American Collections blog

56 posts categorized "Literature"

11 September 2019

Five reasons why we can’t wait to read The Testaments

Of course there are far more than five reasons why The Testaments has jumped to the top of our reading list and why its publication was among one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2019, if not the decade. But along with the other eight million people around the globe who own a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are more than a little excited for the follow up to arrive at the Library.

Last night I went to the National Theatre’s live screening of Margaret Atwood in conversation with journalist Samira Ahmed, an event that was streamed to 1,400 cinemas of Handmaid fans all over the world.

Screen from In Conversation with Margaret Atwood, Tuesday 10 Sept 2019, showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green
Photograph from 'In Conversation with Margaret Atwood' showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

The atmosphere of the crowd was one of eagerness and total awe as Atwood spoke of her journey to writing The Testaments, and as she recalled the world setting which brought about the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale almost four decades ago. Atwood’s ability to turn the answer to every question into a carefully considered and utterly compelling story never ceases to amaze me. Her historical, literary and worldly observations from the past and present entwine with her fiction to create stories that readers embark on with a kind of dreaded excitement; part of you can’t wait to open the book, while the other knows it’s almost too frighteningly close to reality to want to step into.

So as we patiently wait for The Testaments to arrive for the Library's collection, here’s a very brief reflection of five of my takeaways from last night’s launch event – and the things I’m most looking forward to encountering in the reading of the novel.

Three new voices

While The Handmaid’s Tale was told solely from the perspective of Offred, The Testaments, as the name implies, includes the testimonies of three different voices. One we are familiar with from The Handmaid’s, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia. Then we are introduced to two new young women – one rescued from Gilead while still a baby (Daisy), and Agnes, who grew up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. We learn of what drove Lydia to her position of power and of her life before Gilead, and of the parallel lives the Daisy and Agnes have led. The evening’s event featured readings from the book by Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation), Sally Hawkins and Lily James. Atwood hinted that their separate tales may be more connected then first meets the eye…

Historical nods

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Many of the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, such as men abusing positions of power, rules and laws being created and imposed by those who will never be impacted or effected by their force, the restriction of free speech, episodes of violence and mass execution, ‘are not new motifs’ Atwood said on more than one occasion. When asked about how Atwood conjures up her dystopian worlds, she very matter-of-factly stated that ‘these are not made up’, instances of all have taken place in the real world over the course of time, and continue to do so. Atwood mentioned historical figures and events that had influenced her writing: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, Stalin, Pinochet, the division of Germany, extreme Puritan traditions in America, the fear of 70s cults, and a disturbing story from the Old Testament (the concubine of a Levite), to name but a few. Literary influences from Vasily Grossman and George Orwell also resonate through her pages.

A slide from the event showing book covers of The Handmaid's Tale from around the world
The iconic Handmaid's Tale book covers from around the world shown at the event (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

Equality Now

Through her writing and public eminence Atwood continues to strive for equality for women and the launch of The Testaments is run alongside a campaign with Equality Now, an organisation supporting ‘a just world for women and girls’. When asked about how Atwood felt about the use of the Handmaid’s outfit by political activists in recent years, particularly around the abortion debate in the US, Atwood highlighted its silent power – women wearing the attire can’t be penalised for any reason – they have their heads down, they are quiet, they are covered to the ankle – yet their visual protest speaks volumes. An element of pride was detected in Atwood’s voice when she spoke of how her timeless creation has become such a cult image and sign of resistance.

Atwood’s dark optimism

 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic’ Atwood told us with a wry smile. Of course the audience laughed. The fact that it ends with a symposium shows that humanity has survived the atrocities of the Gilead regime. When we survive history we do what we always do with it, ‘turn it into something studied in schools, a symposium, or a theme park’ Atwood joked (but we all know it’s true). She insinuated that the same element of hidden optimism is buried within The Testaments too; we know that some children are rescued, Daisy is the living proof. But what lasting damage is done? And what becomes of Aunt Lydia and Agnes?

