Back to Dhaka

November 23rd, 2015

In Spring I visited Bangladesh for a literary conclave. A few weeks afterwards I received an email inviting me to the Dhaka Lit Fest this month. I accepted the invitation in June.8655130373_b14d219d7e_z

Since then a lot has happened in that troubled country.

Islamic extremists have killed bloggers and murdered a leading publisher. Foreigners have been stabbed in the streets. The country has been placed on high alert of terrorist attacks. The British Foreign Office is advising citizens not to travel.

In October, the festival organisers began sending out updated security measures for our visit and international authors started to withdraw.

‘Am I being foolish in going?’ I ask the Nymph.

‘What does your instinct tell you?’ she replied.

My instinct was telling me that I could trust the organizers and if they became too concerned about the safety of their foreign participants they would cancel.

I’m so pleased you say that,’ Peirene admitted. ‘Because if people like us – professionals of the word: publishers and writers and thinkers – stay away from opportunities of dialogue, then how can we encourage others to use words not weapons to communicate.’ For that I loved my Nymph even a bit more.

So, last Tuesday Peirene accompanied me to the airport, gave me a hug and waved good-by as I lifted off into the air.

I was nervous in Dhaka, I can’t deny it. My fight-or-flight sensors were wide awake and every now and again brief scenarios of bombings and shootings flickered through my mind.

But. But. But. I’m thrilled I went. And let me not overdramatize. Yes, we were escorted by armed police wherever we went and 19 participants cancelled at short notice. Others, however, came, including Channel 4’s Jon Snow, South Bank Artistic Director Jude Kelly and British writer Marcel Theroux. And many more from India, Palestine, Kenya, US and Cuba.

But the real heroes of the show were the Bengali writers K. Anis Ahmed, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz, the three directors of the festival. Of course they contemplated cancelling or postponing the event and their concern for our safety was evident. Yet, they also understand that perhaps now more than ever their country – and the world at large – needs places where people from different cultures exchange and explore new ways of imagining the future.

‘There is actually a fourth hero.’ Peirene is suddenly looking over my shoulder. ‘The audience. They defied public curfew and political strikes that were happening elsewhere in the city to attend the festival.’

What can I say? The Nymph is absolutely right.

Image by Hasan Iqbal, creative commons.


An Outing without the Nymph

November 17th, 2015

‘No one will agree with your short list.’ I’m packing up books and notes to head to the judges meeting for the Arts Foundation Literary Translation Prize 2016. Peirene has stopped working and is watching me.


‘Why not?’ I put on my coat and grab my handbag.

‘Because you used the wrong criteria,’ she announces with pursed lips.  ‘You didn’t just judge them on the quality of their translation, did you?

‘That’s right.’ I pause. I don’t really have time for a discussion. But then I continue: ‘They all submitted solid translations. The winner will receive £10 000 so we should reward someone who is willing to go the extra mile. A translator’s job doesn’t finish with creating an English text. If foreign fiction is to become part of our culture the best translators realise that they must perform, blog and organize events. Because there is no better advocator than the translator.’

‘Impressive.’ Peirene crosses her arms and legs. The foot on top bounces up and down. ‘But what if a translator doesn’t like doing any of that stuff.’

I shrug my shoulders. ‘In my view, it’s part of the job. And every job has aspects we like, and others we don’t.’ I’m suddenly irritated with the Nymph. Our attitudes usually coincide with regards to book promotion. So why is she being so antagonistic? Moreover, as soon as I sit in the cab I feel nervous. What if she is right and I have misunderstood the brief for the prize. I calm down by telling myself that my decisions are based on sound reasoning and I will be able to argue my point of view.

At the judges meeting, we draw up the short list in no time. We all agree on three out of four candidates. And we are also in harmony about the two who deserve to win. Opinions differ on which of the two should be the winner. But we finally reach a satisfying decision. It was an invigorating meeting.

‘I’m pleased the meeting went well, ‘ Peirene comments laconically as I walk back into the office.

I settle at my desk. ‘Why were you so negative earlier on?’ I eventually ask.

‘No, I…’

I interrupt her: ‘Don’t say you weren’t. I know you too well.’

‘Ok, I was.’ She pulls a face. ‘Because I wanted to be a judge, too. It’s always you who gets asked. Never me. And then you walk out of office in your high heels and lips stick. And I’m stuck here and can never dress up.’

‘Oh, Peirene. ‘ A warm glow for my little envious Nymph rises inside me. ‘We are a team. I didn’t realise you wanted to come. Next time I’ll take you with me.’

Image by Daniel70mi,  creative commons.

