Henrietta Rose-Innes Chats About Winning the François Sommer Literary Prize for Ninive, the French Translation of Nineveh
Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Ninive, the French translation of Nineveh, was recently awarded the François Sommer Literary Prize. Books LIVE’s Jennifer Malec chatted to the author about the award, the process of translating Ninive – and its very classy French cover – as well as her eagerness to see the – and we quote – “animatronic, French-speaking, taxidermied albino boar-head” at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, where the award ceremony will be held.
Books LIVE: Congratulations on winning the François Sommer Literary Prize. How did you hear the news?
Rose-Innes: Thanks! I got an email from my French-language publisher, Caroline Coutau of Editions Zoé, a few days before Christmas. It was a wonderful present and a complete surprise – I’d never heard of the prize and was not aware that my book was up for anything.
The prize is awarded to novels and literary works that explore the relationship between humans and nature and support “the values of humanistic ecology”. It seems a perfect fit for your work …
The relationship between humans and other parts of nature has been the focus of my writing for a while. It is a strong theme in Nineveh, which revolves around the insect infestation of a housing estate: a way of looking at how humans and non-humans interact, and infiltrate each other, and change the world around them. In the current ecological crisis, I’m pleased that Nineveh is seen to contribute something to the discussion of human/non-human coexistence. And yes, how lucky for me, a prize for precisely this!
I am in great company. I’m very fortunate in my French-language publisher, Editions Zoé, whose several imprints include the Commonwealth-focused écrits d’ailleurs. They are a small Geneva-based publisher who bring out really thoughtfully chosen, beautifully produced literary books. They have a strong commitment to world literature, and their list of African writers is impressive – I’m delighted to be there. I’m also very happy that Nineveh is available to a broader French-speaking readership. There seems to be a strong, serious and well-informed interest in African literature, and an appetite for more translations of Anglophone African writers into French.
What was the François Sommer Foundation’s involvement?
Oh, the nicest kind: they appeared out of the blue to give me a large pile of Euros! [15 000 of them, to be exact - Ed.] By far the least stressful way of entering a competition. They also award very generous prizes in the sciences, in the areas of biodiversity and sustainable development.
The foundation was founded by a wealthy French couple who were both conservationists and keen hunters – they also established a museum with a focus on hunting through history. Although these days it seems the emphasis of the foundation is firmly on ecology, this hunting aspect did give me pause, as I don’t endorse recreational hunting and think it is cruel. But the foundation’s approach is nuanced and critical. (One previous winner used the opportunity to reflect on, for example, his personal decision to give up hunting.) I do think the hunt is a deeply fascinating and primal subject, central to our relationships with nature; it certainly has informed my work. Indeed, Nineveh itself was partially inspired by the Assyrian lion-hunt frieze in the British Museum, a remarkable artwork that encapsulates all the pain, ritual, grandeur, excitement and tragedy of the hunt. Green Lion, my novel coming out in May, deals in part with hunting culture and animals hunted to extinction. I am looking forward to visiting the museum and the thoughts it will inspire.
Did you work closely with your French translator? Were there any interesting problems for you to puzzle through in the process?
No, it was quite an arm’s-length process. It was a relief to have someone else take the book off my hands, really: by the time the translation was done, it had been out in English for a while, and I was already well into the next project and didn’t want to plunge back too deeply into the world of Nineveh. I also know about a dozen words of French, and anyway feel that translators should be left to their own creative process and choices, unless they have specific questions. There were hardly any in this case – in fact, I think just one small back-and-forth about the nuances of that lovely phrase, “informal settlements”. Elisabeth Gilles is a hugely respected translator and by all accounts has done a wonderful job with Ninive. I am sure this prize is substantially due to her efforts.
The cover of the French edition is quite beautiful. Did you have a hand in the design?
I saw it when it was complete. I really love it, and was happy that the designer had read the material carefully enough to pick up on the ill-fated frog, one of my favourite characters. This cover was pleasingly different to the bug-heavy South African one (which I also absolutely adore). As I understand it, continental book design is traditionally much more restrained than what we are used to here – lots of white space, immaculate typography, no blurbs or shouts. Classy!
You’ll be travelling to France to accept the award in January. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The award ceremony will take place at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, which I mentioned earlier. I am excited about this because the museum looks eccentric and amazing: a vast collection of historic hunt-related items (such as a collection of gold hound-collars), as well as what sounds like a pretty extravagant collection of modern art relating to our place in nature. In one room there is apparently an animatronic, French-speaking, taxidermied albino boar-head. Clearly this needs my attention.
It will also be interesting, no doubt sobering, to see what the mood in Paris publishing circles is right now, given recent traumatic events.
I’ve been asked to give a short address at the ceremony, although not, I trust, in French.
Changing topic a bit, I heard on the grapevine recently (ie Facebook) that the writing of your new novel, Green Lion, is officially finished. More congratulations!
More thanks! Yes, it’s pretty much done. We’re in the last stages of editing now, and I’m happily in the stern but benevolent hands of my editor Martha Evans. Still some polishing to do. It will be launched at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May. The book is also an exploration of human relationships with the natural world, even more explicitly so than Nineveh. At the heart of the book is the figure of a black-maned lion, one of vanished sub-species that used to be common in the Cape. It’s a book about extinctions, and loss, and the impossibiity of bringing things back from oblivion; and also about the mythic importance of animals in human lives.
Finally, you’re a third of the way through the first year of your PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. How’s the experience been so far?
Living the student dream. I have a T-shirt and a coffee mug with “UEA” written on them! 2014 was a really turbulent year for me personally, in all sorts of ways, and the calm of the Norwich campus is a balm. It is a famous creative writing department, and inspiration is everywhere. Some of my literary heroes – Ishiguro, Sebald – passed through this school, and I’ve already heard some wonderful writers speak here. I also have such interesting classmates, each absorbed in their own fascinating literary projects, all so welcoming. It is an astonishing luxury to have all this time set aside for writing. I hope to return to Cape Town quite regularly, though, especially during the launch and promotion of Green Lion.
Thanks Henrietta. I can’t wait to get my hands on Green Lion.
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