Book Release for Foreign Words by Vassilis Alexakis,

Title: Les mots etrangers [Foreign Words]
Author: Vassilis Alexakis
Translator: Alyson Waters
Language: English
Publisher: Autumn Hill Books
Date of Publication: 2006
ISBN: 0975444417
Price: $16.95, $22.95 CAN
Description: Paperback, 228pp
Availability: (Distributor) Independent Publishers Group, 814 North Franklin Street, Chicago, IL 60610, USA, Phone 312/ 337-0747, Fax 312/337-1807, Email; (Sales) available through major wholesalers like Baker and Taylor and Ingram, as well as at retail outlets nationwide, including Barnes and Noble,, and others; (Publisher) Autumn Hill Books, 1106 Yewell St., Iowa City, IA 52240, Phone 319/354-2456, Fax 319/341-5994, e-mail

Foreign Words, by Vassilis Alexakis, is an invitation au voyage, a book that takes us on a journey through time and space with the story teller as he travels from Paris where he lives as the book opens, to Greece where he grew up, and where his father has just died, to the Central African Republic as he undertakes the study of Sango.

Why learn Sango is a question the book's narrator himself has trouble answering. His ruminations on the surprising decision to study it are both humorous and penetrating. He traces events from his past (his early infatuation with Tarzan, a picture of his grandfather taken in Bangi before WWI, the death of his mother) and confronts his own mortality, suspecting that, at the age of fifty-two, he might be incapable of learning anything new, or summoning the courage to venture outside what he knows, or having amorous adventures.... He hopes to disprove such suspicions, of course. He also ruminates on his inability to write the phrase "my father is dead" in either of the two languages he knows, his native Greek, his adopted French.

All these themes, along with questions about French colonialism in Africa and the political reasons for his exile in France, are woven into an intimate portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with the death of his father and the fact that, in one of the book's more poignant lines, he is now "all alone one." In the midst of his Sango study (which we observe and take part in, learning Sango as he does), Alexakis's narrator discovers that he is able to write "baba ti mbi a kui," "my father is dead," in that language quite easily: it has no associations for him and carries none of his memories. Inevitably perhaps, as he acquires experience through the language, meets its living speakers, travels in the places where it grew up and has struggled to survive, his use of Sango changes. He grows more sensitive to its nuances, its music. And in the end, he finds himself unable, now in yet a third language, to utter the telling phrase.

The work is a profound meditation on language and loss, on the language of loss, and also on the power and magic of words--their power to change the way we see ourselves, their magic to renew our lives after hardship, loss, and death. The story is simultaneously filled with delicate suspense and emotional honesty, while the narration is full of humor, tender self-deprecation, and subtle irony.

As one reviewer has put it, the novel is "a new and wondrous meditation on languages, their lives, their death--the terrible moment when they have no more voice--on words that know everything and are able to give you back your memories, your history." Or as Alexakis's narrator says, "Languages return the interest you show in them. They tell you stories only to encourage you to tell your own.... Foreign words are compassionate. They are moved by the least little sentence you write in their language, and it doesn't matter if it's filled with mistakes."

None of Alexakis's other works has been published English. La langue maternelle (Mother Tongue, 1996) has been translated into Italian and German; Talgo (1983) and Pourquoi tu pleures? (Why Are You Crying? 1991) have also appeared in German.

This translation was generously supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.

Click here to view sample pages of Foreign Words

Foreign Words--Schedule of Bilingual Readings with Author and Translator

In anticipation of the April 1, 2006 release of Foreign Words, by Vassilis Alexakis, translated by Alyson Waters, Autumn Hill Books would like to announce the following events. If you're in the area, please consider attending one or more! All events are co-sponsored by the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in New York.

Monday, March 20, 2006, 12:30 to 2:30 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event organized by Columbia University's Maison Francaise, in New York City. For additional information, contact Samuel Skippon at (212.854.4482).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006, 4:30 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event organized by Yale University's Department of French and the Program of Hellenic Studies. The event will be held at Luce Hall in New Haven. For more information contact, Marianne Lyden at 203.432.3423.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006, 5:30 pm -Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event organized by Brown University's Department of French Studies, in Providence. For more information, contact Professor Reda Bensmaia at

Thursday, March 23, 2006, 5 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event organized by the University of Connecticut's Department of French and Francophone Studies. The event will be held in room 221 of the Arjona Building on the U Conn campus in Storrs, CT. For additional information, contact Roger Celestin at

Friday, March 24, 2006, 6 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event co-sponsored by the Greek Embassy and Politics and Prose Bookstore. The event will be held at the Greek Embassy, 2221 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, D.C. A public reception will follow. For additional information, contact Connie Mourtoupalas at (202.332.2727).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006, 6 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at an event sponsored by the Greek Press Office and the Cathedral School in New York, City. A public reception will follow. For more information, contact Sonia Celestin ( or Theodossis Demetracopoulis (

Friday, March 31, 2006, 7 pm - Mr. Alexakis and Ms. Waters will read from his works at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The event will be broadcast on Iowa Public Radio's "Live from Prairie Lights," which you can hear at Please tune in.

About the Author

Vassilis Alexakis was born in Athens in 1943 and spent his childhood on the island of Santorini. In 1961 he received a scholarship to study abroad and went to France. He enrolled in journalism school in Lille with the intent of somehow making his living as a writer. In 1964 he returned to Greece to do his military service. Three years later, the coup d'état and the installation of the military regime forced him into exile. He returned to France, this time to Paris.

His first novel, Le sandwich, was written in French and published in 1974. In 1982 he wrote his first novel in Greek, Talgo, and translated it himself into French. His novel La langue maternelle was awarded the prestigious Médicis Prize; his collection of short stories, Papa was awarded the Académie française Prize for Best Short Story Collection, and his novel Avant was awarded the Albert Camus Prize.

Les mots étrangers [Foreign Words] appeared in 2002 and was voted one of the twenty best books in any genre of that year by the editors of the literary magazine Lire. It was short-listed for two major French literary awards, the Renaudaut Prize and the Interallié Prize.

Much of Alexakis's fiction, though not strictly autobiographical, employs elements of his life to explore the relationship between identity and language, memory and the self, and exile, loss, love, and death. After the death of his father in 1995, he began learning Sango, the main language of the Central African Republic. From this autobiographical "fact" emerges a stunning work of imagination, Les mots étrangers, whose narrator also undertakes to learn Sango on the death of his father.

Alexakis now lives in Paris, Athens, and on the Greek island Tinos. He has also made four films and published a collection of drawings.

A complete bibliography of his prose in French follows: Le sandwich (novel), 1974; Les girls du City-Boum-Boum (novel), 1974; La tête du chat (novel), 1978; Talgo (novel), 1983; Controle d'identité, 1985; Le fils de King-Kong (aphorisms), 1987; Paris-Athènes (1989, autobiographical essays); Pourquoi tu pleures? (1991, short stories); Avant (1992, novel); La langue maternelle (1996, novel); L'invention du baiser (1997, aphorisms); Papa (1997, short stories); Le Coeur de Marguerite (1999, novel); Les mots étrangers (2002, novel).

About the Translator

Alyson Waters's translations include Louis Aragon's Treatise on Style (1991), Tzvetan Todorov's The Morals of History (1995) and, most recently, Réda Bensmaïa's Experimental Nations, Or: The Invention of the Maghreb (2003). She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter. This translation was facilitated by a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.

(Posting date 24 March 2006)

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