Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Eat, Love, Read

Last week, I went to two readings in Paris in the hope of learning a couple of tricks to help me sell my book next year soaking my soul in the joy of literature. I came away feeling heartened and inspired, not least because both events were absolutely packed, despite the miserable weather.

Ann Mah read from her debut novel, Kitchen Chinese, at Shakespeare&Co on Monday, attracting so many people they had to crouch on the higgledy-piggledy stairs of the bookshop. I enjoyed her vivid descriptions of family feuds played out over roast duck and Ma-Po tofu, and the friendly ease with which she later answered even the most exotic questions (the one about Pekinese dogs being possibly related to lions would have thrown me for sure).

Ann is a food writer as well as a novelist, and she cleverly used her culinary expertise to create a rich and satisfying event, at one point even passing around a jar of hot and numbing Szechuan pepper for people to smell and taste. I'm not sure Szechuan pepper would fit the Kurdish theme of my own book, but I love the idea of a multi-sensory reading and plan to shamelessly steal it keep it in mind for future events.

Antonio Caballero, the Colombian writer and cartoonist I went to see on Thursday night, opted for a more traditional format: no spices, no chapters from an unpublished novel, just a good old Q&A. Then again, someone with Caballero's stature doesn't need any special effects. Now in his 60s, he has written countless newspaper columns and essays but only one novel, Sin Remedio, which grew out of an essay about the difficulty of writing a poem. Set in Bogota, the story is chaotic, the ending farcical, and the entire book driven by the furious frustration of the protagonist, the poet Escobar, who is not even particularly likeable; and yet there are few books I love more. It's one of those novels I pick up again and again just to listen to the characters (stay tuned for some sample dialogue in my next post).

I had expected Caballero's event to be sparsely attended given that he is not all that well known in Europe, but oh, was I wrong. People were not just crouching in the doorway; they were queuing on the pavement. In the rain. Judging from the accents and mochila bags, most were Colombian, and they bombarded Caballero with question after question, the most pressing being: was he going to write another novel? Sadly, the answer was no. Sounding a little like Escobar himself, he said: "In great part it's laziness...It took me twelve years to write my novel, I don't want to spend ten more years on another one."
And also: He had said everything he wanted to say in Sin Remedio. 


  1. Totally à propos - Kurds respect a good pepper too!

  2. Excellent point! I was thinking of passing round sugarlumps for kitlama, but pepper has the added advantage of waking up the audience.