Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

The only reason I’m ever aware of the Nobel Prize in Literature is because a bookish friend of mind is the world’s biggest Ismail Kadare fan. Every year it seems like he’s short- or longlisted, and every year he seems to be denied. I haven’t read anything of Kadare’s, so I can’t really offer my own opinion on whether or not I think he deserves it, but I can be unimpressed with this year’s pick.

I’ve only read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro; it seems to be his most famous work, and it generally seems to be that an author’s most famous work is either their best or their worst. (The same is probably true for musicians and albums.) But it’s hard for me to take a book seriously when it has a plot nearly identical to campy 1970s science fiction/thriller movies, and in this case there was nothing about Ishiguro’s writing that elevated the plot beyond anything it was in Parts: The Clonus Horror. And at least Parts had Peter Graves in it! Even without reading any Kadare, I was rooting for him over Ishiguro.

Parts: The Clonus Horror Poster courtesy Group Films
Nobel Prize material, right there. // Image courtesy Group Films

Much like last year, where I was okay with giving the award to a musician on the strength of his lyrics (even though I was personally unimpressed with the musician himself), the academy has again left me underwhelmed with their choice. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m sure I’ll be rooting for Kadare alongside my bookish friend—again—only to be (most likely) let down again.

Armchair BEA, Day 3

Book Expo sparked quite the controversy a couple years ago regarding diversity in books and authors. Where are we now? OR, let’s take a different direction and explore the diversity of the format of a book. Do we judge a book by its cover and/or content (e.g.,, audio, digital, graphic, etc.)? Or, combine the two topics and discuss diversity found in alternative content (e.g., representation in graphic novels). Get creative and maybe even controversial!

I actually don’t remember this controversy. Did Sad or Sick Puppy types get upset about a stated commitment to diversity? Or was everything about Book Expo that year white as Christmas? Unsure. So I can’t comment on “where we are now,” either. Instead I’m going to talk about the upcoming movie version of one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time.

Image courtesy Dell Laurel-Leaf

I’ve implied it earlier, but let me just say it outright: when it comes to book news, I’m very much out of the loop. I only found out that the movie was happening basically by accident. (Sometimes relaxing with trashy Hollywood gossip rags  is a good thing!) I’ve seen this Entertainment Weekly slide show of promotional images, and that’s it. I’ve deliberately avoided searching the Internet for more information about the production because I don’t feel like finding out of there is an Internet brouhaha over the casting.

You see, a lot of the main characters are women of color. Mrs. Murry is Black, and so Meg (and presumably Charles Wallace, Sandy, and Dennys) are explicitly biracial. Mindy Kaling is Mrs Who, and Oprah is Mrs Which. Given how parts of the Internet reacted over casting for Rue in The Hunger Games, I’m assuming there’s similar outrage somewhere on the Internet. I don’t feel like finding out if I’m right, though. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.

And honestly, I’m perfectly fine with all of those casting choices. More than that; I’m happy about it. Women like my mom (who read the book so many times she had portions of it memorized) and me got to grow up with a white Murry family and got to have a nerdy, sensitive Meg Murry who was like us, inside and out. And now we have a version for all of the blerd women out there–now they can have a Meg Murry just like them, inside and out.

(And as for all of the Mrs characters? I mean, they’re aliens after all. Shapeshifting aliens at that.)

My only beef with the casting is actually with Mr. Murry. My book memory of him is a tweedy nerd, not a smoldering buff guy.

Image courtesy Disney & Entertainment Weekly

But hey, maybe if you give him a pair of glasses and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, he’ll look more the part. Maybe I’ll be blown away by his acting. I’m willing to be open-minded!

Movie (or television) versions of books are always fraught with frustration and controversy. When the actor on screen doesn’t match what you had in your imagination, it can be jarring. Changes are often made to the story, not always for practical concerns and not always for the better. Movies are complicated and expensive ventures, while books are (relatively) simple and fairly inexpensive–there is enormous pressure on a movie to make a return on that investment, and that pressure can make or break a movie.

