By Millie Kiel, Mara Radut and Megan Cooke
Peirene: a spring located in Corinth, sacred to the Muses and the watering hole of Pegasus, where poets once travelled to drink the waters and receive inspiration.
It is also the name of a boutique publishing house based in London, who specialise in high-quality first translations of contemporary European novellas. Peirene tell stories which span the continent and which aim to inform and entertain readers, perhaps delivering that same inspiration as the mythological spring once did. Shifting the focus on one part of the world to many others, Peirene aims to deliver big stories in small packages.
Publishing only books of around 200 pages or fewer, a Peirene book has one key USP: it can be read in about the same time as it takes to watch a film. At a point in history when our attention spans are being pulled this way and the next by the temptations put forward by the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and social media, this is crucial to encouraging a more engaged love of the written word in readers.
Not only is this a great thing for encouraging people to pick up a book rather than switch on the next episode of whichever series is currently hot, but it’s also a great way to introduce readers to a wide range of stories and places around Europe. The books are published in a series of three per year, which are united by theme or style and which are published in exquisite paperback editions on sustainably sourced British paper. In other words, Peirene books are not only affordable, but they are beautiful – an item to read and to treasure.
Peirene Press is very much an interactive publisher. Every year, prior to the publications ending up in bookshops, the three books are sent to subscribers who get to explore a specific theme or a motif through multiple perspectives. The subscribers of Peirene are vital to the press, being credited as the reason why the publisher is able to “take risks and make bold choices, translating and commissioning literature that can’t be found in the mainstream market.” For example, their catalogue illustrates a vast literary atlas, with translations of books from countries such as Uzbekistan, Iceland, Lithuania, Georgia and many others.
“A good book should change the world for the better beyond the last page” - Meike Ziervogel, Publisher, Peirene Press
Alongside the ambition to deliver beautifully written and presented novellas from across Europe, the ethos that Peirene embody most wholly is a keen sense of social justice and the power of books to make a difference.
The publishers have supported several charities over the years, donating 50p from the sale of each book to organisations like the Counterpoint Arts to Women for Refugee Women. The core values running through both Peirene and the charities they support is a firm belief in the power of the arts and literature to improve and build lives. As a collaborator in the Borderless Book Club, an online event series dedicated to translated literature, Peirene seeks to remove the concept of borders, as literature is one of the few existing elements that connects people worldwide and shows us how similar we truly are.
In 2017 they collaborated with Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an non-governmental organisation registered in Lebanon, to hold a creative writing workshop for nine refugees in Beirut living in Shatila Camp. Collectively they produced Shatila Stories, which has been described by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, as a “remarkable novel [which] isn’t about the refugee voice; it is born from it and told through it. On every page, the glint of hope for dignity and a better life is heartbreakingly alive.”
“I want to hear their stories and see if their imaginations can open up a new path of understanding between us. Collaborative works of literature can achieve what no other literature can do,’ stated Meike Ziervogel. “By pooling our imaginations, we are able to access something totally different and new that goes beyond boundaries – that of the individual, of nations, of cultures. It connects us to our common human essence: our creativity. Let’s make stories, not more war.”
Shatila Stories was longlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize in 2019.
This was the third iteration of Peirene’s latest project, “Peirene Now!”, which was founded in 2015 to deliver the urgent, contemporary fiction that the world needed to read but which hasn’t yet been written. The previous two novels published through 'Peirene Now!' were Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes in 2016, and Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut, which considers a fictional possibility following the complex reality of Brexit.
We cannot wait to see what Peirene Press will bring to the table next and what good they will do for both the publishing scene and the world.