National Novel Writing Month 2018: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo” from here on) every year since 2008. Granted, some years my participation has been better than others. And for the last few years I’ve certainly played fast and loose with the rules, such as they are (i.e. 50,000 new words of writing over the course of November). For 2015, 2016, and 2017 I spent NaNoWriMo revising the rough draft I wrote in 2014. This year I’m drifting even further from the standard and using the time to tackle a (for-funsies) translation project I should have finished ages ago but didn’t.

Some people juggle multiple projects at once; I tend to work one at a time. And while I do want to get that 2014 NaNoWriMo project done and dusted so I can move on to other writing, this translation project has drifted high enough in my priority queue that it’ll be easier to work on my fiction backlog once I get this translation thing out of the way. (Am I being fussy? Maybe.) For me, NaNoWriMo has become less and less about doing the actual thing of NaNo and more about harnessing a collective mania and drive to get my own creative endeavors done. Three months out of the year (if you include Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July) is a pretty hefty chunk of creative time, especially when you’re holding down other full-time work!

As usual, during NaNoWriMo the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup will be a weekly two-hour chunk of writing time you can count on, every Thursday from 6 to 8 PM. We have our own classroom in ABF, a great alternative for when cafes are too noisy and distracting. This week and next I’ll be helping people sign up on the site, answering questions, and providing some writing prompts to help you get you hyped up for your project. Join me, won’t you?

“But it’s a DRY heat…”

Sweden is in the middle of the worst heat wave of the past forty years, and possibly in recorded history. In news that might or might not be related, my primary laptop is making sounds suggesting either overheating or the imminent death of my hard drive. Either way, my work computer is still in excellent condition, so this emergency isn’t as urgent as it might otherwise be. It does make all of the social-facing aspect of my work (blogging, Twitter, email) a little more tedious until I find a solution to whatever the problem is, but I assure you, we’re open!

 

Congratulations, Olga Tokarczu and Jennifer Croft! Man Booker International 2018

I’ve never been a very au courant person in any field, including literary prizes. But ever since Deborah Smith and Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize with The Vegetarian in 2016, I’ve paid a little more attention—at least to the Man Booker International prize. (You can get me to care about your prize by including Korean authors. You can get me to not care about your prize by including already over-lauded and overrated artists.)

Cover of the English translation of "Flight" by Olga Tokarczuk

I’m still bad at staying up to date, though. Last year’s award passed me right by. But this year I’m top of things, since I’m subscribed to Asymptote’s newsletter and LitHub’s daily digests. Tokarczu’s Flights sounds like an unorthodox and interesting choice (not a novel but a collection of shorter pieces), and Asymptote even has extracts from Flights available online! I hope to get my hands on the whole thing as soon as possible.

Stockholms Litteraturmässan 2018

Utställarhallen Hörsalen Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholms Litteraturmässa 2016
Image courtesy Kulturhuset and Stockholms Litteraturmässan

Another year, another successful Litteraturmässan! Or, at least, it was successful from my perspective. I guess it’s up to the vendors and the sponsors to decide if it was successful in a more typical sense. The panels I attended and my thoughts on them:

Vi minns Ursula Le Guin

It took me twenty years to get into Le Guin, but I made it eventually. Still, interesting to hear people talk about her who fell in love with her writing from the get-go. (The difference: half of the panel seemed to get into her via The Left Hand of Darkness, whereas my first attempt was either A Wizard of Earthsea or The Dispossessed.) Also weird to hear a discussion about Ursula K.  Le Guin in Swedish when English and Swedish pronounce the name of the letter “K” differently. (It’s the little things.)

Tema Fristad: Housam Al-Mosilli

Al-Mosilli was engaging and so was the moderator (interlocutor?), Kholod Saghir. Here’s an interview with him in English from Sampsonia Way.

Sveriges dolda historier

I don’t know if it was because I had a hard time tracking the discussion in Swedish or because the topic wasn’t as engaging as I thought it would be, but I confess to ducking out early of this one. It might have been better if I had read the books in question prior to the discussion: Aednan and Släpp ingen jävel över bron, both of which sound interesting in their own right.

