultan demanded not only the usual mountains of gold, gems and silver, but also as many as 2,000 cultural professionals from southern India. Scholars, musicians, dancers, and other persons of talent from a different cultural universe, arrived in the Bahmani Sultanate, combining with Persian poets and immigrant Sufis to exalt (and transform) its own notions of taste, art and culture. These were different worlds from which they emerged but together in a common space, they also found points of convergence.
Rebel Sultans is packed with information in this narrative history of the Deccan. As Manu Pillai told William Dalrymple in an interview that little narrative history about India exists as what is often lacking is a method to communicate that to a wider audience. Fortunately this is changing slowly. Manu Pillai adds, “My own effort has been to bridge that gap — to use the best of research, rigorously studied, and to convey it in a style and language that can appeal to a diverse readership. I think narrative history is here to stay, and if people can marry good research with elegant writing, we could really enrich ourselves.”
Offering a new perspective on the past is a critical component of nation building processes as well. This is not a new concept. It was first seen practiced in medieval European communities evident in its literature and historical narratives they created such as Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. ( A story that adapted many of the Romance cycle stories to tell the story of a renowned king who created England as a nation.) In fact a question often discussed in recent times is whether a nation can have many versions of history. Increasingly connections between geographical regions, the environment and history are now beginning to be made. Eminent historian Romila Thapar says in The Past as Present“Historical perspectives are frequently perceived from the standpoint of the present.” It is particularly true when revisiting histories which are a representation of the past based on information put together by colonial scholarship. While unpacking the past as many historians do, they discover “that the past registers changes that could alter its representation. The past does not remain static.” In an interesting observation about the significance of regional history she says:
The interest in regional history grew by degrees, assisted to some extent by the creation of linguistic states from the late 1950s, superseding the more arbitrary boundaries of the erstwhile provinces of British India. The newly created states came to be treated by historians as sub-national territorial units, but present-day boundaries do not necessarily hold for earlier times. Boundaries are an unstable index in historical studies. Ecologically defined frontier zones are more stable. The perspective of sub-continental history, conventionally viewed from the Ganga plain, has had to change with the evidence now coming from regional history. For example, the history of south India is much more prominent in histories of the subcontinent than it was fifty years ago. Regional histories form patterns that sometimes differ from each other and the variations have a historical base. Differences are not just diversities in regional styles. They are expressions of multiple cultural norms that cut across monolithic, uniform identities. This requires a reassessment of what went into making the identities that existed in the past.
In his fascinating account of the Deccan, Manu Pillai unpacks a lot of history to understand the regional history of an area that has always been strategically significant and continues to be in modern times. Combining storytelling with historical evidence is always a good idea for it keeps history alive in people’s consciousness but it is a fine line to tread between getting carried away in telling a juicy story and presenting facts as is. Nevertheless Rebel Sultans will be an important book for it straddles academia and popular writing. A crucial space to inhabit when there is an explosion of information available; but how to ensure its authenticity will always be tricky.
Rebel Sultans will be accessible to the lay reader as well as to the professional historian for a long time to come.
Manu S. Pillai Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599
Creatures of the forest gathered to hear The Great Storyteller for the last time.
‘My life has been full of wonder,’ he tells them. ‘The greatest gifts are stories, pictures, songs and play. Remember this! We can ALL imagine the world as wild and wonderful as this forest.’
Ken Spillman’s The Great Storytelleris a picture book about the grief at the passing of a wise and great storyteller, the elephant, which leaves his friends in the forest devastated. For a while they are incapable of doing anything except to mourn his passing by sharing memories and participating in what can be considered one long wake.
‘When we lost The Great Storyteller, we lost his stories. Every story gives us a new beginning. Each story took us on a fantastic journey. Our imagination made them real.’
Slowly with time they realise they can make their own stories and “imagine colourful worlds”. It works! Laughter and cheer returns to the forest.
Ken Spillman‘s The Great Storyteller is a hauntingly moving tale about stories, loss and new beginnings. Incredibly sensitively the concept of death is introduced to little children but also how crucial it is to grieve, to come to terms with the loss of a dear friend, and yet life goes on. It is not as if the memory of the beloved friend is ever forgotten. It exists. It remains in one’s heart as a circle of grief, if you like, with life’s experiences creating layers around it, encompassing it and couching it. The illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti accompanying the story are absolutely stupendous! The effect of using watercolours and pastels create a warm feeling. Beginning with the fabulously tactile book cover which has the elephant and the monkey illustration in matt finish; it is an excellent introduction to young readers to immerse themselves into this story. It is the only way to experience it. Something shifts inside for an adult reader, it can only have a more powerful effect on young impressionable minds.
Ken Spillman The Great Storyteller ( illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti) Scholastic India, Gurgaon, Delhi, 2018. Pb. Rs 250