The World's A Page...
In which I consider the limitations of my own reading life...
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Back in March of 2018, the National Book Foundation established a fifth award category, for Translated Literature, which would honor both fiction and non-fiction works that had been translated into English and published in the U.S. The then-Executive Director, Lisa Lucas, explained that this was an attempt to encourage readers to read more widely and to add more visibility to works that could potentially broaden our perspectives. The coverage from places like Bustle and NPR pointed out how timely this seemed, given our political climate. Even Isabel Allende, one of the lifetime achievement award recipients of 2018, addressed the rampant xenophobia and the international refugee crisis in her speech, which it seems only further emphasized the need for these stories to be given a spotlight. From an economic standpoint, the U.S. publishing industry is the world’s largest, so gaining an American readership could be financially beneficial. Translated literature—world literature as a whole, really—also just has a lot to offer in how it gives us the opportunity to discover different modes of storytelling, structure, subject matter, that’s explored outside of our own lens. As I’ve been working through my own reading project, of reading through the National Book Award longlists for Fiction, I’ve become more aware of how lacking my reading is outside of U.S. literature, realizing that the gaps in my reading have been limiting the ways I can engage with these works and also the landscape of literature as a whole.
Though the National Book Foundation briefly included a translated works category in the seventies and early eighties, one could argue that the Booker Prize Foundation are the ones who established the current trend of bringing attention to literature from all over the world with their International Booker Prize, which began as the Man Booker International Prize back in 2005. When we consider the National Book Awards outside of the Translated Literature category, the award is solely focused on American writers. This is considered fairly common as many of the major book awards are regional. Canada has The Giller Prize, the UK and Ireland have the Booker Prize (which only began considering books published outside of the Commonwealth and Ireland in the last few years), and the U.S. is most known for the NBA and the Pulitzer Prize. The explanation for this seems simple enough, as it ensures that less writers get overlooked, that there is more opportunity—but also, even if we just consider works by U.S. writers, many of the books we see longlisted each year are directly tied to the conversations we’re having politically, sociologically, and I’m sure it’s the same in other places. It could be easy to argue that what’s considered an excellent commentary on something happening in America right now could possibly be less relevant if considered through another lens. There are a lot of factors to consider, but this also gets into something that I don’t think I quite understood before taking on my reading project.
I’ve made this clarification before, but the difference between the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (both U.S. based prizes) is that the Pulitzer Prize is looking for a book ‘preferably dealing with American life’, while the National Book Award is looking for ‘the best written book by an American writer’. This distinction remains important to me because there are a number of books that have been longlisted for the National Book Award throughout the years that wouldn’t be considered American novels, and I think that when we assume that whatever book wins the National Book Award has to reach a certain level of “American-ness”, it discredits the books that aren’t doing that. Still, a reality that I hadn’t fully considered until now is that any book that’s been written by a U.S. based writer is likely to be written through a somewhat American lens. This isn’t a criticism, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with American writers writing about American ideas, places, people, nouns. Many of my favorite novels do this—we see books that engage with how America handles gun laws, how we handle social issues, racism and transphobia, the ways we explore faith as a country that established itself on the right to religious freedom and then let these ideas infest our approach to politics. These are necessary, interesting ideas to explore. But I think that because I had always thought of the award as more than just American, unlike how I viewed the Pulitzer, I had unrealistic expectations of its ability to fill in the gaps, to explore ideas in every way possible. I was putting all of the responsibility on this reward, and none on myself to expand on my reading. Reading works from around the world, both translated and not, offers the possibility of seeing the works I was already reading in a different context, to think more broadly.
People on social media will oftentimes criticize readers for only reading books by white authors—there are many reasons for this criticism, and I agree that everyone should diversify their reading. But in a way, by constantly telling myself I had little interest in translated & world literature, by thinking it wasn’t necessary for me to expose myself to those works, I was kind of falling into a similar line of thinking.
A lot of U.S. literature that is set abroad is specifically written for a U.S. audience—Most of these books end up highlighting the differences in another culture from our own, the ways that people eat, the description of architecture, daily practices, etc. But if we’re reading works from other parts of the world, it’s not likely that we’re going to be handheld because these works weren’t written for us; they’re being written for people who are there. It makes a difference.
By incorporating more world literature into my reading, I hope to be able to better consider the books I have been reading for my NBA project, to compare and contrast the discussions around historical events, to consider how writers from other places approach certain subject matter. I also hope to develop a more critical eye to some books by U.S. writers that are set abroad. There have been times when certain books have been criticized for getting things wrong, and I haven’t known better, or had anything immediate to compare it to. And I want to be able to really consider what good writing means for places outside of the U.S. People often praise the Booker prize for the books listed being more experimental and exciting, and I realized that I’ve been missing something by avoiding it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own ignorance in avoiding translated & world lit, and how stupid that was since it doesn’t align with what I’m always preaching and my belief that we should always read as widely as we can. Literature from anywhere in the world is likely to consider the human condition, and there’s a strong commonality in the ways we engage with that. And even if it isn’t with the human condition necessarily, I think many writers are writing about the Anthropocene right now, the environment is on everyone’s mind, and these are important things to consider from multiple perspectives. And if my goal has always been to be well read, to read the best written books around, I can’t keep my focus as narrow as the books in my own backyard.
Today’s letter was originally triple the length that it is now, because there were so many ideas that I wanted to explore and consider—how my reading of the fifties longlists fit into this new consideration, the ways U.S. writers approach writing abroad, what goes into the art of translation—but as I talked with my friend Bernie (the person who encouraged me to read more translated lit in the first place), he helped me realize that I was trying to fit in too much and that there was still work to do before trying to commit these ideas to today’s letter. He probably won’t see this, but this is a quick shoutout to him for reading half of these letters that go out. He always asks the really challenging questions and points out the weak spots in each piece, and I am forever grateful. (If you don’t follow him on instagram yet, I highly recommend—@bernie.lombardi)
Oh ALSO! If you’re looking to read more world/translated literature yourself, I know that the Boxwalla subscription service is a great choice—I was gifted several of their boxes and they had great selections. This isn’t a partnership or affiliation, you can do what you want, but they’ve put quite a few books on my radar, and I know that they work really hard and are really kind when I interact with them, so wanted to just throw that out there.
Anyway, I wanted to say a big thank you to everyone who’s been sticking with me as I work through this project and rethink my own reading life. I feel like I’ve grown more as a reader over the last six months than I probably have in the last six years, and it’s exciting to be able to share the journey. Anyway, I’m done rambling for now.
Until next time,