In my relatively short time working at Comma, I have been tasked with co-editing two anthologies as part of our Reading the City series – The Book of Tbilisi, which came out at the end of last year, and the forthcoming Book of Riga. Each book in the series takes ten stories set in a city, by ten writers from or with a close connection to that city, and translates them into English for the first time, showcasing that nation’s writers whilst also painting a vivid picture of the city from a native perspective. So far the series has travelled to Tbilisi, Dhaka, Khartoum, Tokyo, Rio and Gaza in the hope of highlighting the cream of the crop of the short story writers these cities have to offer. Through this blog, I hope to give you an insight into the journey one of our city anthologies goes on, from initial conversation to finished book, and my own recent journey, from Manchester to Riga, to learn more about the city and the culture encapsulated in The Book of Riga. Much of the reasoning behind Riga, other than it being a city which is growing in popularity with tourists, and a beautiful European city, is the Baltic Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair: this gives Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia a golden opportunity to increase awareness and translations of their authors in the UK book market. And particularly in the centenary year of the Baltic States’ independence, the Book Fair should be a big celebration of writing, illustration and culture from the region.
It all began after meeting Zanete and her colleagues from Latvian Literature at London Book Fair 2017 to learn more about the short story scene in Latvia. I found their enthusiasm infectious and was soon back in touch to mine their wealth of short story knowledge and get to work on putting together the collection. Happily the short story scene in Riga is a very healthy one, and myself and my co-editor Eva – who came highly recommended by Zanete – had a plethora of wonderful stories to choose from. Working on the collection has opened my eyes to many talented Latvian-to-English translators, and working with them and the authors has made the process that much more pleasurable. It has been fascinating working on the stories and seeing how each writer has responded to their city: with pride or shame, with magical realism, with humourous or dark undertones. It’s also interesting seeing what they’ve picked as their setting or focus in the city, whether it’s a famous church or government building, or just a regular house in the suburbs. Riga is a city of many religions, languages, and nationalities, and I think this is most certainly reflected in the range of stories we’ve chosen. We’ve also chosen writers at different stages of their career, some very established and already published in other languages, and some who are exciting up and comers who no doubt we’ll soon see more of translated from the Latvian.
I was fortunate enough that shortly after receiving funding from the Latvian Writers Union for the collection, I was invited to Riga in September of last year by Latvian Literature, along with a cohort of British publishers and journalists. I did a little googling beforehand and had a list of ‘must-sees’ but I didn’t expect to fall for Riga as hard as I did on that visit. It really is such a friendly and welcoming city, and beautiful to boot – the architecture in the region but particularly in Riga’s Old Town is just breathtaking. There’s also a really vibrant and thriving publishing scene, and I was honoured to be able to visit the offices of a number of publishers, all of whom were friendly and keen to showcase their authors – Mansards, Liels un Mazs, Zviagzne ABC and more. One of my favourite parts of the trip had to be visiting the National Library of Latvia, the fabled ‘Glass Mountain’ on the other side of the river (the mythology behind its nickname is certainly worth a Google). It is testament to how much the Latvians love their literature that they have built this monumental building for a library, and packed it full of wonderful resources for citizens to use. I particularly loved The People’s Bookshelf – a five-storey high bookcase entirely populated by the favourite books of their members, donated after a call out from the National Library – and only wished we had something so wonderful back in Manchester! We also got to visit the Jelgava Printing House which was such a great experience as I’ve never been to a printing press before, even in the UK. To see the books being made from start to finish and witness the care and attention that goes in, even on a production line, got all of us publishers very excited.
What was particularly worthwhile about the trip was that it not only gave me the chance to meet some of the authors and translators featured in the anthology – something that sadly doesn’t happen that often when you’re working in translation – but it also allowed me to experience the city first-hand. Revisiting the stories after the trip, I had a much greater sense of perspective: when characters walked past a certain landmark, I understood what the author was describing as I had seen it myself. Editorially, this better enabled me to ensure that the reader was able to visualise those same cobbled streets and towering church steeples, having perhaps not visited Riga themselves. It is my hope that reading the collection will not only inspire people to visit Riga but to also read more Latvian literature and fiction in translation. Most importantly, I hope that the essence of Riga that I experienced will come through in the pages.
I have also recently returned from Vilnius, which is the capital of Lithuania, where again I was invited along with publishers and journalists on a literary tour of the city. As I mentioned earlier, both of these trips were part of the Baltic Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair, with both countries trying to increase awareness and translations of their authors in the UK book market. It was fascinating to go to Vilnius Book Fair, and the University, and learn about the history of the city and its authors, some of whom will be attending the Book Fair. Certainly in Vilnius I got the impression that while there are high quality short story writers, Lithuanian writers generally see the novel as top of the food chain, and the current appetite there for historical novels in particular is huge. This is no surprise given the trials and tribulations Lithuania and the other Baltic states have endured, and hence why they are all so keen to celebrate their 100 years of independence by taking pride in their culture, and especially literature, writing and freedom of expression now no longer oppressed by foreign rule. Vilnius was just as stunning as Riga, although much colder at -17 on average during our visit, but once again I was just so immediately fond of the city thanks to the Old Town and the amazing architecture everywhere you look.
With London Book Fair and the Baltic Focus just around the corner, I’m excited to see the literature of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia under the spotlight in London, and the effects of their efforts on the translation landscape in the years to come.
As part of our own Baltic offering this year, we’re welcoming over two of the Latvian authors included in the Book of Riga, Sven Kuzmins and Dace Ruksane, to launch the book on Friday 13th April at Housmans Bookshop in London. Come along and get a taste of Latvian literature (and Latvian beer!) and the wonderful capital of Riga from two young and exciting short story writers. And if you’re at the Book Fair yourself, swing by and say hello to us and the Northern Fiction Alliance on stand 6G15.
Sales & Production Manager of Comma Press and co-editor of The Book of Riga