Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where is literary criticism? Everywhere.

Some of you may know my dislike for inflammatory "death of" statements - I have little patience for authors (usually old men) who declare that the age of literature is over, and bemoan the loss of our literary culture. Statements like those drip with disdain for younger readers, as well as an outright snobbishness in regards to the definition of literature. In general, I take great issue with any critic, writer, reader, reviewer etc making grand claims about the state of literature today, mostly because those statements are usually stereotyped-based, wrong, and ultimately counterproductive.

It was, then, with some disappointment that I read Mark Thwaite's post on the Guardian book blog a couple weeks ago. Thwaite - who I used to follow as a blogger back in my early days - laments the loss of "literary blogs", writing:
Many great blogs focus on genre fiction: the love of vampire epics or raunchy romances, SF or historical fiction. My focus was on "serious literature" – the scare quotes are in place because what is contested as such was also part of the reason to get involved in the fun and the fray of blogging. My hope at the time was that countless blogs would emerge that would prove an untested thesis to which I'd long cleaved: that the attempt by the mainstream media to contain the intelligence of the average reader by trivialising their seriousness could be resisted, and that blogging would prove that readers had far more sophisticated tastes than the broadsheets presume.
Thwaite pins some of the blame on Twitter as the source for the loss of intelligent, longform literary criticism. But of course, his entire premise is built on a shaky definition of literary (and an even shakier definition of longform), and a healthy dose of elitism. Thwaite is trying to present literary criticism as a field with a clear definition - the blogs/journals he links to are certainly heavy-hitters, but they are absolutely not the only ones. What became of literary blogging? Well, it's here. It's always been here. And it doesn't necessarily have to be about your so-called literary fiction, and it doesn't have to be characterized by dense articles.

Which leads me to Kelly Jensen's recent post at Stacked Books. Jensen's post looks more specifically at young adult literature than anything else, but the question posed is much the same: where are the critical reviewers? It's a question that's interesting in the context of young adult literature, largely because that field has distanced itself from the rest of literature (young adult is now viewed - bafflingly - as a genre, and not simply as a designation), and also because much of the nature of young adult book blogging has been in response to critics like Thwaite - young, untethered and populist.

Here's what I think is important to take away from both pieces: fine criticism is not easily defined. Jensen looks at specific blogs and specific blog-traits as one she prefers, but what's important to note is that Thwaite in all likelihood wouldn't ever call those blogs "literary". Jensen defines criticism in a way that is much more in line with my own opinions:
Some of the best critical reviews are entirely positive, but what separates them from a lot of other reviews is they offer a huge slice of the person behind the review. They're often more personal than a personal blog post because they let in opportunities for vulnerability that the reviewer doesn't always know they're opening up: their biases, their preferences, their world views, their passions. These reviews allow me as a reader to really get inside the book and inside the head of another reader.
This sort of definition means that literary criticism is never defined by genre. It means that it's not defined by age group or designation. Jensen throws out Thwaite's idea of an elite culture by demanding a personal investment - something I wholeheartedly agree with. Reading, after all, is never objective - we take into account every book previously read when starting a new one, and there is no vacuum in which we can separate between our real lives and those we read on the page.

This leads me to what I feel is the answer to both Thwaite and Jensen's questions: critical literary review is still here, it's just less obvious. The book blogging world has grown tremendously over the past few years, spawning subgroups, subniches, and entirely new mediums (BookTube, anyone?). Today, finding blogs is largely dependent on which community you belong to. While there is significant overlap (thanks, I have to admit, to sites like BookRiot, which blend together many different groups), most bloggers still seem to identify as something - "literary", historical fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, young adult, etc. These niches make it easier to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests, but significantly harder to find anyone else. My own blog is a fairly good example - I have resisted the urge for many years to fit into any niche, and yet circumstances have led me to be a part of the literature-in-translation group. I hardly post about sci-fi and fantasy anymore, even less about young adult literature or plain old fiction. Niches are easier, but they ultimately make the literary community feel... emptier. There are literally thousands of book bloggers currently active today - the problem isn't that these quality critics don't exist, it's that they're hard to find in the maze of the current community.

