Vasily Grossman”s Stalingrad is a prequel to Life And Fate. Life and Fate (Russian edition, Soviet Union, 1988) was translated from Russian into English in 1985 by Robert Chandler and Stalingrad ( 1952, Russian edition) in 2019 by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Life and Fate had been completed by Grossman before he succumbed to cancer in 1964 but the English translation was published before permission was granted for the Russian edition. It became possible after glasnost.
Vasily Grossman was a correspondent in World War Two. His novels borrow heavily from all that he witnessed. Recently, Robert Chandler wrote a magnificent essay, “Writer who caught the reality of war” ( The Critic, July/August 2020 ). Grossman was a correspondent for Red Star, a daily military newspaper as important as Pravda and Izvestia, the official newspapers or the Communist Party and the Supreme Soviet. It was a paper read by both military and civilians. Chandler writes “According to David Ortenberg, it’s chief editor, Grossman’s 12 long articles about the Battle of Stalingrad not only won him personal acclaim but also helped make ‘Red Star’ itself more popular. Red Army soldiers saw Grossman as one of them– someone who chose to share their lives rather than merely to praise Stalin’s military strategy from the safety of an army headquarters far from the front line.”
Stalingrad is a massive book to read at nearly 900 pages. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace in three days flat but Stalingrad was far more difficult to read. Perhaps because it was written so close in time to the events it describes. Within a decade of the Stalingrad blockade by the Nazis, Grossman’s novel had been published. Whereas “War and Peace” was written fifty years after the events fictionalised by Tolstoy. It makes a difference to the flavour of literature. Reading “Stalingrad” during the lockdown is a terrifying experience. More so because today nations around the world are dominated by right wing politicians who see no wrong in implementing xenophobic policies. The parallels with Grossman’s accounts are unmistakable. Having said that I am very glad I read Grossman”s novel. It is a detailed account of the blockade using the polyphonic literary technique. Sometimes it can get bewildering to keep track of so many characters. Also because there are chunks in the text over which Grossman does not have a very good grasp. His details of the battlefield or the stories about the Shaposhnikovs are his strongest moments in the novel. Perhaps because the war scenes are first hand experiences, much of which is brilliantly accounted for by Chandler in his recent article. And the weaker portions were written during Stalinism and Grossman probably had to be careful about what he wrote for fear of being censored.
After reading Stalingrad, I reread portions of Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin’s A Book of the Blockade ( English translation by Hilda Perham, Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1983; Russian edition, 1982). This book is about the nine hundred day siege too. The auhors recreate the event by referring to diaries, letters, poems written during the blockade, and survivors’ testimonies. They also interviewed “the strong and the weak, and those who had been saved and those who had saved others”. At times it felt as if there was little difference reading Grossman’s novel or these eye witness accounts that had been gathered by Adamovich and Granin.
These are very powerful books. I am glad the translations exist. Perhaps this kind of war literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially during the lockdown but it is highly recommended. Sometimes it is easier to understand our present by hearkening back to the past. These books certainly help!
Moscow, 1942. Summer. There were several reasons why people felt calmer … it is impossible to remain very long in a state of extreme nervous tension; nature simply doesn’t allow this.
On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir. The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Amutharasan Paulraj. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.
This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!
To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!
Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).
Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision?
When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.
When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!
This was my debut as a writer.
Q2.You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?
Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.
Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter?
For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.
Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.
Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion. Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco?
For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.
In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.
Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working. Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)
This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.
Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction?
Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.
Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative?
An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.
Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?
When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.
Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?
The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.
To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.
Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?
France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.
Q11. What next?
What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me has a protagonist who shares the same name as the author. It has been translated from Spanish into English by Daniel Hahn. The fictional Juan like the real Juan did has plans to move from Guadalajara in Mexico to Barcelona in Spain to pursue a doctorate in literary theory made possible with an EU grant. This is where the similarity ends ( at least we hope so!). The fictional Juan has a cousin who is of no good and hobnobs with local criminals. Practically on the eve of Juan’s departure, the criminals kill the cousin and persuade Juan to run an “errand” for them in Barcelona. He is asked to “infiltrate” the literary postgrad world in order to acquaint himself with a wealthy Catalan magnate’s daughter, Laia. The devious plan involves the Mexican cartel wishing to extort money from the wealthy man. Juan agrees to this preposterous plan. He enrols himself to study humour in Latin American literature. Meanwhile his life outside the classroom flip flops between third grade crime fiction and literary fiction. Juan on a mission encounters the dirty underbelly of society. He comes face to face with dodgy folks of all kinds, he hears gutter language, he experiences xenophobia and it is contrasted with the more genteel talk of the educated and socio-economic elite. It is an absurd situation to be in. Ripe fodder for his thesis but mindboggling to be in the heart of it while trying to ensure one’s sanity and safety of his family.