Unsurprisingly, the usual bookworm attitude towards movies is intense skepticism. And even film buffs often decry movie adaptations, saying that it’s just another sign of the sad state of the film industry these days.

I get it. I’ve definitely been burned by a few bad adaptations. At the tender age of 10 I was excited to see childhood hero Harriet the spy on the big screen, only to walk out confused and disappointed. I pretend that they never adapted The Dark is Rising, and I’m still not sure what went wrong with The Hobbit. People keep trying to make movie versions of Lolita, but the dynamics of how real, live people have to interact make it a messy project, even if you get Nabokov to write the screenplay.

But when they’re done well, movie adaptations are fantastic. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and the best movie adaptations complement the story, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. They have the chance to smooth over blemishes or pitfalls in the original, and in the case of something like A Wrinkle in Time it’s the chance to present the same story through a new, updated lens, and to bring characters we know and love to a wider, more diverse audience.

 

Seanan McGuire Versus A Copyeditor

A couple of months ago, Seanan McGuire live Tweeted the revision process on a new manuscript and ended up venting her spleen about the decisions her copyeditor was making. Someone originally shared this with the Editors of Earth group on Facebook, which is how I originally came across it (as opposed to in my own Twitter feed). I can only hope that WordPress won’t mangle the following Storify code:

 

I’ve actually been aware of McGuire for years, via her blog and also my friends’ taste in novels, so I know (vaguely) who she is and what she writes without actually having read a proper book by her. In other words, I had something like context for the above Tweets, as did some other members. Some of my fellow copyeditors on Facebook, however, did not instantly recognize the name. The mix of the two made the discussion interesting and I should have saved the link, as the combination of months’ worth of subsequent posts in a prolific group and Facebook’s less-than-stellar group search feature is making it hard for me to find the post again and refresh my memory.

As a whole, group members were more or less forgiving of the anonymous copyeditor in question, though there was a lively discussion about celebrity author responsibility, anonymity, and the specific changes McGuire vents her spleen about. (Merriam-Webster actually lists “chain saw” and not “chainsaw,” for example.) I’m surprised, then, that a Google search at this time doesn’t really yield any blog posts from any aforementioned group members; many of the people commenting on this Facebook post were noted copyediting rockstars (if the field has such a thing!) who blog prolifically on all things editorial. Maybe they just didn’t find it interesting? Who knows.

Sometimes bad copyedits happen. That’s just how it is. Sometimes what’s bad about a particular copyedit is subjective (differing tastes of the editor and the author and the audience), and sometimes there are objectively bad practices and/or changes (not tracking changes, introducing errors). And while some of the changes McGuire takes issue with sound like they were probably for the better (egregious abuse of synonyms for “said” is one of my pet peeves so even without context I’m pretty sure I stand with the anonymous copyeditor on this one), and I can imagine plenty of extenuating circumstances (original writing that wasn’t as awesome as McGuire would believe; idiosyncrasies of the house rules and given style sheet; etc.) for others, some of the changes she mentions on Twitter are almost definitely of the objectively bad variety—every professional I’ve spoken with has long since made peace with singular “they,” for example, so reading about that kind of change being made was genuinely surprising and also secondhand embarrassing.

Basically, some small exceptions aside, I’m willing to believe that this was not a great copyedit. Was it the worst copyedit ever? That I can’t know without access to the manuscript in question, so some mysteries will just have to remain unsolved. My point in this post is not to suggest that McGuire didn’t appreciate the genius of her copyeditor.