Fixing the Wheels

November 9th, 2015

‘We can no longer live together.’ Peirene popped out an hour ago without telling me where she was heading. Now she lays a stack of loose papers onto the coffee table. ‘I didn’t want to tell you until I had finalized  everything but…, ‘ she photo[1]unbuttons her coat ‘…I’m moving out.’

I’m sitting in the big armchair reading through the applications for the Arts Foundation’s Literary Translation Prize. I’m one of the judges this year. The judging meeting is on Monday and I still have a lot to get through.

‘Let’s discuss in three days,’ I suggest. The Nymph wants to leave me every few months. I’ve learned not to panic.

‘This time it’s different.’ She pronounces each word loud and clearly, as if talking to a little child. ‘I will continue to work for you, but strictly Monday to Fridays and, from now on, with a clear job description.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘And to ensure that you  stick to this new regime I will rent my own flat. I’ve just visited the estate agent. ’ She pushes the papers across the table towards me.

I sigh. It seems I have to pay my Nymph some attention after all.

‘Ok. Let’s talk now.’ I rest my forearms onto my knees. ‘Why do you want to move?’

She sits bolt upright. ‘I can’t believe you are even asking.’ Tears begin to fill her eyes. ‘No one is respecting my weekends. And no one understands my talents.’

I furrow my brow. I know we work a lot. But I also always thought we both enjoyed hard work.

‘I’m not a handyman.’ She burst into tears. ‘It’s all very well us running 30 stalls between now and Christmas and Jen ordering new, sturdier trollies for the book boxes. But then the trollies arrive. And the wheels still need to be fixed. And Jen isn’t in the office for the next few days. Then you tried and lost your patience.  And now I have to screw on trolley wheels even though it’s the weekend. And that’s not what a nymph does.’

Guilt suddenly overcomes me. ‘If we both try it together,‘ I propose with a reconciliatory smile, ‘will you reconsider moving out?’

I can see that she likes my proposal. But for a moment she pretends to hesitate. Then she nods. ‘But only if you assemble the trolley, while I hand you the tools.’

Wardrobe Debacle

November 2nd, 2015

‘Don’t!’ I hear Peirene shriek from inside the room. I have just put my hand on the handle, wanting to open the door to the office. ‘Don’t!,’ she shrieks again, ’push the door open.’5423374464_3f7e0eb850_z

I squeeze in nevertheless. ‘What on earth is happening here?’

I’m not impressed by the scene. When I left work on Friday, everything was tidy and in its place. Now, on Sunday evening, the table is pushed aside and the entire floor, the sofa, the chairs are all covered with Peirene’s clothes. I realize quickly that there are a number of outfits. In the left corner a summer dress is laid out, complete with sandals, cardigan, sunglasses, sunhat and sun cream. Over at the right we have a pair of jeans, her blue polo neck, winter coat, woollen scarf, hat, gloves. On the sofa she has displayed wellies, her red rain jacket, umbrella. And on one of the chairs is her brown blazer with a matching skirt and blouse, tights and black shiny boots.

I pick up the boots. These are very nice boots. ‘Are they new?,’ I ask, barely able to disguise a tinge of envy.

‘Yes,’ the Nymph replies distractedly, running her hands through her hair. ‘I’m in such distress. I have to be ready by tomorrow morning 7am. All my outfits are incomplete and the shops are now closed. This is a total disaster.’

I don’t really understand what Peirene is talking about. ‘What is a disaster?’ ‘Don’t you know, I’m going to distribute newspapers with Clara and Clare tomorrow and I have nothing – absolutely nothing – to wear.’

That’s news to me. The Nymph usually has one hundred and one excuses why she can’t help with distributing our newspaper at tube stations. I know that secretly she feels the job is too unglamorous for her.

‘Did you volunteer?’ I ask in surprise.

‘Of course I did. This is our best literary newspaper ever. Hot off the press. I have to be there when it hits the London streets. But I don’t know what the weather is going to be like. It’s far too warm for the season. But then again it might suddenly turn. So I have to get at least four complete outfits ready.’

I begin to laugh. I just can’t take her too seriously. ‘It doesn’t matter what you wear. Clara will be honoured by your presence. And so will the commuters. It’s rare that they receive a paper from the hands of an Ancient Greek Nymph. Just dress warmly.’ I pause, then I add: ‘And if you don’t wear the black boots, perhaps you would let me borrow them.’

Image by Steve Johnson, creative commons.

The Return

October 25th, 2015

‘Hi,’ I say cheerfully, putting down my bags. I have just come back from my writer’s retreat last week.5773394922_a2d9deb440_z

‘Hi,’ Peirene replies without looking up from her work.

