The nationality issue

Taiye Selasi - not Ghanaian but Afropolitan
Taiye Selasi – not Ghanaian but Afropolitan

The last two books I have added to my site have raised issues about nationalities, as I have defined them on my site. Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go raised issues about Selasi’s nationality. She was born in London, grew up in the United States and has a Ghanaian Father and a Nigerian mother. As with other nationalities, I have put in her in one nationality, in this case Ghana, with my reasons outlined on her homepage on my site (because she has a Ghanaian father, the title of her first novel contains the word Ghana (though the title refers to the Nigerian reaction to the Ghanaians in their country) and her surname is Ghanaian) but she herself has commented on this topic (I am so over the whole ‘where are you from?’ question. I am! I don’t know how to reply to it any more. I go to Ghana every single year to see my mum who lives there now. But even if I were to say I was from Ghana, which isn’t true, what does that mean? What matters to me is Italian, African, contemporary American, British, and Indian culture. It’s of so much more interest to me than where I’m from. I would love it if people asked me who I am rather than where I’m from.) so she will probably not be happy with my decision.

Africa - bigger than Europe, bigger than North America
Africa – bigger than Europe, bigger than North America

There are, of course, ways round this. By using tags, I could allocate all her nationalities to her. Indeed, on the blog post, you may have noticed that I have tagged her as both Ghanaian and Nigerian. Or, I could move away from very specific nationalities and just have a category such as African, not least because many westerners are not too concerned about the finer differences between African countries. (Just for information, the size of Europe is 3,930,000 square miles, the United States 3,794,101 square miles, North America (i.e. including the Caribbean countries and Central America) 9,540,000 square miles and the size of Africa 11,668,599 square miles.)

Adem Demaçi, from the 200th nationality on my site
Adem Demaçi, from the 200th nationality on my site

The most recent addition to my website is Adem Demaçi’s Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood], a novel from Kosovo. Kosovo happens to be the 200th nationality on my site. You will note that my definition of nationality is not necessarily the same as anyone else’s, particularly not the United Nations’. The United Nations has 193 member countries and two observer ones (the Vatican and Palestine). Kosovo, for example, is not a member. Though, as I stated in my post on Reading the World, it was not my intention to cover the world. My aim was to review (and therefore encourage others to read the books reviewed) of what I considered the most interesting novels since approximately the beginning of the twentieth century. I expected to be focusing on a wide array of novels from North and South America, Europe, South and South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and a few from other areas such as Africa and the Middle East. I did not expect that the Great Vanuatuan novel would be of the slightest interest to me. However, it soon became apparent that there was a lot more of interest.

José Américo de Almeida's Trash - first published in 1928 but only available in English in 1978
José Américo de Almeida’s Trash – first published in 1928 but only available in English in 1978

If you, as a literary novel reader from North America or the UK in 1960 wanted to be considered well-read in the literary novel of the 20th century, you would not have had a great deal to read. You would have read quite a few novels from the US, England and Ireland (but probably not Wales or Scotland), France and the German-speaking countries. There would, perhaps, be a few Russians but not many, the odd Eastern European, the odd Scandinavian, the odd Italian and a (very) few from the Far East. You would probably ignore the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, as the boom had not started and, anyway, unless you read these two languages, there would not be much available in English. Africa, apart from Cry, the Beloved Country, you could ignore. You might read Kazantzakis, though he did not really take off till Zorba the Greek was released in 1964. India, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, the Arab world and Central Asia could probably be ignored. Nowadays, you would have to add all these parts of the world and while you would not have to have read 200 nationalities, it would have to be at least fifty.

