2020 has been an annus horribilis by anyone’s standards, but one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak year has been the opportunity to participate online in events that would otherwise have remained off-limits. I’ve already been able to take part in book club meetings in Seoul and check out translator interviews in India and England, but the highlight took place over the past couple of weeks in the form of the free sessions provided by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
With my focus on fiction in translation, it’s little surprise that I was mainly interested in the sessions covering the International Booker Prize shortlist books, and the organisers were kind enough to schedule these events at Australia-friendly times, with all of them taking place during my evening. Over the next few days, then, I’ll be taking a brief look at these sessions, and with the majority of the shortlisted writers, and translators, being women, these posts will also make for a fitting finale to my Women In Translation Month efforts for the year 🙂
First up, back on Monday the 17th of August, was a session with Michele Hutchison and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld entitled “Reap What You Sow”, in which the writer and translator discussed Rijneveld’s bleak novel The Discomfort of Evening. With Sophie Collins, a poet and translator of Dutch poetry in her own right, asking the questions, we were taken through the genesis of the work and the inspiration for both the characters and the plot of the novel. Rijneveld is also a poet, and the book started off as a poem, one written in an attempt to work through the death of her own brother. While the genre changed, a lot of the language remained, giving the novel a unique feel.
A key idea here is that of discomfort, especially for the reader. Rijneveld said she was trying to show how the children in the book struggle with the lack of guidance after their brother’s death, with their parents mentally absent, lost in their own grief. As a result, each attempts to cope in their own way, whether that involves sexual experimentation or violent tendencies. Unsurprisingly, Jas is very much based on the girl Rijneveld used to be, but they found it slightly harder to create the other characters, with a lot of effort spent on finding a unique voice for each.
Hutchison, asked about her experiences with Dutch, described moving to the Netherlands sixteen years ago, switching from learning the language to translating it. This particular work was apparently tough but rewarding, and she did her best to stay faithful to the writer’s style. This involved keeping a strong Dutch flavour, including the names of local celebrities and of well-known products. Rijneveld was very happy with how the translation turned out, and with the way most of the metaphors have been carried across.
Collins is obviously a fan (and possibly an acquaintance), which meant it did seem a little gushing at times, and the online setting also affected the atmosphere a little. The talk was also affected slightly by the need for the Dutch interpreter as the writer’s lengthy responses took a good while, leaving those of us not proficient in the language waiting for a translation (that often seemed surprisingly short…). This is something we’ll see handled in many different ways in later sessions.
P.S. Of course, since writing this, the International Booker Prize winner announcement was made, with The Discomfort of Evening taking out the prize. While I can’t say that it was among my favourites, I wasn’t overly surprised as I had a feeling it might be a dark horse right from the moment it was longlisted. Many congratulations to Rijneveld on a success that will boost Dutch literature just as much as it will help her career, and well done to Hutchison, too, the latest translator to find herself thrust into the Booker spotlight!
The next session took place a couple of days later, with Shokoofeh Azar, author of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, speaking to poet Marjorie Lotfi Gill from the comfort of her Australian home (possibly in lockdown…). This one was called “After the Iranian Revolution”, and it was a very different, and far livelier, event to the previous one, with the talkative Azar in no need of an interpreter (I’m not sure she needed a host, really). In many ways, it was an eye-opening talk, with the writer pulling no punches in her description of Iran and the atrocities carried out in the first days of the Islamic revolution.
The book owes much to Azar’s childhood in a region like that described in the novel, and the family she describes, especially the parents, are very similar to her own. In writing the book, she drew on a mix of Iranian folk myths and stories she heard during her later journalistic experiences, but at its core The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is simply a story that got stuck in her head. The key was a young girl’s tale, one Azar couldn’t ignore, that developed from a short piece into a full novel. This novel then took on its final shape when the idea of the deceased narrator arose, a point of view that would allow her voice to see everything, even when she shouldn’t be able to.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a book showcasing her country’s thousands of years of culture, which Azar is passionate about, but also condemning the small-mindedness of the regime that has taken over. She describes the erasing of the village’s history detailed in the book as a metaphor for the whitewashing undertaken by the Islamic revolution, with six-thousand years of Persian culture shoved under the carpet (no pun intended!). However, the writer is insistent that underneath the stifling oppression, all of these stories and cultural experiences are still there waiting to be uncovered, if you know where to look.
Of course, much of the discussion here is about the violent side of the regime change, and Azar showed no sign of wanting to avoid discussing this, with Lotfi Gill playing a very minor role of asking brief questions and allowing the writer to expand on her opinions. The most obvious example of this was a focus on the chapter featuring the march of the ghosts, giving voice to the victims of the hidden executions of the 1980s, with Azar admitting she cries every time she reads it. There was also discussion of her second thoughts about publishing the book at all, given the advice of friends and relatives back home not to stir the pot. What came across strongly during this session is that writing a book like this doesn’t just involve the usual process of putting pen to paper – it’s a far more dangerous endeavour, and perhaps much more important…
Link to video of event: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/shokoofeh-azar-after-the-iranian-revolution
That’s all for our first Edinburgh round-up, but come back soon for the second part, in which I’ll discuss a couple more talks. The first involves a trek across the pampas, which is far more fun than it sounds, and a visit to a mysterious island where your memory plays funny tricks on you. If that sounds intriguing, please join me soon for more from the writers, translators and a few other people besides 🙂