Friday, January 24, 2014

READING ANOTHER COUNTRY: Doggie Bags from the Deli

(NOTE: All around the world everywhere I go/No one understands me no one knows/What I’m trying to say/Even in my hometown/My friends make me write it down/They look at me when I talk to them/And they shrug their shoulders/They go what’s he talking about/But you, you speak my language)

American school kids sputter in panic when first confronted with geography: the world is more than one city in one state and one country. Across the waters dominating most of the Earth’s surface are other lands and people different from them. Palm trees wave, mountains tower into the upper atmosphere, flying fish and dolphins flip and splash in the sea, and music is played on unfamiliar instruments. Panic sufferers are doused with Ritalin and Adderall until they hit their teens, and accept that America is the only country on Earth worth considering when paging through an atlas.
Even after such an education, we have malcontents who insist on understanding other cultures and people beyond our little lump of dry soil. These are the translators, editors, and publishers of books in translation.
We revel in dour percentages. One percent of the population holds almost all the money, said the Occupy Movement. Seventy percent of Americans swallow prescription drugs, said the Mayo Clinic. Forty-five percent of Americans make New Years resolutions, said the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology. Forty-seven percent of Americans want the government to take care of them, said Mitt Romney, proven wrong by fifty-one percent of the electorate. Twenty-three percent of Americans decline opening any book in any form, said the Pew Research Center. Among the numbers is the embarrassingly low three percent comprising the number of books in translation, said the University of Rochester (
Being a reader means looking outside your birth and work place. When market-driven novels become a tedious bore, there are riches from other languages waiting to be stuffed into your empty pockets. In a September 27, 2013 article in Publishers Weekly, Chad Post listed twenty of the best books in translation, from Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Croatian, Norwegian, Persian, Greek, and Portuguese among others. He left out one ignored for too long, and that language is Indonesian.
Indonesia is made of over 17,500 islands and 258 million people, the fourth most populous country. They read and they write lots of books for publishers from the Lontar Foundation to Gramedia. The influence of an oral tradition going back centuries makes their stories character-driven. For the reader, the differences in culture become similarities. Bad and good people share the same qualities no matter the country.
Lan Fang (1970–2011) started out as a graduate from the Surabaya University Law Faculty, and made the right choice in switching careers to writing. She had written nine novels and many more short stories before her death in 2011. Until now, her works have only been available in her native language. The independent upstart Dalang Publishing ( has recently released Potions and Paper Cranes (original title: Perempuan Kembang Jepun) and the novel is a stunner. Lan Fang uses the first person narrative to tell the stories of Sulis, a young woman selling jamu, or potions, in Surabaya’s harbor district, Sujono, a laborer with dreams of becoming a freedom fighter, and Matsumi, a geisha who danced, sang, recited poetry, played the shamisen, poured tea, and satisfied men. The three battle among each other as the Japanese occupation of World War II roars beyond their windows, followed by the war for independence.
Elisabet Titik Murtisari’s translation does what every good translation does in echoing the rhythm of the original language. Potions and Paper Cranes is a book worth reading and recommending. As a young publishing company, Dalang needs your word of mouth to promote this book. Start talking to other readers and booksellers.
After saying nice things about Potions and Paper Cranes, it’s time to get down to the business of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). This handy, easy-to-use, plucky, downright affordable, three-cheers-for-the-written-word, comes packed with stuff about writing and the rutted road to publishing. Click over to for the independent bookstore nearest your current location according to the GPS app that never works properly. Happy help will take cash or credit card, and hold your umbrella while you look for just one more teeny smidge of an item. Forearms come in twos.

NEXT: When Snow Gets in Your Fur

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