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Selfie with cat, coffee and Karenina: Reading in the age of social media

Half of the fun in reading a book lies in going to a bookshop and browsing through the titles, no matter if you are buying them or not. When Amazon replaced bookshops, book-browsers took to social media sites to moon over gleaming first-edition covers, fresh from the oven.

Follow any one of the many book-related hashtags on Instagram and what shows up is an assembly line of photographs, all exquisitely composed. The featured books are usually collectors’ editions, the filters used in the photographs cover them in a warm glow and the frame often includes a brooding cat or a steaming coffee mug, sometimes both. But the story does not end with the photographs: social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and even Youtube are playing a significant role in connecting book-lovers across the world.

Classic connect

“I started using Instagram when I was in between jobs,” says Arpita Bhattacharya, one of the ‘bookstagrammers’ who has been using the platform to build an online community of book-lovers.

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India’s potential wealth of translation: Many languages, uncharted

India may have 22 officially recognized languages, but as many as 122 languages are spoken throughout the vast country.

And when the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) organized a debate on what this means for publishing today in India, it brought together four key experts in the factors impacting the industry there today:

  • Ravi DeeCee, CEO of DC Books, one of the leading book publishers in India in Malayalam; he also runs a chain of bookshops and is president of the Kerala Publishers and Booksellers Association
  • Subrahmanian Seshadri, an education and publishing consultant with a long career in the publishing industry as executive director of Dorling Kindersley, India, regional director of Oxford University Press, India; Seshadri also launched Lonely Planet for the Indian traveler
  • Tina Narang is the publisher of the children’s list of the one-year-old children’s imprint, HarperCollins India; prior to HarperCollins she was at Scholastic India
  • Esha Chatterjee, CEO of the family-run independent English-language publishing house, BEE Books; that house also provides content support for the International Kolkata Literature Festival and Chatterjee is one of the curators of the festival

FICCI’s senior director, Sumeet Gupta, was on-hand to moderate the session, “Translation: Trends and Opportunities,” held on the “middle morning” of London Book Fair earlier this month

As the program reflected, each of India’s languages has its own literature, and much of this literature remains available for translation into other Indian languages—and for foreign publishers to discover.

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When short is sound…

The just concluded Kitaab Literary Festival in Lucknow saw interesting discussions on intertextuality and micro literature

At a time when a strongly intimidating and equally tantalising wave of certitude and homogeneity has been sweeping the world and law-induced violence runs amok, what can provide us with an alternative comprehension of the reality? It is an intriguing sense of inconclusiveness that triggers and acts like a catalyst to deal with various vexed issues as it prevents people from trying to outdo each other.

This incredible conceptual creative solution is offered by a celebrated Singapore-based author Zafar Anjum who participated in an international literary festival held in Lucknow in which many prominent writers in English, Hindi and Urdu, belonging to India, Singapore and Malaysia participated. Zafar Anjum, in his widely- acclaimed story, “Kafka in Ayodhya” refers to the vexed Ayodhya issue and the quest for solution prompts him to explore the nuanced connotation of the incompleteness and the space around it. In line with his existentialist leanings and Kafkaesque tradition, the protagonist of Zafar’s story spells out the contours of solution:

“Leave the structure as it is. Incompleteness is also a quality, a facet of nobility. It has a capacity for silence. At least, that’s what I do with my work.”

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Abu Dhabi International Book Fair features 25 translations from French, English, and German

Running from April 25 through May 1, the 28th edition of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair will host 1,350 exhibitors from 63 countries in 35,000 square meters of space at the emirate’s National Exhibition Center.

Held under the patronage of the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nayan, the fair this year is expected to showcase more than half a million titles in some 35 languages and more than 830 seminars, workshops and other events, some of them as part of a professional program for international industry players.

The Kalima Project for Translation, which is handled by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, will present 25 new translations into Arabic from French, English, and German, while Poland will be featured as Country of Honor.

And at a news conference held this week at the Manarat Al Saadiyat, it was announced that visitors to the fair for the first time will be offered an electronic card they can use to charge purchases of books without needing to bring cash with them to the book fair.

And among those who were featured at the news conference, there were several in the leadership who spoke to the occasion.

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What happens when a book designer is totally stumped

I find designing book covers to be tremendously difficult, and every time I start a new cover, my first thought is usually: Why on earth did I commit to this? Rarely do I find joy in this pursuit. I love the feeling of a perfect, beautifully finished cover in my hands, but getting there generally entails a long, hard journey.

When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.

I tend to think I can have an intelligent opinion about most books I pick up. One of the things that drew me to book design is how much I like to pore over a book, pick it apart, pull out themes, discuss it, and dive deeply into it. It’s like a visual book report. But Up Up, Down Downstumped me. I read the entire manuscript, took tons of notes, made lots of sketches, and still closed the book wondering what the damn thing was about.

The text itself is a collection of short essays from one author. There was a lot of interesting subject matter. Normally I would relish rich visual material about amateur wrestling, UFO hunters, and skateboarding. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole. Essays would often start with what could almost be considered reporting, go straight into personal anecdote, and wind up circling the author’s anxieties about writing. I was stumped.

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Spotlit at last: Asian American writing’s new generation

After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of east and south-east Asian heritage are one of the hottest trends this year. Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, it marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.

Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, they are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.

The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian Americans, and their books cross genres and forms. Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. Early in the collection, the narrator of Telemachus pulls his father from the sea, dragging him “through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase”. Such images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.

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Sheikh Zayed Book Award announces 2018 winners

Now in its 12th year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award announced on April 2 its 2018 winners across seven categories. Worth US$1.9 million in annual prizes, this award—organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi—aims to bring global attention to Arabic-language writers and to celebrate academics writing about Arabic culture in other languages.