Climate change

In a world that seems on the brink of collapse ‘what can we do to save humanity?’ Atwood was asked by one of the audience members. Her response: the number one thing we need to address right now is the issue of climate change.

In a passage from the voice of Aunt Lydia, a world ravaged by extreme weather and its disastrous effects is described; a frightening echo of the pictures we see on the news today with more and more frequency. ‘When the environment is disturbed, you get more social unrest’ Atwood proclaimed. She spoke of her admiration for activist Greta Thunberg and of her optimism around young people and the Extinction Rebellion campaign. 50 years ago when scientists foresaw the climate crisis no one listened, Atwood remembered, but now we have people paying attention, and acting, and who will soon be able to vote on these matters. It seems even the green figure on the front cover of the book could be a nod to Atwood’s concern on this subject – the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up frequenting the forests of Quebec and Ottawa, even living in them in a tent as a young child while her father built their log cabin home.

Image of Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942
Photograph from the slides at the launch event showing a young Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942 (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you’ were the last words Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia read at the event and the youthful looking silhouette of the girl on the book’s cover, arms outstretched, is the figure of hope on which the evening’s focus ended. Atwood maintained that climate change needs to be the primary focus for politicians today and we are not too late to address this.

[RSW] (overjoyed that her copy of The Testaments arrived by the time she finished writing this blog) 

Suggested reading

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Heinemann New Windmills, 1993), General Reference Collection Nov.1993/888

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, 1991), General Reference Collection Nov.1992/377

Strange Things: the Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (Clarendon Press, 1995), General Reference Collection YC.1997.a.983

Margaret Atwood edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, c2000), Document Supply m00/27831

Mary Queen of Scots (Pitkin Pictorials, 1973), General Reference Collection YK.1993.b.3611

The rise & fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's most faithful servant by John Schofield (The History Press, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.321626

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Classic, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.190531

Nineteen eighty-four: a novel by George Orwell (S. J. Reginald Saunders and Company Limited, 1949), RF.2018.a.197

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (William Blackwood & Sons, 1876), General Reference Collection 20098.bb.21.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Gateway, 2015), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.12524

09 August 2019

Book Lovers Day

It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!

To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.

We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.

Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine

British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’

Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Pink front cover of Populuxe with shiny turquoise lettering
Pretty in pink. Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
   Colourful spread of cars with tailfins from Populuxe
King of the tailfin. A colourful spread from Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’

Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Front cover of A Confederacy of Dunces including illustration of detective with sword in one hand and a hotdog in the other
Hotdog with a side of sword. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón

British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)

‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape).  Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’

Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections

Pink front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón with illustration of faces and trees
Words floating in the air... Front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón (Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996) YA.2000.a.31155

Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse

British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)

WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.

‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’

Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections

Front cover of Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse
Front cover of Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013
An example of a portrait from Restricted Images
A portrait from Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013

Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn

British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)

‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’

Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies

An illustration of flora from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
Flora: an illustration from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn (London: For G. Widdowes, 1672) 435.a.5

Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)

‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’

Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections

Title page of The Scarlet Letter, A Romance
'A Romance': title page from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850) 12701.i.12
A note from an owner of this edition – it reads ‘You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.’
'You will be much pleased with Hawthorne': a note from the previous owner

 

01 August 2019

Herman Melville at 200

Today – 1 August 2019 – marks 200 years since the birth of Herman Melville.

To celebrate we are sharing a few images from Lakeside Press’s beautiful 1930 edition of Moby Dick (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1) illustrated by artist, printmaker, writer and voyager, Rockwell Kent. 

Moby dick title III  Moby dick real tale 2 Moby dick tail 3

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

While now regarded as a masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels of all time, such acclaim could never have been predicted for Moby Dick when it was first published in 1851. Unlike Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) in which Melville exploited his own sailing and whaling adventures to critical acclaim and commercial success, his sixth novel - published as The Whale in London and as Moby Dick; or, The Whale in New York shortly thereafter - garnered mixed reviews and poor sales. Indeed, Melville published his final work of prose just six years later and by his death in 1891 his reputation was in the doldrums.

