Readers of the World – The West Indies (Part One)

It’s time once more to resume our trip around the Readers of the World. Last time we visited India; for this instalment we’re having our first stop-over to the West Indies…

The cricket fans amongst you will know that the West Indies are currently touring England, and the Caribbean islands have brought the world not only some of the most fiery, charismatic sporting figures, but a range of excellent literature. As a side note, cricket fans looking for a good novel to read, and indeed non-cricket fans, should take a look at Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, endorsed by Barack Obama no less.

The first of our West Indian destinations is Antigua, who can lay claim to being the birthplace of Jamaica Kincaid, who wrote the acclaimed Lucy which was originally serialized in The New Yorker, and tells the story of a nineteen year old Antiguan au pair who moves to the US and grapples with her cultural identity, represented when she has to recite ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth, only to feel fake because she is not English and has never seen a daffodil.

The Future for a Child volunteer led initiative in Antigua
is encouraging Antiguans to donate books that can be given to children in the country who lack books of their own. Founder, Ina Howe, hopes that by providing deprived children with their own books can help foster a love of reading and improved literacy.

The Antigua Observer points out that Howe acknowledges more can be done than just providing young people with books:

She referenced a teacher at Villa, Ms Russell, whom she said got an award for her kids having read the most books from the new school library – which is separate and apart from Future for a Child but helps make the point.

“It made a difference that this one teacher was encouraging her kids to read,” Howe said. It goes without saying that this also needs to happen at home. Children, she said, like to talk about what they’ve read and asking them how they liked the book, which characters they liked and so on, is a good conversational starter.

In Barbados it would appear that literacy is not such a critical issue, as it can boast a literacy rate at a staggering 99.7%, the 5th best in the world according to a United Nations Development Report in 2011.

The most well reknowned writer of Barbados is probably the poet Kamau Brathwaite. His work explores the racial and cultural backgrounds of Caribbeans, particularly the African diaspora, for an exploration of his work, I suggest you read the long, fierce poem ‘Soweto’.

The Barbados Association of Reading seeks to promote literacy, providing an interesting definition of themselves:

The Barbados Association of Reading is cognizant of the empowering nature of literacy to effect positive behavioural changes in people and supports the efforts of the government through the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development in the provision of educational opportunities from nursery to tertiary level for all citizens of Barbados.

BAR events have included the Walk for Literacy where walkers handed out free children’s and adult’s Caribbean literature to passers by; annual conferences and open monthly meetings.

Over in Dominica, Chief Cultural Officer Raymond Lawrence is trying to get people to read more, saying

The practise of reading…must be promoted and encouraged in order to develop a greater appreciation for various types of books and literature and to expand on our knowledgebase…

…As we all know, books are very important in schools. Books, in fact, are the foundation of any educational system in the world. So for everyone, especially our young people, books are of great educational value.

Earlier this month Dominica Public Library celebrated Library Week 2012 with the theme of ‘Building Communities at Your Library’, focusing on how improved community participation in libraries can lead to greater enjoyment of reading. One of the highlights saw library officials visit prisoners for a reading session, an activity that won’t have been a million miles away from The Reader Organisation’s work in criminal justice settings.

In terms of writers, one Dominican stands out: Jean Rhys. Rhys penned the popular and excellent Wide Sargasso Sea, a post-colonial novel offering a new take on the English classic Jane Eyre. The book acts as a prequel telling the story of Antoinette Cosway, AKA Bertha Mason, and her deeply unhappy relationship with Mr Rochester.

Guyana lies on the mainland of South America, yet remains part of the West Indies. Famous writers here include E.R. Braithwaite, Martin Carter, John Agard and Grace Nichols (featured in the forthcoming A Little, Aloud for Children).

Before becoming a writer, Braithwaite worked as a social worker for London City Council finding foster homes for children of ethnic minorities, and he was a school teacher. Race is a critical talking point for Braithwaite in his work, with his most famous work To Sir, With Love exploring the challenges faced by black professionals working in 1950s Britain.

Literacy rates in Guyana are relatively low compared to the rest of the West Indies, but the Guyana Book Foundation are seeking to address this by ensuring that those who work with youngsters in an educational capacity are aware of the best techniques of teaching reading and writing.

So there we have a pick of some of the interesting aspects of West Indian reading and literature, stick around for part two!

Readers of the World: India

Have you got your suitcases packed and passport at the ready? Well, you won’t need them for this particular trip, but you’ll still have a breathtaking journey as we depart once more to see the Readers of the World. Loads of riveting worldwide literature insights and no last-minute panics about jabs or currency exchange – that has to be a good thing…

Last time we went off to Romania; this time around we’re heading to the second-most populated country in the world – so there are lots of stories to tell – and a fascinating cultural mecca: India. Over to our Events and Publications Intern Michael McGrath to give the lowdown…

India. The name alone can stir one’s imagination. It’s not difficult to conjure up images of the country’s warmth and charm: vibrant, colourful landscapes; fresh, exotic foods; the beaming smiles of passing children. What lies beneath these familiar images and sensations, however, is an incredibly diverse country. There is an ever-increasing gap between the urban rich – in cities like Mumbai and Delhi – and the rural poor that make up the majority, for example. Cultural differences also exist between the many different religious groups that coexist in the country. But perhaps it is India’s astounding array of languages that is its most divisive feature.

