Can’t Travel? Feeling Isolated? Cross International Borders with a Book!

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Posted by Kira Baran, GD Fiction Editor for 9.1

Has the COVID-19 pandemic got you feeling isolated? Yeah, us too. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. We might just have a remedy for that!

In my last Gandy Dancer blog post, I talked about the fact that less than three percent of literature accessible in America is international and/or translated literature. Non-Western literature isn’t traveling outside the borders in which it was first written, and readers in the Western world have limited access to literature that was written outside their own borders. When living in a literary vacuum, it’s easy for both parties to feel isolated. If this situation sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “Isolation” has recently become a trending word.

Since that last blog post of mine, the COVID-19 pandemic (and all the life-interrupting situations that have gone with it: quarantines, closed borders, shutdowns . . . need I go on?) has given us a new perspective on all the things we miss out on when we isolate ourselves from the outside world. Sure, America’s cancelled travel plans are a new experience for many of us—travel was something I, admittedly, had taken for granted in my retrospectively blissful pre-pandemic life. But what is not new is America’s travel restrictions when it comes to literature. And, unlike with the pandemic, the travel sanctions and closed borders of America’s literary world won’t be temporary unless we open our minds—and our international/translated books.

Aside from the pandemic, I gained another eye-opening experience since my last blog post. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to serve as an editorial intern at the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books. As I had previously written, they are a literary press devoted to publishing translated writing from authors located outside the United States. Besides the obvious perks of that internship (sneak-peeks at literary manuscripts, free books, and our office geeking out over Andy Rooney’s curmudgeonly rants), I learned a lot.

I learned international literature has unique insights to offer American readers, which our current mainstream literature fails to provide. I learned non-Western authors have diverse concepts of how characters’ points-of-view can be conveyed and how stories can be structured, which could broaden Americans’ own concept of what literature is. I learned that if we isolate ourselves from outside perspectives, we’re isolating ourselves from critically important historical and cultural viewpoints on what it means to be human. Without translated literature, for example, accounts of Holocaust survivors’ experiences (like this Q & A book and this novel I encountered during my internship, which were translated from the Swedish and the Hebrew, respectively) are deprived of readership around the world.

Ultimately though, if I had to choose just one thing that I learned from my internship and this pandemic, it’s this: Books have a secret superpower. They can create supercontinents. Through them, readers can bridge borders and defy isolation.

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