A Year of Reading Dangerously: on tea, cakes and foreign fiction
Tea helps, and so does cake – and so definitely does having a cooker and inviting whole families, including granny, along. Running a world writing project is never without some fascinating findings.
For the last year Oxygen Books, publishers of the city-pick urban anthology series, has been co-ordinating an Arts Council-funded project, A Year of Reading Dangerously. Its aim: to promote world writing to a wider audience.
Working across outer London and Essex library authorities with a touring exhibition featuring writing from five continents, a website, and book group and author events (Ann Morgan, Moniza Alvi, Sander Jakobsen, Helen Dunmore), the project has taken world writing to places not often felt to be on the metropolitan literary circuit.
World writing in some of London’s poorest boroughs, surely not a recipe for success? Our Arts Council report won’t be available until April but here are some of our preliminary and we hope helpful observations:
* Library book groups are an often untapped way of promoting different types of writing. In Chelmsford – amazingly over 50 library groups – and Redbridge the libraries brought lots of book groups together. Readers love world writing and are fascinated by it but feel intimidated by an over-emphasis on prizes won and being called classics (the kind of things that might appeal to those in the ‘know’). Readers love ‘stories’ about world writing. Readers want world writing to be on the same level playing field as other types of writing and want to approach it in the same way.
* Libraries are keen to promote world writing, they have great stock and can easily order in other titles. It means that, unlike most bookshops, there’s both a range of world titles available, older and new. They can also order multiple copies of a book for book groups. Every authority we worked with ran some superb stock promotions around world writing.
* Now is a good time to approach libraries about world writing. Changes in library structures (ok, euphemism for cuts and closures) mean, not just that libraries have less funding but also less management hierarchy, which makes decision making easier all round. Nearly every library authority we approached said yes and we ended up having to turn some down.
* The writer doesn’t actually have to be a translated writer. Ann Morgan‘s Reading the World, about reading a book from every country in the world, attracted wide attention, as will Helen Dunmore appearing at our last and nearly sold-out event in March, discussing her Russian novels, her new novel (Russian theme) and her love of Russian writing. Using well-known names like these offer an excellent ‘way in’ to world writing.
* Being in the right place at the right time helps. Thanks to Barking Learning Centre our event with Anglo-Pakistani poet Moniza Alvi, reading from her work and discussing Asian poetry, attracted over a hundred people including many British Asian families (with children) who were able to make an evening of it complete with dinner.
* And tea and cakes (preferably with a foreign flavour) is of course essential with all world writing events.