Charles de Gaulle once asked of his native France, ‘how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’ If France’s plethora of all things fromage demonstrates its varied national identity, then surely it is India’s profusion of languages that gives one a sense of its magnificently diverse population. There are at least 1652 languages in use in India today, with the government recognising 112 mother tongues that have more than 10,000 speakers.

The lingua francas for most Indians are Hindi and English, but it is the latter that has flourished in recent decades. India’s emergence on the world stage (including its membership to the G20) has given the country a more outward-looking identity, with English becoming the language of the educated, the prosperous, and the aspirational. A 1997 survey by India Today magazine estimated that about a third of the country’s population of more than one billion could hold a conversation in English. This linguistic trend has had an undeniably large effect on Indian culture, particularly its literature.

A new wave of Indian novelists and poets writing in English has materialised in the last few decades. Not only have these writers created an exciting new branch of English literature, but they are also receiving some of the most coveted accolades in literature for their efforts. The Nobel Prize in Literature, for example, has recognised Indian writers, awarding Rabindranath Tagore, V.S. Naipaul and Indian-born Rudyard Kipling honours for their works. In the last fifteen years three Indian writers have received the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Literature: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008).

This recent success has revitalised the literary scene in India. Jaipur, the famously pink city in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, has held an incredibly popular literature festival since 2006 – attracting the likes of Tina Brown, Ian McEwan and Oprah Winfrey.

Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of fiction to emerge from India in recent years is Salman Rushdie’s much-lauded Midnight’s Children. The book begins with the story of the Sinai family and the birth of its newest member. Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai is celebrated in this new country and welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences for Saleem, namely: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other ‘midnight’s children’ – all born in the first hour of India’s independence.

Saleem, using his telepathic powers, assembles a Midnight Children’s Conference, bringing hundreds of ethnically diverse children together while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. It is also at a time when Saleem’s family begin a number of migrations, and witness a number of the violent outbreaks that cripple the subcontinent during its separation. Saleems’s path in life mirrors India’s varied fortunes during this period, allowing Rushdie to examine the effects of colonialism, independence, and partition.

Midnight’s Children has won a host of literary awards, including The Man Booker Prize in 1981. In addition, to celebrate its twenty-fifth and fortieth anniversaries, the Booker Prize presented Midnight’s Children with ‘The Booker of Bookers’ and the ‘Best of the Bookers’ awards respectively.

Rushdie’s magnum opus is but one example of the many great works that have emerged from India since the country’s independence. What links the majority of these works is their ability to challenge long-held assumptions, confront difficult issues, but also enthral readers with their exquisite language and beautiful verse. If Midnight’s Children heralded a renaissance in Indian writing, then the future of Indian literature (and indeed world literature) is looking rather exciting.

Readers of the World: Romania

It’s that time again where we head off to another destination on our worldwide whistle-stop tour of literary wonders and delights, and catch up with our Readers of the World. Last time we took in the sights  – or more appropriately, the words – of Israel; where will we be picking up a souvenir postcard this time around? Well, we can tell you right now: we’re going to Romania (thanks to former Communications Intern Mike Butler). Without further ado, let’s take off and read on…

If you think capitalism’s bad – mass privatisation, rising inequality, BT adverts – then, before you decide to collectivise your land, buy a tractor and denounce your next-door neighbour to the Securitate, you might first want to read Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums, set in 1970s Romania during Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship. Muller was an eyebrow-raising (i.e. not Philip Roth) winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, but LGP’s unflinching depiction of the everyday horrors and banalities of life under the regime is enough to silence any Anglophone complaints about the supposed eccentricities of the awarding committee.

The novel, largely autobiographical, is told from the perspective of a female German-Romanian student who, along with her three male friends, comes to the attention of the secret police and is subjected to harassment, spying and interrogation. The sparse and sometimes enigmatic narration convincingly captures the psychological effects of living within a strictly circumscribed reality, in which individual thought and expression are oppressed.

It’s not a barrel of laughs – the narrative is driven largely by suicide, madness and despair – but the narrator, at once jaded and unworldly, gives the prose a captivating, deadpan quality: her ‘heart-beast’ leaps out of her chest and onto the floor; she observes her ex-SS father hacking at the ‘damn stupid plants’ in the garden; the factory workers in the city produce ‘tin sheep’ and ‘wooden melons’ with their provincial hands. LGPs could be read as a realist counterpart to George Orwell’s 1984, inhabiting a similar world in which your best friend can be your worst enemy, and in which the present tyranny seems to stretch on forever.

Self-expression and independent thought are virtually impossible in The Land of Green Plums, but the characters in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros face identity issues of a more extreme variety – namely, that everyone starts turning into rhinoceroses. First performed in Paris in 1960, seven years after the premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the two main characters in this play don’t have to wait around very long for a mystical appearance. A rhino comes crashing down the street, trampling a cat but leaving the Sunday-afternoon ennui largely intact: one character, asked what he thinks of the incident, remarks, ‘Well … nothing … it made a lot of dust …’

Soon, however, everyone’s at it, and the chaos and destruction intensify; the moral recrimination begins and the remaining humans form a mini-resistance to the violent occupation. The meaning of the play would have been fairly unambiguous to a Parisian audience in 1960, sixteen years after the end of the Nazi occupation of the city; the characters often speak in terms of collaboration and betrayal (‘I never would have thought it of him – never!’), whilst allowing themselves to give in to denial and resignation (‘we must move with the times!’).