Syrian author Khalil Sweileh is the 2018 winner in the Literature category for his latest novel, Remorse Test, published by Nofal-Hachette Antoine. This timely novel takes the reader inside the Syrian civil war and its devastating consequences on the country’s people and places.

The jury statement reads, “The novel portrays an inward view of the Syrian Civil War tragedy; the author takes the reader on a trip around Damascus, trudging down the memory lanes and presenting the psychological conflicts amid the shattered reality of place and society—marking an important addition to the Syrian literature, with a unique use of narrative tools and vocabulary construction.”

Sweileh won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2009 for his novel, The Scribe of Love, which was translated into English by Alexa Firat and published by The American University in Cairo Press.

In the Children’s Literature category, this year’s winner is Emirati author Hessa Al Muhairi for her book, The Dinoraf, published by Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution. In this picture book, Al Huhairi teaches children about tolerance and acceptance.

Of its decision to award this year’s prize to The Dinoraf, the prize jury wrote, “The story is set in the Animal Kingdom, where a dinosaur is out on a mission to find his parallel among the rest of animals. Throughout his journey, he gets to know the differences between the animals, which finally lead him to find his connection with the giraffe, hence becoming the ‘Dinoraf,’ in a unique portrayal of the contemporary case of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance of cultural differences within the global society.”

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About feminist presses in South Asia

In November last year, the shortlist for the DSC literature prize was announced at LSE. Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, and one of the judges of the prize, spoke to Rebecca Bowers about the decline of the feminist press in the West, and the challenges facing women in publishing today.   

RB: As chairwoman of the judging panel for the DSC literature prize, what in your view makes an award-winning publication? What are the ‘secret ingredients’?

RM: I think as part of the jury and speaking on behalf of the jury I think what we were looking for and I think what we have found is exceptional literary quality, confidence and maturity in the writing, skill, good craft, and very compelling stories. I think if you can get that combination then you have very commendable writing, so that’s what I think we have found in the shortlist and as to the winner well that will be decided later.

RB: Although female authors are now rightfully coming to the forefront of the literary world, what challenges would you say that they still face today?

RM: I wish that I could say they are coming to the forefront but I’m not sure that they are. They are being published a little more. A little more. They are somewhat better represented as far as reviews go, as far as reception in the market goes, and I suppose as far as a certain degree of visibility is concerned but I think if one were to look at their representation in awards, they’re still woefully slim. So I’m not sure that they are in the forefront. They are definitely present but there is a way to go. The very fact that we speak of women writers when we don’t speak of men writers, it makes them other than the norm.

RB: That’s very true.  In fact, with that in mind, what do you believe can be done to make literature more inclusive not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of readership as well?  

RM: Well you see, I think there are several aspects to this. There is a literary establishment worldwide which is male dominated – I think the power hierarchy is pretty clear.

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Bright prospects for children’s publishing in India

One of my highlights of visiting India as a kid was to buy an obscenely large number of Tinkles and Amar Chitra Kathas. I was so accustomed to reading Western children’s literature that to me these books with stories (and stereotypes as I later discovered) rooted in India and free of stuffy British aristocracy felt like kindling a broken cultural connection.

Thankfully, kids today don’t have to make the same choices. Over the last two decades, children’s publishing in India has burgeoned, moving away from quasi-encyclopaedic tomes to works that break with the industry’s earlier conservatism and span a variety of genres. Part of this has been driven by Tara Books, Karadi Tales and Tulika Publishers, which focus solely on children’s books and helped build up an ecosystem of children’s publishing in the country.

More recently, even other publishers have seen the green (if not storytelling possibilities) of the children’s book segment. Two recent children’s book imprints are Talking Cub and HarperCollins Children’s Books, both of which were officially launched on Children’s Day last year. Their initial bets are entertainment-driven, not a bad choice in a market where educators and parents still largely expect children’s books to edify.

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The complexities of humanitarian awards: Gui Minhai’s daughter on the freedom to publish

Gui Minhai, a publisher who disappeared in China earlier this year, has said in a videotaped interview—which critics say is forced—that he does not want the Prix Voltaire. His daughter denies that this is his actual feeling.

It fell to the daughter of Gui Minhai, the Swedish publisher and bookseller detained in China in January, to ask a question Sunday (January 11) that has dogged the International Publishers Association (IPA) for more than two years:

“Why is the Chinese Publishers Association allowed to be part of the IPA? How is this defensible?” Angela Gui asked a hushed gathering of IPA delegates in a Skype transmission from her home in the UK on the first day of the IPA’s 32nd International Publishers Congress seated in New Delhi.

In a full day of issues and insights, the interview with Gui’s poised, articulate daughter was easily the most compelling part of the day, coming in a session which asked “Do Awards and Recognitions Help?” in cases in which defenders of the freedom to publish are granted the IPA’s Prix Voltaire and other humanitarian awards.

The session’s chair, Jessica Sänger, director for European and international affairs with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, had asked Angela Gui if—on the eve of formally confirming her father as the honoree of the 2018 Prix Voltaire—there might be more ways the IPA’s 60-nation membership could support Minhai in his plight.

“Is there anything we should be doing to support you,” Sänger asked, “in your campaign to hopefully improve his situation and finally be released?”

Angela Gui answered without rancor, choosing her words thoughtfully. “In terms of what can be done to help, that’s a very difficult question because there’s certainly no information [about her father’s current situation]. I’m unsure how to proceed in my own advocacy efforts. And of course, I think using the channels that are available to the IPA to exert pressure is very important.”

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