This November we turn six … and during the current climate, this feels like a considerable achievement, with more ups and downs that a short blog can possibly do justice. ‘Orenda’ is a Canadian First Nations word – one of those almost-impossible-to-translate terms – meaning ‘the mystical power that drives human accomplishment’. The energy it suggests is what has driven our tiny company since its inception.
Like so many of our fellow indies, we have only two and a half full-time members of staff, with a small team of incredible freelancers in support, and the workload is staggering! We publish 22 books a year, focusing on literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half the list in translation. Our authors are from fifteen different countries, and one of the features that defines an ‘Orenda book’ is that it brings the author’s country and their culture alive.
We set out to create an instantly identifiable brand so that anyone picking up an Orenda book would know exactly what they are getting and feel confident about purchasing it, regardless of the author or their provenance. We also set out to demystify translated literature, and do so in a number of ways. First and foremost, we vehemently disagree with the idea that crime fiction can’t be literary. Without exception, our books are beautifully written and full of layers and get to the heat of issues that concerns societies around the globe. Crime fiction provides a gateway to a whole world of literature, and the familiarity of genre fiction, with its inherent tension, drama and excitement, is a natural place for many readers to start. We know that many of our readers have been surprised to learn that translated fiction isn’t high-brow or heavy-going (largely down to the immense skills of our translators) and that you don’t need an Oxbridge degree to enjoy it. We also know that they have gone on to read many, many other books in translation, moving on to short stories, non-fiction and even poetry. Our ‘straight’ literary fiction titles have done as well, if not better, than our crime thrillers.
As part of the demystification process, we have made huge efforts to put our authors in front of live audiences, where their personalities can shine, and readers can see that there is nothing daunting about an international writer … in fact, quite the opposite. Before lockdown, our authors took part in over 360 events a year, which is no small feat given the size of our team! Since lockdown, we’ve created a series of online initiatives to showcase our authors, from our Sunday night ‘Orenda Books at Bedtime’ readings, to Zoom launches and our #OrendaInIsolation videos from around the world, and regular appearances at book clubs and digital festivals.
While we publish for the existing niche, translated-fiction market, we also actively compete with bigger publishers and work to draw in readers who may be more wary of international reads. We publish and promote our authors alongside more established English-language authors, and seek endorsements from bestselling authors to entice and encourage new readers. While it isn’t exactly the aim, many of our readers have stated that they didn’t realise a book was translated until after they’d read it … a huge accolade for the translator, but also an indication of the way we market. Every book is presented as an ultimate must-read, regardless of its original language. And that, I firmly believe, benefits our authors, our readers, and translated literature in general.
We publish books that transport readers to other cultures, to other landscapes, and sense of place is a feature of every book we publish. We love books that unpick social issues, that raise questions and provoke thought. In the shadow of Brexit, which has riddled the UK with disenfranchisement and inequality, at a time when relationships between different countries and cultures are so divided, when an American election has created more hate than debate, when countries are being torn apart by suspicion and ‘foreigners’ are often viewed with wariness and scepticism, it is important to find commonalities through a shared love of books and reading … and to learn about, to embrace and to understand other cultures through literature. There is no better way to open hearts, to promote tolerance and acceptance, than to provide the literary equivalent of a walk in someone else’s shoes. While travel is curtailed and we yearn for distraction from our increasingly bleak fight with a virus, translated literature offers solace, armchair adventures and an exclusive ticket to other lands.
From the poignant dark Finnish humour of Antti Tuomainen, the gritty, classy, probing thrillers of Germany’s Simone Buchholz, the exploration of Icelandic politics and patriarchy by Lilja Sigurðardóttir – or of the majestic geography of that country so exquisitely rendered by Ragnar Jónasson and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir – to the beautifully drawn, often distressing historical European backdrop to France’s Johana Gustawsson’s serial-killer thrillers, the incisive, eye-opening police procedurals of Norwegian Kjell Ola Dahl, the poetic, virtual journey to fishing communities on Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula offered by Quebecois Roxanne Bouchard, and the sophisticated literary genius of Norway’s Agnes Ravatn’s psychological thrillers, there is a richness here that does much more than entertain. We are transported and drawn in, and we emerge wiser and, perhaps, a little different.
And this is why we are so proud to publish what we do. Publishing translated fiction is more than cherry-picking fine literature from around the world, it creates a unique global culture from which every single reader benefits, and we are honoured to play a role in this. Even in a time of crisis, we are energised by our authors and their stunning books, and feel extraordinarily lucky to be at the heart of this magical community of publishers, writers and readers.
(Karen Sullivan is founder and publisher of Orenda Books.)