I think this episode touches on one of the flaws of the modern book/author/”content creator” market. Whatever your preferred form of social media, it seems to be almost mandatory for authors to double as personalities or entertainers. (There is a cynical part of me that wants to suggest this personality cult model of marketing is why so many big-name authors these days sell mind-bogglingly well despite underwhelming books, but those are thoughts for an entirely different post.) I think this model is bad news for a class of people who have felt drawn to what is a largely isolated, or at least selectively social, profession. Fame is hard to manage for anyone, but public attention and accolade is probably easier to navigate when public performances, and not relative isolation, are the meat and potatoes of your craft. In this respect, I think McGuire dropped the ball. The kind of thing you can get away with texting to a group of friends to let off steam is not the same kind of thing you should, especially as a celebrity, publicly broadcast; there should be a balance between wanting to engage with your fans on a personal and/or funny level and realizing how you come off.

(I admit to a predisposition to be biased in favor of the anonymous copyeditor, for fairly obvious reasons.)

I don’t think a single lousy copyedit deserves the “point and laugh” Twitter treatment. A lousy copyedit isn’t really deserving of any commentary at all, unless it points to larger socio-linguistic trends or cultural norms. I’d rather read a single thoughtful blog post on a wide-ranging and pervasive issue from a general perspective, maybe like the publishing industry’s reluctance to embrace singular “they,” than a scattershot of complaints ranging from valid to trifling quibbles about a specific person’s work in between reaction gifs and pictures of cats.

This is the kind of thing that reads as acceptable because McGuire is an established author of no small amount of acclaim. Now imagine a Twitter account with only a handful of followers and a janky, amateur banner promoting a self-published  book with equally janky and amateur cover art giving that same rant. If it didn’t just get lost in the thoughtstream void that is Twitter, it might help propel sales and establish the writer’s career. Might. It might also turn off any prospective copyediting clients the author would like to hire in the future, because who wants to work for someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate the training or nuance behind the work that you do?

This seems to be a one-off incident; I don’t think McGuire is famously egotistical about her own work or derisive of all of the people who work on a manuscript to bring it to book life. But it still chafes a bit. I guess this whole post was a lot of words to say: I didn’t think this thing was funny that a lot of other thought was funny.

Reflections on Stockholms Litteraturmässan, 2017

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you had a lovely weekend. I spent mine (at least, my Saturday) at Stockholms Litteraturmässan. Last year I went alone, but this time, I managed to bring a friend along with me. This worked out for me—she very thoughtfully dropped by the panel on translation trends that I couldn’t make and picked up their rather snazzy-looking handout, so even if I missed the discussion I still have all of their data on translated literature. Not as fun as the discussion itself, but better than nothing.

The first thing I did was to hit the book market itself. While Stockholms Litteraturmässan has featured a wide range of salient conversations and presentations two years in a row now, it’s also clear that those presentations are directly tied to the promotion of at least some of the available books. Not that I want to fault them for making money; quite the opposite, actually. I grew up on a steady diet of Borders (RIP), Barnes & Noble, The Strand, and countless independent, local used bookstores all across the US: often large and almost infinitely browseable. Even in the age of Amazon.com they were doing well, or at least hanging on. For whatever reasons (economic, social, historical, geographical), such stores don’t exist here, by and large. (The English Book Shop and SF BokHandeln are notable exceptions and they have my undying loyalty forever.) For two days a year, the Litteraturmässan manages to fill that vacuum. Both times I’ve attended I’ve found something niche and fascinating (or just hard to come by) that I have yet to find anywhere else, and for that alone the event is worth it.

What makes Stockholms Litteraturmässan stand out, though, are the accompanying promotional-ish panels. The organization seems to cultivate an outward focus towards question of cultural intersections, politics, immigration, and global interconnectedness, both in the publishers and sellers featured in the market and in the books and writers they choose to promote. On the eve of the French election in a post-Trump milieu, these kinds of questions suddenly felt extra urgent.

The two panels I attended were the interview with Marlene Streeruwitz and the interview with Irena Brežna. Unlike last year, both of the panels I attended were conducted in English. A logical choice for an Austrian and Swiss-Slovak writer (Streeruwitz and Brežna, respectively) presenting in Sweden, but I should note that I didn’t deliberately gravitate towards the English presentations. 😉 I failed to take notes, so some general impressions.

