“You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people.”
Ann Morgan, a British journalist and author, quoted from a Qatari novel, one of the first to be translated into English, the “Corsair”, written by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, summing up a thought-provoking project she undertook in 2012. It was the year the Olympics were being held in London, and after a self-evaluation of how little she read from outside of English speaking authors, Morgan embarked on a mission to read a book from (almost) every country in the world, setting the goal to a 195 UN-recognized states plus former member Taiwan in one year.
Almost 200 books to read and nowhere to start, Morgan decided to ask the world for its help through an online plea on her blog. Having just decided that the countries were not enough, she needed to actually be able to get English versions of books from countries that had fairly little published in languages other than its own. And even then, choosing and acquiring a good book was going to be a difficult feat. She knew that in the UK, only 4.5% of literary works published each year were translations, and while this figure is already tiny, many of those books published would come from countries with strong publishing networks and titles primed to sell to English-language publishers. In her TED talk, Morgan gave the example of French books: even though over a hundred books are translated and published each year in the UK, most of these would come from countries like France, while those from French-speaking parts of Africa were hardly ever published. The reality was that most countries on Morgan’s list may not even have available literature published in English, masking a whole universe of cultures and standpoints under the barriers of language. And Morgan, having rarely read books outside of British and North American authors, was, as she described, “a clueless literary xenophobe who couldn’t choose a good story from the likes of Namibia or Swaziland”. This was where her online plea came to the rescue.
She could now reach out to and be reached out to by people from all over the world, from Malaysia and Burundi to even South Sudan, which had just declared its independence the year before. Writers and translators and even simply book readers of varying ages and nationalities rallied to contribute to Morgan’s reading. About four days after Morgan posted the online appeal, she was particularly touched when a visitor, Rafidah, from Kuala Lumpur, about six thousand miles away, offered to go to bookshops in Malaysia and Singapore on her behalf and post her some books. Excited and intrigued, Morgan received 2 books from Rafidah: the Ripples and other stories by English language writer Shih-Li Kow, and Fistful of Colours by Su-Chen Christine, published by a Singaporean company called SNP and found at Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur. Rafidah’s kindness and enthusiasm turned out to be contagious among the other visitors on Morgan’s website, and soon, she had her very own army of bibliophiles.
Some authors such as Turkmenistan’s Ak Welsapar and Panama’s Juan David Morgan even went as far as to send her unpublished translations of their novels. For states such as Madagascar, Mozambique and the Guinea-Bissau, such unpublished manuscripts were all she had to rely on, and for the African island country of Sao Tome & Principe, she depended on volunteers from Europe and the US who translated a book by Santomean writer Olinda Beja just so Morgan could have a version she could read. This was for the tales that were written, and then there were those that were hardly ever written down. In places such as the Marshall Islands, one simply asks the local iroji’s (chief’s) permission to hear one of the local story tellers. Similarly, for Niger, a country in West Africa, local stories and myths are traditionally passed on via the griots, who are expert narrators and musicians trained in the nation’s wisdom and folklore from a young age.
Then came the reading – a strict schedule of 100 to 150 pages (about 3 to 4 hours of reading) everyday – in addition to reviewing these books on her blog and holding a full time job as a journalist. The commute to-and-from work gave Morgan 2 hours to read, but she needed to find at least an extra hour in the day, so sometimes, she even read on her lunch break. On her TED talk, Morgan went on to describe the wonders she encountered on her brilliant reads, from marriage rituals in a remote village on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan to Kuwait’s answer to Bridget Jones. In an interview with The Austin Review, she described one of her favorites: a Mongolian coming-of-age book by Galsan Tschinaga, called The Blue Sky, a story of a shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains and the strange world where sniffing people was a way of expressing affection and children smoked pipes. Morgan further described this author on her blog as one that could capture the wonder and weirdness of childhood and vividly brings readers on the voyage to the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. On BBC Culture, Morgan wrote that in the company of Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden, she wasn’t simply visiting exotic temples, but seeing them as how a Buddhist would, and with Nu Nu Yi as her guide, she experienced a religious festival in Myanmar from a transgender medium’s view.
Books have an almost magical ability to teleport you to the wildest and most unimaginable locations, and through them, Morgan was able to travel far and wide, as well as embody unique struggles and perspectives begotten only to those who yielded from those cultures. “For a while at least, you look at the world through different eyes,” said Morgan. In her TED talk, she further went on to explain how this could be an uncomfortable journey, especially if the culture may have values that differ from your own, yet how this could also be enlightening. It could show you the prejudices you’ve collected over the year and a different side to a story you’ve already made up your mind about. Morgan’s quest is one that inspires us to broaden our own reading so that we don’t simply succumb to the familiar stories around us, but so that we also surround ourselves with views that spark conversation and new thought, so that we don’t forget that our world is complex and diverse, and while our experiences may not align, we can still connect with one another in a very real and human way.
To read more about Ann Morgan and the books she has read, visit these links: