This week, we interviewed Tabatha Leggett, a literary agent for Finnish literature who writes Bookmarked, a newsletter about her journey to read a book from every country.
What's your Substack about in one sentence?
A review of a book from a new country every week.
As a literary agent, you must love books. Why read a book from every country?
The long-winded answer is that when I moved to Helsinki three years ago, I really struggled to find my feet. Though I knew that uprooting my life to explore my roots was the right decision, I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I was making the most out of my new life and embracing Finland as much as I should have been. It was really through immersing myself in Finnish literature – reading authors like Saara Turunen, Pajtim Statovci, and Koko Hubara – that I started to understand what it means to be Finnish and feel at home here.
A year or so later, I got a job as a literary agent representing Finnish authors in translation and working with editors from all over the world. I’ve always read a lot, but working so closely with translated literature made me realize that the vast majority of the books I’ve read are by British and North American authors. That’s when I came across Ann Morgan, who embarked upon a year of reading the world in 2012. Feeling inspired by her commitment to reading more fiction in translation, I resolved to do the same.
The straightforward answer is that I wanted to broaden my reading. Setting up a newsletter seemed like the perfect way to hold myself accountable and connect with an engaged community of readers.
How do you decide on which specific books to read?
Early on, I made the decision that for the most part I wanted to read books by women and non-binary people. I also knew that I wanted to focus on contemporary fiction and short story collections and that everything I read for this project needs to have been written in, or translated into, English.
With all of this in mind, my first step was to reach out to literary foundations, publishers, translators, journal editors, and academics from around the world to ask for their recommendations. In the cases of countries with very little work in translation, I’m often lucky to find even one book to read. Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, for example, is the only book by a female writer from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English. In cases where I have more choice, I’ve honestly just been led by my personal tastes. As a general rule of thumb, I love books that upend reader expectations – whether that’s through a singular voice, a plot that subverts conventional narrative structure, or a perspective we don’t hear from enough in published literature.
Some of the books I’ve read have been on my radar for years, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Others have come with such strong recommendations that I couldn’t not read them, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, which Barbara den Ouden from the Dutch Foundation for Literature told me has achieved greater international success than any other book from the Netherlands she remembers. And then there are some books that just sounded too intriguing to miss, like Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, a dystopian novel set in a world in which cannibalism has replaced meat consumption (which is somehow even more disturbing than it sounds).
At this point, you’ve read books from more than 20 different countries, from Poland to Pakistan. What has this experience taught you?
I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of this project and already I feel like I’ve learned so much – about world history, language, literary translation. Seeking out perspectives that differ from your own is always enriching and I’ve definitely found myself filling in all sorts of gaps in my own knowledge of the world. Plus, the discipline of reading one book a week, knowing I’ll have to review it, has helped me become a more critical reader and writer.
How are the stories told in international books different from those in English and North American ones?
This is a great question and I’m not sure I have the answer. What I will say is that I often get feedback along the lines of: could you pleaseee just read something cheerful for once? Partially this is a reflection of my own literary tastes (haha), but I also think it’s probably fairly representative of the kind of literature that tends to get translated into English.
I don’t think it’s too much of a generalization to say that the translated books that break through to the English and North American markets tend to be those that are considered ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ somehow. I’m just over 20 books into my project, and already I’ve read a disproportionate number of books on topics like colonialism and terrorism. Of course these are important topics, but I’d love to see foreign authors get more opportunities to tell non-important stories, too – gimme a Tuvaluan romance!
What book should everyone read, and why?
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. It’s the first book I read for this project and it’s just exceptional: a story about three women and their relationships with their bodies which is honest, uncomfortable, stressful, and beautiful all at once.
Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?
I love My Sweet Dumb Brain by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s a twice-weekly newsletter about facing life’s ups and downs that’s full of kind, practical advice.