Balkanisation - Thomas Mann's minor principality
Balkanisation – Thomas Mann’s minor principality

It was this realisation – realisation that novels were being produced not only in Kenya and South Africa but also Chad and Guinea-Bissau, not only in India and China but also Bhutan and Laos, not only in Australia and New Zealand but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea, not only France and Spain but Brittany and Catalonia, that made me explore further. I have always been in favour of balkanisation and it is wonderful to see it in novels, where smaller, non-sovereign nations are producing their own literature. One of my favourite novels is Thomas Mann‘s Königliche Hoheit (Royal Highness) which describes a minor German principality which seems to me a lovely place to live, away from the problems of the collapse of the EU, terrorism, war and so on. I like discovering minor countries that I was not aware had a literature and I hope others can appreciate this, too, and learn about countries and territories most of us will certainly never visit. So I shall continue adding other countries – Eritrea is coming up soon – and I am sorry, Taiye Selasi, but I shall continue highlighting individual nationalities.

Adem Demaçi: Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood]

demaci

The latest addition to my website is Adem Demaçi‘s Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood], the first Kosovan novel on my website. Sadly, this novel is not available in English and, as far as I can tell, there is no Kosovan novel, available in English translation. The novel is a short one and gives the account of a blood feud between two Kosovan-Albanian families in the period just before World War I. The prime reason is that Sejdi cannot come to an agreement with Emin Malok about the marriage of his daughter to Emin Malok’s son. As a result he agrees to let his daughter marry another man’s son. Emin Malok takes this as a grievous insult to his honour and vows revenge. Mustafa, Sejdi’s eldest son, who has just returned from four years nominally fighting the Turks (though, historically, he would have been fighting the Serbs) tries hard to prevent any bloodshed, while his father hopes the matter will just blow over. But Emin Malok is determined.

Real people in fiction

John Gray - a real person who became a fictional one
John Gray – a real person who became a fictional one

Real people have been the basis for literary characters for almost as long as there have been novels. Someone has even written a book on it. More recently, we have seen more and more novelists use actual real people in their novels. Some people don’t like that. Jonathan Dee commented there is something fundamentally compromised about a type of literary work whose characters — their physical appearances, their fates, the actions by which they will be remembered — are known to us before we even open the book and Creating a character out of words and making him or her as vivid and memorable as a real person might be the hardest of the fundamental tricks a novelist has to perform. Simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character — Lee Harvey Oswald, J.P. Morgan, Amelia Earhart — cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader’s consciousness as a total unknown.. I really don’t mind, as it can introduce you to people you know little about (Hilary Mantel writing about Thomas Cromwell, for example), or give you another perspective on a living person or some event in his/her life where we do not necessarily know the truth. But that is not what this post is about.

The book that cost Christine Angot €40,000
The book that cost Christine Angot €40,000

Writing in The Independent, John Walsh commented on a lawsuit brought against French novelist Christine Angot for using a depiction of her lover’s ex-lover in a novel. The ex-lover – Elise Bidoit – sued on the basis that intimate details of her life, known only to those who knew her well (i.e. her ex, Angot’s current) were published and that she was recognisable. Angot has form for this. She famously wrote a book called L’inceste (not available in English but the title is not too difficult to translate) about an incestuous relationship between a young woman and her father. Was it based on fact? What did her father think of it? I have a copy and it may well appear on my site sometime soon. As author Kathryn Stockett knows you have to be careful about putting living, non-famous people in your novel. My speculation on this has been prompted by the last book I put on my site – Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, which is substantially autobiographical (she even uses her mother’s real maiden name). In this book she kills off her father with a heart attack though her real father is still very much alive. What did he think of this? What did her twin sister think of being made male in this book? Yes, as an author, you often want to write about what you know, which means your own life, your own family and your own friends but, whatever you think of your father, killing him off? In the Walsh article linked above, he mentions that Beryl Bainbridge was tempted to kill off her mother in her book Harriet Says but resisted the temptation. A worthy example to vindictive novelists, though I can think of a few politicians I would kill off were I to be a novelist.