With so many blogs isolated, it's hard to see that literary criticism really does cross genre borders. It's hard to see that it's a field that's still thriving. Thwaite-style blogging still exists in many corners (many sci-fi blogs have some of the most probing, intelligent reviews I've ever read, while reviewers who delve deeply and personally into the heart of the books they read still exist for Jensen (lots of literature in translation blogs definitely fit this category). Having difficulty in finding these blogs and bloggers is fair enough. Implying that they doesn't exist is problematic. And attempting to lock in the definition of quality criticism - as Thwaite attempts - is simply wrong.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A bullet-point post

I am finding myself with many posts I'd like to write, but no time in which to write them (right now). So instead: a bullet-point update and random issues post.

WITMonth stuff:

  • August is coming! If you haven't already heard (and who are we kidding, if you're reading this post, you've heard...), August is Women in Translation Month here on the blog, on your blog, on your phone, in your favorite reading nook... wherever!
  • One of the ideas we had for WITMonth was guest posts and blog exchanges... Since I'm entirely inexperienced in this "hosting" thing, I'm really not sure if this is going to happen/if there's an interest - I'd love to get feedback from you guys on the matter.
  • I know I keep saying this, but spread the word! I think it'll be really amazing to see a WITMonth that spans the spectrum of the literary community, from lit-in-translation bloggers to YA to mystery to sci-fi... If you know someone who might appreciate just looking into the matter... I give you my blessing to bug them about this.
Other stuff:
  •  I have a lot of thoughts about Ruth Graham's "young adults should only be read by young adults" thing, and after having read many response pieces (most of which, I felt, completely missed the point), I want to respond even more virulently. The original article is so absurd for so many reasons, but so are many responses that claim to "set the record straight". For me, there are so many levels on which I just do not agree with the idea that books ought to be dismissed by who they are written for (or often, who they are marketed for). The age of the protagonist has nothing to do with the age of the reader - goodness, can't adults read To Kill a Mockingbird? Or should children not read books like The Count of Monte Cristo, because all the characters are adults? And what should the elderly do? Obviously reading "middle-aged" books is out, they're 30-40 years removed from that, it's just embarrassing! They can only read books about old people, because that's how literature works. There are so many issues with arguments about age-designations as "genres" that I find myself truly... angry, I suppose. As soon as I have the time, I'd like to carefully explain why I don't think that any of this really matters.
  • I also had a fairly unpleasant response to the "What happened to literary blogging?" piece by Mark Thwaite from a couple weeks ago - like Graham's piece from above, there's a level of utter disconnect. It's a  piece that doesn't both to do its research, and defines a huge field very, very narrowly. Literary blogging is, for Thwaite, his sort of blogging, about the sorts of books that he reads. He describes a yearning for long-form criticism, but his definition of criticism is... bad. Coming from a community where I can pointed to literally hundreds of fantastic literary blogs (in every genre, yes, even in SFF and young adult!), this sort of article comes off as even more pretentious than his actual blog (which I follow) ever did. The whole piece left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I think that it deserves a more careful and explicit response piece.
  • Hebrew Book Week this year resulted in a lot of super amazing things (many related to the Women in Translation project) - I'm not sure I'll have time to get into all of them, but I had some fascinating one-on-one conversations with the heads of four different Israeli publishing houses while browsing for books, and also some really eye-opening discussions with booksellers and translators. Like every year, the experience was truly wonderful. But I think it might have been surpassed this year by the level of discourse and the fact that I actually was able to reach some of the publishers. Plus, they handed out free chocolate slabs. So...

Friday, June 13, 2014

#WITMonth updates and (optional) schedule

The results of the survey are in, the calculations have been made, the decisions have been reached and... everyone must spend Women in Translation Month dressed 17th century garb and read only in a language with an alphabet they are unfamiliar with.

Just kidding! What follows is an equally optional schedule for WITMonth (you can, of course, spend it wearing 17th clothes, if you'd like). August is meant to be our opportunity to discuss and enhance the conversation about women in translation, not to remind everyone about high school reading assignments. Read how you want to read. If that means reading only one book by a woman in translation - awesome! If it means reading no books by women in translation, but discussing the matter on your blog or on Twitter or on Goodreads or in the real world (!) - fantastic! If it means posting every day and following the schedule to the letter - amazing! (and unlikely, though anyone who wants to join me in daily posts is most welcome to!)

