Q&A with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic of Istros Books: Bringing Balkan Literature to the World

Istros Books is a London-based independent publisher that works on bringing contemporary literature from South Eastern Europe to an English-speaking audience. Writer and reviewer Hannah Weber recently caught up with founder Susan Curtis-Kojakovic about her work, the book industry and literature in translation.


Hannah Weber (HW): Can you tell me about why you founded Istros Books?

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic (SCK): I firmly believe that there is a fundamental need to provide the English-speaking public with authentic voices from areas of the world that are still (unfortunately) unfamiliar, and to reinforce that mission with cultural events which present those writers and their work in the larger context of European culture. The market is dominated by the big players and their obsession with commercial success, so small publishers play a vital role in keeping quality literary fiction alive, as well as providing an open playing field to writers from other languages, and a platform for them to reach the rest of the world. 


HW: Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with South Eastern Europe?

SCK: I have been travelling in South Eastern Europe for some years, and lived at different times in Slovenia and Croatia, as well as spending long periods in Romania. Having friends and literary contacts in the region was an incentive for me when starting the company, and has been a great advantage (two of the early Istros’ titles were actually translated by dear friends of mine).

In my capacity at Istros, I have also been invited to take part in various study tours and seminars that have brought me into contact with publishers, authors and translators from the region. I now find myself in the happy position of being able to match books with translators and knowing where to apply for funding, or enlisting the help of London-based cultural institutes. I consider collaboration between all the players to be extremely important, and I have also worked to bring Istros’ titles into translation in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and even Ethiopia by offering the English translation as the bridge language. In this way, the goal of bringing the Balkans to the world is fulfilled.


HW: How do you choose which books to publish?

SCK: Almost all of my authors are prize-winners on a national or regional level. I keep a close eye on the region, have lots of literary contacts there, and know the up-coming writers to look out for. The EU Prize for Literature is an important reference for me, in addition to the Meša Selimović Prize for the best book in  Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian, the NIN Award in Serbia, the Kresnik Award in Slovenia, and many more.

I also have to take into consideration which books — which stories — are accessible and interesting to English readers, but do this in a way which is not patronising or assuming that readers won’t understand anything ‘foreign’ or ‘out of the ordinary’. I think some of the books I publish are challenging and perhaps difficult, but I also think that writing should expand the reader’s mind, be provocative or ask them to step out of their comfort zone. I also don’t want to publish books that conform too much to their ideas of what a novel from ‘the Balkans’ should be about.


HW: As you say in your “About Us” page, for some readers, the idea of Eastern Europe “conjures up images of grey tower blocks and pickled cabbage.” I think it is fair to say South Eastern Europe does sometimes appear as a cultural unknown to the average Anglophone reader. Is providing context an obstacle in translation?

SCK: I completely agree that this part of Europe is often a cultural black spot to readers here. I truly believe that it is because of this situation that — during the Bosnian war for example — people felt alienated from what was going on, as if it were happening in a distant corner of the world and not on the doorstop of the European Union. Even in neighbouring countries like Italy you still hear people referring to ‘Yugoslavia’. I think this is part of a vicious circle, where the unofficial gatekeepers of our culture — publishers, television, radio producers, etc. — decide that stories from the Balkans are too obscure or that the public aren’t interested in them, and thereby denying the public the chance to make up its own mind. Consequently, when they are offered books or plays or films from that region, they consider them too niche to elicit wider interest.

Because of this unofficial censoring, when someone picks up a book that has been translated from the Macedonian, for example, they have no cultural markers to guide them, and this can be off-putting for many people. But I find that if I manage to get a book into someone’s hands, they are very rarely disappointed and often comment on the freshness and originality of the voice or the storyline. That is why I always try to build events and seminars around the books I publish. This is a way to allow the public to hear authors speaking about their experiences, to meet them and realise that we all share the same human problems, wherever we live. In this way, Istros is more than just a publisher — we have an unofficial role to play in presenting the cultural heritage and the present reality of South Eastern Europe to readers here.


HW: Do you feel that there is any kind of pan-European community that exists between this new generation of writers? Does it mean anything to encourage solidarity between writers working in small languages?

SCK: I think there is certainly sense of solidarity amongst the writers of a certain generation from the former Yugoslavia, in those that grew up before the wars of the 1990s or just reached adulthood at that time. But again, this would also depend on their politics. If we are talking about the wider European forum, then initiatives like the EU Prize for Literature, certain Writer’s Residency projects and seminar events certainly encourage this.

I think that many, if not most, of the countries on the European continent have a great respect for writing as a profession and organise events where writers from so-called ‘small languages’ have a platform to share their experiences with their colleagues. Here in the United Kingdom (U.K.), however, there is still this underlying and mostly unspoken belief that writers are entertainers, and therefore only worthy of inviting to a literary festival if they have a track record of big sales, i.e. have proven themselves as profitable entertainers. Last year’s Nobel Prize laureate is a prime example of this. You also find this attitude backed up by the fact that writers in the U.K. are often not paid for their appearances in literary events, whereas on the continent they always receive a payment — as valued professionals should!