Joanna Scott: The Closest Possible Union

union

The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s The Closest Possible Union. The novel is set almost entirely on a slave ship and tells the story of Tom Beauchamp, a fourteen-year old boy, son of the owner of the ship (though this is known only to the captain and first mate), his fears and his yearning for adventure. He learns that one of the crew is a woman, with an agenda of her own to find her long-lost half-brother. He hears fanciful stories from various crew members. He is apprehensive about the slaves though has few qualms about the morality of slaving, even though the novel is set in the period when it is essentially banned. Above all, he is afraid, as any fourteen-year old boy would be in such circumstances. Scott tells the story from the perspective of the time, with the views, morals and language of the period, not as a modern story about the evils of slave-trading, and it is this that makes it work so well. Sadly, the book is out of print.

Ned Beauman: The Teleportation Accident

tele

The latest addition to my website is Ned Beauman‘s The Teleportation Accident. It’s not a science fiction novel, more a pastiche of science fiction, US noir, particularly 1930s noir, conspiracy theories and spy fiction. It’s quirky, it’s funny, at times it is stupid but is a thoroughly enjoyable read and certainly different from your run-of-the-mill Granta Young Novelist fiction (Beauman made the list). However, it does have one thing in common with one of the other works. It is only the second novel that I can recall reading that uses the word panopticon.

Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim

good

The latest addition to my website is Tahmima Anam‘s The Good Muslim. It tells the story of a feminist doctor in Bangladesh during the period immediately after independence in 1971 as well as in the mid-1980s. Maya’s brother, with whom she had been very close, has returned from the war a very changed man and he becomes very religious and marries a very religious woman. Maya herself has moved away from Dhaka, abandoning her plans to be a surgeon, to work in the areas away from Dhaka where there are few medical facilities. She comes up against entrenched attitudes about the role of women and other issues and, by the start of the book, has decided to return home to Dhaka, particularly as her sister-in-law has died. She sees her country facing many problems, such as corruption, police brutality and a move towards the rise of a capitalist class. Anam was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Naomi Alderman: The Lessons

lessons

The latest addition to my website is Naomi Alderman‘s The Lessons. Naomi Alderman is one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Though this novel, an Oxford University and after novel, owes a certain amount to Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty and The Secret History, it is still a good, well-written novel, telling the story of an ordinary middle-class Oxford student meeting up with a very rich but very unbalanced student, with whom he has a homosexual affair and with whom he shares a house in Oxford, along with several other students, including his girlfriend. As with any good university novel, it is about how this student tries to find out who he really is and where he is going. I look forward to reading future novels by Alderman.

Annotated books sell at high prices

£18,000 for the annotated  version of this book
£18,000 for the annotated version of this book

On Monday and Tuesday, Sotheby’s in London held an auction for English PEN of books by well-known authors, with annotations by the authors. The organiser of the auction, book dealer Rick Gekoski, describes what many of them did. I did think of attending the auction myself but realised the prices would be way out of my range, as turned out to be the case. Most of the headlines were about some book about some boy magician. (This is going to sound horribly pretentious but I have only read the first of the boy magician books and then in Irish. Why in Irish? When I was learning Irish (one day I will review a book only available in Irish on my website), my extraordinarily bright daughter gave me a copy of the book in Irish to help with my learning.) The results of the auction show that that book sold for £150,000 but I would have been more interested in Remains of the Day, which sold for a mere £18,000 or Wolf Hall at £16,000 or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at £13,000 or Amsterdam at £7000 or Oscar and Lucinda at £4,8000 or Last Orders at £3200. You can support English Pen by joining here and learn more about them here. They do lots of good work helping writers all over the world.

Ten best Spanish novels of the 21st century

The best Spanish novel of the 21st century
The best Spanish-language novel of the 21st century

Though we are only just over twelve years into the 21st century (yes, I can do the maths; the 21st century started on 1 January 2001), ABC has produced its list of the ten best Spanish novels of the 21st century. However, the first one on the list was actually published in the 20th century (yes, I am pedantic) – La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) being published in 2000. Technically, it is Peruvian but apparently Vargas Llosa has Spanish citizenship so they are claiming him. Of the others on the list, three are on my site – Crematorio [The Crematorium], Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow) (link to the first one – there are actually three in the series, all on my site) and Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations), though I hope to get to some of the others soon. Sadly not all have been published in English.