Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘novels’

This past weekend was the first ever BIBLIOTOPIA festival at the Fondation Jan Michalski here in Switzerland. I was asked to moderate one of the sessions – a focus on Language and Identity – and in preparation had the pleasure of reading the following books from three very interesting writers:

  • Katja Petrowskaja – Maybe Esther (tr. Shelley Frisch), 2018
  • Gazmend Kapllani – A Short Border Handbook (tr. Anne-Marie Stanton Ife), 2009
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Je m’appelle Europe (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2013
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Le Dernier Page (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2015
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Village of Stone (tr. Cindy Carter), 2005
  • Xiaolu Guo – Once Upon a Time in the East, 2017
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007
  • Xiaolu Guo – 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (tr. Rebecca Morris, rev. by Pamela Casey), 2009

Several things connect these writers – the first being that none of them are writing in their native language. Petrowskaja is Russophone but chose to write her book in German, Kapllani is originally from Albania but has written his three novels in Greek (which I then read in English or French translation), and Guo began her writing career in Mandarin (which was her 3rd language) before switching to English after she had moved to the UK. All of them are also writing about immigration, displacement, and/or escape, about the intricacies of family narratives – this often meaning silent or hidden stories – and all of them are writing about censorship in one form or another. There was so much linking the writers that I was excited to speak with them as a group. The actual panel conversation I got to have with them was far too short, but I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on how they located themselves—personally, politically, artistically—within their new language and culture.

Something I took away from the discussion and that I am still thinking about is the idea that it isn’t really that big of a deal to be writing in one’s 2nd or 3rd language. We talked about the idea of “betraying” one’s mother tongue, and how they each negotiated that tension in their work and over time, but eventually all three of them insisted on the normality/necessity of writing outside of one’s native language, and even expressed a sense of exasperation that Anglophones are continually astonished, as if this were an impossible task when, in fact, it is not. It was a gentle scolding of the idea that languages are impenetrable from outside their attached culture, in other words language can become another border that doesn’t need policing. We didn’t have time to go into the nuances of stylistic compromises, emotional engagements, etc – things about which I am still very curious. As a translator I know what it feels like to undress and dress a language, and although I consider myself almost bilingual, I very rarely write extensively in French. I found it both perplexing and liberating to think that I could just switch one language for another if I wanted to or needed to.

In any case, I’d like to write a bit about their books now that I’ve spent so much time with them, and I’ll start a new post to do so, beginning with Xiaolu Guo.

 

**Below is the post I wrote when my first novel, Fog Island Mountains, was published in November 2014. Everything you need to know about the book is here.**

 

With so much traveling last week, I didn’t get a chance to properly mention the actual publication day of Fog Island Mountains. Officially, on November 4th—while I was somewhere 30,000 feet up between Geneva and NYC and reading several wonderful novels—the book came out. It is extremely exciting to note the publication of my first novel. This is something I’ve waited and hoped for, and I’m extremely grateful in terms of the book’s road to publication with Tantor and Audible through the Christopher Doheny Award from Audible and The Center for Fiction. I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable young man while I was in New York and I’m really touched that the judges thought he would have enjoyed my book, but also that they felt it was a suitable tribute to his life.

I read from the book last Thursday at The Center for Fiction. And there are some photos of that event. The Center for Fiction is a beautiful gem of bookish goodness right in the middle of Manhattan. If I lived anywhere near New York, I’d be spending as much time as possible here. That night was also special because I finally got to meet Rebecca from Of Books and Bikes. We’ve been blogging friends for years and it was such a treat to finally meet her. (She is as smart and kind as we’ve all suspected all these years.)

And on Friday evening, there was a reception at Audible with Christopher Doheny’s family and friends. It was so wonderful to hear stories about him—my favorite being that he set up a program at Audible to curate books from the small/independent presses to be made into audio books. He was an early champion of Paul Harding’s Tinkers, an exceptional book and one of my all-time favorites. I left that evening wishing I’d had a chance to meet him, I think we would have had much in common.

Beth Anderson at Audible conducted a small reading and interview with me that evening, but one that is also a wonderful tribute to Christopher Doheny and the award that will continue on in his name.

The book is out in the world now, and there are reviews popping up here and there. I’ll be sure to link to them for anyone who is interested. On Thursday morning I spent about six hours talking to twelve different radio stations. This was a fascinating experience – to hear how people are approaching the book and to get the chance to discuss it and answer questions. I have been stunned at the kindness and curiosity of so many people. Some of my favorite questions were about the book’s structure, about how the book dealt with cultural issues, and just simply about the setting in rural southern Japan.

One of the best parts of this experience with the radio was three hosts who read out parts of the book, passages they had marked. It is a little strange (in a good way) to hear my own words read back to me, and it was neat to see which parts they really enjoyed. I’ll finish up here with one of those passages:

Now the floor trembles without his taking angry steps; this is how the mountain releases its own tension, little earthquakes, shudders of rock against earth against rock, mild displacements—all reminders of the steam and heat beneath the rocks, beneath our feet.

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