Reading I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is almost like television channel surfing pausing for a moment on a thriller and the next moment on a more sophisticated drama and then a mindless serial, each with multiple accents and settings. Only difference being here that this is a single novel with four distinct voices, crafted by one man, the Spanish writer Juan Pablo Villalobos. The four characters who offer four different perspectives on the plotline hail from different parts of society. Apparently the original novel had very distinctive kinds of Spanish attributed to these individuals. Daniel Hahn, the translator, had quite a challenging time translating the different registers of Spanish spoken into English. He has written a fascinating essay at the end of the book which recounts in detail how he achieved this feat. It is an extraordinary essay which is worth reading especially by many Indian translators who struggle to translate different dialects of a single Indian language into English. One of the toughest challenges is to carry forward the different registers of the original language into the destination language without corrupting the literary intention and craftsmanship of the author. Daniel Hahn shares some of his insights. His essay is truly brilliant!
The novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a comic romp though multiple socio-economic layers of Spanish society. For the most part they are invisible to each other but it needs a Juan to meander through it, making visible much that would prefer to remain under the radar. But the mirth created by fast paced, pitch perfect novel, cannot really mask the racism and immigrant related tensions that abound. It is a novel not easily forgotten. Worth reading!
It has been published by the fabulous independent publisher based in London, And Other Stories.
Chorashastra: The subtle science of thievery is an oddly gripping novella by award-winning Malayalam writer V. J. James. Absurdly imaginative storyline that within a couple of pages seems to be so believable that it is impossible to put the book down. A thief breaks into the house of a professor who has spent his days salvaging ancient texts, long forgotten or overlooked by scholars of present times. On the night of the theft, the professor is poring over an ancient manuscript called Chorashastra that holds within its pages mind-boggling tips and tricks for thieves. The professor persuades the thief to become his disciple. And thus begin a series of ridiculous adventures for the thief. This is a story easily read during these surreal times. Perhaps a plotline that will fascinate readers after the pandemic is over too. Read it at face value or search for alternate meanings. It is a choice left to the reader. It is certainly a plot that will not be easily forgotten. It has been translated smoothly from Malayalam into English by lawyer Morley J. Nair, who is now based in USA. Meanwhile V J James works as an engineer in a space research organisation.
There is a fascinating interview between two legendary award-winning contemporary writers, Benyamin and V J James at the end of the book. An excellent element to include with the novella as Benyamin asks all the questions one wishes to have asked V J James!
Book Post 50 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
There are many books and essays to discuss but today I would like to share two poems from a slim but exquisite and powerful collection of poetry called Serpents Under My Veil. It is by Kashimiri poet Asiya Zahoor. The book was published on 15 August 2019. She has written on Kashmiri and Caribbean Literature, exile and psycholinguistics. Her film ‘The Stitch’ has won the Critics award in the Second South Asian film Film Festival by Federation of Film Society of India and has been screened at various festivals including the 48th Roshd International Festival in Tehran. Her poetry is translated into many languages.
Lightness of Being in a Heavily
before they lay barbed wire across our tongues let’s sing of almond blossoms
before they hammer our heads to harvest thoughts let’s think what we want to think
before they wall our sleep let’s whisper dreams into cold cruel ears
before they blind us with a burst of lead let’s mirror our darkness
let’s engrave this story with fingertips on palms before they erase our words
My Grandmother Spun Soft Revolutions on a Charkha
Turning the fleece of a Kashmir goat into cashmere.
Her lullabies on a rabab put heavy guns to sleep.
Her prayers soared from chimneys, wished for rivers not cursed with myths, breasts not drilled with bullets, streets not hemmed
with barbed wire, history not written with scars. She paused her singing to boil almanacs in a samovar, inhaling embers,
exhaling fire. Her passion faded like posters on municipal walls
we ignore in our daily routine. She offered trays of mustard rice to a shrine on a mountain
where a soothsayer had predicted, embers turn to ashes.
(C) The copyright to the poems rests with Asiya Zahoor. Serpents Under My Veil has been published by Tethys, an imprint of Yatra Books.
Basanti is an Odia novel written decades ago. It is also a fascinating exercise in literary experimentation. Well ahead of its times. The following extract is from the introduction written by translator Himansu S. Mohapatra and is reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press India
Imagine the inner world of an Odia novel, published in 1931 and set in the conservative Odia society of that time. The eponymous heroine seems to be a misfi t in this society thanks to her unconventional choices. She is friend to a Christian woman. She reads, writes, plays music, sews, and dispenses homeopathic medicine. It also happens that she marries for love. After marriage she comes to her husband’s village in Balasore to take up her new role as the daughter-in-law of a zamindar household, managed by her widowed mother-in-law. A life of petty domesticity and social conformity stretches out before her now. She does not, however, give up on her attempts at replenishing her mental and intellectual wardrobe. To that end she leafs through the pages of a Bengali monthly, writes articles for an Odia literary periodical (Nababani), and reads Tagore’s novel Gora multiple times, not to mention her locking horns with her husband and his male friends over the issue of emancipation of women. She even runs a school for the little girls in the village.
