An author stands at a podium and reads aloud from their book. A group of strangers seated beside one another faces the stage and listens. Author and audience together form their own space, one devoted to listening, a quality of the body, the body which holds mostly still for over an hour in chair, beholden to someone else’s story. Who we offer that space to and who we listen to is important. Who we show up for is important. As the curator of the Transnational Literature Series at Brookline Booksmith, I wanted to use the space of the independent bookstore to respond to our current political moment. This past year we’ve hosted over a dozen international writers and translators whose work deeply considers migration, exile, and displacement, who inhabit a notably un-American perspective; who write, read, and think in languages other than English. We hosted book club discussions and film screenings and through a partnership with WGBH’s The Forum Network we shared the series beyond our brick-and-mortar walls. I was overwhelmed by how many people came out. Take the screening of Persepolis held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where we packed a theatre of 440 people just weeks after Trump pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Or our book club discussion of The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq when author Dunya Mikhail joined us by phone to tell us of her brief visit to Iraq after more than a decade away. Then there were the author talks themselves, thirteen readings which offered evenings of light in an otherwise dark political year. The memoirs, novels, essays, and poetry collections listed below are the work of the authors who were able and willing to come to Boston and take part in the series.
Go, Went, Gone is a story about reaching out to the lives that live alongside our own. Richard, a wealthy, retired German academic becomes curious about the African migrants who have taken residence near his home in Berlin. He approaches them first as a scholar, interviewing them, sitting in on their language classes, adopting the routine of a migrant beholden to the limbo of bureaucracy. Through his relationship to them he begins to see more clearly. “So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morrocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforseen as illness.” I’ve long admired Erpenbeck’s lyricism, the thickness of her sentences, but her style is different here. Clear, lucid, candid. She interviewed refugees as part of her research for the book, and each man’s retelling of his journey stands starkly on the page, without Richard’s neuroses, without any fictional flourish.
Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover
(in conversation with Laura van den Berg)
This novel, about the Sadr family who flee Iran during the revolution, does what the best family sagas do: exposes and mines familial relationships while also hooking their story into time, generations, and political history. Kimiâ Sadr, the youngest of the Sadrs, narrates her story from a fertility clinic in Paris. She is an outcast both in her family and in her adopted country and so she writes their story so that she doesn’t lose what she has, for so long, relegated to memory. But there is also an urgency to her storytelling, as Kimiâ frequently directly addresses her Western audience, offering historical context through footnotes, knowing full well they don’t know the Iran she speaks of, or exile. The Sadrs are an upper middle class, well-educated family that believes in the power of the written word. It’s because of the written word that they must leave Iran, after Darius Sadr writes a public letter chastising the regime. It’s through the written word that Sara preserves Darius Sadr’s political act, her book about their life becoming a bestseller in Iran. And it’s through this book that Kimiâ can tell of what happens after, of the hollowness and longing of her parents’ life as exiles in Paris.
Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili
(in conversation with Sara Kahlili and Restless Books publisher Ilan Stavans)
Amir Yamini, a former soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, has been physically and emotionally cut apart by war—he’s lost his left arm, his memory is in shards, and he’s haunted by dreams of a woman whose face he can’t see. Our narrator is also broken into two, two scribes perched on opposite shoulders of Amir as he wanders through his childhood home, consumed by the ghost space of that lost arm. The scribes write of war, of Amir’s more carefree, rebellious days, but, mostly, they are driven by recovering the memory of the lost love that drove Amir to voluntarily join the war. Writing then becomes a way to stitch a life back together. Shahriar Mandanipour is a prolific writer in Farsi, and has written ten books—nine works of fiction and one work of nonfiction—but Moon Brow is only his second book to be translated into English. The book has only been published in English. Shahriar and his Farsi-English translator Sara Khalili collaborated closely, Sara translating and editing as Shahriar wrote drafts of the novel.
Luljeta Lleshanaku grew up in Elbasan, Albania under virtual house arrest during Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime. Religion was banned, and Albania was politically and culturally isolated. She is now internationally known as Albania’s most important and inventive poet of her generation, the author of eight books of poetry published in Albania. Many of her poems exist within the familiar spaces of a home and a village—in classrooms and train stations, in a kitchen where a cat meows at the window, in “the hospital’s prostate hall [which] smells of watermelon.” Her poems are small scenes, laced with an external menace. In the ten page title poem of Negative Space, a priest stands in the yard in the middle of the night in his underwear, after men in uniform clear out the church, a woman observes the shops shuttered on a street, a stove sits under the portrait of a dictator. Lleshanaku believes in “the endless language of the image” but also understands the art of subtlety. “Words are delicate instruments,” she has said in an interview. “How to use them so that, after having read the poem, the taste remaining is not of the words themselves, but of a thought, a situation, a parallel reality?”
Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses opens with the wedding of Alia and Atef in Nablus in March of 1963. Following that union are decades worth of the small dramas that make up family life, set against the family’s constant movement, from Nablus to Kuwait City, Amman, Beirut, Paris, Boston, and Jaffa. The characters here dwell in a pervasive longing, their interior lives protected. Hala Alyan is a poet, and her sentences are lush, her imagery striking. But she also deftly reveals the stratifications of migration, of who has the means to leave and who must stay. Hala recently won the Dayton Literary Peace prize for Salt Houses. On receiving the prize, Alyan said: “Writing has taught me to pay homage to my ancestors and envision the world after I am long gone; it has empowered me to tell stories of oppression and restoration, to envision peace as something tangible. I am my most human when I am writing, my most alert and engaged and compassionate. To have my novel seen as a conduit for peace-building is remarkably humbling.”
Early on in Dubravka Ugresic’s prolific career she accepted a guest lecturer position at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, leaving her home in Zagreb during the beginning of what would be a four year war. Yugoslavia as she knew it was dissolving while in America—specifically in New York—Ugresic experienced an American world “freely setting up its norms, the norms of its normalcy.” From this liminal space comes American Fictionary, a collection of nearly thirty essays each offering an alternate definition of a word through the perspective of a writer experiencing America with double-vision. This reprint edition comes twenty-five years after the book’s initial publication and includes a Post Script in which Ugresic places American Fictionary in the context of her life. In 1993, only a year after she returned to Zagreb from America, she left again on a longer, more permanent exile. “I’d come to feel afraid of my homeland, where I had become a stranger in a short time, where I had to prove I was born there, though I was born there, prove that I spoke its language, though it is my mother tongue. I was stricken with fear about the homeland for which I’d have to fight in order to win the status of a permanent emigre. My sudden fear about ‘landing’ during the flight from New York to Zagreb in June of 1992 proved warranted.” She has lived in Amsterdam since.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft
(in conversation with Jennifer Croft and Shuchi Saraswat)
Flights is a book of wonder. Categorized as a work of fiction but truly genre defying, its 116 chapters are made up of essay, travel theory, and short stories, hooked together by an idea. To fly is to defy gravity, to transcend time and physics. To be in flight is to dwell in that space. Characters inhabiting Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation” of stories include an amputee who lives in pursuit of the feeling produced by his phantom limb, a lecturer on travel psychology in an airport, a man searching for his missing family in Croatia, a historical account of Chopin’s heart being smuggled across the border. “Every traveler’s times is a lot of times in one,” says the narrator, which in this case might be the author herself. Tokarczuk, one of Poland’s most acclaimed writers, is a public intellectual who has been outspoken about her country’s history. She and her translator, Jennifer Croft, received the Man Booker International award for this book. One judge noted that Flights “guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.”
In the opening of Poso Wells, we are introduced to the cooperative of Poso Wells, a fictional settlement in Ecuador which is mostly ignored by the media except for election season, when presidential candidates descend upon an empty lot to make false promises. The big opening scene features all of the candidates on stage together in Poso Wells, and in a turn of events that I won’t ruin here (part of the fun of the book is its unpredictable comedy), the squatter settlement suddenly finds itself in the eye of the media. A mash-up of genres, “a noir, feminist eco-thriller,” satirical in tone, this novel is a fun, fast-paced read. But tease out any one of the stories in here and you’ll find roots that go much deeper. Alemán has cited a number of inspirations for this book: the H.G. Wells short story, “The Country of the Blind“; the 2006 election in Ecuador, in which one of the candidates was one of the richest men in the country; the arrival of mining companies in Ecuador; and the lack of media coverage around the growing number of disappearing women. The inspiration here: a somber reality. Alemán has said in an interview that this is the first of her books to include humor, and that she hoped that satire would be a way to help a reader navigate through the dark heart of the book.
