Wow. A stunning windfall.
And of course you’ll want to read. So you contrive to ship yourself a bunch of books. (Sorry, world: I’m not yet sufficiently out of the tar-pit to make the leap to reading devices. Give me time.)
The choice of those shipped books must be, of course, a meticulous, obsessive thing. So I put together a mini-smorgasbord: old, new, domestic, foreign, fiction and nonfiction.
But what grew instantly clear the moment I arrived was that it would be stupid (a waste of fabulous resources) to read stories taking place elsewhere.
This was the best possible time to read about where I was.
With excitement, I dove into Elena Ferrante’s stunning new novel about a painful, complex friendship between two girls growing up in impoverished, hardscrabble 1950s Naples: My Brilliant Friend (wonderfully translated by Ann Goldstein).
The novel blew me away—the more so because I understood the setting (and the importance of dialects in a country like Italy) a hundred times more deeply than I might have at any other time or place.
And I grasped at once that no matter what kinds of writing we make or where we live, writers need to read more work in translation. What else can trowel us up out of the warm, comfy, sleep-inducing soil of all our own familiar cultural assumptions? What else can smack us awake (yes, in the Rilkean mode of You must change your life) to consider worlds we’d never dreamed of, or just pushed aside? How can reading translated works effect anything other than a cross-fertilization of our writing minds?
I admit that, as an American writer, I’ve been badly neglectful of seeking out writers in translation. Europa is one publisher providing superb titles regularly to the States. Other Press is another, but there are many more. Keep your eye on what’s coming out. Listen to buzz from journals and writers you admire, about whom they’re reading in translation. (Suggestions: Per Petterson. Jens Christian Grondahl. Annie Ernaux.) Follow your curiosity. Collect new admirations. What you absorb can only enlarge and enrich that sacred space of the writerly mind.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.