Posts featuring Mo Yan

Unfinished Business

It’s basically a test of endurance—how long can I go without completing it?

Happy New Year! To ring in 2018, we’re showcasing staff members’ New Year’s resolutions. Caitlin O’Neil, Chris Power, Claire Jacobson, and Theophilus Kwek have already submitted theirs to our special New Year edition newsletter (subscribe here if you’re not already on our mailing list). Today, South Africa Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reckons with the unfinished books on her shelf, resolving to read them before the year is out.

There they stand, with bookmarks at various points of incompletion, like paper tongues sticking out in gentle but persistent mockery: the books on the shelf that I have bought but never read or, to be precise, never finished reading.

It is at least a universal trait, this type of unfinished business, judging by the many part-read books in secondhand stores, marked with a receipt from a now-closed chain of stores, or a faded family photograph, a bubblegum wrapper, or a dog-eared page. Once, midway through a secondhand Elmore Leonard, I even found an airplane ticket—it was from 1982 and marked “non-smoking”.

Why don’t we finish books in which we’ve invested money and time? Why stop halfway like that non-smoking Leonard dabbler? Or on page 120 of 388, like I did with Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan‘s Frog? Well, in this case, I packed Frog, a present from Christmas 2014, into a box and only recently rediscovered it, along with several other half-read novels. Is this really an excuse, though? What about the many very visible reads-in-progress on my shelf? I decided to get them out, stack them up, and take their measure. READ MORE…

The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.


Meet the Publisher: Seagull Books and the Value of Independence

The idea of target readers out there is a myth: no one can know for certain what people will read.

In a globalized publishing landscape Seagull Books, based primarily in Kolkata, India, stands out as having uniquely made a mark as a world publisher. In its thirty-five years of existence, Seagull has primarily concentrated on publishing literature in translation with a particular emphasis, from its early years, on Indian theatre and cinema from different regional and linguistic backgrounds. Seagull has introduced Indian readers to the joys of literature from different world languages — writers such as the Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imri Kertez, Ellfride Jellinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Operating with a small team to produce and design books distinguished by superior literary content and exquisite aesthetic appeal, each Seagull book is a collectible that is also reasonably priced for the Indian buyer. While Asymptote has previously covered Seagull books, Sneha Khaund caught up with Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder, to know more about how the publishing house continues to support translation and shape world literature. 

 Sneha Khaund (SK): Can you tell me a bit about how Seagull was conceived?

Naveen Kishore (NK): Overnight. Very specifically, the event that marks our “birth,” as it were, was a festival of grassroots theatre I produced in 1982. Around that time there were a lot of theatre groups working with original themes and using their bare bodies with no props or costumes. Their plays dealt with the human condition around them and the dailyness of survival. Working in a 40km radius around Calcutta, these groups were more interested in going into villages and the interiors of the state rather than trying to perform for an urban city audience. At this event I noticed someone in the front row of benches madly sketching the body movements of the performers. So I turned to a theatre scholar, Samik Banerjee, who was also at the time an editor at Oxford University Press, and I said what a pity there is no way to capture this moment. We were not familiar with words like documentation and there was no digital photography and so on at the time. It was Samik da who suggested that a specialist niche publisher focusing on the arts could be a good way of documenting these evolving movements not just in theatre but also in cinema and fine art. We already had a name! Seagull! So Seagull Books was waiting to happen. We decided to explore the possibility of a theatre publishing programme that would do theatre scripts from different Indian languages in translation and document the vibrant New Indian Cinema movement: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jabbar Patel, Goutam Ghosh, to name a few. We would not focus on anything but the performing and the visual arts. So after thirty-five years, in fact after the first twenty-six years—that’s how long it takes sometimes—all the s, a lot of the Tendulkars, a lot of the Mahaswetas, a lot of these plays have now become textbooks. Classics of Indian drama like Ghasiram Kotwal, Charandas Chor. The irony is that even after thirty five years because it’s not a great commercial thing there’s still no other dedicated theatre publisher. It just doesn’t pay enough. So that was the first lesson for a non-publishing person stepping overnight into publishing — that you have to build a back-list because that’s how publishers survive. You can’t produce one book, sell it, recover, then re-invest because the way a publishing chain works is that you are expected to keep producing the books. Regardless. No single book is a profit centre. Small numbers selling across a list of say 500 books is how the numbers begin to make sense. Sometimes there are spikes and you sell certain titles very well. These then support the ones that don’t sell that well! Who said it is easy?!