Creating a Bridge Between Cultures

Eshan Abdollahi’s story is a powerful demonstration of the difference that the collective voice can make. At an enthralling event at The House of Illustration, London on Thursday 10th August, the Iranian illustrator described the problems he had recently faced in obtaining a visa to visit the UK for the Edinburgh Festival. As a result of the public outcry in support of his case, the original decision to reject his application was overturned and he is now looking forward to meeting Pippa Goodhart, the author of their picture book A Bottle of Happiness, at the festival.

An impressive panel, chaired by Erica Jarnes, MD of the Poetry Translation Centre, discussed some of the issues arising from Eshan’s story, with a particular emphasis on the benefits of intercultural collaboration. The packed audience was reminded of the order of events which began with an article in The Bookseller, followed by South African author Beverley Naidoo’s letter of appeal in The Guardian, which helped to galvanise public support. Now in the UK, Ehsan has been joined by his translator Azita Rassi, who lives in Malaysia, and who will be accompanying him to Edinburgh during his visit. Since arriving, Eshan has been enjoying visiting the offices of his publisher Tiny Owl which was co-founded in 2015 by Delaram Ghanimifhard. The sixth member of the panel was well-travelled author and illustrator James Mayhew who spoke about the irony of how in spite of an expressed demand for more diverse books in this country, the fantastic range of publishing available in Asia remains relatively untapped by publishers here.

The fascinating conversation was wide-ranging and many stories about collaborative publishing and creativity were exchanged during the evening. However, a highlight of the evening for me was a moving reading of two of the poems from Eshan’s latest picture book When I Coloured in the World – read by Beverley in English and Azita in Persian. Azita’s reading beautifully conveyed the poetic nature of the Persian language and she explained to me afterwards that as a translator she felt like a bridge between cultures. Another highlight was hearing Eshan talking about the tentative start to his collaboration with Pippa. At first, concerned about the possibility of her having a different concept of the book, he came to realise that Pippa’s idea matched his own. From the outset he wanted the book to reflect his own ethnicity, while remaining accessible at the same time. A Bottle of Happiness is a global story, reflected in Eshan’s decision to leave the characters’ skin colour transparent and thereby neutral. Eshan was also adamant that the poorer people would not be represented stereotypically, wearing torn and ugly clothing. Pippa agreed and the partnership worked well. The story is brimming with love and has a positive energy running throughout.

The main message is that peace can be achieved through better understanding and friendship. Stories can become powerful tools for promoting knowledge about different cultures and particularly those resulting from the kind of intercultural collaboration exemplified by Tiny Owl’s growing list. Look out for Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield and Eshan Abdollahi and Cinderella of the Nile by Beverley Naidoo and Marjan Va’aidan.

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