Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

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In this podcast, we’re joined by novelist Elisa Shua Dusapin, whose debut novel Winter in Sokcho was translated and published in the UK this year. In conversation with Dr Sandra van Lente and joined by her translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins, they discuss shared identities, isolation and the relationship between writing and translation.

Show Notes

In this podcast, we’re joined by novelist Elisa Shua Dusapin, whose debut novel Winter in Sokcho was translated and published in the UK this year. In conversation with Dr Sandra van Lente and joined by her translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins, they discuss shared identities, isolation and the relationship between writing and translation.

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast brings writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions
about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

Take a look at the rest of this year's digital programme on our website:
For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest


Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Guest Curator: Kit de Waal
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands


BLF Podcast Transcription, Episode 13: Elisa Shua Dusapin and Aneesa Abbas Higgins  

Kit de Waal 

Welcome to the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast series. I’m Kit de Waal and I’ve worked with  the Festival Director, Shantel Edwards, as Guest Curator of this year’s podcast series. Each Thursday  across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful  discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. In this podcast, we’re joined by novelist  Elisa Shua Dusapin, whose debut novel Winter in Sokcho was translated and published in the UK this  year. Elisa’s novel follows a young French-Korean woman who works as a receptionist in a tired  guesthouse in a deserted tourist town on the border between South and North Korea, and the  uneasy relationship she forms with a French man who checks into the hotel. Joined by her  translator, Aneesa Abbas Higgins, they discuss shared identities, isolation and the relationship  between writing and translation. 

Pro Helvetia Message 

This episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast is supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. 

Sandra van Lente 

Thank you all for tuning in. My name is Sandra van Lente. I'm a freelance cultural project manager  and academic who works on the lack of diversity in the publishing industries. I have the great  pleasure to introduce you to today's guests on the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast series,  Elisa Shua Dusapin and Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Elisa Shua Dusapin is a Franco Korean author who  lives in Switzerland and wrote the novel Winter in Sokcho which we will be talking about today. Her  debut novel was originally written in French and published by the Swiss indie publisher Editions,  Zurich. Winter in Sokcho was translated into 13 languages if I'm not mistaken, among them English,  translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published by Daunt Books, and German, translated by  Andreas Jandl and published by Blumenbar. Elisa has won several prizes for her novels, among them  the Robert Walser prize, the Prix Alpha and the French Prix Régine Desforges for Winter in Sokcho.  She has two more novels out that we might hear about more later.  

Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a literary translator and translates from French to English. She spends most  of her time between London and a small village in France. In addition to Elisa Shua Dusapin’s novel,  she has also translated from Tahar Ben Jelloun, Nina Bouraoui and Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Her translations won several awards, for example, her translation of the Goncourt winner, What Became  of the White Savage by François Garde, and a translation of A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, which was  published by the indie publisher Jacaranda books in 2019. Aneesa has kindly agreed to translate  those of Elisa's answers that she might give in French today. Thank you both for joining us for this  podcast. Can we please start with you, Elisa, and how you became an author. So how and why did  you start writing? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

She never, it wasn't that she specifically always wanted to become a writer. It was more questions  that she had herself about the multicultural upbringing that she'd had being a mixture of Korean and  French. So, when she was 13 she went to Korea for the first time and it came as quite a shock to her  to realize that her family was not unique that there were plenty of other people in the world like her  and it made her start thinking about things and it made her start to read a great deal and as she was  reading she began to realise that writing might be a way of addressing the questions that she had  about her own identity. So, Elisa was very lucky to have some wonderful teachers when she was in  high school who encouraged her to write and she began writing - never thought about writing a  novel - she was writing short texts that were to do with her French Korean identity. And it gradually  grew into what became the novel Winter in Sokcho that, in fact, she wrote between the ages of 17  and 21. But she never thought about getting it published. And it wasn't published until she was 23 and that again was on the encouragement of a former teacher. 

