Questions & Answers
How did you come to be involved in the project?
Kamila: (left) As is so often the way now, by email arriving inviting me to choose some books and there really seemed only one possible answer to that! Why would you not take up the opportunity to bring back into the world two writers who you think should be there?
Penelope: (right) Yes, it was the same with me. I was told about this project, which seemed an entirely good idea both in terms of women and the books, and I thought why not be involved?
How did you set about deciding which classics to include? Did you have a free hand?
Kamila: Yes, a completely free hand to the point that we were told they could be from anywhere and in translation or not. The first one for me, Meatless Days, I didn’t even have to think about. It came immediately to mind because I’ve long been annoyed by the fact that it had been out of print for a while as it’s a book I love. And Ismat Chughtai is a significant writer, I think. She’s very well known for literature in Urdu, so is read in India and parts of Pakistan, but here she’s hardly been published or talked about, so this seemed a nice way to bring her to Britain as it were.
Penelope: Yes, again, there was a completely free hand. I was particularly looking at British and American writers who I felt were neglected now but once hadn’t been, which is why I was interested in Mary McCarthy. She was very much known and read in the mid-late 20th century but less so now and I did a sort of sweep of younger readers who I know and they all said more or less the same thing – that they’d never even heard of her, and so I was pleased to discover that there was a title of hers that would be good to revive, Birds of America. E Nesbit was a rather ad hoc and fortuitous choice, in a way. She is really known only as a children’s author, and all her children’s titles are happily still very much in print – but her adult novels absolutely not because she’s not known as an adult novelist, so I thought it would be interesting to take one of the best of her eleven adult novels and look at her in the context of her adult rather than children’s writing.
Did you always agree, was there supposed to be a common thread?
Penelope: We didn’t meet to discuss it at all. I didn’t know what Kamila’s choices were until towards the end.
How and why do classics get ‘forgotten’? And revived again?
Penelope: That’s a very difficult question to answer actually! I think it’s really quite mysterious the way in which authors can disappear and then can suddenly reappear again. It’ll be something as arbitrary as some other writer suddenly taking an intense interest and advocating a particular writer. But it is mysterious, almost a word of mouth process.
Kamila: Sara Suleri was a Pakistani writer publishing in 1989 when Pakistani writers weren’t really being published in the English language, but about 20 years later there was a group of us - Mohsin Hamid, Nadeen Aslam, myself and a few others, and suddenly people became much more aware of Pakistani writers as a kind of group, and Granta even did a Pakistan issue. Because there were a few of us, suddenly there was extra noise being created around each one of us, whereas when Suleri published her book it was very much a one-off. Also, her Meatless Days is quite unusual and I think it may be that it wasn’t so easy to categorise or place on a shelf with other titles, which can also count against a book. But I think you’re right, Penelope, that very often it is about who in the next generation is going to champion it, who is going to say we need to be teaching this and reading that.
Penelope: Yes, a good example would be Barbara Pym, who was being published and read until publishers started turning her down and she rather disappeared. Then suddenly Philip Larkin took her up and wrote about her in the TLS and she resurfaced again – she was still alive, of course, and indeed two or three more novels were published. But now she’s forgotten again.
I suppose TV and the internet also play a role? Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, say. It must help?
Penelope: It helps hugely. If things become a film or a tv series or something, they get remembered more than anything else. My example here would be E Nesbit’s The Railway Children which is the one that everybody knows because there was a film of it. I don’t like the book - or the film - very much, I think it’s soppy, I much prefer her fantasies, I think they’re much better. I find The Railway Children rather ordinary in a way that the fantasies are absolutely not but because there was a film that book is remembered. However, the name E Nesbit still won’t mean much to people.
Kamila: A friend emailed me yesterday to say he was reading Little Women for the first time. It’s quite likely that he had come across the tv series that was broadcast over Christmas.
I think also when someone like Ismat Chughtai was writing, the way she was writing about women's sexuality was quite controversial so at the time there would have been a big noise around it but, in that way that happens more with women writers than others, the gatekeepers didn’t quite approve of her – certainly men weren’t teaching her or talking about her that much and she had a dip even in India and Pakistan. I think now a lot of young women are discovering her and finding her a really sharp voice that they can go back to.
It is also interesting the way some writers start to feel dated and others 50 years after they wrote suddenly seem as though they’re speaking into the moment you’re in.
Penelope: Yes, thinking again about Mary McCarthy, of course she was a very high profile personality in her lifetime, she was extremely vociferous, extremely outspoken on subjects like the Vietnam War, so during her lifetime a lot of people would have known her name who quite possibly hadn’t even read her. I can’t think of a contemporary writer figure who quite matches that – and of course someone like that dies and immediately the profile disappears.
Do you think Britain is more open than ever before to writers in translation and from other cultures and continents?