HW: Have you noticed any trends in books you publish, or have you tried to develop any certain themes? I ask because your writers are all contemporaries, so to speak, and many are of my generation. In our “globalised” Europe, literature can serve as a space to address these common themes. 

SCK: In the countries that I cover, the public is too small to sustain professional writers and therefore the writers all have other jobs as their main income. In this sense, they are freed from the commercial need to produce ‘best-sellers’, so they write what they want and what they are passionate about. Consequentially, the stories they produce are original, authentic and refreshingly different from what is produced by Creative Writing courses. 


HW: Do you think it is necessary for a writer to be involved in their country’s political life? Or does the political novel only serve to reinforce the Westerner’s view by capitalising on our appetites for an “exotic” Eastern Europe and stereotypes of long-dead authoritarian regimes? I’m thinking here of a very clever essay by Dragan Velikić called “Europe B”:

When it comes to literature, the West likes to see the kind of literature from the Balkans that focuses on the absence of democracy, that expresses a thirst for the kind of democracy that always considers the West as a norm. […] The West remains closed, as far as I can tell, to a different kind of literature that also exists in the Balkans, one that uses styles and themes that are not the result of “political” or ideological conditions, a literature that cannot be reduced to the witnessing of a hard life on the European outskirts, a literature […] facing itself and questioning the literary abilities of language.

SCK: I agree with Velikić that there is an expectation that books by Balkan writers will deliver stories about the things we most closely associate with them and the clichés we hold about life in that part of the world — ‘transition societies’ where corruption is rife and, in the case of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian authors, books that only deal with the war of the 1990s. With our need for ‘genrefication’ comes the idea that authors from this part of the world conform to our expectations. In some case they do — Faruk Šehić’s Quiet Flows the Una, for example — but in other cases, such as the work of Slovenian writer Gabriela Babnik, who writes about Africa, or even the novels of Velikić himself, the authors’ gaze has moved beyond the local.


HW: Running a small press is challenging under any circumstances. Are there any challenges unique to publishing translated works?

 SCK: Small independent publishers in this country are in a very difficult position because we are working in a wide open market with no safety nets. Since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, which set book prices across the board, we are at the mercy of the large retailers who demand discounts of up to 60% of retail price. This could be acceptable for large publishers printing in large numbers and therefore getting prices of 80p or lower on each book, but if you are publishing in small quantities of 500-1000, you can end up paying £2–£2.50 a book, meaning that once you have taken off 60%, off-set the price of printing and paying the author and the distributor,  you are left with almost nothing. On top of this, you have the fact that library budgets have been slashed. Sales to libraries, which were once a reliable source of revenue, are now almost non-existent. And that doesn’t even take into account the cost of the translation! This is why I never publish a book without having first secured funding to cover the translation. That comes first, after which I can begin to think about marketing and promoting.


HW: Books written in English get translated en masse into umpteen different languages sometimes within months of their debut, but it seems that the interest in translated literature is growing. This is a dubious question as I doubt you’re clairvoyant, but I will ask it anyway — what is the future of literature in translation?

SCK: There are more small publishers working in this field and much talk of ‘translations’ as a literary genre. I am not sure if this ‘genrefication’ helps, though, since putting things is small boxes alienates the more general public. I am thinking of the fact that there have been so many generations of British readers who have grown up with stories of Hans Christian Anderson, the Moomins, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, and so on, and that these were not presented to us as ‘children’s literature in translation’, but simply as great stories.

In the same way, part of me resists the idea of putting Istros’ titles into the category of ‘translated literature.’ I’d like them to be taken as simply good books — great stories — or at the very least, promoted as ‘World Literature’ in much the same way as we have ‘World Music’.


HW: What can we expect from Istros Books in 2018?

SCK: I am very proud to announce that following the success of last year’s publication of Mircea Eliade’s first literary work, Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, we will be launching his follow-up novel, Gaudeamus, next spring. In this exuberant and touching portrait of youth, Eliade recounts the fictional version of his university years in late 1920’s Bucharest. I think readers will appreciate the joy of a life about to blossom, as the young writer searches for knowledge and the desire for true love. Also on our list for the first time is a novel from Slovakia: Fleeting Snow by Pavel Villikovsky, translated by the wonderfully talented and productive translation duo, Julia and Peter Sherwood. We will also be publishing the final instalment of Evald Flisar’s trilogy set in the Slovenian countryside, A Swarm of Dust.


Cover photo credit: Jonas Tegnerud/flickr/some rights reserved 

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Hannah Weber

Hannah Weber is a writer and editor based in Brighton, U.K. Her interests include geopolitics, post-communist states, and literature in translation. She tweets @HannahSWeber and more of her work can be found at http://hannahweber.co.uk.

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