Sandra van Lente 

Thanks a lot for sharing this Elisa. So, can you share with us, what did you set out to explore in your  first novel? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

She wanted to write, create a character who was something of a mirror image of herself. The  opposite in a way but the same, so a young woman who had grown up in Korea, and who knew the  French language through literature and studying and who also had this feeling of being a foreigner, a  stranger in her own land even though she understood the culture and the language and that she had  the same feeling of being out of place, but in two places also. She started writing this as she was  coming out of adolescence at an age when we're thinking a great deal about our body, our  relationship to our body, body image, our own image and she wanted to write something about the  violence really that is done to women in South Korea in terms of the pressure to have plastic surgery done on one's face to make one conform to a certain image and how the young woman, the  character in her novel relates to all of this violence and body image and pressure to have one's face  look a certain way. 

Sandra van Lente 

Was there a character that you found more difficult to write than the others, Elisa, and if so, why? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

The male character Kerrand was the most challenging, not so much difficult, but he was a character  who she didn't first imagine that he would have to have a whole life story, a history, be a fully  rounded person, she just wanted him to be there as an example of the male gaze. His function was  to play the role of the male gaze so the narrator, the female narrator, could be reflected through  him. So, at first all he had was a function and the rest of him as a person was something of a mystery  to her. 

Sandra van Lente 

I would like to move on to the translation process then. Aneesa, how did this book come to you?  And why did you choose to do the translation? 

Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

Well in fact, this was one of the books that I did find myself because it doesn't always work that way.  You know, sometimes one is presented with a book and asked to translate it, but this one, I did find  myself. I found it, when I'm in France, I always spend a lot of time lurking in my local bookshop,  looking for interesting books. And I found the book sitting on the table there, in the recent  publications. And it was a very, very hot few days, we often have heat waves, very, very intense heat  waves. So, it was a very hot afternoon, I picked up this little book, I liked the title. I flicked through it, took it home and read it in one sitting and I was absolutely entranced. And I was entranced, I'm sure  the fact that it was so hot, and the book was taking me to a place that was so cold, a blast of fresh  air, but I fell in love with the way it was written. And I was completely seduced by the book and I  thought I would love to translate this. So, I set about doing a sample and submitting it to publishers.  And I was very fortunate it was picked up by the magazine Asymptote and Elisa was featured as one  of their new French voices in a feature they were doing with my translation of the opening chapter.  And so, one thing led to another and that led to Daunt Books finding it and asking me to translate it.  So here we are a couple of years later.

Sandra van Lente 

Amazing, thanks for sharing that. And Aneesa, what were the major challenges for you for the  translation? 

Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

Every book has its own challenges, you know what you want to do is to recreate the author's voice  as best as you can in English, and also to give the reader the same, or as close as possible, to the  same experience that you have when you read it in French. So creating a translation is about a lot  more than simply figuring out what the words mean, it's much more a question of digging beneath  the images and finding how those images are conveyed. And this is a book which is full of intense  imagery, some of it is quite visceral, some of it is very atmospheric. It is very visual, but it's also full  of smells and tastes. And so the challenge was to convey the same images into English and to reflect  Elisa's incredible economy of language, she has a great talent for using very few words to conjure  something very rich and something that is so appealing to the imagination. So yes, I would say the  fact that, I mean it’s quite a short book, there's quite a lot of empty space on the page. But it took a  very long time because in a way it's like translating poetry, you know, every word has to be carefully  weighed up not only against the French, but also against all the other words, in its little network, you  know, words exist in a network, they slip and slide, the meanings and values and sounds and tones  and rhythms can all change according to how you place them on the page. So, all of these things  were part of the challenge and the pleasure because it is a great pleasure.  

Sandra van Lente 

Oh yeah, I hear you. Elisa, did you feel that you had to explain or maybe also translate some parts of  Korean cultural aspects to French or Swiss readers? And if so, how did you decide what you  explained in more detail and what not? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

She never thought that she was trying to teach or tell anybody about Korean culture. That wasn't her  idea at all because for her Korean culture was simply part of her life. She lived it, she grew up  hearing the language spoken, eating the food, you know, it was very much part of her life. And the  last thing she wanted to do was to create a novel that was in any way didactic. So really, her  approach was much more that she wanted to just immerse the reader, although as she said when  she was writing, she wasn't even imagining it being read, she had no idea of a reader in mind. But in a way, what she was doing was she was trying to create a universe that immerses us in the world of  this Korean culture as she knows it, which I think she does very well. 

