August blog

Flying the flag for transnational literature

O, my shoes are Japanese
These trousers English, if you please
On my head, red Russian hat –
My heart’s Indian for all that.

Hindi song: Mera Joota Hai Japani

In my early writing days – when my first manuscript was simultaneously commended and rejected by more than one mainstream publisher because ‘it doesn’t fit with a genre’ – trying to bend my writing into the specificity of genre worked against me. In the interim, for authors things have changed for the better. Previously rigid boundaries have been crumbling for some time, the line between fiction and non-fiction blurred and cross-genre writing no longer reason for rejection. But in the meantime, too, I’ve grown up to realise that categorisation is really rather essential — particularly for publishers and readers, but for writers as well.

So what now surprises me in a random sampling of publisher websites is that so few publishers list a sub-genre for transnational literature, even those publishers who publish and sell sub-genres of fiction so finite that they are further divided into sub-sub-genres – crime, for instance, is frequently separated into thriller, suspense, detective, mystery and so forth. Meanwhile, with one or two exceptions, transnational literature that is acknowledged and labelled as such appears to be the province of  social sciences programs or university journals rather than featuring in the lists of the publishing houses. For that matter, international, cross-cultural and travel writing – areas that overlap transnationalism –  rarely show up either.

And this in a global world with an increasing number of writers claiming the ground of transnationalism (albeit many of them academic), a world where people are on the move on a grander scale than ever before. Whether through displacement, migration, political upheaval, perpetual travel or choice, the English-speaking world is one where increasingly few can claim to be fifth-generation anything. Surely, then, as an offshoot of globalisation, transnational writing deserves a central place in publisher lists? Perhaps it falls under the catch-all genre of literary fiction? If so, with a world on the move, there has never been a better time to snap on the spotlight.

How to define transnational literature? For me, it is writing that defies the lines of the mapmakers to cross national and state borders and boundaries. It explores critical and current notions such as belonging, home, identity, homesickness and dislocation – and, with the potential to include topics like colonialism and racism, it frequently has a political bias.

At one stage I found myself at a sort of 42 years-old crossroads. My husband had just died and my own mortality crouched in the shadows of my tumbledown cottage kept at bay, only too literally, by the two Ridgeback brothers who were my companions and, ultimately, my saviours. In between my four jobs, I wrote my first book For Women Who Grieve, enrolled at university and stopped racing around the world. It was a time to take stock, to discover my own ‘genre’ (yes, back to para one ) and, in part, the form it took was the compelling need I felt to compile a data base on my itinerancy which at that point included 64 addresses in 11 different countries on four continents. A kaleidoscopic vision of the globe. Small wonder that writing across boundaries – whether these be that of class, religion, race, culture or country – comes very easily to me. Even my PhD thesis explored the boundaries of cross-cultural literature.

So, in response to my husband Richard Wheater’s question as to whether such a genre exists, the answer is yes. Transnational literature was first recognised as such in the early years of the twentieth century and, today, it is alive and well and winning Man Bookers. But it is just not yet widely recognised as a sub-genre. It needs to come out of the cupboard.


Happy readers

And so it is again with thanks to my family, friends and their friends that my second transnational novel Out of Place – moves from strength to strength as it continues on its own convoluted journey. My sister Toni was kind enough to pass on how much one of her clients had enjoyed this book, spotted on the new release display at Vincent Library in Leederville. As a corollary to this, the library has invited me to give an author talk in March of next year.

Other friends have submitted Out of Place to their respective book clubs over the last few months which has resulted in my being invited to talk at several clubs now – stimulating and good fun. I’m always amazed at how closely my texts are read and analysed – and there I was thinking that I was the analytical one!

Stemming from this meeting, Out of Place took another turn with a recommendation from book club member Suzanne O’Mahony to the Association for the Blind of WA (now VisAbility). I’m delighted to say that Audio Production Officer Susie Punch also enjoyed the book with the result that it is to be turned into an audio book for VisAbility clients. I’m particularly touched that Suzanne has asked to narrate it herself.


Photo: iStock


  1. Ian Reid says:

    A thought-provoking post, Tangea. When I get hold of your book I’ll be very interested to see how you treat transnational themes. I share your writerly preoccupation with border-crossings, displacements etc. I suppose it was in the 19th century that those itineraries were first set in motion on a large scale – through mass migration and convict transportation (the background for my new novel The Mind’s Own Place), and then in a more restless way later in the century when steamship travel combined with rail to open up many travel opportunities – and in some cases criminal opportunities too (as depicted in one of my previous novels, The End of Longing).

    I’ll look for a copy of Out of Place (nice title) in my local bookshop. Best wishes!

    • Tangea Tansley says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Ian. Yes, while they are vastly different books, both my novels – A Break in the Chain and Out of Place – contain themes of dislocation and displacement, but I’m particularly thrilled at the way it’s coming out in the novel I’m working on at the moment. This is a good opportunity to say that I’ve just finished The Mind’s Own Place – and what a lovely story, Ian. Loved the threading of fact and fiction – and I have to say, that driving past the Old Mill yesterday, it looked very bright and white, almost as if I haven’t seen it regularly over the last 25 years! Look forward to reading The End of Longing.

  2. Ian Reid says:

    I’m glad you like The Mind’s Own Place, Tangea. Your interests and background probably make you, in some ways, the perfect reader for that book!

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