This post was published on English PEN’s blog PEN Atlas on December 24, 2015.
For a festive treat in the final PEN Atlas dispatch of the year, we asked PEN Centres around the world to share what they most loved reading in 2015, and what campaigns they’re running in 2016. From Canada to Croatia to Kenya, here are the 2015 literary highlights according to PEN!
Favourite book of 2015? One notable book of 2015 our members have enjoyed is Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis who, yes, does happen to be Canadian. The novel won two important Canadian literary prizes and opens with two gods discussing the value of consciousness and language in a Toronto bar.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature by none other than Margaret Atwood. Maybe picking such a guide is cheating, but in it Atwood uses her iconic voice to argue that survival is the essential theme of Canadian literature, and that literature is central to our national identity (something Canadians have historically fretted about at length). Granted, Survival was first published in 1972 and a lot has changed since then…
Current campaigns? Our emergency fund campaign. We rallied around this initiative for Giving Tuesday (Dec 1) specifically, but fundraising will be ongoing.
Another ongoing project is our Know Your Rights series. This is a project we work on in conjunction with IFEX. The first two installments have been on your right to public photography, and on your rights in terms of police searches of mobile phones. The next installment will be about your right to public protest, with prisoners rights to books coming down the pipeline after that.
Each installment is accompanied by an op-ed in a major Canadian newspaper and a resource – for public photography it was a printable pocket guide, for phone searches it was a smartphone background, and for public protest it is a t-shirt.
Favourite book of 2015? Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (the Man Booker prize winning novel of 2015) has landed in 23 best book of the year lists, including BBC Culture, Time, Newsweek, BookPage and the Library Journal. And PEN Kenya agrees. A challenging kaleidoscope of a factional ‘Third World’ historical novel, Kenya can identify with the Jamaica of the mid-1970s and ‘Trench Town’ brought to life in ‘7 Killings’.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? Yvonne Adhiambo’s Dust with its vast sweep of our politico-history and memorable characters is the ‘go to’ book of fiction we recommend.
For non-fiction, for one coming to Kenya and especially Nairobi, then Tony Mochama’s Nairobi – a Night Guide Through the City in the Sun is recommended. As critic Stephen Partington puts it, ‘this book reveals the illusion of the official ‘postcard city’ and the counter-intuitive reality of the margins where we all live, seedily but certainly.’
Current campaigns? PEN Kenya has been instrumental in lobbying the Kenyan government to create dedicated policies regarding the languages and culture of Kenya, and has devised a large-scale advocacy plan towards that end – but PEN Kenya Centre is faced with a lack of adequate funds and resources to mount the above named advocacy plan at the national level. But we are determined, as we are clear in our motive, and clarity, as the legendary Somali poet Hadraawi might have said. Support towards this end will be highly appreciated.
Our website has been down. It should be up again with new features and more on what the Centre is doing soon: www.penkenyacentre.org
Favourite book of 2015?
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? Domínguez, C. (2012). Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature (1955-2010). Dalkey Archive Press, Londres.
Current campaigns? PEN Piensa, blog: http://penmexico.org.mx/blog/
Favourite book of 2015? German PEN’s favorite book of the year is Zeichner verteidigen die Meinungsfreiheit (which translates as ‘Illustrators in defense of freedom of expression’), edited by Klaus Humann, Aladin Verlag.
After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January, publisher Klaus Humann asked illustrators around the world to contribute drawings (not caricatures!) for a book defending freedom of expression, the profits of which would be donated to German PEN’s writers-in-prison program. Many renowned illustrators contributed, and the book was published as early as February 12, 2015. But not only did the artists contribute for free. So did the paper supplier, the printing house in Letvia, the German distributors, the lawyer, the editors, journalist Andreas Platthaus who wrote an introduction, and everybody else involved. When celebrating our annual Hermann Kesten-awards for freedom of expression in November, we were handed over a first cheque, valuable money that enabled us, for example, to contribute to English PEN’s hosting Ahmet Şık, the Turkish investigative journalist. The more books there will be sold, the more we can contribute to writers-in-prison matters. So, I should like to recommend this book to all of you. The title is German, I am afraid, and so is the introductory essay by Andreas Platthaus (which is only five pages). But the drawings speak an international language.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? I would recommend The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz (1926-2014). This novel, published in 1968, is one of the most important German post-war novels. It´s about the dark side of German history in the 20th century, it’s about duty and the neglect of duty, and it is about friendship. It is about the Northern German landscape and about a painter painting inspite of being banned and forbidden to exercise his art by the National Socialists. The painter in the book, Max Nansen, bears resemblances with German painter Emil Nolde (1867–1956). For those who travel to Germany, you can now also see The German Lesson on stage, in a very interesting production by Dutch director Johan Simons at Thalia Theatre, Hamburg.