Basically - do what's right for you. The WITMonth schedule can serve as a nice guideline, but it is by no means a requirement to participate. In response to the person who filled out the survey by only writing in "freedom from rules" - you are free. There are no rules. Only recommendations, and you really do not have to take them to heart.

So without further ado, the proposed WITMonth schedule for those who like a good schedule:
  • Friday, August 1st: Introduction - why is women in translation important to you?
  • Saturday, August 2nd: Favorite women writers in translation
  • Week 1: Western/Northern Europe - France, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain...
  • Wednesday, August 6th: Focus on: Classic literature
  • Saturday, August 9th: Focus on: Poetry
  • Week 2: Asian continent, Africa, and Oceania
  • Wednesday, August 13th: Focus on: Queer literature
  • Saturday, August 16th: Focus on: Children's and young adult literature
  • Week 3: Eastern/Central Europe
  • Wednesday, August 20th: Focus on: Underrated authors/books
  • Saturday, August 23th: Focus on: Genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, etc.)
  • Week 4: The Americas (Latin America, Haiti, Quebec, etc.)
  • Wednesday, August 27th: Focus on: Untranslated masterpieces
  • Saturday, August 30th: Focus on: Historical fiction
  • Sunday, August 31st: New discoveries and WITMonth summary
Once again, these dates and weeks and ideas are all entirely optional. If you'd rather spend all of WITMonth discussing specifically East Asian women writers - more power to you. If you're not sure you'll have time to read throughout August, you can definitely schedule some posts now. And if you really feel like mostly talking about the issue of women in translation (and less about actual books or writers), feel free to share your thoughts on the matter and join the discussion. There are no rules, no guidelines, no requirements. This schedule was built with the idea of having as much diversity and breadth as possible (not just focusing on Western European literature, but truly on women from across the globe), but I may have missed some things - please let me know if there are adjustments that need to be made, or additional ideas!

I know, though, that this schedule doesn't cover everything. Here are a few other, bigger-picture ideas for WITMonth:
  • While I personally will not be able to host any sort of readalong throughout August due to exams and whatnot, I definitely encourage other readers and bloggers to take up the challenge! The survey indicating a fair amount of interest in the option, and I think a group-read of this kind would be a fascinating experience.
  • A lot of people expressed an interest in guest-posting and cross-blog conversations. I think this is a great idea, and recommend bloggers start chattering amongst themselves to figure out the details. Hopefully, we'll be able to get interviews with translators, publishers, bookstores, libraries, and other readers, to get as broad a conversation as possible.
  • The "focus on" days are meant as a sort of challenge for us, and an opportunity to bring other readers and bloggers into the fold. I'd love to see YA bloggers share their two cents on authors like Cornelia Funke, Tove Jansson, Janne Teller and others. I'd love to see SFF bloggers discuss authors like Angélica Gorodischer, Isabel Allende, or even Yoko Ogawa (Revenge does sort of blur the lines!). Let's talk about thrillers and mysteries and crime fiction. Let's talk about poetry and plays. Let's talk about classics, which are unjustly struck from the canon.
  • You can talk about books you like, books you love, and also books you didn't like. Part of the dialogue means also pointing to books that maybe aren't as good as others.  
  • And if you have any other idea... GO FOR IT!
I'll be posting some recommended reading (much of which I personally have not read either!) in the coming days for different topics, and I'm still open for changes to the schedule. There are some topics for which I still hardly have recommendations (a couple people asked to have a focus on queer literature, but right now I honestly can't think of any... which just goes to show the lack of diversity, of course!), and other genres with books that maybe don't make a lot of sense for a single month (many of the classics, for example, are hard to track down, if they at all exist).

Once again, let me emphasize that WITMonth is not about quotas or rules or angry ranting. It's about opening up a dialogue. It's not just about specifically lit-in-translation blogs, or just about anger, or just about feminism, or "just about" anything. Anyone who wants to participate in any way is more than welcome to.

