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Borderless Literature: In conversation with the Parisian independent publishing house Pippa

The modern-day streets of the Quartier Latin are unrecognisable for the nostalgic eyes of the literature lover. You won’t find some portrait of a literary discussion over black coffee from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, or the palimpsest of decadence mixed with a good measure of ‘starving artist’ grit that Orwell recounts during his ‘down and out’ days in the capital. Whilst its cobbled side-streets retain this rose-tinted appearance, the gaudy imprint of capitalism has now made itself at home in the haven of learning and literature that forms Paris’ 5th arrondissement.

Pippa’s Kolam collection. Photo credit to author

On my way to university in the neighbourhood each morning, I walk past Two Prêts, the Emily in Paris café swarmed with beret-clad tourists, a Macdonald’s opposite a Burger King, a chain of yummy-mummy brunch cafes. The skeleton of a second-hand bookshop housing a new, clothing-shop shaped heart. A sign on the window of my favourite bookshop, prescribing the same fate. Even the beloved Shakespeare and Co. is now plagued by hour-long entry queues, bag checks, bodyguards, and price hikes. Yes, the city is still an artistic hub, but this art now seems tinged by economic threats. Art that survives in Paris is art that sells. Floor-to-ceiling shopfronts plastered with Annie Ernaux’ face following her Nobel Literature prize win late last year. A sea of paperbacks fresh off the press at Flammarion, the French publishing mogul, spanning the insides of these same shops.

Amidst this cacophony, the Pantheon stands proud. It symbolises the French canon of literary giants gone by, a marker of ‘literary quality’. It is a beacon for universities in the area, such as my own Ecole Normale Supérieure, who favour Beckett and Hugo, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, over dazzling new writing from around the world. Once the initial excited sheen of this Parisian literary scene fades away, all that is left is stagnation.

Amidst this stagnation, however, lies a beacon of a different kind. One day, on a whim, I walk into Pippa, a bookshop tucked away on a side street just metres away from the vertiginous Pantheon. I meet Brigitte, the owner, and her passionate intern Clara, who follows me around the bookshop ready to come to my literary rescue. We speak about the role of poetry during revolution, Romanian cinema, and Clara’s literary pilgrimage around the world. Raised in Paris to Franco-Italo-Spanish parents, Clara uprooted herself at 18 and moved to Canada to start an undergraduate degree in biochemistry. She then traversed academic borders, deciding that her love for literature could be a vocation. She is now finishing her second degree in comparative literature, studying abroad in London. As Clara and I happily chat away, I suddenly cut off: “This conversation needs to be recorded somewhere! Would you and Brigitte like to be interviewed for an article?”

Pippa storefront, 5e arrondissement, Paris. Photo credit to author

Over the next few weeks, I visit Pippa several times. Brigitte runs me through the history of the house, intertwined with her own tumultuous life. After studying down the road at the Sorbonne, she immediately entered the publishing world, working for big-shot publishers from France, England, and America. The higher she climbed, the more disillusioned she became. She tells me that she resented being constrained to one task, not having contact with those with whom she worked lower down. Feeling the need for a break after 30 years, she founded Pippa in 2006. Brigitte sought ‘a space which would allow readers, writers, and editors to co-exist’. To her, the bookshop is not just a sales space, but a means by which she can encounter those for whom she edits. Pippa exclusively sells works from independent publishers. They also publish their own collections, focusing on travel fiction, children’s literature and, most recently, illustrated translations and first-time writing inspired by Japanese poetic forms. Brigitte points out that she publishes many anthologies in order to ‘give the opportunity of visibility to as many promising writers as possible’. I find a book of love poems dedicated to Paris, written by an American expat, reminding me of my own beginnings in a new city. I devour a collection of Breton haikus focusing on the relationship between man and nature which brings together two distant cultures into a breath-taking symbiosis. Pippa’s work seems driven by an old Parisian passion for new literature merged with an interest in championing the multicultural. The bookshop pays homage to literary traditions that, until now, had not coexisted on the same page.

Such a welcoming, multicultural space is a rare occurrence in Paris. I am well-acquainted with the drop in tone I am faced with upon revealing my Romanian background, the belittling way in which French people correct my grammar or pretend not to understand my concoction of an accent. Clara mentions this assumption that ‘accent reveals fluency’. She tells me that people always try to guess where she’s from based on her accent in different languages. Clara, however, is proud of the ‘linguistic grey zone’, as she calls it, in which she resides: ‘I’ve never belonged to the place I grew up in, but at the same time I’ve never belonged to the places I come from. I’ve always known that the world was bigger than just one place.’ Literature was a place for her to solidify this linguistic grey zone– she remembers towering bookshelves in her family home, full of books in languages she couldn’t read. When she travels, she travels through bookshops. She buys a book by an author for every city she visits. Bookshops give her an insight into a country’s literary scene. From the white covers decorated with 18th century paintings in French bookshops to the gaudy abstract illustrations, bordered with gold and silver, in their English counterparts, the aesthetic of the bookshop illustrates Clara’s literary map of the world.

Pippa’s colourful shelves, housing poetry collections, travel fiction, and children’s literature. Photo credit to author.