Typically of absurdist theatre, the nightmarish and the comic are combined: in one horrific scene, which looks back to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and forward to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, the character Berenger witnesses his best friend Jean turning into a rhinoceros; rapidly turning green and becoming hoarse, he renounces humanist values and cries out for ‘The swamps! The swamps!’ Later on, Berenger recognises the straw boater pierced on the horn of a recently transformed ex-human: ‘The Logician … a rhinoceros!!!’ ‘He’s still retained a vestige of his old individuality,’ observes his colleague of the disembodied head bobbing along the orchestra pit.

The characters in the play summon several discourses – logical, legal, medical, relativist – in order to explain and come to terms with their bizarre predicament, but all are shown to be inadequate. Where Rhinoceros ends with a flourish of humanistic defiance, however, no such consolation is offered in the work of the philosopher E. M. Cioran, who in his A Short History of Decay (1949) blames the human inclination toward belief and fanaticism for the sufferings of the world. Such nihilistic sentiments were probably not uncommon after the Second World War, especially if you’d spent most of the 1930s in Germany describing yourself as a ‘Hitlerist’ and expressing your support for the fascist Iron Guard back home. ‘Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his ideas into a god the consequences are incalculable,’ he writes after the war.

For those of us who embrace nihilism as a convenient excuse to sit around shrugging our shoulders and eating crisps, Cioran comfortingly assures us that ‘ennui is the echo in us of time tearing itself apart,’ which, if true, certainly adds a sheen of philosophical respectability to watching Jeremy Kyle on a grey Tuesday afternoon. If you are feeling ennui-stricken and missing the rumble of rhinoceros hooves or of time tearing itself apart, then you could do worse than read Andrei Codrescu’s The Posthuman Dada Guide, written in the playful and subversive spirit of the movement that it celebrates.

The Romanian Tristan Tzara was one of the founders of Dadaism, which came to prominence during World War I – a time when ‘like a spectator watching splendid mannequins being outfitted for the evening by a tailor (Mr. History), Romania gathered the leftover scraps to make its own, rather improvised, suit from the elegant remnants,’ according to Codrescu, referring to its post-war acquisition of Transylvania and Bessarabia and resultant cultural variety. Like Cioran, the Dada artists and writers saw the modern world as inherently meaningless, but they celebrated rather than mourned this fact (which is possibly the crucial – if in this case achronological – difference between postmodernism and modernism). Romanian writers in the twentieth century seem constantly to be staring absurdity in the face, as Europe cracks up and realigns itself, then cracks up again; Romania joined the EU, with its promise of stability, in 2007, and may find itself caught in this cycle once more.

Readers of the World: Israel

We’re off on our travels once more for our fortnightly instalment of tales from the Readers of the World…where will we be going to this time? The answer is not so far away, even if the country is…

We last left off by taking a trip to the literary hotbed (or should that be hot geyser?) that was Iceland – now Liverpool Hope University Reader-in-Residence Charlotte Weber acts as our tour guide for the literary wonders of Israel.

‘The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.’ –

from the opening of ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’, by Etgar Keret.

As a nation occupied by ‘The People of the Book’, there is no way that Israel could fail to have a rich and provocative culture of reading. From the Bible and the legends of the Talmud, to modern-day Israeli and American authors, story-telling has always been an important part of Jewish life.

As far as literary culture goes, Israel is a nation that has had its fair share of complications and difficulties. To start with, there is the simple issue of language. As a mother tongue, Hebrew is spoken by just 8 million people worldwide (compare this to the 300 million people who speak Arabic, the language of those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories within Israel), and the vast majority of this number are confined to those living within Israel itself. It is also a language that came dangerously close to extinction as a spoken form during the Middle Ages, until its revival as a spoken language during the 19th century.

Despite its complicated linguistic heritage and the tumultuous political relations with Palestine that continue to cause conflicts in the country, Israel has developed its own distinct literary legacy and boasts number of internationally recognised and celebrated authors. The best-known of these in recent times are undoubtedly the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman.

Oz was born Amos Klausner in the country’s capital, Jerusalem, in 1939. The son of Russian immigrants, he later changed his last name to the Hebrew word for ‘strength’. After the suicide of his mother following years of depression, Oz left home at age 15 and joined a kibbutz in central Israel, where he remained for 31 years. It was during this time that he began to write and his debut novel, Where the Jackals Howl, was published in 1965.

Like most Israeli’s, Oz served in the Israeli Defence Forces as a young adult. He fought in the 1967 ‘Six-Day War’, then in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, both of which gave him a “gut hatred of war and fighting”. It was following these experiences that Oz became one of the first Israeli intellectuals to speak in favour of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oz’s 2003 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which he reflects upon, among other things, the early death of his mother, is the biggest-selling title in Israeli history.

Books filled our home. My father could read in sixteen or seventeen languages. My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight … But the only language they ever taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me too to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent … Words like ‘meadow’, ‘cottage’, or ‘goose-girl’ excited and seduced me all through my childhood. They had a sensual aroma of a genuine, cosy world, far from the dusty tin roofs, the urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem, suffocating under the weight of white-hot summer.