Friday, June 6, 2014

#WITMonth survey

Anyone interested in August's Women in Translation Month - check out the survey for event ideas! I'll be formulating a guideline schedule over the next week or so, so make sure to share all your thoughts and ideas: Any extra recommendations or requests can be passed along in comments as well, or by e-mail.

I'll be posting more updates about both WITMonth and the general Women in Translation project over the next few days. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Women in Translation | The one with charts

The good folks at Three Percent have published the midyear translations database. That means it's time for our check-in regarding the status of women in translation in 2014. So how are things looking so far?

Not good.

We'll start with the basic statistics, which shows that women writers make up - drumroll please - 28% of translations in 2014 so far.

Does that number sounds familiar to you? It should. That was the exact number I got last year.

But let's look a bit deeper, shall we? This year: with graphs!

NOTE: Gender assessments were ascertained using photo searches, biographies and information from Wikipedia. EVERY SINGLE AUTHOR WAS RESEARCHED in order to minimize any mistakes. Any single author left "unknown" was as a result of no photographic evidence and no clear biography found. All easily recognizable anthologies were automatically labeled "both". Obviously a few numbers may be skewed due to human error, however the margin of error is likely to be very, very small and the big-picture conclusions here are ultimately (sadly) unavoidable. 

First I decided to look at all the women-penned books and sort them by language. Then I compared men-vs-women written books (not authors, I should emphasize) to get the following delightful graphic:

Click to enlarge
The important thing to notice here (and you have to click in order to properly see it - note also that the graph is by percentage and not absolute value) is the little values in the chart at the bottom. Because those values will show you that while yes, women wrote all - count 'em - five of the books published in Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Pashto, and Vietnamese, bigger picture: women wrote less than 30% of the books translated from French this year. And yes, women made up 50% out of a total of ten books translated from Turkish, Greek, and Ukrainian, but they failed to crack the 50% mark anywhere else (though German came close-ish, with 21 out of 50 books written by women - go German!).

But this graph is messy, right? So let's look only at the major languages - those that had more than 10 publications this year:

That's a lot of red. Here we can see more clearly that German comes closest to the 50% mark (go German!), with Swedish a fairly close second (go Swedish!). Third place goes to French, which is pretty dismal, as we've already seen. It's all downhill from there. Spanish in particular remains a lowlight in regards to women in translation, with only 12 out of 46 books, with Italian and Arabic as extreme slumps as well.

An additional observation: 14 languages (totaling 32 books overall) were male only (as compared to only 4 languages, 5 books for women). A language like Polish - which is not generally lacking in women writers - had 7 books translated this year, and all of them were by men.

Now we come to an even less savory part of these stats: publishers. Let's take a look at which publishers did well at representing women writers, and which have a ways to go. The top 23 publishers published comfortably over half of the books: 245 out of 442. These are publishers which released more than 5 books in translation for 2014.

Click to enlarge

This is probably the most important chart out of the bunch, with four critical takeaways:
  1. Only one publisher manages to pass the 50% mark, and it's the publisher most frequently vilified by readers of literature in translation: AmazonCrossing. Amazon is, in general, the opposite of what we consider good and noble with the publishing and book industries, yet here you have it - AmazonCrossing is the ONLY publisher to have more books written by women published than books by men.
  2. The "big publishers" do a really terrible job of translating women writers. Two of the most big-shot names on the list - Knopf and Penguin - published zero books by women in translation (out of a total of 13), while FSG and HarperCollins only managed 5 out of 14. The translation database is, of course, only for first-time translations, but my gut also tells me that they do a worse job of translating classic literature by women. Good job guys. Not.
  3. Several publishers have consistently "borderline" stats - Open Letter, for example, always publishes more books by men than by women, yet the numbers inch closer and the gap is shrinking. I consider this to be a huge victory (despite the fact that I would expect at some point women to overtake men, at least for a year...), and commend them for it. Many other publishers who released only a handful of books ultimately ended up with significantly more balanced results as well. More commendations!
  4. Dalkey Archive. New Directions. Melville House.
This last point is probably the most crucial, and for a number of reasons. First of all, these are three publishers I inherently associate with literature in translation, and more importantly with the message of "we are indie" that they work so hard to cultivate (Dalkey less so, then again it's my strongest "literature in translation" association...). Melville House in particular are very adamant about their indie cred, with the majority of posts on their blog disparaging various "flaws" in the current publishing/marketing/sales model (and, of course, their weekly "let's bash Amazon" post). Yet this publisher that holds itself so high above all others just got served by the company it so gleefully tries to take down every other day. AmazonCrossing may be a flawed enterprise, but at least they recognize that women writers in translation have something to offer. Melville? 1 woman writer out of 8 books published, as compared to AmazonCrossing's 10 out of 17. It's also pathetically consistent - last year's stats were equally atrocious. 