Thankfully, his centenary in 1919 prompted a reappraisal of his work, so much so that in 1926 R. R. Donnelley and Lakeside Press chose Moby Dick as part of its 'Four American Books' campaign - the other three being Poe's Tales, Thoreau's Walden, and Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s 1840 memoir Two Years Before the Mast, which whilst little known today was one of America's first literary classics and a work Melville himself declared to be 'unmatchable'. 

For Donnelley and Lakeside Press, 'Four American Books' represented an opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of its modern machinery to produce fine press editions that would capture the imagination of the mass market. William A. Kittridge, the company's Head of Design and Typography who commissioned Rockwell Kent, believed their three volume version of Moby Dick to be 'the greatest illustrated book ever done in America' and nearly a century later it is still regarded as one of the finest books printed in the United States. Only one thousand copies of the three volume edition were published. However, a few months later Random House issued a one volume trade version that included all of Kent's illustrations, thereby bringing this incredible work to a wider and hugely appreciative readership. 

Moby dick smash 2 Moby dick ahab 2

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

Finally, and somewhat as an aside, readers might like to know that while Lakeside Press is included in Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): Holdings of the British Library (London: British Museum Publications, 1976; shelfmark 2708.aa.36), the Eccles Centre is currently compiling a list of American fine presses established since 1965 that have works held by the British Library. Updates to follow in due course. 

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

17 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 2/2

Language has inevitably played a significant role in Canada’s immigration patterns. Reflecting the country’s colonial history and occupation by both the French and the English, the two most commonly-spoken languages in Canada remain English (the mother tongue of 56% of Canadians) and French (that of 21% of Canadians). Of course, other factors influence human relocation, but it is easy to see the attraction of such a linguistic context for immigrants from former colonies. The Haitian-Canadian community is an especially good illustration. According to the 2011 Census, 97% of Haitian immigrants live in Quebec – the second most populous region of Canada, but more crucially, home to the largest French-speaking community in the country, and with French as the official language. The attraction is clear for people from Haiti, a former French colony that has retained French as the language of education and bureaucracy. And the Haitian community in Quebec has produced a significant amount of prominent migrant writers, such as Emile Ollivier, Marie-Célie Agnant, Gérard Etienne, Joël des Rosiers, Gary Klang and Anthony Phelps, many of whom are published by Mémoire d’encrier.

Pic 1
Dany Laferrière. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

 

But the best-known of them worldwide is Dany Laferrière, a political refugee of the Duvalier regime who has lived in North America since the 1970s. Born to a politician and an archivist, Laferrière worked as a journalist before fleeing Haiti soon after a colleague and friend of his was found murdered on a beach – most probably by the government. His autobiographical novel, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous (2000) [The Cry of Mad Birds] narrates this event, its impact on him and the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship in more detail. After moving to Montreal as a 23-year-old, he spent several years scraping a living from insecure jobs, living in cheap flats and reading novels. His first novel, provocatively entitled Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) [How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired] was a resounding international success. The story followed the lives of two Haitians sharing a flat in Montreal, and satirically engaged with racist stereotypes. A film adaptation followed four years after but was censured in the U.S, revealing the country’s continuing discomfort with racial issues. Over thirty years on, and with over thirty books to his name, Laferrière will be honoring the Institut Français of London with a visit on 24/09/2018 as part of the British Library’s French Caribbean Study Day.

Pic 2
Kim Thúy at the Salon international du livre de Québec 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another important migrant writer from Quebec is Kim Thuy. Born in Vietnam, her family escaped the communist regime in her homeland when she was ten years old and she spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being relocated to Quebec where she had to learn French, the language in which she now writes. First working as a translator and later as a lawyer, Thuy never severed her links with her homeland. As a lawyer for example, she went on an advisory assignment to Vietnam with a group of Canadian experts. Back in Montreal, she also opened a Vietnamese restaurant called Ru de Nam. She then turned to writing and explored themes such as Vietnamese immigrant women, the culture shocks of immigration, the mother-daughter relationship and Vietnamese food. Her latest publication, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes (2017) [Vietnamese Women’s Secret] is actually a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes handed down from mothers to daughters. Her first novel, Ru (2009) was a bestseller in Quebec and France, won prestigious awards worldwide and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It tells the story of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Quebec and their difficult adaptation to Canada. Loosely based on her experiences, it tackles the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis involving dangerous escapes from Vietnam on over-crowded boats to refugee camps. Significantly, more than 50% of the Southeast Asian boat people came to Canada as a result of a government program.