‘I’m back,’ I say. I would love to have a catch-up chat.

‘I can see that,’ she mumbles, still not turning her head.

‘Are you angry?’ She usually punishes me with a bad mood if I have been out of the office for too long.

She shakes her head.

‘Good,’ I reply. ‘I had a productive week. But quite austere,’ I add. My retreats consist of renting a lonely cottage in Norfolk where I don’t see or speak to anyone, so hearing my own voice again is delight, and I continue: ‘Let me tell you my daily routine: I start work at 8 on the dot, write the first 1000 words by 11, then stop for a late breakfast. Then write the next 1000 words by 2, then have lunch, a bit of a rest, go for a run or walk, have a shower. By 6 I’m back writing the final 1000 words of the day. Eat something, read for an hour. Lights out. I hit my target of 15000 words,’ I finish proudly.

No responds or acknowledgement from the Nymph. I pull a face, sit down and start going through the pile of post that has accumulated. For a while the only sounds in the office are the tearing open of envelopes and the Nymph’s tapping on the keyboard. Suddenly I hear her whisper:

‘I’m pretending you haven’t come back yet.’

‘Why?’ I ask in a normal voice.

‘Ps, speak quietly,’ she reprimands me in a hushed voice.

‘Ok, why,’ I, too, whisper.

‘Because good things tend to happen when you are away.’

‘Such as?’ I’m all ears.

‘Well, this time we learned that BBC Radio 3 is going to do a programme with Hanne Ørstavik, Radio 4 ‘s A Good Read will feature The Dead Lake and Born Films have told us that their English screen adaption of Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona is progressing beautifully.’

‘Wow!’ I shout, jumping up and rushing over to Peirene to give her hug.

‘Oh, now you’ve broken the spell with your racket.’ She pretends to be upset but I can see that she is thrilled to be the bearer of good tidings.

We have a coffee. It’s nice to be back in Peirene’s company. She’s matured a lot over the last year and increasingly is able to run large parts of the publishing house herself. Nevertheless she loves to ensure that I don’t become underemployed. She points to a big box in the corner. ‘This has also arrived – the books for the Arts Foundation Award.’ I’m a judge on their 2016 Literary Translation prize. ‘That’ll keep you busy reading for a while,’ she adds with a little wicked smile.

Image by Graeme Law, creative commons.

Running Shoes

October 18th, 2015

‘No one is going to mess with my looks! Do you hear me: I said no one!’ The Nymph is beside herself. She rushes over to the bookshelf and pulls out a copy each of all our 18 titles. She lays them out on the floor. ‘They are so beautiful. High 6964264963_df9167f7eb_zquality. I fight tooth and nail to keep them that way. ’

I sit very still at my desk, bending my head low. I don’t want to aggravate Peirene even more.

‘Only once did I agree to put a sticker on the front cover,’ she continues, hyperventilating. ‘The Maya sticker on Beside the Sea. And as soon as we did it, I knew it was a mistake. It ruined the entire cover.’ She straightens up, places a hand on her heart. ‘I’m the custodian of our brand,’ she announces as if addressing a huge crowd. ‘And I will defend it with my life.’

That’s enough. The Nymph clearly needs some fresh air to clear her head. I send her out for a run. She borrows my gym shoes and slams the door. While she is gone, I email Sacha, our designer.

We have received a PEN Award for our next book, The Man I Became by Belgian literary super star, Peter Verhelst. This means we will receive a subsidy. Delightful news. There is only one drawback: We have to put the PEN logo onto the front cover. I’ve tried to argue with them. But PEN remained adamant. Money and logo. Or no logo, no money. Initially I, too, was upset and contemplated of returning the award. But only briefly. Then my business sense regained the upper hand.

Sacha’s response drops into my inbox. I take a deep breath before I open it. She also is a fierce defender of our brand, and I know she’d prefer not to have to deal with any extras on the cover. On the other hand: I need a solution, not another tantrum. Luckily, Sacha is a professional designer who turns challenges into opportunities. I stare at the cover images on my screen. Our beauty hasn’t been compromised and PEN has their logo on the cover.

I print the image and put it on Peirene’s desk.

She returns from her run in a much better mood. ‘I was wondering,’ she says as she walks into the office smelling clean and refreshed after her shower, ‘why don’t we see what Sacha says. She might have the perfect design solution.’ Her eyes fall onto the paper on her desk. For a moment she looks on in silence, while my heart misses a beat. Does she approve? ‘Oh my God!’ Peirene then sighs. ‘Sacha is a genius. This is really quirky, interesting and the logo adds an extra touch of style.’ She picks up the books from the floor and places them back onto the shelf. ‘Mind you, I was also wondering on my run… if PEN gives us money… I could really do with some designer sparkling running shoes.’

