At The Looking Glass, we thrive on giving our writers a platform on to which they can express their creativity. However, we understand that sometimes while the creativity is there, inspiration can be tricky to find. Yet inspiration for your writing comes from what you’re reading, and so it is really useful to read a range of texts, not just what you’re used to. Fabiha Anwar spoke to freelance writer Ann Morgan who took on an incredibly ambitious project in 2012 to expand her own experience of literature on an international level as she attempted to read a book from every country in a year! Her journey didn’t stop there though; Ann went on to record and expand on her experience in her book,Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer. Not only did Ann tell Fabiha all about her amazing experience, she also revealed some very useful tips about the benefits of wider reading, the power of social media and her exciting upcoming book…
Thank you for agreeing to be featured on our blog! To begin with, could you briefly tell us about your two major projects, A Year of Reading Women and A Year of Reading the World?
Thanks for asking me. A Year of Reading Women was my first experience of book blogging. In fact, I started it because of a postgraduate diploma course I was doing back in 2011 which required me to set up my own blog. The idea behind it came from a realisation that I hardly ever read books by women writers. This didn’t make sense to me, particularly as I am a woman writer, so I decided to spend that year exploring literature by women and recording my responses on the blog.
A Year of Reading the World came about in a similar way. A comment from someone on my original blog got me thinking about how little literature I used to read from countries other than the UK and US. Once again, I couldn’t explain this, so I decided to spend 2012 (a very international year for the UK, what with the Olympics and Jubilee) trying to read a novel, short-story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country (plus a couple of extras). As I didn’t know what to choose or even how to find books from some places, I decided to ask the world’s booklovers to help me with advice and suggestions. I put a call out on social media and before long I was inundated with recommendations and other offers of help.
On your blog you described your knowledge of literature as “shamefully anglocentric”. What would you say are the benefits of reading international texts?
There are loads, but I suppose one of the most important for me is the way books can show us the world through another person’s eyes, and the enlargement of understanding and empathy this gives us (something neuroscience has provided compelling evidence to support in recent years, with numerous studies showing reading and imagining have the power to restructure our brains). If you’re only reading texts written by writers local to you, you are likely to be exposed to a relatively narrow range of perspectives. By contrast, reading far beyond your national borders gives you the opportunity to develop your thinking and your ability to put yourself in someone else’s place to a much greater extent.
Did you come across any new or interesting genres or forms of writing?
I found the works I read from places where oral storytelling is a strong tradition particularly interesting. These works present fascinating challenges because they are not meant to be written down, so the people who recorded and published them so that readers thousands of miles away could read them had to solve a lot of problems to try to produce something that was true to the original. The book I read from the Marshall Islands, for example, Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, was compiled by an actor who went to great lengths to try to convey what it was like to witness the performance of the stories. He included photographs of the narrators, local artwork and even stage directions describing the storytellers’ gestures and expressions. It was such an unusual book that a stranger on the tube interrupted my reading one evening to ask me about it because it was so unlike anything she had seen before.
What challenges did you face while ‘reading the world’?
In addition to sticking to the schedule of reading and blogging about one book every 1.87 days, I had the challenge of finding texts. Because there aren’t books from every country on the shelves of any bookshop, this involved doing a lot of research, contacting experts and enthusiasts around the world, and keeping my fingers very firmly crossed. In many cases, I had to rely on unpublished translations sent to me by authors or translators. And when it came to the Portuguese-speaking nation of Sao Tome & Principe, the only way I could think of to get hold of a book I could read was to ask volunteers to help me by translating a short-story collection specially. Amazingly, lots of strangers around the world replied, offering their services and, within six weeks, I had the entire collection to read.
While translation made a lot of texts accessible to you, do you think a translation detracts from a story in any way?
It depends on the translation. Much like film adaptations of books, there are definitely examples of translations being poor reflections of the original, but there are also instances where a translation can bring something new to the original and might even be better than the first book. The key to this is the skill of the translator and his or her ability to understand both the context of the story and what life is like for the new readers, and find a way to bridge the gap between them. When it works it is magical.
After having read such a wide range of creative texts, what’s your opinion, as a reader, as to what makes an effective creative text?
Ah the billion-rupee question. People have been trying to answer that one for a long time. Still, if by ‘effective’ you mean satisfying and engrossing, then an effective text will usually involve some of the following: engaging characters who often subvert readers’ expectations; plots that present a nagging problem to be solved; writing in which each word pulls its weight and imagery opens up the experience described, rather than cluttering the page with the author’s desire to be thought clever; a generosity and perceptiveness towards human beings. But someone else will give you a different answer.
As a freelance writer, with a variety of accreditations, and an editor for both online and print publications, what’s your advice to future graduates who are hoping to follow careers in the world of print?
My advice would be to be open-minded and versatile. If you can develop several skills that you can use to earn money around or connected to your writing, that’s a great thing. When I first started out as a freelance writer, I paid my rent partly through singing. Later on sub-editing provided me with a way in to lots of newspapers and magazines where I could make contacts with editors who went on to commission me. I also learned how to improve my own writing by editing other people’s. Copywriting can also be a good freelance option. Other people find that a steady, relatively undemanding day job or part-time job in an unconnected field can be a valuable way of supporting themselves while they get established. It all depends on how much stability matters to you and it’s important to be honest with yourself about that. Of course, a lucky few people still do get permanent jobs in newspapers and magazines, but the numbers are dwindling – and doing that can mean you don’t get such a wide range of experience, or have as much time to work on your own projects. Be persistent and don’t get downhearted if you have to do some very unexciting work along the way – you may end up writing about it years down the line.
And lastly, congratulations on your book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which is soon to be published! What can we expect from it?
Thanks. The book is entirely different to the blog. In fact all the material in it is new. It takes A Year of Reading the World and the insights it gave me as a jumping off point for a consideration of what the world, literature, culture and identity are. During my quest I came across many fascinating issues like translation, censorship and the role of the internet that I just didn’t have time to explore in detail on the blog, so it was great to have the opportunity to research them for the book. I also really enjoyed being able to talk to some of the key people who helped me during my project and find out some of the stories behind the stories I read that year. I’d like to think it’s part memoir, part literary criticism and part social commentary, with a good bit of storytelling thrown in along the way.
If you would like to find out more about Ann Morgan check out her blog. Also, if you would like to get your hands on the book it is available in bookstores or online at The Guardian bookshop. Finally, you too can ‘read the world’; why not start off with Ann Morgan’s Top Picks which are all available on Amazon!
Albania – Ismail Kadare, Broken April
Canada – Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert
Czech Republic – Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude
Mongolia – Galsan Tschinag, The Blue Sky
Myanmar – Nu Nu Yi, Smile as they Bow
Pakistan – Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon
Serbia – Srdjan Valjarevic, Lake Como
Sierra Leone – Ismael Beah, A Long Way Gone
Tajikistan – Andrei Volos, Hurramabad
Togo – Tete-Michel Kpomassie, An African in Greenland