Too much US-UK: Karachi teen on a project to read the rest of the world instead!
“That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Fortunately for us, a lot of these places we travel to, especially when young, are imaginary. Be it Hogwarts or Narnia, Malgudi or Never Never Land, we let our minds occupy cupboards and rabbit holes we could never physically enter. Unfortunately for us, we'd enter a lot of these spaces as a blonde, blue-eyed kid, with rare exceptions.
If books indeed made us travel, and most books we read were by American or British authors, how much of the world have we really encountered? Not much, and that's what 13-year-old Aisha Eshbhani from Karachi is attempting to change.
Her project, with a simple, self-explanatory title, 'Reading Books From Every Country' sends her on a wonderful journey through 197 countries, and, at least, 197 authors from these countries. So far, Eshbhani is close to the halfway mark and looking for recommendations on her page.
It is easy infantilise Eshbhani's project, but really, how many of us have attempted to read beyond the predominantly white narrative? Always finding excuses – oh, it's got too many colloquialisms, there's no translation, I don't get it – we have much to learn from Eshbhani for not just being open to varied cultures, but also for taking a challenge head on.
“It's quite rare when I don't understand certain cultural references but when that does happen, I do some research on the internet and clear any concepts or misconceptions I have,” she tells Catch in this interview.
Read edited excerpts:
DS: What made you start this project?
AE: In March last year, as I looked up at my bookshelf, I realised that most of the books I had read were by British or North American authors. I wanted to do something about it, I wanted to read more widely. And so, I ran some searches on the Internet, and discovered Ann Morgan.
She was the first person to read a book from every country. Her blog inspired me, and soon, I too began reading the world. There are some things about my quest that are different from hers, but the idea is to discover authors from nations other than the UK and the USA.
DS: What has been your greatest takeaway?
AE: I have connected with so many people around the world because of this project. It has really helped me groom myself. I have become so confident (I was always a shy kid).
I've learnt so much not only from people but also from the books. I can empathise more now, and this quest has allowed me to handle multiple situations, deal with foreigners and strangers and yes, multitask. I have changed as a person.
DS: Are there any kinds of books you avoid. Why?
AE: Not really, though I do have to leave out the genre of romance most of the time, since it can be a little inappropriate for me. After all, I'm just thirteen!
DS: How long do you think this project will last? And how do you plan on taking it forward?
AE: Maybe another year. And this project is one that will last forever.
After I'm done with one book from each country, I will definitely set myself on another quest that will have me reading widely.
DS: What would you have to say to young people who don't read?
AE: Don't start with reading long and thick books. You might want to start by reading book reviews, I review books on my page as well.
Once you find a review of your interest, read the book and then explore the genre! This way you'll develop a habit of reading! And don't ever forget the benefits of reading. Well, I can tell you all that reading does improve your vocabulary, books do make you empathise better, and reading widely does change your personality.
DS: And what about those who do read?
AE: I'd say keep reading with interest- it has a lot of benefits. And do explore books from different countries as well.
Do you not think writers from underrepresented countries also produce masterpieces? Do you not think they too deserve your appreciation? Explore the world, keep reading.
DS: Any patterns/similarities/differences you've observed in writings from different countries?
AE: I’ve noticed that writers from the African continent spend a lot of time describing the country. Western authors are more about thoughts.
Furthermore, authors from the Middle East tend to be more fearless, for example, my book from Saudi Arabia spoke against the Saudi culture and this tale from Jordan was about the American invasion and oil discovery. These topics are very controversial and therefore prove that their authors are courageous!
DS: Are there colloquialisms/cultural references you don't understand? How do you deal with them?
AE: It's quite rare when I don't understand certain cultural references but when that does happen, I do some research on the internet and clear any concepts or misconceptions I have!
Often, there is a glossary at the back of the book or notes at the bottom of the page that explain any concept that might be difficult for foreign readers understand.
DS: Would you call yourself well-read now?
AE: I wouldn't call my myself well-read till I've read multiple books from every single country in the world!
DS: Anything interesting you want to share?
AE: Definitely! So, I contacted authors and publishers, asking if they know of any books from countries that do not have too much commercially available literature in English.
And I received a message from Robi Gottlieb, an author from Luxembourg! He was willing to courier me his book, and just a few days later, it was in my hands. Armida Publications from Cyprus sent me a book too. Similarly, I received books from authors from Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and even Latvia!
Another moment I would remember forever is when I got a message from Allison Charette. So far, Madagascar has no novel published in English. Charette is currently translating one and since the publication process is going to take time, she is sending me an unpublished version of the book next month!
For Comoros, I couldn't seem to find any book in English. Then, I heard of Anis Memon who had translated a novel but it was never published. I contacted him but there was no reply. A little time later, I got in touch with his friend and he sent me the unpublished translation, "The Kaafir of Karthala"!
I have been mentioned in so many newspapers, magazines and blogs around the world. I am so glad to see such a positive response from people.