by Juhi Karan
World literature is awash in writers who find their voice in their own good time. Here we bring to you five such authors, whose work comes to English speakers via translation.
John Updike called Bruno Schulz, “one of the great transmogrifiers of the world into words,” while Isaac Bashevis Singer likened him to Kafka and Proust, saying “at times he [Schulz] succeeded in reaching depths that neither of them reached.” Born in 1892, Schulz was 42 when his first book, The Street of Crocodiles, was published in Polish. Forty more years passed before his work was published as a part of Penguin’s “Writers from Other Europe” series in 1970s and the English-speaking world thus discovered him. Despite a small literary oeuvre—The Street of Crocodiles was followed by just one other book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, before Schulz’s life was cut tragically short during the Second World War when he was shot dead by a Nazi Gestapo officer—Schulz has continued to inspire filmmakers and playwrights, as well as authors like David Grossman and Philip Roth.
Ludmila Ulitskaya was a geneticist and a repertory director before she became an author at almost 50 years of age. A laureate of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, Ulitskaya was also a Man Booker International Prize nominee in 2009. The New York Times called The Funeral Party, her first book published in America, “a quirky, tender story whose themes of love, loss and identity soar over the boundaries of language and geography.” Referring to the doubts that plagued her while writing her first novel, Ulitskaya said, “At that time, I was already 50, which was probably a bit too late to start as a writer. At this age, many people are already renowned writers. But, on the other hand, I had nowhere to hurry, had I? I was absolutely free, it depended only on me whether to write or not to write—then, why not write, after all? It is probably this feeling of freedom that helped me.”
Forbidden to speak the language of his own people, Galsan Tschinag became a polyglot, learning German at the age of 19 and publishing his first collection of short stories at the age of 37. Tschinag is the chief of the endangered Tsengel Tuva tribe of Mongolia. His songs, storytelling and poetry are, in his words, “the collective work of a people that has never ever had the possibility to find its own language, or even its voice.” He was awarded the Heimito von Doderer Prize for Literature in 2001 for a “body of prose work—novels, stories, sketches, and essays—marked by a tonality not encountered elsewhere in German literature and by a view of the world that enriches in many ways the linguistic map where German is spoken.” According to the Los Angeles Times his English language debut, The Blue Sky, “makes it easy for his readers to fall into the beautiful rhythms of the Tuvans’ daily life.”
Mariama Bâ was 50 years old when her first novel, winner of the first Noma Award for publishing in Africa, So Long A Letter, was published. She died before her second novel went to print. Born in francophone Senegal in 1929, Bâ divorced her husband and raised their nine children all on her own. Her writing draws on her experiences growing up in a highly patriarchal and rigidly religious society where polygamy was the norm. She believed that as a writer it was her responsibility to speak out against, in her words, “the archaic practices, traditions and customs that are not a real part of our precious heritage.”
Imre Kertész worked as a teacher and as a translator of German authors into Hungarian before publishing his first novel Sorstalanság (Fatelessness), at the age of 45 in 1975. The book went largely unnoticed, and it was more than a decade before his second book (of what would become a trilogy) was released in 1988. A survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps during the Second World War, Kertész, who is now settled in Berlin, has said, “When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz.” Describing his writings as work that “upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history,” the Swedish Academy awarded Kertész the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, making him the first Hungarian to win the honor.