Kamila: Britain has always been quite receptive. I remember reading somewhere that in the 1950s the number of places that published Caribbean writers in Britain was actually huge compared to elsewhere. So I think there has been for quite a while this interest in publishing writers from other parts of the world, probably to do with Britain’s own history being entangled in problematic ways with other places. But writers speak very often first to the place they’re from and so Sara Suleri is very well known in Pakistan but still less so outside. I do think that things like the internet make that exchange seem more rapid and there are more ways to find out who’s reading what somewhere else.
As far as translated fiction is concerned, the preponderance of male writers is extraordinary, even though the translators are likely to be women, but I think once the figures were pointed out a couple of years or so ago, it seems to have brought about a concerted effort to translate more women.
And then there’s the other question of the languages that you’re translating from, because it’s much easier, for example, to find translators from French to English than from Urdu to English.
Penelope: I can see the sense in which it’s a problem for publishers. Translation’s expensive, you’re sort of paying twice over, and I know when I talk to publishers about translation – I’ve always been interested in the deficiencies, how little we do translate – they also throw up their hands and say those books hardly get reviewed. How are you then going to get it out into the world?
French bookshops used to very usefully have shelves of works in translation by country. I used to travel a lot for the British Council and if I was going to a country I wanted to read its literature so I appreciated the French system.
It’s a tricky one though, because as a writer you may not want to be in a sense marginalised in that section when you would rather be sitting alongside all the other great books regardless of the country of origin of their writer.
Kamila: Yes! Would I be in Britain or in Pakistan? To which you'd have to say: well you need to have at least two copies of my book, one for each section! I think it is difficult, particularly as writers are moving around so much, you’d have to be endlessly standing there scratching your head. But there should be a way of cross referencing.
What makes the two books you’ve selected so special to you and why do you think they are just as resonant today as when they were first published?
Penelope: Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America is extraordinarily relevant today. The central figure is a late- teenage American boy called Peter Levi. It’s a rather plotless novel about his thoughts on what it is to be American at that time – it was published in 1971. He’s worried about the Vietnam War, he’s worried about the implications of being an American; he’s very worried about environmentalism – it wasn’t quite called that then but that’s where it becomes extremely relevant to now. When he’s in Europe, he’s fascinated and intrigued by Old Europe but he’s finding it abused by mass tourism; and when he’s in America he’s bothered by the way in which mass consumerism is destroying the traditional way of life. When I say it’s plotless, it’s not quite that, because it’s to do with him going to Paris and meeting people with whom he discusses all these things, and I think in that sense the drama is in some ways an expression of the author’s own feelings about all these issues. But the strange thing is that when you read it now, virtually 50 years later, most of these issues are absolutely with us still, particularly the environmental one and also his fears about the direction in which democracy might take us, and so apart from the fact that I feel Mary McMarthy is rather neglected now, I thought there was an interesting point here about a novel written 50 years or so ago that reflects the things we worry about today.
And then Edith Nesbit’s The Lark is one of her eleven adult novels; of course she’s really known only as a children’s writer so I thought it would be interesting to take one of these to show that actually she’s an adult novelist as well. It has very much the Nesbit light touch to it. It’s about two girls, cousins who have lost their inheritance so they have to make their own way in the world. First of all they try flower-selling and then taking in paying guests, and this gives Edith Nesbit scope for all sorts of high jinks with people pretending to be each other and so forth. The book’s title refers to what a lark life is; we should turn life’s difficulties into a lark, which slightly again, I think reflects the author’s own attitudes, because she had an extremely difficult life. She wrote very much for a living, she had to write, which is why her output is huge, and it’s very much an attitude of pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do what you can for yourself. It's great fun, very much a period piece and very much of its time.
Kamila: Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days is, I suppose a memoir but it’s a memoir that takes the view that nothing defines a life more than the other people in it, so every chapter really focuses on a different character who has been significant in Sara Suleri’s life. In writing about them she is writing about herself, but she’s also writing about Pakistan, nationhood, womanhood, all kinds of things. There is her father, who was a very significant newspaper editor during some rather turbulent times in Pakistan. Her mother was a Welsh woman who moved to Pakistan and started to teach English literature. Her sister, who was clearly the great love and hero of Sara Suleri’s life, was killed when she was very young. It's very moving in its evocation of loss and grief. It’s also very sharp and witty and smart about all kinds of things that still seem to speak to us, I think: what it means to live in a gender, what it means to live in a nation, what it means to leave a nation. There’s a great line in there about her sister and the price a woman must pay for living in a beautiful body.
The other book, Lifting the Veil is a collection put together by the translator of different short stories and essays by Ismat Chughtai, who was a very prolific writer. These are some of her finest stories and essays. She’s interested in power structures, particularly patriarchy and women’s lives within those structures, women’s sexuality, women’s friendships with each other, again, the life of the mind if you’re a women living within a patriarchal world. Both the essays and the stories showcase her very opinionated, outspoken voice. Again, it’s written in the forties. I think a lot of people will probably be quite surprised that an Indian Muslim woman of that time was writing in this way about such subjects as sexuality and feminism, and today when we’re talking about things like intersectionality and feminism I think it speaks to those things in really interesting ways, in fact it’s a really significant book anywhere in the world at any time.