This aspiration on the part of a young woman for a higher mental plane does not evoke any response from the family. On the contrary, it invites opposition from her mother-in-law and even her husband. The element of surprise is not due to the fact that the novel depicts the agony and the sense of suffocation of a woman seeking emancipation from her narrow domestic confi nes. Surprise is in the fact that the novel does for the fi rst time posit activism for women in Odia literature, breaking with the earlier tradition of portraying a woman as a glamorous, adorable object. Yes, in Odia fictional literature Basanti is the fi rst ever woman character to have boldly staked a claim to emancipation of women, presented the means of that emancipation and mapped the pathway to it. The blazing presence of Nababani, Gora, Romain Rolland, and W.B. Yeats in the discourse of the novel is an eloquent testimony to that. Odia prose fiction, admittedly not of long ancestry in the 1920s and 30s, had not imagined such an intellectually vibrant inner world and that too as part of a character’s repertoire until the appearance of the novel Basanti.
Basanti is a landmark attempt at writing a new kind of novel in Odisha in the early decades of the twentieth century. Like all new literary offerings of the time in Odisha, it was published in the journal Utkala Sahitya in instalments starting from issue no. 2 of volume 28 for May 1924 to issue no. 8 of volume 30 for November 1926. The work of nine authors, six men and three women, Basanti is a fine gift to Odia fiction from the ‘Sabuja Age’ in literature. This literature was given to exploring new horizons —the Odia word ‘sabuja’, like the word basanti ‘green’ in English, is a symbol of youth, novelty, freshness, and so on—during its all too brief life span of 10 to 15 years. The novel was definitely a new undertaking. The newness existed at least at three levels. First, it was a product of a well-thoughtout plan for collaborative writing. Second, it was a novel with a focus on women. Last, but not least, it was a novel of ideas. The three levels were, of course, closely intertwined. When a group of writers come together for the express purpose of engaging in an act of writing, one can be sure that a new creative impulse, at once social and literary, is in the air. Was the late 1920s in Odisha, which saw the emergence of Basanti, such a time? Did it witness a new creative impulse?
In the 1920s English education and a wider world mediated by English books had begun to seep into the consciousness of the educated Odias, transforming it from within. The books they read and the ideas they conceived found their way into their Odia writing for which the journals and magazines of the time acted as both receptacles and triggers. Utkala Dipika, founded in 1866 by Gouri Shankar Ray, provided an outlet for their restless journalistic minds eager to explore their environs and shine the light into the areas of darkness. From 1897 onwards it was Utkala Sahitya, a monthly literary journal published under the editorship of the erudite and cultured Biswanath Kar, which set out to create a national literature for Odisha. It may be no exaggeration to say that the Renaissance of Odia letters was scripted in its pages. It was here that Chha Mana Atha Guntha by Senapati was serialized from 1897 to 1899 before being published in book form in 1902. It was here that the serialization of Basanti began in May 1924 and ended in November 1926 before being issued as a book in 1931 by a literary organization named Sabuja Sahitya Samiti formed by the ‘Sabuja’ group of writers. A revised and expanded edition of the novel, used as the source text for this English translation, was published in 1968 by the New Students’ Store, Cuttack.
The passage from a single author to multiple authors was a significant aspect of Basanti. The novel saw the convergence of two new forces. One was a new writing strategy which the initiators of the novel referred to as a ‘collective composition method’. The other was the collective imagining of the new woman. This concerted effort at writing a novel was of course an extension of the other concerted efforts that were being seen in the social and political spheres in Odisha. While Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation with the colonial government had galvanized hearts and minds of every Indian, in Odisha it was the regional issue of the reunifi cation of a dismembered Odisha which struck a chord among Odia intellectuals and writers. The important thing was that the Odia nationalism of the 1920s, having co-existed with an internationalist and cosmopolitan outlook, was not insular. The Odia mind was like a sponge, which absorbed new ideas and new trends such as the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the mysticism of Swedenborg, the modernism of the Yeats–Eliot–Pound–Joyce generation as well as socialist ideas that reached the Odishan shores both directly through people like Frieda Hauswirth Das and via Bengali literature. As one prominent member of the ‘Sabuja’ group of Odia writers put it in a journal article, published in 1933, their effort was to create a new and fresh—and hence green—literature which, in tune with the international trends, would ‘celebrate the romance of a new reality by extending the frontiers of the everyday reality and reaching down to the unconscious’ (Baikuntha Nath Patnaik, Juga-Bina, 1933, p. 67).
It is worth pointing out here that the collaborative writing of the kind seen in Basanti was first to appear in Bengali literature in the Indian context. In fact in the ‘appeal’ published in volume 28 of Sahitya, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi called for a replication of this Bengali experiment with the ‘collective worship of the word’, evinced in the case of Baroyari (written by twelve authors), Bhager Puja (the work of sixteen authors), and Chatuskona (the work of four authors) in Odia literature. The Bengali experiment was obviously not the first. The Spectator, an influential periodical paper in eighteenth-century England, was the creation of many hands. Sir Roger De Coverley, its central character, though first imagined by Richard Steele, is taken over fondly by Joseph Addison, much in the same way in which the contours of the new woman in the titular Basanti are drawn fi rst by the male authors and then taken over and extended by the female authors.
Basanti: Writing the New Woman ( Nine Authors, One Novel) Ananda Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee, and Suprava Devi. Translated from Odia by Himansu S. Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019. Pb. Pp. 246 Rs 550
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.