Pic 3
A small selection of our holdings by French-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Mona Latif-Ghattas (from Egypt), Abla Farhoud (from Lebanon), Hedi Bouraoui (from Tunisia), Ying Chen (from Shanghai), Naim Kattan (from Iraq), Régine Robin (from France), Sergio Kokis (from Bresil), Kim Thuy (from Vietnam), Blaise Ndala (from Congo), Marco Micone (from Italy), Dany Laferriere (from Haiti) and Aki Shimazaki (from Japan).

 

As you can see, Laferrière and Thuy are just two of the many French-language Canadian writers and the British Library holds books many more Canadian multicultural writers than I can even allude to in this post. Now let’s have a quick look at what we hold in terms of English-language migrant writing:

Pic 4
A small selection of our holdings by English-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Kim Fu (of Chinese descent), Esi Edugyan (of Ghanaian descent), Austin Clarke (from Barbadia), M.G Vassanji (from Kenya, of Asian descent), Shani Mootoo (from Trinidad), Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka), Madeleine Thien (of Chinese descent), Shauna Singh Baldwin (of Indian descent), Dionne Brand (from Trinidad and Tobago), Olive Senior (from Jamaica) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad).

 

Although technically speaking still a newcomer to the international literary scene, Lebanese-born writer and photographer Rawi Hage has been particularly in vogue since the publication of his first novel in 2006.  Hage witnessed the civil war in his homeland and moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he had to work as a security guard and taxi driver to pay his way through university. Hage wasn’t the only person to relocate because of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In fact, as the war dragged on, Canada and Australia were the only Western countries to set up special programs to welcome Lebanese refugees. The 2011 census shows that Lebanese-Canadians still form the largest Arabic-speaking group in Canada. Language certainly had a role in this too, as 45% of Lebanese nationals can speak French. While Hage writes in English – his third language – up to quite recently he lived in Francophone Montreal, like about half of the Lebanese-Canadian population. His award-winning debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), tackles the hard choices that young Lebanese people faced during the civil war. His second novel, Cockroach (2008), charts the trials of an impoverished Middle Eastern immigrant in Montreal through his sessions with his therapist after a failed suicide attempt, leading the reader to question the success of Canada’s multiculturalism ambitions.

Pic 5
Rawi Hage at Quebec Writers Federation, 2012. Vimeo.

 

Hage’s colleague writer and common-law partner Madeleine Thien has rightly argued that the Canadian literary prize-awarding establishment generally prioritizes white writers over nonwhite ones). And when “multicultural”/minority writers are included, they generally tend to be men. Evoking the prestigious Giller Prize, she remarks that only 12 nonwhite writers were shortlisted over a ten-year period, and that “this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje”. Thien’s point is all the more significant considering the extent of nonwhite and multicultural women’s writing in Canada’s literary history. The Caribbean feminist and/or queer women writers Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Shani Mootoo, Makeda Silvera and Nalo Hopkinson are only a few examples.

Pic 5.jpg
Esi Edugyan. A portrait by Johann Wall, reproduced with his kind permission.

 

But in 2011, Esi Edugyan made history by being the first black woman to win the Giller Prize. Her novel, Half-Blood Blues, followed the lives of Afro-German and African-American jazz musicians fleeing the Gestapo in 1930s Berlin and Nazi-occupied Paris. Edugyan’s parents left Ghana in the 1970s, during a period of drastic change and political unrest following independence. Like many of their compatriots, they moved to Canada, where Ghanaians became the second-largest African immigrant group. Her family’s first-hand experiences of racism and difficulties adapting to life in Canada has inspired much of her writing. Her first novel for example, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), shows the disillusionment of a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alberta in the late 20th century, a character loosely based on her father. In the past few weeks, Edugyan has made the news again, by being long-listed (for the second time!) alongside Ondaatje for the Man Booker Prize. Her competing novel, Washington Black (2018), is an unconventional slave narrative which charts the life of a twelve-year-old slave working in a Barbados sugar plantation before fleeing an unjust execution in the 1830s, travelling to America, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Good luck to her!

