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How foreign writers make it to US bookshelves

They have to fight to overcome one glaring statistic: Only 3 percent of the books published in the US each year are books in translation.

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It's the same for young African talents, says Geoff Wisner, author of "A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa."

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Engaging an American audience is anything but easy. Winning one of Africa's two biggest literary prizes – the Caine or the Wole Soyinka – is the best bet but even that is no guarantee.

Mr. Wisner notes that Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize in 2002, founded the influential literary magazine Kwani?, and teaches at Bard College in the US. Yet he is still best known (if known at all) to American readers as the author of "How to Write about Africa" – a short satirical piece mocking Anglo writers who set novels in Africa.

In Latin America, Brazil does have a tradition of writers' workshops. But what many of today's writers are most excited about, says Jose Luiz Goldfarb, curator of that country's prestigious Prêmio Jabuti literary award, is the opportunity to make their voices heard through blogs and social media.

"This is doubtlessly going to generate ... a new path for authors to come out," he says.

Ultimately some argue that Americans – a nation of immigrants quick to embrace a rich mix of immigrant writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Ha Jin – don't necessarily need to import literature in translation to enjoy a chorus of international voices.

In fact, says Ms. Hong, many American readers need look no farther than Iowa.

"In many ways, [The Writers' Workshop] is already a microcosm of world literature," she says.

Taylor Barnes contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.


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