Image by Natalie Maynor, creative commons.

All That Jazz

October 12th, 2015

Six months ago I started playing the saxophone. I used to play the piano. But it bothered me that I couldn’t hug the piano. And the sound comes from the finger-tips not from human breath. I tried singing for a couple of months. But I lacked any kind3412321187_41025668ec_m of talent. So a wind instrument was the next best option. I love Jazz and have always dreamed about joining a Jazz band.

‘You still have a long way to go,’ the Nymph comments as I return to my desk after what felt to me was rather quite a good practice session.

‘You ought to encourage me,’ I reply in a hurt tone. ‘Learning a new instrument will help me choose better books.’

Peirene raises an eyebrow. ‘That sounds pretty far fetched to me.’

‘It’s not.’ I’m aware of my defensive tone. After all, I do feel guilty taking time away from my work in order to practice for my weekly lesson. And admittedly I have already thought long and hard of how to justify my new passion to Peirene. I breathe deeply in and out and continue more calmly: ‘As we both know, good writing has a lot to do with rhythm. The more rhythm I have in my blood, the quicker I recognize good texts and the better I become in editing the translations, too.’

‘Interesting theory.’ Peirene turns her attention away from me and begins to type on her computer. Then she stops.

‘I think you took up the saxophone because you wanted to. And for no other reason. You don’t need to sneak back into the office after each practice turning the air heavy with your guilty conscience.’

I look at the Nymph in surprise. She’s got a point. ‘So you’re not angry with me for having decided to learn the Saxophone? Or worry that our programme for 2017 hasn’t yet fallen into place?’

She shakes her head. ‘It will fall into place, it always has.’ Then she pauses. ‘And, truth to tell, I rather like Ella Fitzgerald. She’s just the kind of woman we Ancient Greeks admired: soulful, strong, poetic.’ She pauses again. ‘So if you need a singer for your band…’ Her voice trails away. She has a far-away look in her eyes and I know that she’s already imagining herself on stage in a glittering dress, crooning to an enraptured crowd.

Image by chico 945, creative commons.

A Publisher’s Confession

October 5th, 2015

I love Matt Damon. Yes, I do.  Whenever I see him I know that deep down we are meant for each other and that he, too, is pining for me. And one day he will come and rescue me. ‘Rescue you from what?,’ the Nymph asks matter-of-factly.  ‘Well,55054217_c259ba5242_z rescue me,’ I reply, rolling my eyes. What a silly question.

Peirene throws me a bemused glance over her reading glasses. ‘I thought you like to see yourself as a woman who didn’t need rescuing.’ I refrain from replying. Nymphs simply don’t understand.

Needless to say, Peirene refused to come with me to the cinema this weekend to watch The Martian. Her excuse: she was reading through the proofs of our next newspaper that Clara has just finished editing.

‘Brilliant film.’ I walk back into the office with shining eyes. ‘Matt D and space and perfect teamwork where everyone is determined to give their best.’

‘Hollywood schlock,’ Peirene mumbles without diverting her eyes from the screen. ‘I’m embarrassed to be working with someone with such mainstream tastes,’ she adds.

I ignore her last comment. ‘And the final line was wonderful. Matt says that if you want to survive or try to make something happen you have to solve one problem after the other – step after step after little step.’

‘Absolutely ‘ Peirene says in a sarcastic tone.

‘Why that tone?’ I settle at my desk.

‘While you are busy indulging in teenage phantasies, some of us have worked very hard. Solving one problem after another. Clara is the real hero. The newspaper is outstanding. Have you seen it?’

‘I glanced at it. I can’t wait till it comes back from the printers.’ I pause, then continue: ‘By the way, that’s an example of perfect teamwork.’

‘Perfect teamwork? I didn’t see you becoming involved.’

‘I didn’t have to. The newspaper editorial is Clara’s domain. Not only did she fulfill her job. She exceeded my expectations.’

‘Aren’t we lucky with Clara,’ the Nymph states. I nod. ‘We are indeed.’

However, suddenly a wicked grin appears on Peirene’s face:  ‘But you won’t be so lucky with Matt. Judging by the film, it’s Matt that needs rescuing from Mars. And, what’s more, he is saved by a woman – so I don’t think he will be saving you.’

‘How do you know?’ At first I’m slightly bewildered. Then it dawns on me: ‘You have seen the film too!’ I am laughing. Evidently Peirene is a secret Matt Damon fan but she can’t bring herself to admit it.