Streeruwitz and Ihmels presented Smärtans ängel within the context of their new publishing house and organization writersreadwriters, which is coming out with other work aside from Streeruwitz’s that sounds exciting and vital. Their books are definitely going on my watch list. I failed to pick up Smärtans ängel at the event, but it looks to be available from Stockholms bibliotek. Good news for me!

The Swiss embassy seems to be very involved with this event. Their cultural liaison, Benita Funke, presented Brežna this year and was also a moderator in a discussion on contemporary women’s migrant literature from last year’s Litteraturmässan. It would be great to see other embassies join this project as well. Brežna herself was a warm and charming presenter.

Both Den otacksamma främlingen and Smärtans ängel are available from Stockholms bibliotek, so I look forward to reading them. As of yet, it appears that they lack an English translation, but I hope someone will come out with one soon! My German is a bit too rusty to tackle Austrian or Swiss German myself, alas.

Stockholms Litteraturmässan, 2017

Like last year, I’ll be attending Stockholms Litteraturmässan this coming Saturday. As a guest, not as a panelist. (Not yet, anyway. #goals etc.!) Here are the discussions I’m most interested in:

Litteraturutbyte i praktiken – Ett panelsamtal om aktuella översättningstrender på den svenska litteraturmarknaden

Literature exchange in practice – a panel discussion on current translation trends in the Swedish literature market

A discussion about the spate of translations in the Swedish literature market, according to publishing statistics from the Royal Library. The panel will take up questions on translations’ meaning for the exchange of ideas across national borders.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend this one. Scheduling conflicts mean that I won’t be able to arrive until 12:30 or so. A shame, because this one sounds really interesting!

 

Feministikon och succéförfattare

Feminist icon and successful writer

Writer Marlene Streeruwitz, whose current Swedish release is Smärtans ängel (original German: Die Schmerzmacherin), speaks with culture journalist Yvonne Ihmels. Marlene Streeruwitz’s cosmopolitan characters are at home in the world’s metropolises and deliver Streeruwitz’s clear-eyed analysis of violence around the world, whether it’s terrorism or Big Brother.

Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of Streeruwitz until now, but it sounds like I need to add Smärtans ängel to my TBR list.

 

Författarfränder i världen

Writer allies in the world

A conversation about inspirations and trailblazers, and about the need for translated literature.

Basically, if it’s a conversation about translation, I want to be there.

 

Flyktingskapet och sedan – integration till varje pris?

Refugeeship and then – integration at any cost?

The writer Irena Brežna talks with Benita Funke, cultural liaison at the Swiss embassy, about her book Den otacksamma främlingen (original German: Die undankbare Fremde).

Brežna sounds like a really accomplished and well-traveled woman. Here’s her biography from GoodReads:

[B]orn in 1950 in Bratislava. In 1968, she emigrated to Switzerland with her parents. Since graduating from the Faculty of Arts at Basel University . . . in 1975, she has worked as a teacher of Russian, a translator and interpreter of Slavonic languages and for 10 years as a psychologist at psychology research institutes in Munich and Basel. . .

She continues to be actively involved in a variety of areas on a voluntary basis. For 12 years during the 1970s and 1980s she campaigned for the release of Soviet political prisoners in her role as a coordinator for the Swiss chapter of Amnesty international. She has helped those who opposed the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe (inter alia the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform) and she assisted in establishing the first Slovak feminist magazine Aspekt in Bratislava. Her other work includes fundraising for Chechen women’s projects, and collecting works of world literature for a library in Mamou, Guinea in West Africa, as well as text books for local schools.

During The First Chechen war (1994-96) and during a short period of independence there (1996-98), she visited the destroyed country several times and since then has reported in more than 80 texts on the atrocities committed in the conflict and about the freedom fight of Chechen female human rights activists.

I’d certainly like to have a beer or two with her!