Clara’s enthusiasm towards the linguistic grey zone of immigrant experience is sadly not shared by many French people. Clara believes that French people are scared of this grey zone and prefer sticking to a bold black or white. They feel that ‘being French means only being French’. Pippa firmly detaches itself from this view. Brigitte seeks to build an international community around Pippa, compiling a cat-themed art exhibition which brings together this mythical animal in Japanese artistic tradition with the works of French artists and cat lovers such as her old friend and collaborator Chica. She also works with the mayor’s office of the 5th arrondissement, organising events for primary school children and even running a collective for independent publishers in Paris. Throughout my two or so hours there, I witness this wonderful microcosm. Every time we are interrupted by the ding of the bell signalling the arrival of a new customer, Brigitte immediately gets up and asks her famous ‘Hello, can I help you? Can I suggest anything?’ For every individual she has an individual response. She pulls out a book about a young man about to become a father for the first time, to give to a customer looking for a gift for a friend who has just had a child. She gushes about her favourite picture books with an American au pair. Through waves of French and English, and a whirlwind of different accents, they all communicate their love for literature.

And so, Pippa breaks the borders of nationality through literature. Clara’s comparative background has set her up well for her work here. She tells me that she felt like she was ‘reborn’ upon realising that she can study literature beyond the constraints of borders. Clara speaks fondly of this ‘openmindedness’ of comparing literature across time and space. She tells me that she now never reads books in isolation. She doesn’t even finish a book before starting a new one. ‘I realised that it’s about understanding how books stand in relation to each other and the influences they’ve had, and why they were impactful during this period.’ Clara holds an ocean of stray phrases, photos of beloved book pages sent to friendship group chats, excitedly scribbled quotes in her journal. Hers, like Pippa’s, is a borderless literature.

Merging the perspective offered to her by her comparative literature degree with her lived experience in the grey zone of nationality, Clara can think more deeply about the importance of translation in the literary world. She tells me of a theory of ‘low-context and high-context cultures’. Chinese literature is one of the highest-context cultures; idioms made up of four characters are never read in isolation but communicate with other literature through references to past poems, legends, or other idioms. Clara asks: ‘The writer plays with the fact that there are all these different layers of understanding, so what should the translator do? Should they provide an extensive commentary pointing to all these references, mention them in passing, or omit them completely from the translation?’ Opening the borders of literature past the Western sphere thus comes with a new outlook on translating. Clara tells me that ‘you can’t really go with too much technique, whilst at the same time you are creating [something] even if it isn’t from scratch.’

Back at the bookshop, I witness another conversation on translating the untranslatable. A man walks in – he is a customer, a writer himself, or perhaps a friend. Brigitte calls him over and we talk about the art of translating haikus into French. She mentions that ‘translation should first and foremost take on the emotion of the original’. Despite working within a rigid poetic structure (the 5-7-5 of the haiku), Brigitte is not afraid of deviating from it. Her approach to translation echoes Clara’s emphasis on creativity; it is an act of transformation through translation, merging languages, cultures, and images from the toolkit of both author and translator of the text to discover where they can all meet equally. Pippa gives translators recognition in this task, naming them below the author of each published text, an unfortunately all-too-rare occurrence in the French publishing industry.

Brigitte’s impressive collection of dictionaries, grammar manuals and vocabulary books. Photo credit to author.

Despite Pippa’s noble literary task, the economic threats of the 5th nonetheless seep through its walls as they have done into other independent publishers in the neighbourhood. Brigitte must do everything herself, from running the bookshop to accounting, on top of her editing duties. Clara explains this sense of defeat: ‘There are a lot of bookshops and publishing houses that are closing in Paris because people don’t know about them, and there’s not enough media coverage of this. I knew all of this before but living it first-hand and seeing all this stress from the inside […] is really hard.’ The Pippa team, made up of Brigitte and her series of interns, must always ensure the best produced quality. Brigitte and Clara mention their shared frustrations upon reading a book from a publishing giant, filled with typos and formatting faults. People will, however, keep buying these books. Brigitte adds to this worry, admitting that ‘poetry is hard to sell’. People living busy lives in Paris want to get lost in novels on their tedious metro journeys to work or read the ‘French classics’ as a cultured-class badge of honour. Clara believes that French people will only seek a translated book ‘if there’s a prize related to it’ but they will not make the effort otherwise.

Undeterred by this financial odyssey, Pippa continues to stay afloat, proudly presenting its collection of first-time published dual translations for English, French, and Japanese speakers alike, as well as illustrated haiku collections which walk the reader through cross-continental conversations. Through Pippa, Japanese literature has been able to communicate with French literature, in the same way that people from around the world communicate with each other within its physical space. Pippa stands just as proud as the Pantheon opposite. Its literary space is in every way as big, for those who have had the pleasure of discovering it. It echoes back the inscription on the former’s façade:

Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante

[To great men, from their grateful homeland]

But it is not the ‘grands hommes’ that Pippa pays tribute to. It is the People of the Linguistic Grey Zone: those who, together, build a borderless literature.

Text by Miruna Tiberiu


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