New Festival of World Literature – Zagreb 5th-17th September

The Festival of World Literature (Festival svjetske knizevnosti) is the initiative of one of Croatia’s most innovative and respected publishing houses – FRAKTURA in cooperation with Zagreb Youth Theatre.

Over the years, FRAKTURA has not only published the very best in international literature (publishing the likes of Vasilij Grossman and Amos Oz) as well as the most important national authors, like Daša Drndić (recently short-listed for the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). And while we are on the subject of the IFFP, its wonderful to see that this year’s winner – Gerbrand Bakker, will be one of the guests at the festival, along with the great Italian writer, Claudio Magris.

The aim of the festival is to bring together the best of local and international literature, through a series of live events with authors and literary critics, as well as opportunities for the audience to interact with contemporary writers.Image

And who are the local authors to look out for? Well, there is the mighty Zoran Ferić, whose books and short stories have been delighting audiences around Europe for over twenty years now. His one book in English so far is ‘The Death of the Little Match Girl’ Autumn Hill Books (November 15, 2007). The big literary news of 2012 was that a contemporary writer had finally come up with a work that might deservedly be called ‘The Great Croatian Novel’ – The Mayan Calendar is a decade-spanning tale that follows its main characters from their schooldays in the Sixties and builds up to a convincing portrait of Croatian society in the early 21st century. You can read more about this writer, and get an excellent overview of the present Croatian literary scene, at TimeOut Croatia‘s excellent site. And I wouldn’t be a very good publisher if I didn’t say my bit about two other excellent writers on the scene: Marinko Koščec – ‘Croatia’s foremost literary stylist’ – whose book A Handful of Sand was published by Istros earlier this year, and Olja Savičević – a poet whose debut novel, Farewell, Cowboy was so popular that it was made into a theatre play only a year after being published. Istros will be publishing the English translation of the novel in 2015.

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Love, Adultery and the Communist inheritance: Interview with Cecilia Stefanescu, author of ‘Sun Alley’ and ‘Love Sick’

Cecilia Stefanescu is one of Romania’s leading authors; part of a new generation of writers who grew up under the old regime but have gone on to write and flourish in a new literary culture. She made her debut with the novel Love Sick, which has been published in two editions in Romania and translated into French (Éditions Phébus, 2006).  Love Sick was also been made into a film, directed by Tudor Giurgiu, which has been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, and in more than twenty countries. In 2005, alongside eleven other Romanian writers, she took part in the annual Les Belles étrangères event, organised by the Centre National du Livre and the French Ministry of Culture, which was dedicated to Romania that year. She contributes monthly editorials to the Romanian-language edition of Elle magazine and writes for the weekly Romanian-language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sun Alley‘ is her second novel, and was published in April this year by Istros Books, in a lovely translation by Alexandra Coliban. The novel is a tender mix of childhood first love and the more seedy world of grown-up adultery, seen though the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy with prophetic powers. Set in a Bucharest which belongs more to Eliade that it does to Ceausescu, it seduces and beguiles the reader beautifully, so that only at the end does one understand (or believes one understands), ‘the whole story’.

We asked Cecilia a few questions about her choice of subject matter in both her novels, and to tell us a little bit more how she writes and finds inspiration:

If I understand correctly her first novel Love Sick also took love as a main theme? Can you tell me a bit about Love Sick and how important writing about love is for you? 

 Writing about love is as important as writing about myself, about my fears and expectations. I think all of us, at some levels, lead our lives wondering what our purpose is and fearing about our end. We need to be loved and fear we might not be. In Love Sick, I wanted to depict the world through the eyes of a young woman who fell in love, accidentally with another woman, and distorted her reality in order for her to be happy. I spoke about the post-Ceauşescu era, about the Romanian 90s, a controversial and very difficult period of recent Romanian history. But, it’s true, I don’t touch real historical subjects, I talk about that historical period through a personal experience. I think that’s the only way you can speak about collective events.

Why did you decide to write about love in two novels?

 In Love Sick, I wrote about adolescent love, it was a coming-of- age story. In Sun Alley, it was mature, adulterous love. The end is tragic beacause it can’t be otherwise. I often wondered why, I still can’t find an answer…

 When talking about Romania the first thing that comes to mind is Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. For a reader it might be somewhat liberating that this is not straightforward political book, or a book that comments on the former regime and the politics of Romania. Was it a deliberate move for you to move away from that historical baggage? 

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Cecilia Stefanescu presenting ‘Sun Alley’ at this year’s London Book Fair

I carry this historical baggage within me, and unfortunately it exists in the basement of my book even if you say you didn’t see it, which I think is a good thing. But I wanted to write only about me and what’s in my head, because it’s the only honest thing to do. I will answer your other question too, about how I see my own fiction. I see it as a work of archaeology, a work of research. I use a flashlight and, illuminate parts of my brain, while leaving other parts in the shadow. By doing this, I perpetually discover something else about myself. I think a book is not an answer but rather an experience in itself. A journey in the brain and the mind of a person who dares expose themselves. In this case, I am that person.