She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore
Our narrator is the wind. She criss-crosses the Atlantic Ocean as she follows the story of Gbessa, in the West African village of Lai, June Dey, on a plantation in Virginia, and Norman Aragon, in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. These three people, cursed and gifted with supernatural powers, come together to form a country. She Would Be King is the story of the formation, of the country of Liberia. Nation’s births are bloody and brutal. But like in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where children born around midnight India’s partition are cursed with supernatural abilities, the magic here allows a space for humor, light, and hope. Wayétu Moore was born in Liberia. Her family fled Monrovia when she was five to escape Liberia’s civil war, and they moved to the US. Of her childhood in America she says, “I just wasn’t hearing anything about Africa, and certainly not Liberia, at school,” she said. “And that absence, I think, was just very profound.” She went on to form a children’s book publishing company One Moore Book, which seeks to encourage reading in countries with low literacy rates, and owns One Moore Bookstore in Monrovia.
Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrozic, translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
In Hotel Tito, the nine-year-old girl narrator begins with a summer trip to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. The year is 1991, and the parents pack their children’s passports, in case things “heat up.” Our young narrator vaguely understands this as something political, and their home in the border town of Vukovar undergoes a bloody seige in their absence. Unable to return, not knowing the status of their father, and with little money, the narrator, her brother, and mother eventually move into a room in a former communist school, occupied by fellow refugees, which they dub “Hotel Tito” after the Yugoslavian president. It’s in this room, which can only fit three beds, where our protagonist spends the next six years. Author Ivana Bodrozic, who currently lives in Zagreb, based the novel on her own experiences. “I spent almost seven years in refuges; I have seen the different destinies of the four hundred or so people who lived there. I amassed those fragments into different characters in the novel. I didn’t want these stories to disappear with time.”
The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Author Saud Alsanousi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 for this book and his stop in Boston was part of IPAF’s efforts to bring Arab authors to western audiences (The Bamboo Stalk has not yet been published in the US). A story of east to east migration, our protagonist is the child of Rashid, a Kuwaiti from a wealthy family, and Josephine, the family’s Filipina maidservant. Josephine returns to the Philippines with her infant son and her husband’s promise; one day the boy will live with him in Kuwait. In their poor neighborhood in northern Manila, Isa/Jose (his name different in each family) is raised with the expectation of a wealthy future. The Bamboo Stalk explores the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf—the Filipinos and South Asians who work in homes and markets – but it’s also an exploration of otherness. Though Kuwaiti by citizenship, though a son in a family that prizes sons but doesn’t have any, Isa/Jose’s mixed heritage—as shown on the features of his face —shames his father’s family.
Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood by Joshua Keating
The map of our world has been largely fixed for the last 25 years. Joshua Keating states this surprising fact early on in his book Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood. We have been in an unprecedented period of stability, in part because Western governments have generally supported a controlled flow of capital and people. But the past few years has shown a global rise in authoritarian rule and with it a rejection of an idea that borders should be porous. From country to country, the world as we’ve known it is changing. So how did we get to the map that we have today? Keating begins this exploration in an interesting place: the World Football Cup, organized by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. It’s forty-seven members are made up of ethnic minorities and unrecognized countries, among them, Western Armenia, Somaliland, Punjabis, the Koreans of Japan, the Hungarians of Romania. By looking at these “invisible countries,” and through an engaging analysis of international law and history, Keating explains how and why our map looks the way it does today.
A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma
(in conversation with Chike Frankie Edozien)
A Stranger’s Pose is a collection of travel stories—musings, poetry, photographs, and letters never sent—written during a trip across Africa. It’s an unconventional travel memoir in that it’s not a book about place, but more a book about the intimacies between strangers, of the chance encounters, the poetry, that can occur when a person who is able to travel doesn’t impose themselves, but observes. As a Nigerian writing about travels through Africa, Iduma brings a unique perspective, what he describes as “a way to participate in a genre that historically speaks for-rather than with.” Through these vignettes, Emmanuel considers what it means to be a Nigerian man traveling through Africa, to be of a place, to return to it, and to move mostly freely through its borders. When you are constantly in motion, what of the past leaks into the present, how do dreams invade your day? Travel is about new ways of seeing and the gift of the book is how Emmanuel transfers the traveler’s particularly fine-tuned vision to the page.
The Transnational Literature Series focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation. You can subscribe to the Transnational Literature Series Newsletter here.