By Simon Winchester
Thirty-one years ago, while on a railway journey between London and Hong Kong, I stopped off in Mongolia and to a briefly illustrative encounter.
At the time the British had the sole Western embassy in Ulan Bator — at 30 Peace Street, if I remember — and I thought I might interview the ambassador and present him, as it was early December and he was said to cut a lonesome and homesick figure, with a Christmas plum pudding. I rang the mission’s doorbell and must have looked faintly taken aback when it was opened by a young man of evidently Caribbean origin.
“Don’t be startled,” he said cheerfully, in a broad Welsh accent. “I’m Trevor Jones, first secretary. From Cardiff. I think I’m the only black man in the diplomatic service, and look see, they pack me off to bloody Ulan Bator!”
Back in 1985 that set the tone. Mongolia. Utterly out there. Grass. Ponies. Wrestling. Forgotten. Of no importance. Genghis Khan maybe. A brute. Otherwise, a place consigned to geographical oblivion in the minds of most. Read more
Source: The New York Times
Until this week, I thought that at least we could be consoled by fiction. That we still had the borderless joys of stories to fend off the dark forces of xenophobia and insularity. Culture is crucial in times of political uncertainty or crisis, and encountering other people’s stories in fiction seems like the surest way to keep our inner, imaginative boundaries open.
Except that we’re not encountering other people’s stories because they’re not being published. At least, not in Britain. The novelist Robyn Travis this week gave an inspirational talk on his struggle to find a publisher for his debut novel, Mama Can’t Raise No Man, about prison life and masculinity, and then to fill the 1,300-seater Hackney Empire in London for its launch this autumn. Go Robyn. Less inspiring was the fact that Travis, according to his publisher Crystal Mahey-Morgan, was most likely the only male black debut novelist to have been published in Britain this year.
Mahey-Morgan says there must be a “flaw in the industry” but no one in publishing should claim to be particularly shocked. A survey earlier this month by the Bookseller magazine found a “shockingly low” number of black, Asian or minority ethnic authors among the UK’s top 500 titles. Before that, a 2015 report, Writing the Future, found a glaring lack of inclusion across every level of a stubbornly white, middle-class publishing world. Read more
Every book lover who likes to take to the couch with a cup of coffee and that one favourite book will understand the delight of receiving books delivered to their doorstep throughout their life, for free.
Now a bookstore in London has an offer that no bibliophile can refuse, as it is bringing to reality something that has been every book lover’s greatest fantasy ever. The store named Heywood Hill will be supplying free books to a select few anywhere in the world, till they die. Read more
Two writers, scientist and broadcaster Aarathi Prasad and K. Satchidanandan, a Malayalam and English poet, have pulled out of the the Jaipur Literature Festival at Southbank, London, in view of its sponsorship by Vedanta Resources – dubbed ‘the world’s most hated company’.
According to the website FoilVedanta, this was the result of an open letter signed by over 100 writers, academics, activists and people directly affected by Vedanta’s operations, including poets Nabina Das, Hemant Devate, Rafiq Kathwari and Surya Vahni Priya Capildeo and writers Tariq Mehmood, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Courttia Newland and Gladson Dungdung.
Responding to the ongoing controversy over sponsors, Sanjoy Roy, the managing director of Teamwork Arts, which produces the festival, issued this statement to the media on behalf of the festival organisers Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple: ‘While we appreciate the concerns of those who have posted the open letter, we remain an open platform that allows for free thought and expression. Our strength continues to be our programming, the speakers and the quality of free and frank discussions that JLF brings to audiences. Our sponsors do not influence these choices nor have a say in our content.’