Tema Fristad: Zurab Rtveliashvili

While I found the discussion frustratingly limited (John Swedenmark seemed extremely uncomfortable with silence and therefore didn’t allow Rtveliashvili as much time to answer as maybe he needed), the poetry readings and performances were engaging. Here’s a clip of Rtveliashvili reading a poem he also read at the panel (though without the instrumental accompaniment).

De värnlösa

Never a bad time to discuss Nazis and their nonsense. I picked up a copy of Lilian O. Montmar’s book (same title as the discussion panel) in the market for my sambo.

Tema Fristad: Basim Ahmed Jamal

An accomplished musician who sort of stumbled into opening Mosul’s first bookstore in the 1990s, Jamal was an absolute delight and maybe my favorite presenter. I may be biased because he also played some songs on the clarinet (an instrument I kind of, sort of play myself) to open and close the panel.

Flora Nwapa and African women in world literature

I didn’t get to see as much of this panel as I would have liked, but I liked what I saw. Heard? I hope that the library will get in more copies of Flora Nwapa‘s books in soon, because now I’m quite curious about them!

Tema Fristad: Tesfagiorgis Habte

Habte was perhaps the most at-ease speaker in all the panels I attended, or at least the one most willing to crack jokes. It helped that Sami Said was also a great interviewer: they had good banter and he allowed Habte time to answer questions. Habte spoke about his years in prison, but there’s only so much to cover in twenty-five minutes. His piece at PENeritrea touches on many of the things he talked about, and then some

National Poetry Month 2018: Nayyirah Waheed and Instapoetry

I actually stumbled across Waheed’s poetry last November, but since I’m always at a loss when it comes to recommending and enjoying poetry, I kept it under my hat until my annual National Poetry Month post.

As it turns out, poetry on Instagram–Instapoetry–is a thing. A popular thing. This is what I get for not being on Instagram, I guess? I first came across Waheed last November, when a member of my Facebook book club shared a link to the free Kindle downloads of Waheed’s collections, salt. and nejma. I didn’t realize that Waheed is part of a larger movement that includes New York Times bestsellers and international book tours and full-on celebrities.  As this take from the Guardian points out:

Despite their popular success, the Instapoets’ style of angsty heartbreak poetry and daily outpourings of emotion is not to everyone’s taste. Nor do they undergo the same rigorous revising processes of more conventional poets. Gregson has said he never edits his 17-syllable haiku – “because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time” – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft.

And while Instapoetry may feel insipid and bland at times, does poetry need gatekeepers? If Instapoetry is the poetry of capitalism, is that such a bad thing? Surely Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes would have been sharing early drafts of facile, ambitiously vague poetry on Instagram if it had been around sixty years ago? Are we only sneering at Instapoetry because young women like it?

I don’t know. I can only know what I like.

As someone who’s had a life-long fascination with patterns and structure and rhythm, it’s not really surprising that when it comes to poetry I am naturally attracted to closed verse, with its underlying regularity in meter and rhyme. No surprise, then, that I tend to prefer my poetry in the form of song lyrics.

Waheed’s poetry, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern: free verse, fragmentary, and with an interesting relationship to punctuation. Unsurprisingly, I was not consistently blown away at every page, but there are some gems in both collections.

As Rishi Distidar says in that Guardian article:

What makes you a poet is learning the craft, spending time reading other poets and bringing writerly tools to the emotions you are trying to convey. I think it’s great if people are enjoying poetry through social media but the next step would be to read more poetry and understand what else is out there. Contemporary poets offline are incredibly vibrant – it’s just directing people into that world.

However! Such short little bursts of language are perfect for EFL students to work with, in the classroom and outside of it. You can order paperback copies of her work from Amazon if you want copies for students to browse in your classroom, or you can follow Waheed on Instagram for little bits of poetry in your Instagram feed.

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. 😉