You can see the rest of the program at Kulturhuset’s website. Events are actually starting literally right now, but the bulk of activities will be happening tomorrow, from 11 AM to 5 PM. In addition to the panels and discussions there will be, as you can see in the above photo, a bustling book market as well. If you see me there, feel free to say hello! I don’t bite. 😉

May Day 2017

Springtime is a riot of “red days” here in Sweden. I’m sure it’s some kind of mass psycho-cultural way to cope with the long, dark winter and springs that take a long time to get started. I have yet to attend one of the Valborg bonfires, or a socialist protest, but I hope those of you had a fun (and safe!) time out.

Stockholm March for Science: Why I’m Marching

I’m marching for science today, and so can you! You can find a local march at the official March for Science website. If you’re in Stockholm, I’ll be a volunteer with the activities at Medborgarplatsen at the end of the march. Come say hi, listen to some awesome and knowledgeable speakers, and try some cool science stuff!

At first blush, the March for Science doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my work as either a copyeditor or a language instructor. For me, though, the two fields are very much intertwined.

First and foremost, the bulk of my copyediting work has been academic work in the sciences, ranging from the “soft” to the “hard.” Science—as in the international practice of engaging in and publishing research—is my bread and butter. I consider myself a junior varsity member of the #scicomm team, and I hope that in some small way my copyediting work is helping further both research in general and the careers of well-deserving individuals. The same is true for tutoring. Many of the students I work with are either scientists (or science-adjacent), or have aspirations of finally working in that role: would-be engineers, biologists, chemistry teachers. While it might be naive to think that speaking a single language would erase any and all conflict, it certainly helps us communicate to and mobilize large groups in a timely fashion, and nowhere do we need timely communication and mobilization than in science. English isn’t necessarily the best tool for that, but it’s the one we have right now, and the more people who can use it, the better.

It isn’t just about my own work, though. It’s also a question of principles. The scope of copyediting generally includes a commitment to facts and the truth, as well as to clarity. A good copyeditor and a good scientist are both skeptics at heart. Neither one is an automaton who thoughtlessly applies rules and nothing more; they both take a look at what they think is correct, wonder if there are alternatives, and constantly come up against their own preconceived notions.

Moreover, since we think, theorize, and discover with language, it is inextricably connected with science. Just as science has shown us that, for example, gender and sex are much more complicated and nuanced than we originally thought, so do our language guardians help put forward and promote that new paradigm by enforcing new language norms that more accurately reflect reality. The (mostly tired, mostly worn out) debate over singular they, for example, isn’t just about social norms or “identity politics”; it is also about how, in tandem with a better scientific understanding, we have changed language to include groups of people who didn’t fit in the original, inaccurate paradigm. It’s about (among other things) physicalbiological norms. As our science improves, our knowledge increases, and how we use that language affects how we spread (or don’t) that new knowledge. On a darker note, this is why “newspeak” was such an integral part of the dystopia Orwell imagined in 1984. As a writer, Orwell understood the power that language has over thought. Language, like science, needs to be open and accessible to everyone so that it can be used as a power for good—eradicating any number of biases—and not evil—desensitizing us to the complexity and humanity of others.

Katherine Koba Marked Herself Safe During the Attack in Stockholm

Today was not a really great day. And even though I’m alive and well, I’m feeling a little shaken. I was on my way to meet a student near Hötorget when everything happened; I ended up stranded in town until well after eight. Thanks to #openstockholm I had a cozy seat out of the wind, dinner with wine, and an Uber back to my apartment in Enskede once things had calmed down. Swedes are accused of being shy, but I’ve always thought that an unfair characterization. I think #openstockholm proved my point.

I also go to a writer’s meet-up right along that stretch of Drottninggatan. It’s so strange me to think that a stretch of the town I visit frequently and often share with friends in low-quality cell phone pictures is now marked by death. Am I going to see skid marks when I meet people for writing and fika next week? Dried blood? Disturbances? Impromptu memorials? There will be no question that I’ll travel into town—I don’t intend to hide or to let my daily life be impacted—but I wonder how much will be changed, and how much will not.

