Below are selected essays, recent book reviews and interviews with writers and translators
The Island of Missing Trees: An Interview with Elif Shafak
On a scorching August morning, while visiting my grandparents’ village in Bulgaria, I speak over Zoom to Booker-shortlisted British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak about her forthcoming novel The Island of Missing Trees (Viking). Our conversation spans across form and linguistic choice, and the topics of displacement, memory and generational trauma. The room where I sit overlooks an old fig tree and I inevitably mention my plans to take a sapling from it and plant it in my garden back in London.
ND: Elif, thank you so much for writing such an important book and for the opportunity to discuss it with you. It resonates with me on so many levels and I’m excited to talk to you just a day before the UK release. In The Island of Missing Trees, the resemblance between the life of the fig tree and a person living in exile is striking. When reading the stories told from the Fig Tree perspective (one of the narrators in the book), I often wasn’t sure if you were writing about the tree or a person, and I can only assume this was very much purposeful. You write: “Because that is what migration and relocation do to us: when you leave your home for unknown shores, you don’t simply carry on as before; a part of you dies inside so that another part can start all over again.” Why was it important for you to create these parallel narratives which often would break their straight line, meander and intersect with one another?
ES: I do think about migrations, movements, displacements a lot because it’s very personal for me. I think a lot about belonging and not belonging, exile, living in between. I’ve felt, for some reason or another, always like the other. I felt on the periphery of the culture where I grew up in. It’s partly because I was raised in a matriarchal house in a very conservative, very patriarchal society in Turkey. I felt like I didn’t fit in. At the same time, I loved, I felt connected, I felt attached. But there was a bit of a gap, a cognitive distance, which I could never completely overcome. It’s a very lonely position for an artist. And when you move to Europe, to the Western world, in my case, that feeling of gap doesn’t disappear: you continue to feel connected emotionally, but there’s something fractured. There’s something you’ve left behind. There’s a certain melancholy to the life of an immigrant, to the life of an exile that will always be there. Stories help us to realise that we’re not alone. That many people for different reasons have felt a similar sense of loneliness or displacement but at the same time tried to reroute themselves, because that’s the human spirit, the human resilience.
ASSEMBLY: AN INTERVIEW WITH NATASHA BROWN
Nataliya Deleva: Assembly is a brave, powerful novel which draws a sharp incision into the society we live in and takes out to the surface themes such as racism, identity, capitalism, misogyny, tokenism and choice. A slim book at only 112 pages, it is thought-provoking and packed with existential questions, demanding the reader’s attention from the first page. Why was it important for you to write on these topics, and why today?
Natasha Brown: Unfortunately, some people are politicised simply because of who they are. For Assembly’s narrator, it isn’t possible for her to move through the world as a person; she is always seen and treated as a black woman. The impossibility of opting out of this ‘identity’ – even when it’s utterly exhausting, and reductive – was an idea that I wanted to explore within the novel. Those themes are the unavoidable consequences of that impossibility; in our cultural narratives, women like the narrator are always contextualised within such topics.
Gargoyles by Harriet Mercer
A beautifully calibrated blend of memoir and essays, Gargoyles is meticulously structured work which looks at the female body in relation to pain, chronic illness, and loss. One of the first things that struck me was the sumptuous language: beautifully crafted sentences, luminous, poetic writing.
MEMORY BOXES, OLD AND NEW
In the days before my hospital procedure, I grow anxious and fearful. I refuse to let the news define my days, but the fear often crawls up at night, when I lose the reflex of self-control. I catch myself slipping into darker thoughts, the ‘what if’ thoughts that inevitably leave me trembling at the possibility of something going wrong. It would have been a straightforward procedure but during the pandemic, the chances of mortality for a Covid carrier increase to one in five, the letter from the Admissions team warns me. I self-isolate for days and weeks, stay away from delivery drivers, don’t kiss my kids goodnight to minimise the risk of losing my life.
