Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I am grateful to those who responded so generously as the articles and Q&As they provided offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Molly from Peirene Press whose book, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), I reviewed here.

The aim of Peirene Press is a simple one – to bring the best of European fiction to the UK market and expose English-speaking readers to unfamiliar authors, ideas and worlds. To do this, we specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas for the first time in English in translation. Once all this hard work is done, 50p of each sale is donated to our chosen charity (currently Basmeh and Zeitooneh, who work in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey) – as our publisher Meike Ziervogel says, ‘a good book should change the world for the better beyond the last page.’

I guess you could say that we are a rather niche publisher. But even we did not realise quite how niche we are until we did some digging into the statistics of translated fiction. Surprisingly, only between 3-5% of books published in the UK are works of translation. Of that only 30% are written by women authors – and so, with some quick maths we can see that translated books by women writers actually make up only 1-1.5% of our literary market!

Over the last 10 years we are pleased to say that 60% of our writers and 70% of our translators have been women. That’s already double the amount of women writers that make up the UK’s translated fiction market, and we hope that this number only continues to grow.

So this year our mission is even more focused. In 2019, we are only publishing books written by women.

Soviet Milk, our novel longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize is an excellent example of the power of women in translation. As Jeremy Davies from Dalkey Archive Press said, Soviet Milk ‘opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’

This makes being longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize extra special. Not only are we raising the profile of small presses, but also all those women writers and translators that we have worked with for the past 10 years. We’ve been part of the 1% of the market taken up by women in translation and we couldn’t be prouder. In the future we hope to grow this unique part of the publishing industry and publish authors that would otherwise not have reached UK readers.

If this sounds like something you fancy head to to get yourself some translated goodness! If you subscribe you’ll be supporting our work in the long term and you’ll also have access to our Subscriber Book Club which includes; discussions, giveaways and author Q&As!

You may keep up with all the news from Peirene Press on Twitter: @PeirenePress 

Book Review: Soviet Milk

Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), is the first title in Peirene Press’s new Home In Exile series. It is set in Latvia during the years of Russian occupation, between 1969 and 1989. It chillingly depicts how ordinary lives are scarred by a regime that works to control how people think, rewarding informants and punishing those who will not conform to state sanctioned voice and behaviour.

The story is told from the points of view of two women, an unamed mother and her daughter, although just as important is a third woman, the grandmother, whose love and desire for life holds the family together. These three generations must navigate the daily challenges and hardship of enforced communism, and the mental toll cultural theft takes. The mother struggles to cope, her despair manifesting in an inability to nurture her child or appreciate what the grandmother has suffered, and continues to due to the mother’s ongoing behaviour.

“Sometimes a demonic force seemed to possess her, compelling her to destroy everything around her, especially the love of those she held dearest”

The mother was born near the end of the Second World War, her father taken by soldiers and deported when he tried to protect their home from a mindless military raid. After several years the grandmother remarried, the step-grandfather adopting his new wife’s child. The mother worked hard at school and became a doctor. She had no wish to bear her own child.

The daughter was born as Latvia was being forcibly absorbed by the USSR. Unlike the mother and grandmother she has no memories of their home nation. She is cared for by the grandmother, her mother an enigmatic, sometimes frightening, figure reeking of cigarette smoke and disinfectant.

In a country that rewards women for bearing children and expects them to put up with domestic abuse in order to maintain the facade of happy family life within an ideal communist state, the mother is an aberration. She is tolerated due to her skills as a medic, then punished when she steps beyond the bounds of accepted practice in order to help a patient. Unable to find work in her home city she moves to a country area, thereby wrenching the daughter from her beloved grandparents. Without their support both girl and woman find themselves adrift.

The daughter becomes the carer, finding ways to cope amongst peers who treat her with suspicion. Like the mother she is intelligent but suffers communism’s limitations. When a teacher introduces the daughter to texts that are not on the proscribed lists she becomes aware of the existence of wider cultural influences. The state will not tolerate such deviations from its citizens, even as it allows access to its banned history and art to segregated tourists.

Switching between the mother’s and daughter’s points of view, the reader is offered an insight into the mother’s manic and depressive episodes and the impact these have on those who care for her. Over them all hangs the shadow of a state that has imprisoned them, its mental shackles insidious and ever more malignant.

The tale is told in powerful and evocative prose that never fails to hold the reader’s attention. The narrative is spare yet elicits a depth of feeling that puts the reader into the heart of often harrowing situations. Beautifully rendered this offers a history of a time and place I had not previously considered. There is much to ponder given contemporary governments’ desire to manipulate its people’s prejudices and ability to reason.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.