Monday 5 October 2015

Is There Enough Diversity in Literature? Part 2

As I grew into adulthood I continued to seek out books from and about other countries. I was especially drawn to the richness of Indian literature after visiting India in the 70s. Indian literature was accessible to me as much was written and published in English, as was writing from many other Commonwealth countries.

Books on my shelves include British authors of different ethnicities but also include authors from:
  1. Afghanistan,
  2. Australia,
  3. Brazil,
  4. Canada,
  5. China,
  6. Colombia,
  7. Denmark,
  8. Dominica,
  9. France,
  10. Ethiopia,
  11. Egypt,
  12. Germany,
  13. Guyana,
  14. Holland,
  15. Iceland,
  16. India,
  17. Iran,
  18. Ireland,
  19. Italy,
  20. Japan,
  21. Kenya,
  22. Mexico,
  23. New Zealand,
  24. Nigeria,
  25. Norway,
  26. Pakistan,
  27. Poland, 
  28. Russia,
  29. Sierra Leone,
  30. Somalia,
  31. South Africa,
  32. Spain,
  33. Sri Lanka,
  34. Sudan,
  35. Sweden, 
  36. Trinidad,
  37. Turkey
  38. Vietnam.
There's a wealth of diversity there but even allowing for one or two that I've overlooked (it takes a while to scan all the books in my many bookshelves) only 39 countries, including UK, are represented here out of the generally accepted count of 196 countries of the world, in other words just under 20%.

It is notable that many of these authors, particularly those outside the West and the Commonwealth, no longer reside in the countries of their birth and some are unlikely to have been published in their own countries, either because of the lack of a publishing industry or, more significantly, because of political issues. I have learnt a great deal about the world's conflicts and how people have been affected by them, through authors such as Roma Tearne, Abraham Verghese, Leila Aboulela, Aminatta Forna, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sahar Delijani and Adeline Yen Mah to name but a few. Let's not assume these authors have written only about conflict and political issues though. Many have written of peaceful and happier times too giving an insight to different lives, histories and geographies. Roma Tearne, for example, has set her novels in Sri Lanka, England and Italy from the second world war to contemporary times.

Maybe I don't look hard enough for books from other countries, (although I suspect my list is more diverse than that of many readers) but how hard should I have to look? Why are publishers not bringing us more books from abroad? Well, I can guess the answer; economics.

I thoroughly enjoyed a talk by Ann Morgan publicizing her book, Reading The World. She realised she had read few authors other than from the UK and US so she set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country. What is more she needed to read them in English. She set up her blog A Year of Reading the World and asked people to suggest books. The response she had was incredible, with not only suggestions but even books sent to her from strangers. Offers of translation were also forthcoming. Both her blog and book are fascinating and go a long way towards introducing readers to a wider range of books.  

I'm not so ambitious as Ann but aim to read something from each country I have visited - those countries in blue above are some I have visited leaving another 30 or so from which I need to source literature. Ann's list will be a great help as will The Commonwealth Prize lists. The other, considerably more expensive, option would be to travel to the countries whose books I have read but not yet visited. Would someone like to give me bursary and plane tickets?

Reading books from abroad brings a host of new views, concepts and challenges to the way we think of the world and its people. Informative and entertaining it allows us to travel. My mother is 94 and now quite frail but she travels - via books so even when I get too old to board a train, a ship or a plane, I hope my travels will, like my mother's, continue through the page.