Current campaigns? Most recently, we have nominated Ashraf Fayadh honorary member of German PEN and ask that he be released. As we are doing lots of things all the time, why don’t you visit our website www.pen-deutschland.de which also provides you with a link to Facebook. All these websites will be renewed in 2016 which is another project…
Regula Venske, General Secretary PEN Germany
Favourite book of 2015? Our Croatian PEN Club’s favourite book of 2015 will be Lijek za ljubav or ‘Medicine for Love’, chosen poetry by Leonard Cohen from years 1956 – 2006, translated to Croatian by one of our finest poetry translators, himself a poet, Damir Šodan, and partly by Maja Tančik, published in November in Croatia. This truly valuable book (582 pages) contains only the poems published in poetry collections by Leonard Cohen and it doesn’t include the songs written for albums of music, thus presenting to us Leonard Cohen the poet in full richness of his poetic endeavour.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? This would be 20th century classic by Miroslav Krleža entitled Povratak Filipa Latinowicza or ‘The Return of Phillip Latinowicz’ available in English by VBZ publishing house in Croatia that has an online bookstore.
Current campaigns? Visit our Croatian PEN Centre website http://www.pen.hr/ or https://twitter.com/hrvatskipen. Recently we had many events, readings and talks about the refugees. Also we will organize the poetry reading in Booksa literary club in Zagreb on January 14th for the poet Ashraf Fayadh.
Favourite book of 2015? Our Centre’s favourite books in 2015 were An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids (fiction) and Askari by Jacob Dlamini (non-fiction).
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? PEN SA President Margie Orford suggests The Texture of Shadows by Mandla Langa as a good starting point.
Current campaigns? Visit our website at pensouthafrica.co.za to find out what we’re up to!
Favourite book of 2015? Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks published by Granta Books, 2013.
This book is an absolute favourite because it heralds the return of a form with the greatest pedigree in literature – the essay. Luiselli’s exquisitely evocative narrative essays take the reader on a journey from charting the cartography of empty spaces to exploring Joseph Brodsky’s grave. Luiselli’s flanerie is deeply philosophical and poetic. She manages to retain both the pain and the flourish while describing the word saudade, comparing it to things which are at once beautiful and sad: boats, willows, saurian lizards, a bough. Her narrative perambulations evoke a hypnotic sense of history and nostalgia without being unduly schmaltzy. In the final essay of Sidewalks, ‘Permanent Residence’, Luiselli propounds on the kitsch notion of literature as residence, home for those who are unable to inhabit any particular place. Sidewalks is a book for the dreamers, for poets in love with dead poets, for flâneurs who haven’t starting walking yet.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? I, Lalla: The poems of Lal Ded, translated from the Kashmiri with an Introduction and Notes by Ranjit Hoskote, published by Penguin Books.
The poems of the 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded explore the vision of the cosmos as the individual soul. Through these translations, Hoskote evaluates how Lalla’s poetry reconstructs its religious and philosophical horizons. Lalla is often viewed as a forerunner of the Indian Bhakti movement, and she certainly anticipates the women saints such as Mira and Bahina, in breaking away from restrictive patriarchal structures. Lalla’s vakhs are visually rich, cunning in their music and scintillating in the metaphorical leaps they make. Lalla’s vakhs record the journey of an individual actively seeking enlightenment, defying the orthodoxy and subjecting the fossil habit of religion to critique.
Current campaigns? Our website is currently under construction, however PEN India has been hosting events that:
Favourite book of 2015? As 2015 was the 750th anniversary of Dante: his Divine Comedy in Turkish translated by Rekin Teksoy in free verse: Ilahi Komedya published by Oglak Yayinevi.
What book would you recommend for readers delving into literature from your country for the first time? The great novelist Yashar Kemal was a master of the Turkish language. He passed away in 2015. His first novel translated into English has become a classic: Memed, My Hawk.
Current campaigns? Can Dündar, chief editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper and member of PEN Turkey, has been in prison for almost a month now. We are working hard to campaign for him, Erdem Gül and some 30 other journalists who are in prison in Turkey… here is a letter by Dündar, published in the Washington Post: please share – ‘What’s freedom worth? Less than 3 billion euros, apparently.’ Can Dündar