New Directions as well - this is a publisher that touts itself as being independent and thoughtful and different, but push comes to shove that independence extends only so far as "male". When you run through the New Directions website, it becomes so disturbingly apparent that women writers just aren't as valued. And I did that - I went through book by book, trying to identify books written by women. It was hard, and it shouldn't be. We're looking here at the absurd situation in which 2 books out of 12 were confirmed to be written by women.

Finally: Dalkey Archive. This one hurts.

Dalkey Archive is important in the literature in translation business. It's hard not to be important, when you're the biggest publisher of books in that field. Dalkey make a point of publishing books from all over the world, from all sorts of different languages, books of all types and creeds and styles... and I really, really admire them for it. But I cannot admire a publisher that has such a low proportion of women writers in translation. So far this year, I could not find a single confirmed woman writer in translation, while in the best case scenario here (assuming all the 4 "unknowns" were women, which is highly unlikely), less than 15% of the books Dalkey are publishing are by women. Last year? Just under 25%. This is not a one-off of misrepresentation.

This kind of disparity from the biggest publisher of literature in translation is huge. Readers don't know which books need to be published. They don't know where to look. They come to publishers, publishers provide them with books, they read the books. If publishers are incapable of providing readers with books written by women, you have to wonder. And while I'm sure that home-country availability has something to do with the huge gaps in representation, I think a bigger issue is perception: books by women are perceived to be lesser than books by men. Sometimes this is justified by (wrong) genre definitions, sometimes it's outright sexism, and sometimes it's subtle sexism (love stories written by women = romance; love stories written by men = literature). This is obviously a different discussion, but it's one we're going to have to own up to someday if we want anything to get better.

So here's my takeaway: With three years of hard data backing me up, it's clear that a lack of women writers in translation is a trend. It's a trend that is staying stagnant. It's a trend that seems not to bother the biggest publishers (who are the worst culprits). It's a trend that's not going to magically fix itself. And while the end of the year results may ultimately smooth out some of these numbers, history tells me that they're not going to actually improve them. Dalkey will not suddenly publish 30 books by women writers in translation in the second half of 2014. There won't suddenly be 15 books translated from Spanish to balance out the huge gap.

Here's what we do to fix it: Discuss. Read. Contact publishers. Contact translators. Bring attention to the issue. I'm hosting WITMonth not for the sake of having a button on my toolbar that says I did it, rather so that we as a community can sit down and make a point - 28% is not representation. We read literature in translation to gain as broad a view of the world as possible... so give it to us.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | Review

This novella right here is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in having a dedicated Women in Translation month. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, right here, this book, serves as such a perfect example for why I've been championing this, and why it means so much to me.

Sidebar: the cover is positively lovely in print
The reason I read literature in translation is the same reason I read sci-fi, the same reason I read fantasy, the same reason I don't like mysteries, the same reason my tastes shift every few years - it's because above all else, I seek diversity in my reading. I don't want to read formulaic novels and I don't want to read about ideas that I'm already familiar with. International literature checks off many of these boxes comfortably, because often a different upbringing and a different culture heavily influences the type of book an author is likely to write. In the same way, gender is likely to influence it as well.

So we come to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a short fable about a hen who, yes, dreams she can escape her coop, lay an egg and fly away from the life she's lived until now. When the story opens, our hen Sprout (a name she chose herself, since of course to her human masters she's nothing more than an egg-laying hen and useless as long as she is not fulfilling that task...) is reaching the end of her egg-laying days. She can feel it coming on. And she wants, desperately, more than anything, to be a mother to a chick.