Needless to say, I’ll be putting aside the Friday 5 for this week, even as I recognize I could have been much, much worse off. This is a good time for all of us to check: are we able to help, beyond thoughts and prayers? I’m a registered organ donor, but am (to my chagrin!) not yet registered to give blood. (Blodcentralen is accepting donations, but only for donors who are already registered; I’ll have to feed the vampires another time.) If any of you are A+ and a registered donor, you can give instead of me. 🙂 They have enough for the wounded, but will need to replenish their supplies.

 

Pic entirely unrelated. I just wanted to look at something cute.

Never Again

I’m writing this post a little ahead of schedule; I don’t know what the situation will be when it goes live. Hopefully better.

The great privilege of being an EFL teacher is that my work brings me into contact with an international clientele. Just since beginning my little business here in Stockholm, I’ve worked with English students from:

  • Hungary
  • Sri Lanka
  • India
  • France
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Spain
  • Iran

That list tilts very heavily towards Iran, actually. I have more Persian* students than from any other country on that list.

As a private tutor, I’ve been invited into my students’ lives in a way that would not happen as a regular school teacher. I work in their homes, I’m invited to their dinners, I meet their friends and family. They’re not just students anymore, or clients. During the lesson, I’m their teacher, but off the clock, I’m their friend. And they are mine.

So I know that my Persian friends have family and friends who immigrated to the United States. A brother, a stepson, a half-brother, a childhood friend. I know that some of them were planning on traveling to the United States in the near future. I know that others were planning on receiving a guest—that brother or stepson or half-brother—who may not yet have full American citizenship. Who may not have renounced their original Iranian citizenship.

All of that makes the recent executive order very personal for me.

I’m now a firsthand witness to how political posturing to appeal to the worst elements of American society has very real, concrete effects on people who have nothing to do with violent religious extremism. The callousness towards Syrian refugees is also disgusting, of course, but it’s not something I encounter on a weekly basis; proximity makes things real in a way that nothing else can.

How will this play out? If I’m invited to join in on a family vacation and pick up some stamps in my passport from Tehran, will I be denied entry into the United States? Will green cards be revoked, and loved ones repatriated? Will their friends and family be forced to renounce their Iranian citizenship?

A line from the cult Easter egg song “Still Alive” packaged at the end of the video game Portal goes:

We do what we must because we can.

I’ve twisted it a little bit, and periodically quote it when JV and I discuss politics.

We do what we can because we must.

I have the great privilege of American citizenship, and it’s clear that it’s no longer enough to just vote. I can call, I can write, I can protest—and now it’s clear that I must. Not only for all kinds of good, vulnerable, voiceless people I can never meet or know, but for the Persian students and friends I sit down with week after week, month after month, year after year. How could I do anything less and still be able to look them in the eye?

*I opt for the word “Persian” in this post because that is the word they use to describe their language and their culture.

Winter Solstice 2016

On the eve of the shortest day of the year, I’d like to extend my sincerest wishes for a happy holiday (whatever you celebrate) and a healthy, prosperous new year. Personally, while I grew up celebrating Christmas, living in Sweden makes one acutely aware of daylight hours, for good and ill. Even with the now-ubiquitous extension of electricity to include outdoor as well as indoor lighting, there is a certain inevitable sobriety to a sun that doesn’t rise until 8:44 and sets as early as 2:48. (I can’t imagine how I’d fare up in Norrland!)

Truth be told, this is the first new year that I’m actively dreading. Sometimes I’ve been reluctant about the holiday–uncomfortable with the passing of time that the occasion so very obviously marks–and other times I’ve been excited. But this year I’m actively resisting 2017. I’ll mark all my usual traditions (cheap champagne and The Big Lebowski), and be grateful that I came out of 2016 (what a year!) relatively unscathed, but when the calendar rolls over there won’t be any relief, excitement, or anticipation. Just the grim realization that we have work to do.

But I won’t be a Debbie Downer; there is much to celebrate and remember.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”