Laura Gallon.


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


01 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 1/2

On July 9th, Michael Ondaatje was awarded the prestigious Golden Man Booker Prize for his international bestseller, The English Patient, voted the readers’ favourite winner in 50 years. Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese descent, and moved to England as a twelve-year-old before settling in Canada eight years later. His novel, written in 1992, moves between Egypt, Italy, India, Canada and England and marked a turning point for Canadian literature. Not only was it the first Canadian book ever to win the Booker Prize, but by instantly becoming an international bestseller it arguably paved the way for fellow migrant/multicultural Canadian writers on the international scene. Its seemingly never-ending success underlines our contemporary – and apparently unwavering – fascination with migrant writing since the 1980s.  Given the current context of global migration, the related refugee crises and the fact that 3.3% of the world’s population currently lives outside the country of their birth, Ondaatje’s achievement is a useful opportunity to explore the importance of immigrant writing in Canadian literature.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010. Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, much attention has been given to migrant literature from the United States. You may have come across some critically-acclaimed and award-winning migrant bestsellers such as Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers (2016), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003). Experiences of migration have proven to be creatively inspiring for writers and lucrative for publishers, and fiction writers from both migrant backgrounds and others were encouraged to give the genre a try.

There is some debate over the definition of migrant literature, and many writers are uncomfortable with the label, but for the sake of clarity I will define it as the literature produced by first- or second-generation migrant writers. Odds are, whether in conversation, in the media or online, “migrant literature” almost always refers to books produced in the English language and on U.S territory, with only a few exceptions. The United States are, after all, the birthplace of the “American Dream”, “the nation of immigrants,” the “melting pot” – take your pick.

Canadian Map
Map of French Canada by Pierre Du Val, 1653. Maps 70615.(8.)

But Canada is also a settler colony; in fact it is the country which takes in the largest number of immigrants yearly: since 2001 it has welcomed an average 220,000 to 260,000 immigrants per year, and as a result more than one person in five is foreign-born. Inevitably, each newcomer brings with them a suitcase full of stories, and migrant literature is bound to flourish in such a context. Canada’s immigration patterns have changed considerably in the past hundred years, and so has its literature. The post-war period was especially important as the borders were opened to increase the workforce and expand Canada’s growing economy.

In 1966, 87% of the newcomers were European, and many others were Americans escaping the Vietnam War. But by 1970, following a change in immigration law intended to end discriminatory policies against non-Western immigrants, 50% of new immigrants came from Third World countries. They were either economic migrants (like Ondaatje for example) or people fleeing repressive dictatorships and wars.

As the years went by, the latter group included Asian Ugandans (a minority expelled after Uganda gained independence from colonial rule); Haitians fleeing the repressive Duvalier regime;  Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s military dictatorship; people from Hong Kong worried about their freedom in the run-up to the transfer to Chinese rule; Salvadorians escaping their civil war; and South-East Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos seeking refuge from the Vietnam war. This changed the Canadian demographic make-up significantly and led to a new policy-making paradigm: multiculturalism.

Contrary to the American "melting pot", where newcomers are expected to merge into the American Way of Life through assimilation policies, Canadian multiculturalism is often compared to a mosaic where different cultures live alongside each other, retaining their specificities inside a single country. While this paradigm has been widely criticized both by migrant and non-migrant Canadians, it has nonetheless played a substantial role in shaping Canadian federal government policies and influencing the publishing industry.

Canadian Mosaic
Canadian Mosaic Wall, 2013, photo by Tim Van Horn. Wikimedia Commons.