The story that continues from there is sweet. It's powerful. It's meaningful. Anyone who reads The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly will recognize the strength of the maternal theme that runs through the core of the novella. Sun-mi Hwang (ably translated by Kim Chi-Young) doesn't simply look at the ordinary desire for motherhood (and yes, I recognized while reading the book that there might be a perception of an assumption that motherhood is the default for females, though I really don't think that's the point...), but at the actual practical implications. Motherhood appears in different forms - desperate, voluntary, loving, frightening, overbearing, understanding - it's almost overwhelming. If we're ever going to discuss whether men and women write differently (which I really, really don't believe), I think this would actually serve as a good example for different styles: men writing about motherhood so warmly is fairly rare...

But The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not just about motherhood, and it's not just cheerful, plucky hens flapping around trying to get their way. The messages here about family in general, culture, belonging, and even farming as a concept stand fairly central in the story. It's a fascinating little book, one that made me think about all sorts of issues for several days after I finished it. Unique, different, pleasant, thoughtful and intelligent... what more could you ask for?

I really recommend The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I've seen certain reviews call it a "lighter" fable as compared to something like George Orwell's Animal Farm; to be perfectly honest, I think that assessment has a bit of the "male=serious, female=fluff" mentality to it. This is a novella that packs major punch in its "domesticity" (quite literally, actually), and while it doesn't aim to represent totalitarianism or hypocrisy or anything Orwellian of the sort, its piercing and, yes, lovely focus on motherhood, love and family is equally powerful.

The writing style is very, very simple, as befits a story narrated by a chicken. Readers who like their prose a bit meatier may find the childlike style frustrating; I personally felt that it matched the story quite well. Sprout is a fascinating character (beyond her chicken-isms), and her world is one filled with messages we could all do well to remember. This is a book I'm very glad to have found, and very glad to have read. There's a lot to love here.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Women in Translation | Introducing WITMonth!

Introducing Women in Translation (WIT) Month

When I started posting about the lack of women writers in translation, I had one idea in mind: get people thinking. Just as I had never noticed this startling skew, I knew that most readers of literature in translation probably weren't aware of just how bad the situation had become. I wanted to spread awareness, make the issue known, and get readers, reviewers, translators and publishers involved in a discussion.

Thankfully - thanks to all of you - this has been possible. But as I've said before - this project is not one post, thrown to the wind. Over the past few months, this project has become more and more central to my reading. I spent January tracking down a lot of books by women in translation, and February, March, and April reading them. I've been writing more reviews than usual, widening my horizons, and all the while trying to understand what could be the reasons for the overwhelming male-preference in translated literature.

While many of you have voluntarily taken up the challenge to read more books by women in translation, another idea soon cropped up thanks to the wonderful T. Olmsted of BookSexy Review: a dedicated month for championing women in translation.

And so WIT Month is born.

WIT Month will be held in August of this year (2014), with two simple goals in mind:
  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
These two goals are not meant to limit readers by any means. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am notoriously terrible at planning my reading (or planning my blogging, for that matter), and am never capable of sticking to any sort of schedule. This month isn't actually asking anyone to bend over backwards to only read books by women, or drop whatever else you're reading, or suddenly post only about feminism. The point is to encourage readers who appreciate structure in their reading to have a bit of encouragement and guidance. It's to hear from authors and translators and publishers who may not always make their voices heard in the book blogging world. It's to have a time and place where we can all sit down together to have a discussion, plain and simple. And hopefully, to read some excellent books along the way.

Readers interested in participating can show their stripes using the above button. I'll be keeping a list of participants and all related posts in the new section here on the blog, right next to the newly updating list of recommended literature in translation by women. Links to posts, reviews, thoughts or anything related to WIT Month can be left in comments, emailed to me (biblibio at gmail), tweeted to @Biblibio or using either the #WITMonth or #WomenInTranslation tags on Twitter. This is a growing project, with no fixed schedule yet, so make your voices heard! If you have any ideas for specific events or topics to discuss over the course of August, please share them. We'll be trying to build some kind of loose schedule over the coming weeks, and your input is not only helpful, it's necessary.

