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A prize catch


FABULIST: Germany, France, Japan and Croatia have bought the rights to 'Change' by Mo Yan

A chance road trip in Italy and a sketch of Mo Yan in a gondola netted Naveen Kishore a dream deal: the world rights for 'Change', the Nobel winner's autobiographical work on China's metamorphosis.

Not long after Chinese author Mo Yan was announced the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, Michael Agger, culture editor, www. newyorker. com, tweeted: "I would still like to read all the Murakami articles that everyone had planned. " With Harukists - yes, that's the appellation of choice for Haruki Murakami fans - rooting fervently for the Japanese author's victory, 2012 was the same as the last year and the year before that.

Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, Kolkata, was rooting for Murakami, well, sort of. He laughs and explains, "As far as the odds go, Murakami, I learnt, was 10/1, and the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom and Mo Yan were both 12/1. Being the oldest of the three I was hoping Nooteboom would win this year and then Mo Yan could take it away the following year. But, despite all this I was quite certain that Murakami would win it anyway. So it was a huge surprise."

A huge surprise, indeed. Seagull - which began publishing in 1982 - today holds the world rights for Mo Yan's Change, an autobiographical narrative about China's metamorphosis. Seagull also holds the English language right to Yan's forthcoming POW!; the novel will be out later this month. Kishore is currently living the indie publishers dream and all this transpired courtesy a fortuitous encounter with the man in question. Guan Moye, better known by his pseudonym Mo Yan, was not really on anyone's radar for the big prize. But Yan has been notching up prizes regardless. In 2005, Kishore met Yan at one such literary prize ceremony.

Recalls Kishore: "Mahasweta Devi and Mo Yan were receiving the Nonino International Prize in Udine, Italy. I was accompanying Mahasweta Devi for the award ceremony. This is where Mo Yan and I first met. After the ceremony, Mo Yan, his daughter Xiao Xiao and I went to Venice by road. We spent a day there together before flying home. I even made some black and white portraits of Mo Yan on a boat in the famous Venice canals. "

In 2009, Kishore was working on a series of introspective texts entitled "What Was Communism ?". Edited by Tariq Ali the series coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. "I had read all his earlier books and so when I was looking at a text from a Chinese writer for my series I reached out to him. I sent him copies of the black and white portraits, reminded him of our meeting in Italy and requested him for a text. And so Change happened. "
The 30, 000 words Yan wrote for Seagull are unlike any other text by him. Yan's illustrious oeuvre is dominated by fiction, making Change, part-autobiography and part-fiction, a significant one-off. Change has been translated by Howard Goldblatt, a key English language translator for the author.
"There must surely be more than one Mo Yan. The man I met was quiet, alert, full of sharp humour. I spoke to him through the good offices of his daughter who translated for us. Then there is the Mo Yan who writes these books that are politically aware, where he explores his country from the bottom up. He is comic in the true sense of the term. A fabulist and a storyteller who is not afraid of the epic proportions of his worldview. "

Kishore heard about the prize at The Frankfurt Book Fair. "We were quietly happy because someone we believed in had been awarded. Sometimes it takes 30 years to have your belief in something made visible. The kind of publishing we do can be best described as a handloom effort. Our selection process - we concentrate on literature, theatre, art, politics and the like - is instinctive, personal and more often than not, highly risky, " he asserts.
Since its publication Change had moved about 800 copies worldwide in the last three years. Following the award, publishers from across the globe are seeking rights. "We've sold many rights already;Germany, France, Japan, Croatia to name a few. The Nobel always helps both the author and the publisher, especially a small independent publisher like us. We look forward to making his work available all over the world through our distributors, the University of Chicago Press," says Kishore.

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