President Pierre Trudeau implemented multiculturalism as a policy in 1971 and appointed a minister specifically in charge of multiculturalism and launching cultural initiatives. Once such instance was the Writing and Publication Program.  Set up in 1977, its aim was to encourage writing and publishing by migrant minorities in any language and to bring the literary establishment to consider such writing part of mainstream Canadian literature. This program provided grants for writing, translation, conferences and research.  Meanwhile, French-language cultural periodicals promoting migrant writing offered a parallel channel for writers and magazines.

 

Derives 1
Dérives, first issue X.0958/169


Derives 1987
Dérives, final issue X.0958/169

 

Dérives ran from 1975 to 1987 and is accessible in the BL’s collections. The archives of the multilingual Vice Versa (1983-1996) are all available in pdf form on its website.  And the British Library is actively seeking to add the feminist magazine La Parole Métèque (1987-1990), which gave a voice to migrant women at a time when they were generally overlooked, to its holdings.

While migrant writing (like immigration) was nothing new in the 1980s and subsequently, critics from Quebec often point to this period as the beginning of critical engagement with Canadian “migrant”/”multicultural” literature.

- Laura Gallon

 

Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections.  She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant writers.  Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

 

References/Further reading

Carriere, Marie and Catherine Khordoc. “For Better or For Worse: Revisiting Ecriture Migrante in Quebec.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, edited by Cynthia Sugars, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 621-638.

Jaggi, Maya. “Michael Oondatje: The Soul of a Migrant.” The Guardian, 29/04/2000. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/apr/29/fiction.features

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kamboureli, Smaro (ed.). Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kenyeres, Janos. “Aspects of Canadian Multiculturalism: History, Policy, Theory and Impact.” Revue d’Etudes Canadiennes en Europe Centrale, vol. 9, 2014, pp. 27-44.

Krauss, Clifford. “For Canada’s Top Novelists, Being Born Abroad Helps”. The New York Times, 05/11/2002.

Loschnigg, Maria and Martin Loschnigg (eds.). Migration and Fiction: Narratives of Migration in Contemporary Canadian Literature. Universitatsverlag Winter Heidelberg, 2009.

Morgenstern-Clarren, Rachel. “The Vagaries of Exile: Migrant Literature From Quebec”. Words Without Borders, October 2017. https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/october-2017-quebec-the-vagaries-of-exile-migrant-literature-from-quebec

Simon, Sherry and David Leahy. “La Recherche au Québec Portant sur l’Ecriture Ethnique.” Ethnicity and Culture in Canada: The Research Landscape, edited by J.W. Berry and J.A. Laponce, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 387-409.

Troper, Harold. “Immigration in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 09/19/2017. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/immigration/

27 July 2018

Reporting from the reading rooms: Brazilian writers and translation

3 weeks into my stint as Translator in Residence at the British Library, I’ve finally made it into one of the reading rooms and actually looked at some books, which I’ll admit is a rather unorthodox thing to do in a library. While the desks of my companions in the European collections department, where I’m based for the year, tend to be overloaded with books from the collections, administrative issues left me temporarily unable to do this, and so I was forced to join the masses and access my materials the way the vast majority of BL visitors do, in one of the many reading rooms. Besides, I am meant to be resident here, so it would be remiss of me not to actually visit one. Thus I found myself, on a hot Wednesday afternoon, collecting my reservations from Asian and African Studies  (not quite the nearest to my desk, but more exciting-sounding than ‘Science 3’)  and sitting down with other members of the public to get stuck in.

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In the weeks prior to this, I’d been randomly typing names into the catalogue whenever they sprang to mind, and I was excited to finally have a look at some of these books in the flesh. I started by looking at books by or about two 20th Century Brazilian  authors I’m currently reading, before going back in time to the early days of modern Brazil.

