An interview with Abby Pollak and Sally Ito, chairs of the 2008 Kiriyama Prize fiction and nonfiction panels

2008 Kiriyama Prize Finalists

WaterBridge Review: Now that you’re both fresh off the judging process, can you say what really inspires you about a book?

Abby Pollak: A good book takes me to a place other than my own world (armchair travel ranks high on my list of preferred sports) and startles me with new ways of looking at old places, stories, times.

Sally Ito:  I’m in total agreement. A book that can completely take me into its world is one that I find inspiring.

AP: In the end, though, it’s the voices that inspire and seduce me, that touch my soul, voices I’ve never quite heard before but which, now that I have, remain with me. Books also allow my imagination a lot of latitude—to create my own visuals—give me both freedom and direction when imagining worlds that may be fiction but are utterly real and dear and fascinating to me. And I’m thrilled by language itself … gorgeous, powerful, and enigmatic.  Am I a "better person" because I read all the time? Unequivocally, yes!

WBR: In what ways do your five shortlisted titles meet these criteria?

AP: Each one takes me to a previously little-known world, via characters whose voices compel me to read their stories, and to wonder at them. Roma Tearne’s remarkable first novel, Mosquito, for example, is set on the lush island of Sri Lanka during the devastating civil war between the Singhalese and the Tamil Tigers, ostensibly (and ironically) over which should be the official language. And Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip takes place during the early 1900s on the tropical island of Bougainville off the coast of New Guinea. Then there’s the "new urbanite" short fiction of Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars, a new twist on chaotic contemporary China, while The Last Chinese Chef shares Chinese cooking, food history, philosophy and romance. And lastly, David Malouf’s brilliant Complete Stories gives us a stunningly filmic view of the northernmost part of the immeasurable Australian continent.    

SI: The five books our nonfiction panel selected were also compelling in the worlds they presented—whether it was historical India (India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha), the South Pacific Ocean (The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty), the passing seasons of a California year (East Wind Melts the Ice by Liza Dalby), the Vietnam War (The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell) or the lives of an educated, artistic family of Chinese women in the nineteenth century (The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann). All of us judges felt the writer of the book had brought us completely into their world in a way that fascinated and engaged us intellectually and emotionally.

WBR: The wonderful thing about having five finalists is showcasing the rich diversity of authors and books. Each list represents a variety of countries. Sally, were these conscious or unconscious choices for you and your panel of judges? 

SI: As chair, I was very conscious of representation; some of the other judges less so. The problem with being too conscious of representation is that it can lead to what one judge referred to as "book tokenism"; on the other hand, if one went willy nilly the way of what one simply prefers or thinks is the best, there’s always the possibility of choosing too much according to one’s taste. Paradoxically, at least in my case, only reading widely will help determine what my taste is, and my taste is not always a reflection of what is good and interesting out there in terms of books. 

WBR: And you, Abby?

AP: While diversity of culture and country certainly played conscious roles, they were not, however, defining criteria for the final selection. 

WBR: Also, the accessibility of a book is very important in both genres. How does this figure into the judging process and were there any surprises for you? 

AP: Accessibility—depending on your definition of same—is important because we’d like to reach a wide audience, perhaps even introduce a "new" audience to these works. And there were surprises … for me, the Malouf collection of short stories is enormously complex, sophisticated, Faulknerian and incantatory in its language, style and story. I worried that perhaps his audience would be limited, even though he made my top five list from the beginning. Other judges felt his accessibility was not an issue; the wonder of the worlds evoked in his stories transcended their complexity. I Love Dollars, also on my top five from the get-go, might also have a somewhat limited accessibility; it’s Borgesian, even Kafkan, rather chilly and viciously satirical, but it gives such a startling picture of "New China" that we wanted our American and Canadian audiences to have the chance to take a look. On the other hand, The Last Chinese Chef, a small quiet book about food, culture, and love, is completely accessible to any reader … and we loved that aspect of it.

SI: Accessibility is informed by many things like genre, language, structure, timeliness. Some books that are accessible are not always necessarily "literary." In judging nonfiction, the accessibility issue most often comes into play when we discuss so-called academic books. These are usually books put out by university presses and are often former PhD. theses. These books tend to have a set format and often make for dry reading. But occasionally you will find an academic title that by use of a certain technique of presentation or form breaks the mold and somehow manages to engage the reader on a more visceral level. One of our shortlisted books, Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, was such an example. This book actually incorporated Chinese history-telling techniques in its presentation and the result was surprisingly engaging. As one of our judges, an editor of academic titles in Asian studies, pointed out, not every cultural form makes the transition from one language to another successfully, but this was a case in which the form mirrored the content and made the cultural translation into English effectively.  

