Celebrating New Literature and Independent Presses

Salman Rushdie addressing the audience at the New Literature From Europe Festival

I hope you don’t think your intrepid blogger is all about exhibits and plays; from time-to-time she likes to read a good book!  Or at least hear their authors talk about them…  I’ve been lucky to hear some authors read from and speak about their work, or the works of other authors. 

At the New Literature From Europe Festival, noted author Salman Rushdie gave the keynote speech at the last panel, “In the Mother Tongue – A European Reading.”  Rushdie gave deserved recognition to the importance of works in translation – which he described as a trilogue among the author, the reader and the translator.  He noted that translations open up the world to us, and that it allowed him to discover Russian literature.  He made the point that a translator is the least recognized figure (and, I would add, seriously underpaid), yet so crucial, acting as a gate-keeper, allowing you to get through the (language) door to experience being in another culture.    Rushdie spoke about the need for good translations, citing Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote:  she understood that Cervantes used colloquial Spanish and that he did so to make fun of courtly literature, so she was able to give us a translation that brought the story to life.  On the other hand, he noted how Proust was often mistranslated, as when A la recherche du temps perdue was rendered as Remembrance of Things Past instead of In Search of Lost Time.   

As he concluded his remarks, Rushdie expressed his disappointment that only 2% of work sold in the US is translated.  I couldn’t agree more!

The readings that followed showed both the vibrancy of European literature, and the need for good translations.  The authors read an excerpt from one of their works in the original language, while the English-language version was shown on the screen.  Szczepan Twardoc (Poland) read from his soon-to-be published novel The King;   Immaneul Misfud (Malta) read from his novel Jutta Heim;  Susana Moriera Marques (Portugal) read from her first book, Now and at the Hour of Our Death; Mihkel Mutt (Estonia) read from his short story, Mein Floralein; Asle Skredderberget (Norway) read from his thriller The Oslo Conspiracy; Christian Crusat  (Spain) read from A Brief History of Travel & Desert; Yoko Towada (Japan & Germany) read from her novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear;  Tommy Wieringa (The Netherlands) read from his book These Are The Names; and Colin Barrett (Ireland) closed the session with his reading from his short story The Clancy Kid (which was written in English). 

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and I can’t wait to read the works which were presented!

(l-r) Matthew Sharpe, Barry Gifford, Lee Stringer, Kia Corthon, Paul Auster, Phil Jackson (Annie Ernaux on screen) at Seven Stories Press reading

A few days earlier, I attended a wonderful literary event at the Brooklyn Public Library: There Is No Middle Ground Celebrating 20 Years of Seven Stories Press.    In that spirit, various writers read from the work of Seven Stories authors, each representing a particular theme. 

American masters: Paul Auster read an excerpt from A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut which is his almost biography.  I admit to having trouble understanding Vonnegut’s novels, but I was lucky enough to hear him speak a few times, and he was a brilliant lecturer – this book seems to be more like his talks than his prose, so I’m going to give it a try.

New voices of consequence: Matthew Sharpe  read Postcards from the End of America  by Linh Dinh which will be published in 2017.  The book chronicles Dinh’s trip around the US, where he visited cities and towns where people were living on the edge economically.

Literature makes lifeKia Corthron read science fiction writer Octavia Butlers essay Positive Obsession  about how Butler became a writer, and why, when you decide what you want in life, you should aim high; and from Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower which imagines the U.S. in 2025 ruled by a charismatic President, but where violence reigns all around.

Exquisite prose: Francine Prose read from two works by French writer Annie Ernaux about her father:  A Man’s Place, about his life and death, and Shame, about the time her father tried to kill her mother.

Hoop dreamersPhil Jackson read from baseball writer  Charley Rosen‘s  House of Moses All Stars which recounts the story of a Jewish baseball team as it plays around America during the Depression.

Dan Simon, the founder of Seven Stories Press, read from Grand Central Winter,   Lee Stringer’s account of being an alcoholic, then smoking crack cocaine, losing his apartment, then becoming homeless…   Simon discovered him when he picked up a copy of “Street News” which Stringer had been publishing.  Stringer gave a lovely tribute to Seven Stories Press, recounting how, after having been addicted and homeless for 12 years, when Simon asked him to write a book, he was really being shown a door to the rest of his life.

Chicago’s bestBarry Gifford read Nelson Algren’s short story “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” a  very funny tale about a barroom drunk and a possible miracle, from The Neon Wilderness Collection Gifford also paid homage to Seven Stories Press’ founder Dan Simon, who became a publisher to publish Algren’s work, which had enjoyed fame in the 1930’s and ’40’s then was blacklisted in the ’50’s.  Eventually, Algren’s stories went out of print until Simon brought them back.   His best known works are The Man With the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side.   

Seven Stories Press whose tagline is “Works of Radical Imagination” describes itself as  “fiercely independent,” publishing fiction, political non-fiction, literature, and works in translation.  It also has the Triangle Square imprint, which publishes young adult (YA) literature on topics like ecology, sex and social justice, as well as the Spanish language imprint, Siete Cuentos Editorial, to introduce important English-language texts to Spanish-language readers.

I was blown away by the readings, and I encourage you to take a look at these and other works published by Seven Stories .

Earlier in the year, at the Goethe Institute,  I attended a reading of  the English language version (translated by Steph Morris) of The Last Weynfeldt, Martin Suter’s novel about a Zurich art expert and his involvement in an art forgery scheme.  I enjoyed the reading immensely, and picked up the book, which I hope to read over the holidays. 

The novel is published by New Vessel Press, an independent publisher  which specializes in the translation of foreign literature, bringing voices from around the world not often heard in the US to new audiences. 

The work of these and other small, independent presses is very important, so the next time you’re looking for a book for yourself or someone else, think about these publishers.

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