"I only read American and British writers, and occasionally an Indian or South African or Australian writer. I never ever read books that were translated from other languages," Morgan, who can read books in French and German "very slowly with a very big dictionary," told me. "And when I thought about that it seemed like a weird thing: Why would you limit yourself in that way?" Living in a country where only 3 percent of books published each year are translations, Morgan set out to answer one question in particular: "Can a person in London access all of world literature?"
With the holidays upon us, I reached out to Morgan to find out which books from the project she enjoyed most. After all, who better to get book recommendations from than someone who has hunted down good literature in every corner of the world? Here are her top four books:
The Blue Sky, Galsan Tschinag (Mongolia): "It's about a shepherd boy growing up in the Altai Mountains," Morgan says. "And he's part of a nomadic community who herd animals to survive. It's a very weird and different world to anything that people used to Western culture will have encountered before. It's a place where children smoke pipes and people use urine to wash out their eyes if their eyes are sore. But the thing that's really interesting about it is that Tschinag is such a great writer that he really takes you inside the world and makes you feel as though you're connected to it. It's like you're sitting in the yurt with the family listening to their stories, and you forget that this is really not your world.... You recognize so many things in the childhood of this boy that you would have experienced as a child as well even though he comes from such a different community. And that's incredibly powerful."
The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan): "It's set during a time when the borders of Pakistan and the other nations around it were being fixed by the British and other controlling powers in the region," Morgan says. "And nomadic communities that had traveled back and forth across mountain ranges grazing their animals and camping in different places according to the time of year suddenly found that they couldn't move freely anymore, because there were these boundaries that were there that had never existed before. What was interesting about this novel as well was that it was written 30 years before it was published. The writer didn't have much faith in it and it didn't get much interest, so he locked it up in a chest in his house and forgot about it. His wife kept the key to the chest, and 30 years after he finished it she persuaded him to get it out again and try to publish it."
An African in Greenland, Tete-Michel Kpomassie (Togo): "It's a memoir, an autobiography really, and it tells the story of Tete-Michel, who grew up as one of a huge number of children to his father, who had eight wives and was a tribal elder in a rural part of Togo," Morgan says. "Tete-Michel had a run-in with a python when he was trying to collect coconuts one day in the forest and fell to the ground and had a fit. And it was decided that the way he was going to get around his illness was to spend a month in the jungle with the 'python cult,' these women who lived with pythons. The trouble was that he was actually scared of snakes and he didn't want to do that. And so just before he was due to be sent to the forest he discovered a book in the evangelical book shop in his local town about Greenland. And he said, 'Not only does this amazing land have no snakes but it has no trees in which they might hide.' So he decided he was going to go to Greenland and ran away from his family at the age of 16, worked his way up through Africa, learning languages as he went, and managed to get a boat to Europe and to Greenland, where he lived with Inuits for two years.... It's an incredibly funny and really absorbing read."