David Grossman is a prolific writer, having published novels for both adults and young readers, short stories, a play and collections of essays. Politically left-wing, Grossman is also an outspoken peace activist who has demonstrated against the expansion of the Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. In particular, Grossman’s 2009 novel To the End of the Land, which was published 3 years after the death of his son Uri in the Israel-Lebanon war, received world-wide critical acclaim.

One of the biggest household names in Israeli literature at the moment, however, is the quirky and subversive Etgar Keret. The son of holocaust survivors, Keret’s unusual and often violent short stories have been printed in the New Yorker and The Guardian since his appearance on the literary scene in the 1990’s. He is credited with heralding a new kind of Israeli writing for a modern age – one that deals less with the political and social questions that have preoccupies Oz and Grossman, and more with the daily quirks and psychological dilemmas of the individual. His most recent collection of stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door was released by Chatto & Windus this February, and is reviewed in The Observer here.

Israel also has plenty in the way of literary offerings beyond its home-grown writers. The world-famous Jewish Book Week, celebrated its 60th anniversary in February this year, taking place in both Jerusalem and the vibrant Tel Aviv. The programme boasted contributors such as Simon Schama, Boyd Tonkin, Umberto Eco, Howard Jacobson and Etgar Keret. Tmol-Shilshom (Bookstore-Café) is a cultural gem tucked-away from the busy main streets of Jerusalem. Opened in 1994, this cosy café is a favourite among the Jerusalem literary and foodie scenes, with plenty on the menu to feed both the body and the brain (the cheesecake here is the best I have ever tasted!) It attracts plenty of literary figures as well as the general public – with Amos Oz and David Grossman both known to occupy tables here on a regular basis.

Readers of the World: Iceland

It’s time once more to pack our bags – metaphorically speaking – and head to foreign climes, as we continue to learn all about the Readers of the World.

Last time we headed to Ireland to learn all about the most famous of saints; now it’s off to a country not that different in name but definitely a little further afield (and even colder): the Nordic European island country of Iceland.

In August 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – better known as UNESCO – appointed its fifth City of Literature. Lining up alongside Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City and Dublin as a centre of culture, creativity and above all, a beating heart of vibrant literary activity (of both writers and readers; past and present) is Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. The prestigious title is not given lightly; each City of Literature must be “dedicated to pursuing literature on a local level, engaging citizens in a dynamic culture of words” as well as representing literature on an international scale, establishing and creating literary links within all four corners of the world. That’s a lot of responsibility to take on, even for a nation of voracious readers.

It’s surprising that Reykjavik has not been awarded the accolade much sooner as if there was ever a city whose very foundations were built upon literature, then Reykjavik is it. Indeed the heritage of Iceland as a whole is tightly bound up with works that are considered to be landmarks of literature not only in their homeland but globally. The Sagas of IcelandersÍslendingasögur as they are known in their mother tongue – have masterfully and rather spectacularly preserved the rich history of the country from its very beginnings, charting the migration, settlement, struggles and triumphs of the earliest inhabitants to Iceland. In turn, the Sagas intricate detail, breathtaking scope and – first and foremost – the great and timeless stories they tell have become just as significant a part of the country‘s heritage as the archiving of the ancestors that are recounted within.

Despite their almost overwhelming breadth – taking in events from the 10th and 11th century and being compiled as written volumes up until the 1500s – the Sagas are a perfect example of pure and exceptionally captivating storytelling, containing several key ingredients and plot twists that are central to any classic piece of literature, retaining all the excitement of fiction within a factual prose history. What makes the Sagas specifically as engaging and emphatic as the fire-and-ice country they are attached to is the fact their ‘characters‘ were all real, living, breathing people. More precisely they revolve around families; you don‘t have to watch Corrie or Eastenders to know that the family unit provides the biggest amounts of heartwarming joy and heartwrenching pain – and the Sagas certainly pack an incredibly dramatic punch. It isn‘t hard to chart the influence of the Sagas of Icelanders upon classic and modern literature alike; surely they are the predecessors of such legendary tales as Lord of The Rings (indeed, Tolkien admitted being greatly influenced by another bedrock of Icelandic literature, the vastly more mythological Poetic Edda) and the recent fantasy family-saga phenomenon A Song of Ice and Fire series. And as they‘ve been deemed “as tragic as Shakespeare, as colourful as The Canterbury Tales, as enduring as Beowulf, [and] as epic as The Iliad”, we can certainly see why the Sagas are regarded worldwide as a literary masterpiece, as enchanting and widely-read today as in centuries gone by.

Another factor that sets the Sagas of Icelanders apart from many vast historical texts that can be hard to get to grips with – instead marking them very much as something identifiable and real – comes with their presentation. Owing to the fact that before they were transcribed and put onto paper, they originated in the most traditional form of storytelling – being told and re-told through speech – the resulting prose has an untarnished clarity and straightforward narrative, making their drama all the more compelling. Icelandic literature has a particularly strong oral-based historical tradition, with both the Sagas and the aforementioned Poetic Edda being passed from generations through literal word of mouth. Iceland has been leading the way in read-aloud revolution for quite some time, and it has had quite an impact: it’s hardly a coincidence to learn that the Icelandic language is one of the most unchanged languages in the world, hardly transforming since the settlement of the Sagas’ protagonists in the country in the 9th century, and this is in large part due to the tradition of Icelandic literature being primarily spoken. The country’s literature – specifically the Sagas, read both in their original form and translated by various sources – goes hand in hand with its language, with each cultivating the other and the two put together cultivating a very strong sense of national identity and pride.

