Meeting the students at the Seagull School of Publishing

Posted on Nov 24, 2015

It is always a privilege for French writers to be translated into English. And when the book is published by what, in my view, is the most prestigious publishing house for foreign/translated literature—the Calcutta-based Seagull Books, it becomes a real honour. And sometimes even an adventure for the mind . . .

In January 2015, my novel Attachment came out in Calcutta. It had also been published in Bengali. As a result, I got invited to three Indian literary festivals, The Apeejay Literary Festival, the Jaipur Lit Fest, and the newly created Pondi-Partages Festival, in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu.

My trip started in Calcutta, at Seagull. I will never forget what was awaiting me there. Not only did the publishing house look like a cosy place where everyone immediately made me feel as if I was visiting my ‘family’—although I had never met them before—but I also discovered the way they worked, in particular through the amazing Seagull School of Publishing.

At the Seagull School, I met students from all over the world. Passionate about books, art and design, and the way they could invent and design the cover of a book on their computers, being both creative and original while remaining faithful to the spirit of the author and conveying a strong message to the reader. I remember thinking that in Europe where books have often become like any other industrialized ‘product’, I had not seen this kind of enthusiasm in the publishing industry for ages. From what the students told me, every book, every author seemed to be special. Well, they made them special!

But the thing that struck me most was a debate I had with the class. Just before I had left France, the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo had taken place. Of course one could argue that the issue was linked to drawings and words, which were exactly their field. But, the level of discussion was amazing. Not only did they know a lot about French philosophers from the eighteenth century or the notion of the freedom of expression but they had obviously given this tragedy a lot of personal thought. I assume they had been very well trained by their ‘teachers’ at the Seagull School—and particularly by Naveen Kishore who is a poet, an intellectual and a thinker himself. But believe me—I was to be interviewed by many western and non-western media after that and it turned out that their questions were the most clever, open-minded and fruitful ones I have ever been asked on this difficult subject. Barbarism, secularism, the Enlightenment, tolerance, mutual understanding, the veil, Voltaire and Ibn Rushd . . . : we discussed the issue through every possible prism. With no prejudice, but a real appetite to learn and exchange. On both sides. As far as I am concerned, this debate forced me to deepen my understanding of the world, be it on a geopolitical or human level. I am not sure I was quite the same before and after this debate. Being in the School had been both inspiring and stimulating. I remember thinking: What else could a writer want from his/her publisher? This is a gift for the mind.

When France was hit again recently, this conversation came back to my mind. I wished we could have started it again. All together, at the Seagull School. I thought to myself that Seagull was not only training students to become publishes or work in the publishing industry but had carefully selected individuals who were readers themselves, which meant that they had been influenced by many authors, and also that they themselves could, in return, make an impact on the authors.

Florence Noiville

(French author and journalist who has been a staff writer for Le Monde since 1994 and editor of foreign fiction for Le Monde des Livres, the paper’s literary supplement. Apart from her novels, she has written a biography of Nobel Prize–winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, for which she won the 2004 biography award. Florence taught as a guest faculty in the January–March 2015 courses at the Seagull School of Publishing.)

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