On a frosty morning I drive across the city, before being tied up to machines, their beeping sounds overtaking my mind frozen in panic. The procedure goes (almost) to plan; the biopsy results would take some time, I’m told by the consultant. Her eyes (the only part of her face I can get a glimpse of) seem tired but calm, and that’s reassuring. I find myself trapped in the in-between time: after the procedure and before the results, the possibility of dying still lingering. A sinking feeling in my stomach has nested inches away from my body part that radiates pain, while my thoughts swing between the best and the worst case scenarios.
Kafka wrote that ‘the meaning of life is that it stops’. The line comes to mind with a clacking sound in my sleep in the middle of the night,
JENNIFER CROFT IN CONVERSATION WITH NATALIYA DELEVA
Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press) is a coming-of-age story of a girl named Amy (based closely on Croft) growing up in Oklahoma, homeschooled, and whose childhood is branded by her sister’s diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus. Combining text and photographs, the book might also be described as a sort of photo album tracing the sisters’ childhoods. Each medium—language and photography—elucidates the other, carries meaning that is impossible to convey otherwise.
I caught up with Jennifer Croft the day after Olga Tokarczuk—whose book Flights had been translated by Croft—was awarded the Nobel Prize.
A Poignant Memoir by Naja Marie Aidt Grapples with the Trauma of a Tragic Death
I approached When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt almost blindly, not knowing what to expect, not digging into book reviews; it was the text in its pellucid form that mattered to me. With the very first pages, I sensed it was something special—unsettling, intense, and beautiful at the same time. I was fascinated by the way trauma is exposed here, the way it’s narrated—through fragments, borrowed voices, and memories. This book itself creates a meta-text of grief, giving context to all these voices: other writers, poems written by Carl or by his brother after his death. Going through the pages was like pressing myself toward a sharp edge—painful and unbearable, though there was no going back.
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano: Nataliya Deleva interviews translators Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins
I met Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins at the launch event of Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (Peirene Press) in the cosy bookstore Ink@84.
The conversation unfolded in a relaxed and engaging way, reading excerpts from the book in French and in English, and discussing the translation process. Within the first minutes I was deeply intrigued by the text which I later read in a few short bursts (this is something engraved in Peirene’s philosophy of publishing short books which could be read over a journey or a single sitting). I felt the need to continue this conversation with Sophie and Jennifer and was happy they both agreed.
Emmanuelle Pagano’s book could be described as a collection of short stories or as a fragmented novella. There is a delicate, almost translucent thread entwined in the narrative which provides hints, takes the reader to the next story, like a children’s game, only to discover a new detail, invisible before. What holds these stories together are the re-appearing characters: people on the periphery, be they the loony standing by the road every day at 5pm, waiting for the return of his dead relatives, or the young girl imprisoned in therapy sessions due to killing a fox with her bare hands, or the woman who takes her own life. In all of the interconnected vignettes, different voices take the stage; each one telling the story of a character who might have been briefly sketched in the previous ones, and thus, changing the point of view with each text.
Translating Grief and Silence: Denise Newman on the Work of Naja Marie Aidt
Nataliya Deleva recently spoke with Newman about her approach to translating this deeply personal narrative across various cultural contexts, her proximity to the text and its author, and the role of rhythm in conveying silence on the page.
Nataliya Deleva (ND): Translating is often co-creating, as it is not only the words and sentences of a text being translated, but also their meaning in a different cultural context. How did you find this process, considering this book is so painfully personal? Is grief universal?
Denise Newman (DN): Yes, the translation process touches on the mystery of language. I’ve often marveled at how translations of Bashō’s haikus seem to connect me directly to the moment of his observation. It doesn’t matter that the poem has traveled centuries, oceans, and languages. Maybe this is mostly possible when something is experienced and communicated directly, without any interference—then the original energy, which is outside the conditions of ordinary time and space, stays vital. I think this is what makes translating compelling; you have to go so deeply into a text that you depart from linear time and space. Working on Aidt’s book was hard, though, because of my own interference. She’s my friend, and my sorrow and concern for her sometimes got in the way, particularly while working on the passages that describe the last hours of Carl’s life. Her writing in this part is so direct, I felt as though I were actually present in the nightmare, and often needed to take breaks to clear my head.