Even though Reykjavik is the heart of Iceland’s literary life – being home to the bi-annual and world renowned Reykjavik International Literary Festival, as well as the majority of Iceland’s publishing houses – a love of literature flows right through the country; hardly surprising when you consider the fact more books are written, published and sold per person per year in Iceland than in any other country in the world. To crunch numbers, five titles are published per every 1,000 Icelanders, double the rate for other Nordic countries [Source: Statistics Iceland; UNESCO]. Not only that, but on average it is estimated that one in ten Icelanders will go on to publish their very own work of literature in their lifetime. Impressive stats indeed, and one would suspect that there’s more than a few successors to Halldór Laxness and Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson in their midst.

Perhaps the nation’s affinity with literature in the modern day can be most closely linked to a yearly reading frenzy that is not specifically organised but has instead grown out of tradition and is now one of the most eagerly awaited reading-related events in the country. Iceland’s already booming publishing industry steps up a few more gears between October and December, heralding the lovely sounding ‘jólabokaflód’. This word translates to an idea that is even lovelier in concept, the Book-Flood-Before-Christmas (doesn’t it put images in your head of cascading waterfalls, gushing geysers and volcanos erupting with books rather than travel disrupting ash? Maybe that’s just me…). The pre-Christmas rush is big business everywhere but it’s in this time period that the city of Reykjavik is awash with a sea of books and all kinds of special events that help promote the act of reading, including writers being temporarily employed as shop assistants in bookstores and public readings taking place right across town. Given that books are clearly for life and not just for Christmas here (although they are the most popular Christmas present in the country), Reykjavik and Iceland as a whole most definitely deserves its award as a country flying the flag for literature love.

Readers of the World: Ireland

 “I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop. Most assuredly I believe that what I am I have received from God. And so I live among barbarians, a stranger and exile for the love of God.”

Patricks letter to Corneticus

Welcome to the next addition in our Readers of the World Series if you missed the last one click here.  A special one this as it happens to fall within the same week as St. Patrick ’s Day. So really could we have written about any country other than Ireland? Or any other man than Saint Patrick? (Naomh Padraig in Gaelic or Sanctus Patricius in Latin) Patrick’s celebration day has of course morphed from once being a holy catholic celebration day into another Secular holiday like many of the other Christian holidays (think Father Christmas and The Easter Bunny) By this logic Saint Patrick’s day has switched from being a celebration of a saint into the celebration of Irishness and Irish culture.

Now that’s not at all a bad thing, as it is by far and away the most celebrated national day of any country in the world (worldwide far bigger than Thanksgivings day in America or St. Georges Day in England….Or any others as far as I can think of)

So who was St. Patrick? Well he wasn’t Irish for a start. He was actually from either the north of England or Southern Scotland, and he was born into a wealthy family but obviously back then wealth didn’t stop the famous Niall of The Nine Hostages from doing what he done best….Kidnapping people! So Niall’s cohort brought the then Pagan Patrick back to Ireland where he was sold into slavery to a local landowner in Antrim.  

It was this time spent in slavery that swayed the young man’s heart towards the new Christian god and away from the native religion of his forefathers. Perhaps it was the lambs with which he herded, perhaps it was the silent mountains and long solitary days, either way his mind was shifted and he spent his long hours praying incessantly until one day he had a dream given by God and here is his own account (as written in his second letter confessions)

“And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: `It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country.’ And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: `See, your ship is ready.’ And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man with whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.”

So he came to the ship and God has provided him with safe passage back to Britain. He was then kidnapped by a band of brigands for a further 2 months and upon escaping he wandered Europe for 7 years pondering who he was to the earth and what he was to become before deciding upon priesthood. Upon completion of his studies he returned to Britain to become a priest when he was struck by the second of his dreams, a voice spoke “We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk once more amongst us.” Patrick recognised this as the voice of the Irish and was now clear as to his purpose in life, converting Irish Pagans to Christianity.

Patrick on the hill of Tara overlooking the church

He was ordained as a Bishop and sent to Ireland with 26 followers upon the death of Palladius (the previous monk tasked with that job). Upon entering Ireland he knew he had to do something bold and to the high king of Ireland nothing was more bold than the lighting of the spring fire upon the hill of Tara before the kings own bonfire. The king was enraged and travelled to the hill with his bejewelled guards and self to find a humble cohort of faithful servants eager to share the news of the new religion… The king was impressed and so began a toppling over of religious ideals and mythology in Ireland that changed the world and did much to bring Europe out of the dark ages that were to come. It all started with a faithful man in rags on a symbolic hill, so think about that when you’re wearing a green t-shirt and drinking Guinness. As for the snakes? Let’s not argue on whether they were real snakes or symbolic Pagan snakes.