First the Ashes, now the arts: it has not been a good couple of weeks for Australians in Britain. The Australian and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts in London, just two years young, has run into troubled waters: The Australian
The board has announced that despite this year’s festival being popular with the talent and the ticket buyers, there were not enough of the latter. Chairman Ken Smith said the week-long event at King’s College, London “did not reach our targets with corporate sponsorship, audience numbers or ticket sales’’ and as a result was “not sustainable in its current form’’. He said a new deal had been struck with creditors. “The failure to achieve sustainable audience levels throughout the 2015 festival and to secure sufficient corporate sponsorship left us with a financial position which is of great concern to the festival’s trustees and board.’’ You could hardly accuse him of mincing his words, so it should come as no surprise that, as in the cricket, the captain is standing down. Smith said festival director Jon Slack, who hails from Adelaide, had resigned to “move on to new projects’’.
by Felicia Low-Jimenez, Interviews Editor, Kitaab
The first time I read a story written by Zen Cho was in LONTAR #1: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. The piece was titled Love in the Time of Utopia and was set in a possible future-Kuala Lumpur. I was immediately intrigued and wanted more. The second time I came across Cho’s name was when I read about a new collection of short stories, Spirits Abroad, which was going to be published by Fixi Novo, an award-winning Malaysian publisher well-known for putting out edgy, controversial titles by local authors. I was intensely curious to find out more because science fiction and fantasy writers hailing from Southeast Asia are relatively rare compared to those from the west—at least those writing and publishing in English. The third time I heard Cho’s name was when I learned that she had been picked up by major publishing houses (Ace Books in the U.S. and Pan Macmillan in the UK) for a new fantasy trilogy set in Victorian London. The more of her stories I read, the more I realized that Cho is an immensely imaginative writer who is able to infuse a vulnerable humanity into the mythological creatures that she writes about, and at the same time, as many great speculative fiction writers do, comment on the society in which she lives in—regardless of where she might be.
You primarily write speculative fiction. Is there a reason why you gravitate towards these particular genres?
I enjoy science fiction and fantasy on a few different levels–I like the element of strangeness; I get a kick out of dragons and spaceships; and I like playing with the tropes. They’re hooks you can hang a story on, and then you wander off and explore a bunch of other things at the same time. I don’t really like stories that are only about one thing, which is what contemporary non-genre fiction often feel like to me. Read more
Amit Chaudhuri matches the glorious nothingness of Afternoon Raag at last with his beautiful new novel about a bookish young Bengali Everyman and his uncle in London: Open
This is the story of Ananda, a 22-year old Indian man and an aspiring poet in exile, full of the usual contradictions. He is a student of English literature in London but at odds with the city. He reads poetry even in the bathroom, but despises novels. He has not bothered to read The Odyssey and though he has waded through Ulysses, he did not enjoy it, except briefly when a customs man at JFK discovered it in his luggage. Yet, with characteristic playfulness, Amit Chaudhuri layers over the persona of his protagonist that most inter-textual of archetypes, Odysseus. Read more
The Bangladeshi-British writer on news versus novels, swapping rural poverty for Wall Street, and “the power of story on the human mind”: Guernica
The American physicist Richard P. Feynman once spoke of the “difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” It’s a distinction that seems important in Zia Haider Rahman’s first novel, In The Light Of What We Know, which spans several decades and flies us between London, New York, Islamabad, and Kabul. Many of the characters have had the chance to get acquainted with Yale University’s motto, “Lux et Veritas.” But few have had the bone-deep experience of poverty and struggle that can lead to a different kind of knowing—an awareness that there are things you can’t be taught in the Ivy League; that there are different lights and different truths depending on matters of simple caprice: “the circumstances of our parents, the home and inheritance, the unearned talents…” Some kinds of knowledge go no deeper than language—are unaccompanied by experience or empathy—and the novel’s most memorable zingers are reserved for “that breed of international development experts unsparing in its love for all humanity but having no interest in people.” Read more
The literary traditions of London are rich. So is the tradition of needing a place to sit after hours of enduring the city’s crowded streets and busy transit system. The National Literacy Trust partnered with public art organization Wild in Art over the summer to bring those two fine traditions together–with the help of some of the U.K.’s more notable (and some not-yet-so) artists.
The result is the “BookBench,” a series of sculptures placed in 50 different locations around the city, that resemble paperback books with the front section folded over–a full-sized, functional bench that reminds passersby and potential sitters of the worlds to be found within the pages of a book. Read more