 Can you give us a potted self-portrait of yourself as a writer?

”I’m the neurotic product of a childhood spent among the ruins of Ceausescu’s Bucharest and that’s why, vacillating between petty fears and some naïve happiness, between the nostalgia of what was at that time a personal paradise and the horror of what I might have turned into but didn’t as time went by, I’ve chosen the shortest route, that of fabulation. Since I don’t exactly like talking loudly or laughing noisily or entering a room full of enthusiastic people and listening to those that like talking a lot and for a handful of other idiosyncrasies, I’ve become a writer. It’s a job that increases your phobias, glorifies your failures and sets in memorable forms the whole mess of time passed.”

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Authentic voices

Just as I long to see films with authentic local actors playing the parts of Greeks or Russians or Germans (instead of the same old Hollywood star whose inflated persona overrides the part s/he is playing), so I long for authentic local voices to tell their own stories. Perhaps it is the same, slightly (largely?) imperialist attitudes that dictate that all nationalities have to be played by Americans/Brits/Australians in the movies, just as all novels must talk about other countries from our perspective? It seems to be that we believe a story much more if it is told by a visiting member of our tribe, rather than a member of another, which cannot be the right impulse, can it?

And that is why I love independent, foreign films and translated fiction. Because here are the stories told from the horses’ mouths – Bosnians talking about their own war and Icelanders talking about their own cold…Why do we have the misconception that we will not understand or sympathize unless the story is told by one of our own? I know that a lot of this has to do with the fear of translation and a laziness to read substitles – something peculiarly English. And yet time and time again one reads from comments of readers on Social Media, saying how much they loved the stories and had had no interference from the fact that it was a translation. I just got an email this morning from somebody who had purchased a copy of Istros’ poetry collection, ‘Definitions’ by Octavian Paler from Romania. After the list of positive adjectives came the words: ‘…so well translated…I wasn’t even aware it had been translated’. I would like to add to this that the voices being translated are all authentic ones – the voices of those who experienced rather than witnessed, and this is what makes the stories good!

 

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Prose after Srebrenica?

This morning I had cause to remember once again that much quoted line (by Theodor Adorno)   that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The title of the article I was reading in the Independent Blogs – ‘Poetry After Auschwitz?‘ referenced that statement, and was dedicated to the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz

In my ignorance, I did not know that Rozewicz is Poland’s most celebrated living author, a Nobel prize nominee and considered by many as “one of the great European poets of the 20th century. Despite my dedication to literature in translation, I also find myself a victim of my own specialization – with Poland not included in my chosen area of S E Europe. Luckily, Stork Press have started to remedy that, with their English-language publications of Rozewicz and other neglected Polish writers.

The shadows of the Holocaust still lie heavily over us, nearly 70 years on, especially in the world of literature. But my personal experience with the horrors of war came in the 1990s, when I was working with refugees from war in Bosnia, many of them from soon-to-be sites of atrocities, like Srebrenica and Sarajevo. And so, for me, the question becomes whether it is possible for anything beautiful and pure – in the literary sense – can come out of Bosnia?

And so it is with such pride and relief that I can be involved in translating  and publishing Bosnian writers like  Selvedin AvdićImage, who evokes the horror of mass murders and unsolved disappearances not with blood and gore, but with the shifty workings of paranormal activities in his disturbing book, Seven Terrors; and Alma Lazarevska, whose tender and revealing set of stories – Death in the Museum of Modern Art, avoid the easy traps of politics and blame in order to reveal a world full of incidents and worries so similar to our own, and yet always under the shadow of the snipers and the bombs which we know are out there and who occasionally impinge on the story in shocking ways.

The human desire to understand terror, to probe the minds of the victims and the perpetrators and – perhaps more importantly – to allow the mind to convert the horrors of historical events into the stuff of memory, is an essential one in the process of living, and indeed forgiving. The process of writing down – recording, shading and refining – itself being a kind of therapy, a way to allow one part of the brain to process the experience and allow it a proper place in our recollection and understanding. It seems, therefore, that far from being a betrayal of our humanity (as indicated in Adorno’s quote), it is an imperative action; indeed, an affirmative action by the soul in desperation to save itself.

Without poetry, without prose, we are dumb animals at the gates of the abattoir.

Post script:

The Romania poet, Paul Celan  (who witnessed the Shoah (The Holocaust) first hand, and which provided him with defining forces in his poetry and his use of language) said of language after Auschwitz that:

”Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”

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Check out the European Short Story Festival

It’s funny, but I have a sneaky feeling that since I left Zagreb, it has become the most interesting and edgy city in South East Europe!

Last week saw the likes of Oliver Stone and Slavoj Zizek, discussing such topics as the European Left, Love and Democracy at the Subversive Film Festival, while next week sees the start of the 10th annual Festival of the European Short Story. fessThe festival will be held from 29 May to 3 June in the present capital city of Zagreb and the once-capital Baroque town of Varaždin, bringing together dozens of writers from Croatia and abroad.