Any and all feedback welcome! We would love to hear your ideas in an effort to make Women in Translation Month interesting, educational, entertaining, and enlightening. Spread the word, tell your friends, neighbors, dogs and cats. Stock your bookshelves and get your bookmarks read. August is coming.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine | Review

Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.

Let's back up a few years - I read The Buddha in the Attic in spite of my own better judgement, and was blown away by nearly flawless writing, a wonderful sense of mood, and a story that has not left my consciousness since then. The Buddha in the Attic was a book I never would have read had I not spotted it on the recommended table at my local bookstore, had I not opened it to the first few pages and been intrigued by the first-person plural. But the book proved to be so much more than a bland-looking "literary" piece with a gimmick. Instead, I discovered that Otsuka could both write, and she could write. I bought When the Emperor was Divine not long after, and it's languished on my shelves ever since.

Why languished, you ask? Well, because like many readers who fall in love with one book at one point, there is always the fear that the author's other works will disappoint. So I put off reading Otsuka's earlier novella more and more. Until a couple weeks ago, when I broke down and pulled it off the shelf. About time, too. There was no cause for concern - When the Emperor was Divine is just as cleanly written, just as finely tuned, and ultimately just as thought-provoking as The Buddha in the Attic. Possibly more important as well, though I don't think I liked it more.

Though The Buddha in the Attic was written later, I couldn't help but feel as though it's the natural prequel to When the Emperor was Divine. Buddha deals with the immigration of Japanese women to the US (California, specifically), gradually opening their story across decades as they adjust to life in their new country, showing racism and culture clashes vividly and powerfully.

Emperor begins in World War II. The girls who moved to the US in Buddha are now grown women, mothers, whose children are entirely American, hardly speaking any Japanese. Emperor has a more generally familiar structure, following one single family across a slice of American history that is often (improperly) ignored and forgotten: the family's time in the Japanese internment camps.

Like Buddha, which follows a group of women, none of whom are an actual protagonist, Emperor purposely blurs the boundaries of standard narration by keeping our family very generic. "The woman", "the boy", "sister", etc. - names for characters we get to know. They're placeholders, a representation for an entire group of people crammed into the same utterly unjust, baffling situation. Our family comprises of mother, daughter and son, with an absent father who was taken away not long before the rest of the family was sent to camps.

With this lightly drawn setting, Otsuka gives a surprisingly quiet, powerful account of the impact of the interment camps. Little is actually said of the camps themselves - Otsuka describes them in broad terms, referencing minor details more than anything actually concrete - but the mere choice to show them to readers through the eyes of the children (and not the mother, whose perspective opens the story as the family prepares to leave) tells quite a bit about Otsuka's intentions. The remaining sections of the novella, dealing with the family's return to standard life and a sense of normality, show this intention even more clearly.

Because Otsuka's book isn't about what happened. Rather, Otsuka seems to ask - calmly, sadly, and perhaps a little tiredly - how and why it happened. How did entire families get rounded up, how were citizens forced to declare their "loyalty" and "denounce" Japan's emperor? Why were men sent to prison and not seen for years, with only the occasional letter sent home? How did neighbors simply take from the homes of those sent away? Why was this so easy?

These questions linger. As they should. When the Emperor was Divine provides a probing look at highly focused racism that is still entirely relevant today (the book's "Chink or Jap?" turns into "Arab or Indian?"). It's a clear-eyed assessment of one of America's greatest - and generally unspoken - shames. It's the sort of book I want taught in classrooms. It's the sort of book that needs to be discussed.

I've read a lot of powerful books in my life. But this pair of Otsuka's novellas has left a greater impact on me than many of the largest epics. As I recommended The Buddha in the Attic years ago, I now recommend When the Emperor was Divine. Read them in whichever order you'd like; it doesn't matter. But the story they tell and they message they convey does. Combined with spare and breathtakingly clear writing, these are books that shouldn't be passed over for a moment.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Translate This Book | Children's Mate by Bella Shaier

Background: Children's Mate by Bella Shaier is an Israeli book originally published in 2011 by the New Library. It's comprised of three stories: the eponymous opening novella "Children's Mate", a shorter novella "Galit and Gordon", and finally a short story "Double".