WBR: What about translations? There’s only one translated book in fiction among the shortlisted titles this year. Could you speak a little on the strengths and weaknesses you find in translations? 

AP: As a translator myself, I’m enormously sympathetic to the perils of the trade. I neither speak nor read Chinese but Julia Lovell’s translation of I Love Dollars seems to me masterful. It’s post-modern (if I may use that tired phrase), spiky, complicated, with long compound sentences and an icy tone. In my opinion, she did an admirable job rendering what are clearly very sophisticated ideas, alien settings, as well as surreal characters and situations, into readable, indeed pretty intoxicating and humorous, English without losing the differences between Zhu Wen’s very Chinese world and our more familiar western version of same. In fact, there are startling similarities, which is part of the horrified recognition one experiences while reading.

WBR: Sally, were there any translations that captivated the nonfiction judges?

SI: Translation is a tricky thing. We had one that almost made the shortlist this year. Its translation, on the whole, the judges found seamless and the reasons it did not advance any further had nothing to do with the fact that it was translated. Good translation is seamless and presents a voice that is readable and accessible. Occasionally you get books that are written in English by a non-native speaker, and often there are "flaws" insofar as the cultural idiom has not been translated well enough yet by the writer into English.

WBR: Was it tough for the judges to narrow their choices down to a five-book shortlist? 

AP: Oh Yes. There were many ballots, of several kinds, weighted in different ways, measuring different qualities.

SI: Yes, and in some ways our group relied on others to make choices for them that they couldn’t make because their list was full-up already. So there was already some built-in consensus in the list. 

WBR: Were there any knock-down, drag-out disagreements between the judges? If so, how did you provide calm under fire?

AP: Yes indeed … polite but adamant. Grace under fire, I guess … we all managed to hold onto our senses of humor, regardless of clear differences of opinion. In fact, the differences were fascinating. I came prepared, I supplied tissues for tears. I offered drugs but no takers. I deferred to Jeannine, who always had calm answers to disagreements about who said what when and what the guidelines were in the first place. I’d also printed out and brought to the table all the comments, counter-comments, and embedded responses written by the judges about each book during the past four months so we could review the history of criticism if we got bogged down in hysterics. We’d also agreed beforehand how to proceed: from the novel with the most votes on down. That enabled each judge to articulate the qualities most important to his or her opinions in the context of a book about which we all agreed, at least in the beginning. But really, I didn’t need to do much; all the judges had great respect and tolerance for one another throughout. And although we had strong opinions, all of us changed our minds at least once.

WBR: And what about the nonfiction panel, Sally? Somehow, I can’t see you having to keep two of the nonfiction judges from swinging at each other.

SI: No, not really. Our group was amenable, largely due to a well-established routine of dialoguing via e-mail throughout the year. We knew immediately when some book was a hit with one of us, and likewise for the bombs. So when it came time to meet, I didn’t feel there were any surprises for us in terms of what we felt about the books since we’d told each other already online.

WBR: Sally, if you could personally add one more book to the shortlist, what would it be? 

SI: Well, that would be Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions.

WBR: Abby?

AP: David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. (Maddie and I had to resort to Kleenex.)

WBR: What was the best part of chairing the fiction and nonfiction panels? 

AP: Every once in a great while, I got to toss democracy and be the Decider. Despotism can be fun.

SI: Making friends with people who love books, reading, and writing.

WBR: What was the hardest part? 

AP: Keeping my mouth shut.

SI: Keeping up with all the reading!

WBR: What have you both learned about yourselves?

AP: That I can really listen to the arguments of people who don’t share my opinions, that I can change my mind without betraying my soul, and that it’s sometimes actually an enormous relief to change it.

SI: Besides the fact that I’m a slow reader?! Well, one thing I’ve become acquainted with is my ignorance! There are so many books out there about everything! How does one discern the path of one’s reading? That has been the greater philosophical question for me these past few years judging for the prize.

WBR: How did you relax between reading the books? 

AP: Sugar, TV, red wine, People magazine.

SI: Sometimes, I read other things. Like poetry. And then I do Facebook, but in doses, so as not to go overboard!

WBR: What are you both reading now? 

SI: I’m reading some articles in a literary quarterly called The New Quarterly from out of Ontario about writing: "The Poetics of Prose" by Patricia Robertson and "The Drama of Grammar" by Douglas Glover.    

AP: Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman.

WBR: Now that you’ve traveled the world through an array of books, is there any one place in your reading that that you’d like to travel to? 

AP: I’d like a good long voyage through the Solomon Islands, including New Guinea and Bougainville, with maybe a detour to Sri Lanka.
SI: The South Pacific. It’s been a fantasy of mine since my childhood (when I started collecting seashells) to go to one of those pristine white sand beaches with turquoise waters and coral reefs.