I thought European translated fiction was having a bit of a moment. With the success of Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels, I was certain the English-speaking world was, at last, waking up to the beauty and brilliance of fiction from Europe. But at least in the UK, this is definitely not the case. Especially with Brexit looming, there is a danger that we will have even fewer books translated from their original language into English. Or is this fear without foundation?
What is the future of European Fiction in a post-Brexit context?
The future of European fiction from British viewpoint was discussed at the first event of the 2017 European Writers’ Tour at The British Library a couple of weeks ago. The wonderful evening of intellectual, bookish talk began with an impassioned keynote speech on the effects of Brexit on literature in the UK given by award-winning author A L Kennedy.
Citizen of Nowhere
Kennedy began her talk commenting on Prime Minister May’s assertion during a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016:
‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’
Kennedy noted that she is a proud ‘Citizen of Nowhere’, an expression she believes the Prime Minister used as a reference to the poor, the sick, the old, the refugees, the immigrants, the non-white, the non-Christian and the non-compliant.
Kennedy also said that a hard Brexit would certainly affect the availability of European fiction, and reduce cultural exchanges between Britain and Continental Europe. It is dangerous to reject the cultural connection to Europe, she said and noted that to think that the UK is purely British is nonsense. European fiction and authors have influenced British literature from Shakespeare to Dickens; she said that even the origins of our fonts are ‘foreign’.
A cultural exchange of words between nations can only promote thinking and literature, and democracy. Democracy in the UK, often considered impregnable, shouldn’t be taken for granted, either, Kennedy said, highlighting the case of British poet Talha Ahsan who was detained in the UK in 2006 for over six years without trial and extradited to the United States.
Fear for the Future of Translated Fiction
Saying she feared for the future of European translated fiction in a post-Brexit Britain, which already accounts for only 3% of the traditionally published books, Kennedy also passionately argued that writers have a responsibility ‘to resist’ racism and extremism, and to speak on behalf of all ‘Citizens of Nowhere’. She added that after Brexit, British writers will rely heavily on Europe for moral and intellectual support.
Although at times utterly depressing, I did find some hope in A L Kennedy’s words
I understand and share the author’s fears about the future with a hard Brexit looming, as well as her disappointment in her fellow Brits. This is a feeling I know well from the Englishman who often apologises to non-Brits living here, even if he did everything he could to drum up support for the ‘In’ vote, and tried to explain how disastrous for Britain leaving the EU would be. But I also think that the Brexit vote has made Brits who are international and outward looking – fellow Citizens of Nowhere – sit up and take notice. I believe the shock of the vote will make Brits who read widely support translated fiction even more by reading International works.
I hope it has also made people understand the dangers of an unequal society, of racism, jingoism, and an inward-looking attitude, and made voters realise that referenda and elections matter. I hope people can now see that our democracy cannot be taken for granted, and the only way to preserve it, is to use your vote if you are lucky enough to have one.
Fight Against Poverty Important
During a panel discussion after Kennedy’s talk, Francesca Melandri, award-winning Italian screenwriter and author, noted that it is fear of the unknown that fuels rejection of different cultures and people from different countries. She also added that the inequalities between the bottom and top of the income ladders are far greater than those across physical borders.
I felt the comment on the fear of the unknown was particularly true. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard Brits tell me ‘I don’t mean you, dear,’ when talking about ‘the foreigners’ coming into their country. Foreigners are OK as long as they’re known to us (them).
There’s No ‘Them and Us’
When, during a brief Q&A session at the end of the evening, a member of the audience asked how we should make ‘them’ – the 51.9% who voted to leave the European Union – understand what Brexit means to Britain culturally, Kennedy said simply, ‘Use everything you have at your disposal, be devious if you have to.’
The Italian author Francesca Melandri very wisely added, ‘Thinking that there is a “them and us” is a mistake.’ She felt we should try to come together to understand and help each other, which I thought was a noble idea. But how to do it without losing your head? Being devious, I guess.
I also consider myself a European author, even though I write in English and live in London. My influences come largely from Europe, I grew up in Northern Europe and I have my roots firmly set in an international and outward-looking Britain. I hope that together with a continued love towards and co-operation with Europe, Britain will still read European fiction and European writers can continue to influence and help us fight inequality and racism. I know this may be a wholly optimistic attitude.
The two European books featured during the evening were:
Eva Sleeps, a best-seller in Italy, written by Francesca Melandri and translated by Katherine Gregor, deals with the rejection of other cultures and is set in the border regions of Northern Italy and Austria. It’s a story of family, conflict, forgiveness, borders and history. As the blurb on the jacket says, ‘Eva Sleeeps is a story that will delight fans of Elena Ferrante and readers of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres ‘
Bricks and Mortar by German author Clemens Meyer is winner of English Pen Award and is translated by Katy Derbyshire. The novel is about the sex trade in the former GDR, where the Berlin Wall takes on a role in itself, as does the Neo-liberal Germany’s seedy underworld.
Both are available at Amazon, just click the images.
The European Writers’ Tour continues at the Hay Festival Friday 2nd June. More details can be found here.
Do you read translated fiction? And if so, do you fear for the future of cultural exchange between Europe and Britain after a hard Brexit?
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