So there we have it the most colourful, musical, enjoyable, alcohol fuelled, worldwide, national celebration of any country in the whole world! What are you going to be doing this Saturday? Hopefully you aren’t sitting in watching Take Me Out hoping for some Paddy love when the real paddy love will be dotted around Liverpool’s glorious pubs and bars.

Readers of the World: South Africa

The time has arrived once more to resume our round the world reading trip and get some highly interesting insights into global literature. If you were too late to catch the plane for Charlotte’s tour of Canada, you can catch up here – or alternatively, make your way through the entire series so far (and you don’t even have to worry about delays…).

This time around we’re travelling to South Africa, courtesy of current Communications Intern George Hawkins. In particular we’ll be looking at one aspect of its literary history: Afrikaans literature.

South Africa has an interesting literary history. Much of this is owed to the fractious history of a county which in the last couple of hundred years has been dominated by very different groups, has fully 11 national languages (with supposedly equal status) and has a long history of violent nationalism and antagonistic relations amongst its peoples.

Afrikaans is a young language (it was only standardised as a separate language in 1875!), and its literary culture is even younger. It was originally an offshoot of High Dutch, spoken in the 17th Century by the first white men to colonise South Africa. Later it evolved into an African language of its own, with identifiable grammatical differences from Dutch, developing linguistically away from its mother tongue, even as the people who spoke it developed their own separate identity as Afrikaners.

Afrikaner literature has always been heavily influenced by the ecclesiastical, reflecting the Afrikaner cultural affinity for the same. As a result it took some time for a tradition of Afrikaner literature to really grow and flourish, first it had to separate itself from Dutch, throw off the shackles of excessive religious influence and contend with the challenges of life in South Africa: many Afrikaners were country people, farmers and hunters, meaning it was often difficult to develop the kind of civil society that promotes a healthy literary culture. Eventually though, adversity fostered a thriving sense of identity and a cultural expression through books. Traumatic events such as the Second Boer War (in which the British Army, through incompetence rather than malice, caused the deaths of many thousands of Afrikaner women and children from disease in camps) helped the Afrikaner literary culture coalesce, and it has thrived since. As is often the case, books provided an outlet for collective grief, and ultimately art benefitted from tragedy.

One of the major literary movements in Afrikaans has been Die Sestigers (‘The Sixtiers’), a movement of Afrikaans-language writers who wrote, amongst other things, in protest against the status quo of South African society in those days. They protested against apartheid, the system of racial segregation, keeping all the races of South Africa separate, ideally in their own ‘homelands’ –with the ultimate aim of securing white hegemony. Apartheid was a predominantly the creation of Afrikaner politicians (though many Anglo-descended South Africans embraced it too), and standing up to an authoritarian government and intolerant culture was a brave choice for Afrikaner writers. Using novels, poems and plays, these Sestigers highlighted the contradictions of their society, and therefore helped change it for the better. Like their predecessors who used literature as a source of collective catharsis, that generation of Afrikaner authors harnessed the power of literature for good for societies and people.

Readers of The World: Canada

Time for our fortnightly foray into international literature and reading round the world, as we continue to collate our Readers of the World.

Last time we went south but now we’re heading back into Northern territory as Liverpool Hope Reader-in-Residence Charlotte Weber introduces us to what Canada has to offer in the way of great literature…

“In other lands it was already spring; vigorously the sap was running, buds were bursting and presently leaves would unfold; but the soil of far northern Canada must be rid of one chill and heavy mantle before clothing itself afresh in green.” (Maria Chapdelaine)

What do most of us think of when we think ‘Canada’? Maple leaves, snow, bears, moose (mooses? meese?!) maple syrup, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé (unfortunately), ice hockey… what else?

 Canada is a country that many of us probably assume we know a fair bit about – however, I think that much of this assumed knowledge probably comes from our ideas of Canada in relation to its domineering southern neighbour, the USA – and I would argue that Canadian literary history is no exception to this rule. There are some names that would immediately spring to mind for some of us when asked about Canadian writers – Margaret Atwood, for example, or Yann Martel – or John McCrae, whose WW1 poem In Flanders’ Fields has become somewhat of a national emblem. There are many other names that most people would recognise but, as with many Canadian celebrities, they had probably assumed were American (Carol Shields? Douglas Coupland? Pamela Anderson?!)

So in this post I want to pay tribute to two writers I encountered whilst spending a year abroad studying English at a university in the province of Ontario – who both have, in my opinion, important things to say about what Canadian literature might be, and where it is coming from.

The first is the French-Canadian author Louis Hémon, whose novel Maria Chapdelaine gives an unusual and intimate insight into the theme which dominates so much of ‘official’ Canadian history: settlement. Hémon himself only made the move from Paris to the francophone Canadian province Quebec two years before his death in 1913 – the same year that Maria was published. During his short time in the country, however, Hémon managed to create a book that feels intensely ‘Canadian,’ and which for me still depicts and explains much of what I experienced during my own short residence there, despite it being set in a time and area very far removed from that which I was in:

“The house became the centre of the universe; in truth the only spot where life could be sustained, and more than ever the great cast-iron stove was the soul of It […] Outside, the neighbouring forest, and even the fields won from it, were an alien unfriendly world, upon which they looked wonderingly through the little square windows.

