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An Interview with Jenny Brown: Accessing Literatures Through Translation

Feb 2017

An Interview with Jenny Brown: Accessing Literatures Through Translation

Jenny Brown was previously the Head of Literature at the Scottish Arts Council, and the first Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was one of the primary forces behind the designation of Edinburgh as the UNESCO City of Literature. She is also the Chair of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival, promoting new authors and genres.

  • You happened to spearhead the campaign to designate Edinburgh as the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. Kolkata, too, is attributed similar qualities. From your experience, how far do you think the atmosphere encourages the thirst for reading amidst the youth and adults alike?

Yes, I was one of the four trustees, amidst James Boyle, Lorraine Fannin and Catherine Lockerbie. I think the Book Fair is so impressive. I came here seven or eight years ago, and I was blown away by it and to see it again, in 2017, with two and a half million visitors last year, women and men of all ages, children thronging here, to be so passionate about books and the written world, encourages anybody who loves reading. It gladdens the heart to see that. The initiative of the Literary Festival as a part of the event, the passion for reading is evident, especially for the printed world. Interestingly, in Britain, the statistics for reading on Kindle is beginning to drop. It’s still very important for genre fiction but not so much for literary or nonfiction.

  • You are now one of the Board Members for the Edinburgh International Book Fair and you’ve actively taken part in its organising procedure, do you see any stark difference in how readers receive translations from original texts and new authors here?

In terms of my experience in going around the book fair yesterday, I think there is a much bigger emphasis on classics here. To me, coming from Scotland, I find it interesting to see so many editions of R. L. Stevenson’s novels in English and Bengali. I saw a young child pick up a shortened classic, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I’m sorry, but no child in Scotland would ever pick up Ivanhoe anymore and tackle a classic like that! So that is one difference I noticed..and short stories, which seem alive and well in this part of the world, whereas, we struggle to get a readership in the same way there. It is wonderful to see new collections and anthologies put together. I also see a huge emphasis on books for education.

  • Being Chair of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival, who takes interest in working with authors based in Scotland, how far do you think that the printed texts can overtake cinematic renditions of popular crime novels?

I think that any genre fiction, be it erotica or science fiction, where you have people who are reading very heavily, you tend to get readers whose hunger is insatiable. The digital format is very important. In the UK in general, crime writing is by far the most popular genre, both amongst book buyers and amongst people who borrow from libraries and in Scotland, the percentage is even higher than the rest of the UK. Something about the Scottish psyche that is really attracted by crime fiction. British crime developed through classics- Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Scotland too went through the same- R. L. Stevenson, Sr, Jekyll and Mr, Hyde, etc. In crime writing, you can do anything with the plot, which removes it from becoming the easy option people think it to be. We must make relationships and partnerships, to eradicate the overwhelming responses erupting from digital renditions.

  • Do you think that detective novels still border on gender stereotypes with respect to the new authors that you now work with? How important is the figure of the lean and stoic detective now?

I think they are increasingly not. There is a great willingness to be more experimental with the form. The two authors from Bloody Scotland- Lin Anderson’s female protagonist is a female forensic scientist and she also has a series with a male detective based in the South of France. The other author brings in a different pool of fast paced novels. E. S. Thomson’s book Beloved Poison is set in a Victorian hospital, with a cross dressing apothecary, Jem Flockhart as the protagonist! She could not be an apothecary had she been a woman, not in the guise of a man. The figure of the lean detective has dissolved and women crime writers tend not to use that figure, using female protagonists, diversity being their strength. The first female Polish crime writer is going to be published next year! We don’t want to see Caucasian look-alikes because the personality of the detective is a very important factor.

  • What are your upcoming endeavours to bridge linguistic gaps, be it in publishing or to boost crime writing in India and across the world?

It would be to bring Indian crime writers to the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival next year and bring Scottish writers to the Kolkata Literature Fair in 2018. Such endeavours are sure to boost the literary scenario worldwide.

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