On Tuesday 2 April 2019, the library at the Goethe-Institut London filled up to celebrate the launch of Olga Grjasnowa’s third novel Gott ist nicht schüchtern (‘God is not shy’), now translated into English by Katy Derbyshire and published by Oneworld Publications as City of Jasmine.
The event was chaired by New Books in German editor Charlotte Ryland, with Olga Grjasnowa and Katy Derbyshire on the panel along with writer and editor Malu Halasa. Malu writes exclusively about the Middle East, and her debut novel Mother of All Pigs was published in 2017.
Charlotte began by introducing Olga’s novel City of Jasmine, which is set in Damascus and focuses on three young Syrians whose lives are torn apart by the revolution, and by asking Olga to talk about her writing process. Olga described how she usually starts with a subject or an idea, rather than a plot, and the storyline follows later. She needs to work to a deadline so always asks her editor to give her a specific date to aim for, and then she begins by carrying out detailed research (using books, searching online or by travelling) before settling down to write the story. With her second novel Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (‘The Legal Haziness of a Marriage’ – not yet translated into English, but well worth a read if you read German!) she knew she wanted to write about the ballet world, for example, and was delighted to be able to spend time reading numerous novels about ballet while she worked out which aspect she wanted to focus on.
Katy then explained her own background, and how she started working as a commercial translator after moving to Berlin more than 20 years ago. Keen to be able to recommend more German books to English readers, she decided to move into literary translation. And although it took her a few years to build up her work (she still doesn’t feel that she gets to translate exclusively what she wants to – few people do!) she is now well known in her field, winning prizes and running workshops, for example at the BCLT and Warwick Translation Summer Schools. (I actually first met Katy at the BCLT Summer School in 2015 and she’s a fantastic mentor; I would definitely recommend her as a teacher!)
Talking specifically about City of Jasmine, Katy explained how Olga (who edits her work herself several times before submitting it to her editor) writes beautiful sentences that are very ‘well made’, which she finds makes them easier to translate. The tension builds through each of Olga’s chapters, coming back down to earth at the end of each chapter, playing with tension and release in a way that Katy loves. She immerses herself fully in everything she translates, and so working on City of Jasmine was quite an emotional project for her, with its sad and very topical subject matter.
Charlotte then asked both Malu and Olga about being translated, as both have been translated into various languages. It can be difficult to tell how the process is going if you don’t read the new target language, but Malu made the point that you can often see from the questions a translator asks how deeply they are engaging with the text. Olga said that Katy sent her many questions, and Katy then explained how she does two full drafts of the translation before sending a list of queries to the author. The writers agreed that as there are often several editing stages before a book is published, it’s easy for nuances to get lost or changed along the way, so it’s vital that a translator understands and cares about these nuances as much as the author does.
Malu and Olga then went on to discuss the process of writing about the Middle East in particular. Olga wrote City of Jasmine as a European novel rather than a Syrian novel, which means it is full of everyday detail such as the names of cafés and streets, and descriptions of dishes and ingredients that Amal uses in her cooking. Both writers strive to find the balance of humanity and violence in their writing; the power of fiction is to weave these in successfully and to not let the human connection be obscured by violence. Malu herself is particularly interested in the (in)visibility of the Arab family and in patriarchy, a prevalent and contested issue when dealing with family values in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. She described Mother of All Pigs as an Arab feminist novel.
Woven into the panel discussion were various readings, from the German and English editions of City of Jasmine and from Malu Halasa’s Mother of All Pigs. Following the readings and discussions, Charlotte opened the floor to questions from the audience.
When asked how much of City of Jasmine is autobiographical, Olga talked briefly about her own background, moving from Azerbaijan to Germany as a Jewish refugee aged eleven, and about her grandmother, who escaped Russia on foot with her young brother, finally making it to safety in Baku almost four years later. Olga also mentioned her own experiences of being a refugee in Germany, one of four million who came over from the Soviet Union. Following the Second World War, the much-used phrase ‘nie wieder’ (never again) meant that many Europeans were determined to help as much as possible, and the right to asylum was deemed a human right rather than something to be discussed and judged. However, after 800,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, people became less tolerant and began talking more about borders, immigration, and protecting their own communities. Although it was not Olga’s aim to make comparisons with her family’s past, she did draw on these experiences when writing City of Jasmine, as well as talking to her Syrian husband and visiting refugees in camps.
Charlotte, Olga, Katy and Malu each had so much to say, all of which was absolutely fascinating for the audience. The event was followed by a drinks reception in the library with wine and canapés, and everyone had the opportunity to talk to the panellists and buy books, as well as getting them signed. Many thanks to the Goethe-Institut for hosting the event, to Oneworld for organising it and publishing this wonderful novel, to Creative Europe for their funding support and to everyone who took part and made it such a wonderful evening.
City of Jasmine by Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Katy Derbyshire, was published in March 2019 by Oneworld. You can find out a bit more about the book in my review for the European Literature Network.