Sandra van Lente 

I couldn't agree more, as a reader I really enjoyed that too. And I'm asking this question, because I  know that there are some other publishers who feel a bit different about that, and might maybe put  some pressure, especially on debut authors to explain a bit more for different cultural contexts. So  yeah, I'm glad that you didn't feel this pressure at all. Can I ask you two, how did you work together?  Was it a close collaboration? And can you share a bit about that? Aneesa first please. 

Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

Yes, we did work together in some ways. I was, you know, I was very fortunate that Elisa was so  responsive to my questions. My approach with asking authors questions, what I usually do is wait  until I finish my first draft. And I think I did that this time. I hope I did. Because what I try to do is I try  to keep a running track of my questions as I go through it, and some of them will answer themselves  as I go along. So, I do try to wait until I've got some questions that I know are worthy of, you know,  the author's input. And then I also found that as we were editing it some of the questions that came  back to me from the editor, Jelke, who did a superb job, I have to say of editing. The questions that  she asked me forced me to ask myself again, whether I had fully understood or whether what I had  understood was, you know, the only, whether there were better ways of understanding. So, I don't  think as far as proofreading, but certainly we kept on coming back to it. And she was great. She  always sent me very long considered answers. And we communicate in a mixture of English and  French, you know, I sometimes write to her in English and she answers me in French. And we're both  quite happy with that. So yeah, and they weren't necessarily questions about specific words and  details of words. They really were more to do with the ideas, underlying the images, clarifying that I  had understood them in a way that Elisa…because English sometimes needs to spell things out a  little more than French does, you know, in French, it is a little bit more possible to present an idea in  such a way that it remains quite elusive and ambiguous. That doesn't work so well in English and  sometimes one does have to pin it down a little more in English just because the language demands  it. 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

She appreciated our collaboration, that I paid so much attention to the to the finer details and she  did appreciate it. I’m very glad, I think the text, you know, was infinitely worthy of this. So, of course, I was going to ask all those questions, but she also said that when she was writing it, in fact, in her  head, none of the characters were actually speaking French anyway, they were speaking English or  they were speaking Korean. So being asked to explain in greater detail, what was meant by some of  the things that were said or some of the things behind the characters sort of plunged her into an  understanding that the book had, it had gone beyond her, that it could be interpreted and  understood and translated in all the different senses of the word. And it was quite a revelation to  her. 

Sandra van Lente 

Thank you very much. And Elisa do you always work so closely with your translators? And can you  maybe share some of the experience you meet with different translators. 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

Elisa hasn't worked as closely with her other translators, and that the collaboration that we had was  particularly rich. Her collaboration with the other translators wasn't quite as rich as the collaboration  that she and I had for the English translation. For the German translation, it was interesting because  that's another language she understands and she was able to follow it more closely and appreciate it more. And also with the Korean because she does understand and speak Korean but she had no  contact at all with the Korean translator and she would have liked to have done and she found that  reading the Korean translation, there's a feeling of strangeness because the translator stuck very  closely to the structures of the French language. And the effect that that has in Korean, it makes it  seem very foreign and very strange, which is an interesting point. Because it is something that, this is  me adding this now, that goes backwards and forwards in the translation world, should one aim for  that feeling of foreignness, because this is a translation or should one aim to give a translation which  is a more authentic rendering of the effect that the book has on the reader. So that's an interesting  point. 

She doesn't have a negative opinion at all of the Korean translation, its just that she would have  liked to have had more communication with the translator. For example, in the Korean language, the  subject pronoun ‘I’ is avoided, it's not used, whereas in French, it's used quite a lot. And that Elisa's  character in Winter in Sokcho, her main character is a young woman who is in fact, she's a voice in  search of a body. She is a young woman who's looking for herself, she's unsure of herself, but in the  Korean translation, because of the use of the pronoun ‘I’, she comes across as a much more assured person, a person who's much surer of herself which is a strange quirk, the difference.
Sandra van Lente 

Thank you two very much. Now we have heard a lot about the book. Can we please hear from the  book now? Elisa, would you mind starting the reading please? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

[Extract from Winter in Sokcho

“At the bus stop there was no one but us.  

‘So you're French? From Normandy?’ 

I nodded to show I understood.  

‘You've heard of it?’ 