Image by richard, creative commons.

Impressing Young Men

September 28th, 2015

Parents and teachers listen up. Peirene’s books are trending with 16-year-old boys. They belong to a group that is notoriously reluctant to be impressed by literature. Their busy lives of sport and parties and music and Facebook don’t leave them 15853564422_58a27117b4_ztime for reading. Indeed I can personally vouch that at least one of them – my son – has struggled to see the merit of any book for a couple of years. But now, all of a sudden, Percy and his friend have reformed. They are spearheading a movement that promises to revolutionise the reading habits of an entire male generation.

The Nymph is in seventh heaven. All red-cheeked and giggling, she flits around the office. ‘I wonder if I should update my wardrobe. It’s all so dowdy. I need to wear something cooler, trendier when I next meet them. And how about cutting my hair short? It will make me look younger. What do you think?’

‘You are a good looking, clever Nymph,’ I tell her. ‘But sadly I don’t think that’s what stirred the boys. I believe they are after the money.’ I hate to disappoint Peirene. On the other hand I just can’t let her live an illusion.

‘The money?’ Peirene stops dead in her stride and stares at me in disbelief.

Two months ago I mentioned to my son and his friend that we are looking for more booksellers at our stalls, and that they could work as a team. Their eyes lit up at the possibility of earning cash. Then I told them they would first need to read the 18 Peirene books, i.e 9 books each. My son rolled his eyes and left the kitchen. His friend, however, said: ‘Ok. Give me the first three books.’  I selected Chasing the King of Hearts, The Brothers and Tomorrow Pamplona. Three weeks later he told me that he had read them. We had a chat. I was impressed. His favourite of the three: The Brothers.

The performance of his friend put my son under pressure. Charlie has now read six titles, Percy three. Charlie’s top book so far: The Dead Lake. Percy’s: The Mussel Feast. ‘I really enjoyed it,’ he admitted, slightly surprised.

‘The possibility of earning money might have given them the initial incentive,’ Peirene now says. The shock has disappeared from her face and she has recovered her rosy complexion. ‘But I can’t help feeling that our stories have their approval .’ Her face once more takes on a dreamy expression. ‘And from there it’s only a small step to admire an Ancient Greek Nymph. I can’t wait to be taken out by two handsome, young men.’

Image by Phil Galdys.

A Nymph’s Idea

September 21st, 2015

‘I’m such a clever, gifted Nymph. I want to do more than just donate money to good causes,’ Peirene muses. She is lying on the sofa in the office, twirling her hair. I’m sitting at the desk in front of my computer studying the company’s accounts. 15166203826_a89dc50c09_zWe recently learned that we won’t receive an EU grant in 2016 – indeed, no UK publisher will. Which means that keeping our cash flow under control will be an even more precarious balancing act than usual.

‘We’ve now been supporting the Maya Centre for over three years,’ Peirene continues in the background. ‘I wonder if it is time to move on.’ I’m trying to ignore the Nymph’s chatter. Looking through forecast figures for 2016 with a realistic eye requires concentration. Peirene, however, is unperturbed by my silence. ‘I would like to find a new charity. A charity that does important work with refugees just like the Maya Centre – but one that also needs my expertise.’

I find it hard to concentrate while Peirene talks. Impatiently I turn around. ‘Your expertise in what precisely? As a chatter box?’

Peirene stops twirling her hair, sits up straight and glares at me. ‘You just stay glued to your numbers. I will go out and make myself useful.’

I heave a sigh of relief as the Nymph closes the door behind her. Finally the office is quite.

A few days later Peirene invites me to join her at a meeting with Almir Koldzic and Tim Finch from Counterpoints Arts,  a charity that supports and promotes the arts by and about refugees. They run projects with individual artists but also with big art organisations such as the British Museum. Their aim is to use the creative arts to inspire social change and enhance the cultural integration of refugees.

Both the Nymph and I leave the meeting inspired. Almir and Tim are excited to collaborate with a publisher. They would like us to attend their conference planning next year’s Refugee Week, take part in a weekend on art & activism and help shape a literature event around the theme of migration in collaboration with Royal Holloway University.

‘Thank you for dragging me away from the spreadsheet,’ I admit as we are heading back to Peirene HQ.

‘That’s quite all right.’ Peirene is obviously delighted with herself, and excited that Counterpoints Arts can make use of her skills. Her cheeks glow with a lovely red shimmer. ‘And truth to tell, I’m so pleased that you are diligent with our accounts. After all, we can only support others if we keep our own budget in order.’

Image by Maria Elena.