And sometimes this world was strangely beautiful in its frozen immobility, with a sky of flawless blue and a brilliant sun that sparkled on the snow; but the immaculateness of the blue and the white alike was pitiless and gave hint of the murderous cold.”

It’s hard to spend a winter in Canada and not find yourself becoming strangely obsessed with the snow, and even to begin attributing hidden, living motives to the cold. The passage seems incredibly relevant to me now, when I remember the Christmas I spent in Ontario, in a house with seven of the other British students who had gone over: throughout the novel, Hémon depicts with beautiful and bittersweet imagery the power of the cold climate to both isolate and bring together.

It’s not all about the snow, though. Part of the reason why the book still features on a university literature course is because, whilst it describes a process and struggle that must have been characteristic of so many of those early settler narratives, it also gives such a sensitive and detailed account of the inner life of its title-heroine, that it remains a powerful and relevant read today. For Maria, a young woman at the beginning of her emotional life and approaching marriage-able age, the ‘immobile,’ frozen world around her is even more of an anxiety, and a frustration: it takes a particular kind of romantic heroine who can live “the life of the woods” – which is “so unhurried that one must needs have more than the patience of a human being to await and mark its advance.” She’s no Cathy Earnshaw or Becky Sharpe, but Maria is still a character filled with passions – and it is her own gradual awakening which, more than the change of the seasons, captivates the reader.

The second author I want to mention here is Joseph Boyden: a Canadian of Métis (mixed European and First Nations, or ‘aboriginal’) descent, whose writing touches upon a subject and a people even more neglected in the history, and literary, books.

In his debut novel, Three Day Road (Penguin, 2005), Boyden tells the story of Xavier Bird, a Cree soldier who is one of the many young aboriginal men forced to fight for the British during the First World War. the story explores the themes of freedom and entrapment – paralleling the brutal massacre known as the first modern war and the destruction of native culture with subtle poignancy. Xavier returns to Northern Ontario after the war wounded in body, crushed in spirit, and addicted to morphine. He is met in Moose Factory, Ontario, by his aunt Niska, and as she paddles him back to her home in the bush, he recalls the bloody experiences of the war. Meanwhile Niska attempts to keep him alive by narrating her own life story, and by reminding him of the values and traditions of his own people – so far removed from what he has seen and experienced in the fields of Europe. As Niska re-tells his own story to him, the novel reveals the strength of the power of story-telling as an enduring source of hope and means of survival:

“You saw for the first time the circle. Even though you could not yet express it in words, you understood the seasons, the tepee, the shaking tent, the wigwam, the fire circle, the matatosowin. You saw all of life is in the circle, and realized that you always come back, in one way or another, to where you have been before.”

Well, I can’t end this post without a bit of poetry. So, I will let the last words go to an un-disputed Canadian great, who is still going strong today and still commands a formidable army of die-hard fans the world over (myself, and my dad, included!). Musical genius, or poetic prophet? You decide! Sorry to all you Bryan Adams fans…

Readers of the World: Chile

We’re off on a trip once more – although there’s no need to pack your bags – as we resume our journey of literature around the globe and find our Readers of the World.

Two weeks ago, we found out all about Nigerian literature; this time, as the climate gets considerably chilly at home we’re diverting to an altogether different kind – that is, the South American republic of Chile (please excuse the terrible pun…). Our tour guide is former Communications intern Mike Butler (who previously showed us around the literary delights of Iraq), who examines two of Chile’s finest writers…

‘We were going to be perfect, we were going to be brave, we were going to be beautiful’ – Jorge Guzman

If September 11th 2001 signalled the end of the 1990s, when the end of history had been declared and we were set to live under the aegis of a prosperous and triumphant liberal democratic system, then, as Christopher Hitchens observes, September 11th 1973 could be seen as the day when the curtain fell on the optimism and idealism of the 1960s. This was the date of the Chilean military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the White House administration of Nixon and Kissinger, which saw the bombing of the Presidential palace in Santiago and led to the death of the socialist-leaning President Salvador Allende; the rule of the ensuing military dictatorship would last until 1990.

Pablo Neruda, the most famous Spanish-language poet of the twentieth century, died twelve days later in unrelated circumstances. (The celebrated theatre director and folk singer Victor Jara was imprisoned, tortured and killed in what might be called ‘related circumstances’.) Neruda is best known for his early collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair, a series of sensuous and melancholic poems whose imagery draws heavily on the nature and wildlife of southern Chile. He was a member of the Chilean Communist Party and was a close associate of Allende, and his political awareness is displayed in poems such as The United Fruit Co. (the identification of whose corrupting influence in Latin America presaged that company’s role in the US-sponsored anti-socialist coup in Guatemala in 1954) and They Receive Instructions against Chile (‘they decide from above, from the roll of dollars, / … / and the trunk of the tree of the country rots’). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, joining his compatriot Gabriela Mistral, who became the first Latin American writer to win the prize in 1945.

‘Paul Celan shall rise from his ashes in the year 2113. André Breton shall return through mirrors in the year 2071. Max Jacob shall cease to be read, that is to say his last reader shall die, in the year 2059.’  If you enjoyed reading that sentence, from his 1999 novella Amulet, then you’ll probably enjoy the rest of Roberto Bolano’s oeuvre, most of which has been translated into English only since his death in 2003. He left Chile for Mexico at the age of fifteen and returned in August 1973 ‘to help build socialism’, although this ambition was soon thwarted by the circumstances outlined above. He was briefly imprisoned following the coup and left Chile for good soon after, although his work is haunted by the events of that year and the brutality of the subsequent junta and dictatorship.