‘I’ve read Maupassant’. 

He turned to look at me.  

‘How do you picture it?’ 

I thought for a moment. 

‘Pretty. A bit melancholy.’ 

‘Well, it's changed since Maupassant’s day.’ 

‘I'm sure it has. Like Sokcho.’ 

Kerrand didn't reply. He'd never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live  through the winters. The smells. The octopus. The isolation.  

‘Do you read a lot?’ he asked.  

‘I used to before I went to university. I used to love reading. Now it's more of a chore.’ He nodded, tightened his grip on the package he was holding. 

‘What about you?’ 

‘Do I read?’ 

‘What do you do for a living?’ 

‘I draw. Comics.’ 

The word comics didn't sound right coming from him. It conjured up images of conventions,  queueing fans. Maybe he was famous. I didn't read comic books.  

‘Is your story set here?’ 

‘I don't know yet. Maybe.’ 

‘Are you on holiday?’ 

‘There's no such thing as a holiday in my line of work.’

That evening, he wasn't there again at dinner. Feeling emboldened after our walk, I took him a tray  of food that was less spicy than the meals served to the other guests. He was sitting on the edge of  the bed. His stooping figure silhouetted against the paper wall. The door had been left ajar. Pressing  my face to the doorframe, I could see his hand moving over a sheet of paper. He placed the paper on  top of a box on his lap. The pencil between his fingers was finding its way, moving forwards and  backwards, hesitant, searching again. The point hadn't yet touched the paper. Kerrand began to  draw with uneven strokes. He went over the lines several times, as if to erase and correct, etching  the contours into the paper. The image was impossible to make out, branches of a tree or a heap of  scrap metal perhaps. Eventually, I recognized the shape of an eye, a dark eye, beneath a tangle of  hair. The pencil continued in its path until a female form emerged, eyes a bit too large, a tiny mouth.  She was perfect. He should have stopped there.  

But he carried on, going over the features, gradually twisting the lips, warping the chin, distorting  the image. Then, taking a pen, he daubed ink slowly and purposefully over the paper until the  woman was nothing more than a black misshapen blob. He placed a sheet of paper on the desk. Ink  dripped down onto the floor. A spider scuttled into view and started to run up his leg, but he made  no move to brush it away. He looked down at his handiwork. In an instinctive movement, he tore off  a corner of the sheet and began to chew on it. I was afraid he'd see me. I put the tray down silently  and left.” 

Sandra van Lente 

Thanks a lot Elisa and Aneesa. If you want to read it in full now, Aneesa’s translation of Elisa's novel, Winter in Sokcho, was published this year by Daunt Books. And maybe as a last question, what are  you currently working on Elisa and can you share something about your new book? 

Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) 

Elisa's third novel has just been published this August and the title is Vladivostok Circus. And it's a  story about a trio who perform the very dangerous discipline of the Russian bar. They are creating a  new act. They're based in Vladivostok and the novel is told from the point of view of a young  costume designer who comes to Vladivostok from Switzerland to work with them, and who gets to  know them and has to work with them on the level of trying to understand and get inside this vitally  important bond of trust that has to exist between the three performers, for them to carry out this  extremely dangerous circus discipline. So that's what that novel is about. Apart from that, Elisa has  been working on the cinema adaptation of Winter in Sokcho. And she's also been creating a young adult play, which will be being performed in January. When she has finished a novel, she needs to do  something else for while, she writes in other areas too in order to distance herself from the novel that is completed before she can begin on the very long task of creating another novel. 

Sandra van Lente 

Thank you very much Elisa and Aneesa for participating in this podcast and for sharing so openly. I  hope you two get to work together on the next translation too, I know there are many people  looking forward to it. Thanks a lot. And goodbye. 

Elisa Shua Dusapin  

Thank you very much. 

Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

Thank you. It's been a pleasure. 

Outro message 

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you  enjoyed this episode, we’d love for you to tell us about it – leave us a review or a rating and find us  on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. You can download our latest podcast episodes, every Thursday, from all the places you would normally get your podcasts and find transcripts of our  episodes in the shownotes and on our website at . Details  about our full programme can also be found on our website. Until then, happy reading! 

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is curated by Shantel Edwards and produced by 11C and  Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.

What is Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….?

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.