Welsh short-story writer, Owen Martell will be there, as well as Man Booker International nominee, Josip Novakovich, who was just in London for the Book Fair, and French writer and film director, Phillippe Claudel and local heroes –Edo Popović, Nenad Bartolčić, Branko Čegec

Highlights at this eclectic and truly European festival include a workshop on The Golden Age of Visual Storytelling which looks at the history of comics and graphic novel and a Short Introduction to the Contemporary Welsh Short Story.

Neighbouring Bulgarian writer, Alek Popov, is also there to present his collection of short stories – The Mythology of Transition’. Istros’ is hoping to bring his hilarious novel, ‘Mission London’, to UK audiences early next year, with the motion picture of the book out for UK release this autumn – watch the trailer here

All due to respect to the Creative director, Roman Simić Bodrožić, himself a short-story writer, as well as an editor at Fraktura Publishing House. Roman too joined Istros recently, at the Croatian stand of the London Book Fair. Listen here to get a sample of his hosting skills and his sterling efforts to control a panel-full of the top Croatian writers at the Europe House event – Contemporary Croatian Literature: Inside and Out

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”Post-LondonBookFair Blues” and UK prizes for Literature in Translation

Like many other small publishers, translators and authors, I find myself suffering from a touch of post-LondonBookFair Blues. While we were gearing up for the action – preparing PR material, making appointments, co-coordinating events and talks, it was all in the realm of Possibility – an exciting place without borders.

But now that the event has been and gone, comes the time of consolidating on ideas, following up on leads and assessing the effort/outcome ratio. Having the privilege of running the first ever Croatian stand at the fair was a great experience for me personally, and also meant a boost in visibility for Istros Books and its Croatian writers.

But now that the mists of excitement have started to lift, writers and promoters of ‘small language literatures’ are left with that dull old problem: how to let people know about the books and stories we have to offer in a market where so little in translation gets any attention (and those that do are usually from the same old French/German/Spanish camp).

One very useful way for a work of fiction to get noticed – and especially useful for small publishers who lack big marketing budgets – is for it to be nominated for a literary prize. However, just as one might have expected, there are only a handful of prizes in the UK that accept works of translated fiction. So far, I have come across the following, but would be VERY grateful for any more to add to the list!

– First and foremost, is the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

This prize honours the best work of fiction by a living author, which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the UK. Uniquely, the prize gives the winning author and the translator equal status: each receives £5000

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize is for book-length literary translations into English from any living European language. It aims to honour the craft of translation, and to recognise its cultural importance. It is funded by Lord Weidenfeld and by New College, The Queen’s College and St Anne’s College, Oxford.

British Fantasy Society Awards  

With categories for novel (over 40,000 words); novella; Short Fiction; Anthology; Collection; Screen Play and Graphic Novel, this award just about covers all forms of publication, with the stipulation that the work falls within the genre

And one for the little ones – The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation

The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, awarded biennially since 1996, was founded to celebrate the best translation of a children’s book from a foreign language into English and published in the UK. It aims to spotlight the high quality and diversity of translated fiction for young readers. The Award is administered by the ESU on behalf of the Marsh Christian Trust.

Judging by the Wikepedia site for Translation Awards, it seems that the US is much more embracing of its translated literature, although many of the awards listed seemed to be linked to specific languages.

So please, help ease my blues and let me know of any over-looked prizes and awards just waiting for nominations for Montenegro/Albania/any other country non-English speaking country Imagein this world….

STOP PRESS: Thanks to Literature Across Frontiers for putting together a complete list of prizes for literature in translation, which you can find here

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Let’s RECLAIM the Balkans!

As we enter the third and final day of the London Book Fair, a certain theme can be noticed lingering around the Croatian stand. If you pass by, you might notice a Bulgarian publisher or a Romanian literary scout, perhaps even the odd Macedonian translator or Serbian PR agent. And why is this so?

Well, it seems to me that those from the Balkan seem drawn together in some elemental way. They feel welcome to take a break at the Croatian stand between meetings; to catch up with colleagues or make new acquaintances; and of course to listen to what our visiting writers have to say about their books:)

While I was at the lovely Romanian national stand on Monday (the only other stand from the region at the LBF, listening to one of the speaker bemoan the negative associations connected to the Balkans, while also repeating those woeful words blood-letting, war, ancient hatreds. And it suddenly occurred from me how willing we all our to accept these adjectives and to apologise for the apparently inevitable curse that is cast over the region…

And suddenly I felt a voice inside me shout no! What we have to do is to reclaim that word – turn it round and make it our own. And that’s what the Romanians and the Croatians, the Bulgarians and the Serbians are all trying to do with their efforts to promote their culture, art and literature – they are trying to promote new adjectives for the Balkans: exciting, inspiring, fascinating, multi-cultural…

I don’t want to start wading though the muddy waters of recent history, but let’s just keep in mind who taught them the ways of Fascism and ethnic cleansing, and let’s keep in mind the cruel hand dealt by geography.

So let’s open the floor;
The Brilliant Balkans
The Best Balkan Books…

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