The first book I looked at was Cartas de viagem e outras cronicas (Travel letters and other chronicles), the collected non-fiction of Walter Campos de Carvalho, who occupies a strange role in Brazilian letters. As yet untranslated into English (I’m trying to change that, publishers take note!), he has never been a canonical writer in Brazil either, and until recently his books have been largely unattainable over there too. The four novels he published between 1956 and 1964 before ceasing to write anything substantial for the 34 years between then and his death, were  more indebted to European surrealism than to Brazilian literary trends, and certainly do not fit in with the outsider’s view of Brazil better represented by the writing of someone like Jorge Amado. To give one example, his last novel, O Púcaro Búlgaro (The Bulgarian Jug) describes the ill-fated attempt by a band of explorers to find out whether or not Bulgaria actually exists. In light of that, this collection is worth reading for the introduction alone, which contains the following excerpt from an interview with the great man who, like his work. was difficult, distant but also hilarious:

Interviewer: Today, with all the technological process that’s been made, is it now possible to say for certain whether or not Bulgaria exists?

Campos de Carvalho: It doesn’t.

Interviewer: Do any other countries not exist?

CDC: Argentina. I was there two years ago, but still I wasn’t convinced. I went to Mar del Plata…to a casino… The casino did exist though, I left all my money there.

His travel diaries are no less wry. Here he is on London: ‘A city where, when it’s not raining, a huge storm is always brewing…P.S. – in London there’s a newspaper called The Sun; it only comes out twice a year.’

I then looked at a transcription of an interview with another novelist, José J. Veiga, called Atrás do Mágico Relance (A Glimpse behind the magic). Unlike Campos de Carvalho, two of Veiga’s books did make it into English in the early 70s, though sadly they have never been reprinted. Associated at the time with the ‘boom’ generation of Latin American ‘magic realist’ authors such as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Veiga’s work is rather different, though it certainly deals with the fantastic in an equally effective way. The interview was fully of interesting insights, but I was particularly struck by Veiga’s reply when asked if he was influenced by (Spanish language) magic realism:

Veiga: No…I only read Garcia Márquez and Borges after having published two or three of my own books, so I wasn’t influenced by them…we (ie Brazilian writers) are unknown to…Spanish-Americans, but they’re also ignored by us, that is, there’s no exchange between us…there never was.

The novel of Veiga’s I’m keen to translate, Sombras de reis barbudos (Shadows of bearded kings) a wonderful blend of bildungsroman, political allegory and fantasy, has been translated into Spanish, but like other Brazilian prose masterpieces such as Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma and João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas, it’s very much out of print in its sister tongue. Things aren’t so different here; most informed readers could name one or two Spanish-American authors, maybe Gabriel García Marquez or Jorge Luís Borges, but might find it harder to name their Lusophone peers.

 

Finally, I went back a few centuries to Pero de Magalhaes Gandavo’s History of the Province Sancta Cruz, which we commonly call Brazil. The translation, by John B. Stetson Jr, is accompanied by a facsimile of the 1576 original, which the translator first encountered in the BL’s predecessor, the reading room at the British Museum. I came across this account via some recent work I did translating a piece on Brazil for a history magazine, which discussed Gandavo’s descriptions of ‘the Natives of the province’. The fact that he does not discuss them until the tenth chapter, after first addressing the country’s geography, colonial government, plans, animals and, intriguingly, ‘a marine monster that was killed in the captaincy of São Vicente in 1564’, is telling enough. Like Bernal Diaz, who documented the conquest of Mexico some years before, Gandavo just cannot see the ‘natives’ as properly human. They are at once a homogenous mass—‘Although these natives are much divided and have many different names for their tribes, still they are one in their appearance, their condition, their customs and their rites’—and uniquely barbaric, lacking any sense of morality—‘They live at their ease, without any preoccupation save eating, drinking and killing people; and so they grow very fat, but with any vexation they immediately grow thin again’. Undeniably ridiculous as the latter part sounds, such attitudes had appalling consequences: the deaths of up to 95% of the pre-colonial population. And these encounters bring up a fascinating insight into the difficulties of translation in a wider sense: how might someone like Gandavo, a well-off, Portuguese Catholic, have accurately conveyed the complex, and yet totally alien societies he witnessed. 

Gandavo

2 hours, 450 years traversed, one hemisphere crossed. Not bad for a first attempt!

By Rahul Bery

British Library Translator in Residence

 

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