Most of his stories and novels are about fictional or fictionalised poets and writers, although they express ambivalence and suspicion about literary writing: Nazi Literature in the Americas is a series of fictional biographies of Fascist or Fascist-sympathising writers; The Savage Detectives is centred on a pair of poets, including one ‘Arturo Belano’, whose work is largely forgotten. Bolano’s own writing has an unmannered and inconclusive style that brilliantly captures the messiness and disorder of real life; avoiding the imposition of any kind of false order or lyrical grandiosity and disregarding conventional narrative authority and clarity, it could be described as a kind of anti-fascist aesthetic.

Neruda also had a certain distrust of literature and books: ‘I am a man of bread and fish / and you won’t find me among books’, he writes in Such is my life, following Wordsworth and Whitman in giving an apparently self-negating precedence to direct experience over words on a page. In a similar vein, he writes that ‘poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and by peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.’ Neruda and Bolano seem to offer differing views on the importance of writing: for Neruda, ‘the poet of my people’, who read his work to a stadium of 70,000 of his compatriots after collecting his Nobel Prize, poetry is a vital part of the life of a society that should transcend books and learning; for Bolano, poets are frustrated outsiders who squabble amongst themselves and leave little of value behind. Either way, it’s hard not to be swayed by Neruda when he says that ‘the poet gives us a gallery full of ghosts shaken by the fire and darkness of his time’ – and there was certainly enough fire and darkness to keep Latin American poets well occupied during the twentieth century.

Readers of the World: Nigeria

It’s time once more for our  fortnightly trip to foreign climes, to take a deeper look into what’s going on with all things literature, bookish, story and reading related around the world.

The latest instalment comes from one of our Hope Readers Dave Cookson, who is exploring Nigeria… (if you want to catch up on any of our previous Readers of the World posts, you can take yourself on a mini round the world trip right here)

Nigeria has the 7th largest population in the world, and English is its official language, often used in educational settings and is used by many as a second language.

The diversity of Nigeria means there is a wide range of literature in a variety of languages. Yoruba is spoken by 20 million, with the first novel in this language (The Forest of a Thousand Demons by D.A. Fagunwa) published relatively recently in 1938. Hausa is spoken by 25 million and the language’s first novel emerged from a competition ran by Northern Nigeria’s Translation Bureau. The winner was Muhammadu Bello’s 1933 work Gandoki. Igbo is a language spoken by some 20 million Nigerians, and The Proverbs of Omenuko by Pita Nwana was the language’s first novel, published in 1933, when another famous Igbo person was just three years old: Chinua Achebe.

Despite his Igbo background Achebe wrote in English, producing one of the most highly-acclaimed and widely read African books in history: Things Fall Apart. The novel is fiercely anti-colonial whilst acknowledging the flaws of pre-colonial society, following the deeply-flawed protagonist Okonkwo as he tries to dominate the village of Umuofia and then prevent it succumbing to the English colonialists. Things Fall Apart clearly drew on the proverbial influence of the Igbo culture demonstrated in the very first Igbo novel and throughout its rich history of story-telling.

Achebe’s novels are examples of the power of good story-telling, but his own experiences of storytelling and its benefits are not limited to politically-tinged novels. In the essay ‘My Daughters’ he tells of a time when his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Nwando, would cry on the way to her new American nursery school, not speak to anyone once she was there and on the way back would seem ‘desolate’. What happened next was beautiful:

“In the end we struck a bargain that solved the problem. I had to tell her a story all the way to school if she promised not to cry when I dropped her off. Very soon she added another story all the way back. The agreement, needless to say, taxed my repertory of known and fudged stories to the utmost. But it worked. Nwando was no longer crying. By the year’s end she had become such a success in her school that many of her little American schoolmates had begun to call their school Nwando-haven instead of its proper name, Wonderhaven.”

Despite being a country with such a short history involving the English language Nigeria has consistently produced brilliant writers including poets Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka; author of The Voice, Gabriel Okara; Booker Prize winning author of The Famished Road, Ben Okri and author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The frustrating thing about Nigeria and its rich literary history is that reports claim around half the country suffers with literacy problems. In a bid to combat this, President Goodluck Jonathan introduced the ‘Bring Back the Book’ initiative in December 2010. This was a national pledge to protect libraries, conduct readings of the country’s literature in educational institutions, research issues relating to reading and support organisations conducting reading-related activity. The ultimate aim of the initiative is to revitalise a reading culture in Nigeria.

BBB has incorporated numerous events into the initiative, with authors nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature being paired with children to read. However, the event took a surprising turn when an argument about witches erupted between a high school pupil and one of the nominees! At the same event a cultural activist claimed foreign cartoons were killing the folk tale tradition of Nigeria, and cartoons did no good to a child’s moral upbringing.

To take a nationalistic view of the merits of writing, particularly in English, Nigeria is a literary giant. If you’ve never read anything by one of Achebe, Okigbo or Soyinka then it’s about time you right that wrong.