Inquiring Readers: All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith is now available through Sourcebooks. I will be reviewing this fabulous, intelligently written book later this week. Meanwhile, enjoy my interview with Ms. Smith about her Latin American adventure as she discusses Jane Austen’s novels en Español with Latin American book groups. All readers of this blog from any country can enter a contest to win a copy of this charming book. Please click on this link and leave your comment. Make sure to leave a way I can reach you. Contest is now closed!
Amy, I love that Jane Austen, a spinster who didn’t travel far or frequently in her lifetime, is so beloved the world wide over. Which country surprised you most in terms of her popularity there and why?
I found translations of Austen left and right in bookstores in Argentina. I met plenty of people there who’d read Austen and liked her or who’d seen film adaptations of her novels and enjoyed them. And the Jane Austen Society of Buenos Aires was the first Austen society in South America. But sometimes it’s hard not to be influenced by stereotypes about people — I’d heard that Chileans were “the English of South America,” so somehow I thought Austen would be popular in Chile. But when I was living in Santiago, the capital (which I absolutely loved), a number of people told me Austen’s not very well known in Chile.
As for Argentineans, I’d heard over and over from people in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and other places that Argentineans are, well, pretty arrogant. Other latinos kept passing on jokes like, “When Argentineans see lightening, what do they think is happening? They think it’s God, taking their picture!” So, I guess I got the idea that Argentineans might think Austen was stuffy or old fashioned or some such thing. But she’s popular, at least in Buenos Aires, according to my experiences.
What aspects of that particular culture do you think Jane would have enjoyed the most?
Bookstores, bookstores, bookstores. I had great experiences in bookstores all over Latin America, but Argentina — and Buenos Aires specifically — really is the bookstore capital of South America. It’s so easy for us now to take for granted that we can get our hands on just about any book we want, any time. We’ve got access to bookstores, next-day delivery with websites, and good public libraries. And electronic readers have made it easier than ever — just order whatever book you want, wherever you are on the planet! But imagine what it must have been like for an imaginative, inquisitive reader like Austen — how often did she ever set foot in a bookstore? How often could she afford to pay for books from a circulating library? How many books did her family or friends or neighbors actually own? I think Austen would have fainted from sheer pleasure at the sight of bookstore after bookstore on Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires.
Jane Austen fans cross all religious boundaries. Can you identify any characteristics that Janeites share across the world, besides their obvious love for Jane Austen’s novels?
I honestly can’t speak for many places beyond Latin America (although I might try a next project in some other interesting countries!). But I suspect that there’s a kind of optimism that people — especially women — love about Austen. Her leading ladies find love, not in spite of being strong and intelligent, but because of it. That’s a pretty appealing idea in a world were, in many places, women are still told they’d better not appear too smart, or they’ll scare men off.
What were some of your most memorable experiences in writing this book?
I actually started the book while I was still traveling, although I didn’t finish it until after my trip was done. I wrote the first portion on Guatemala while I was living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was living well away from the tourist area, renting a partially-finished house that had glass in only one or two windows, so it was pretty noisy — street vendors would cruise by with loudspeakers, selling ice cream, vegetables, you name it. The people across the street had a huge bird caged outside their house that shrieked and chattered like a demon. And animals would wander in at will — there was one very persistent cat that kept making me jump out of my skin by appearing under my writing table with no warning.
There were animals all over the place in that neighborhood — no leash laws for dogs, and some of the neighbors had roosters and other farm animals. When I wanted a break from writing, I’d wander out to buy groceries or take my clothes to the laundromat. I always carried them in a plastic bag, and there was this goat a few houses down from me that was only tied up about half of the time. When it was loose, it usually ignored me, but when I had that plastic bag with laundry, it would come bolting after me — maybe its food came in a plastic bag, and it thought I had something good to eat? Or maybe it knew I had laundry and really wanted to eat my socks. Who knows. Sometimes I actually miss that goat — laundry day’s not the same without it.
Thank you, Amy, for your wonderful insights and good luck with your book. (I just love the cover!) Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about All Roads Lead to Austen?
I had two main sources of inspiration for this book — Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and my own Jane Austen students at the University of the Pacific, in California. Readers can enjoy All Roads as a fun opportunity to sit back and be an armchair traveler, but I’d also love it if the book inspired some other international journey I could sit back and read about. Austen in China? Turkey? Belgium? Bora Bora? I’d love to see somebody else take on a journey like this with Jane. Even if they don’t want to write a whole book about it — I’d love to have people share reading-on-the-road stories on my website (http://allroadsleadtoausten.com/). Consider that an official invitation! And thanks so much for letting me visit here at Jane Austen’s World!
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