What it's about: The main story is the opening novella, itself a collection of five stories that follow a group of children in a Soviet apartment complex. The stories are fairly independent of each other (with recurring characters, and the shared complex of course), but together form a fascinating and touching portrait of childhood (and particularly Jewish childhood) in the Soviet Union. "Galit and Gordon" tells the story of an Israeli couple across decades, presenting a perspective on class, race, and love. "Double", meanwhile, tackles immigration and position, as well as aging and disability... all in the span of ten pages.

Why it deserves to be translated: Children's Mate is a curiously broad book. It has an interesting story continuity, from the early pages which deal with childhood (indeed, specifically early childhood, with none of our children passing age six), to the middle story which looks at an unlikely and passive couple from early adulthood through to middle age, and finally to an older woman whose struggles make her position almost as precarious as that of a child's. More interesting is the fact that each of these stories centers around a different status of character - children (particularly of Jewish origin) in the Soviet Union, ordinary Israeli adults in Tel Aviv, and Russian new immigrant to Israel who speaks neither the language nor sees particularly well, instead forced to rely on others to get by.

Truth be told, it's the two outside stories that deserve more attention. "Galit and Gordon" is a familiar sort of story about relationships and growth, but with an interesting background about Israeli culture clashes that still doesn't make the story quite enough to justify translation on its own. However, the truly brilliant "Children's Mate" does, and I think that's the sort of story that can belong anywhere.

"Children's Mate" is fascinating for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it does an excellent job of getting in the mind of its child characters, without making those either unnaturally precocious or simplistically unrealistic. The kids sound and think like children their age would, misunderstanding adults and struggling with new realizations just as I remember from my own childhood. Shaier finds a fantastic balance between telling the children's stories and showing us the grown-up world around them, revealing to us painful adult truths through the eyes of those who don't fully understand the consequences yet.

Shaier's particular emphasis on Jewish children is especially revealing - we see a series of small incidents with small Jewish children living in a coldly anti-Semitic Soviet Union, sometimes recognizing incidents as what they are, sometimes misconstruing them as children often do. One of the little girls at some point mulls over the differences between the different Jewish children in the building, noting her luck that unlike a different character, her parents don't speak Yiddish to each other and so her Jewishness isn't apparent to the other children.

Finally, "Double" tells a frank, painful story about a new immigrant in Israel, facing struggles at home with her son-in-law (whose decision to move to Israel essentially forced her out of her home), struggles with learning a new language, struggles with her deteriorating eyesight, and ultimately a fundamental struggle leading a normal life. In ten precise pages, Shaier presents an entire world rarely given much attention - that of the immigrant who has not successfully integrated into Israeli society. This story works best understanding Israeli demands of integration (and a generational expectation when it comes to language and culture), but I think it stands alone as an excellent assessment of immigration struggles, as well as aging.

Translate this book! Children's Mate is a wonderfully written book, spanning topics and generations and issues. It's interesting, intelligent and does not rely too much on a certain cultural understanding, while simultaneously introducing readers to different ideas and worlds. The writing is consistently clear, with a style that adjusts subtly according to the type of story - childlike in "Children's Mate", coolly mature in "Galit and Gordon", and quietly uncertain in "Double". This is an excellent example of Israeli literature, well-deserving of a wider audience and greater appreciation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen | Review

I read a collection of Kjell Askildsen's shorts stories (technically novella plus short stories) last year, finding him to be a surprisingly interesting writer. I liked the minimalist style and the book was overall quite successful. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when Dalkey Archive offered to send me an advanced copy of their forthcoming collection of additional stories (imaginatively titled Selected Stories), translated by Seán Kinsella. I happily accepted.

The collection, unlike the previous one I'd read, was entirely comprised of short vignettes, with virtually no stand-out story or extra-long piece that draws away from the others. In fact, the first thing that struck me about all the stories in this collection is how similar they all feel. The themes Askildsen touched upon in Thomas F and the other stories in that collection reappear here in full form. Each story is essentially about an apathetic or unhappy middle-aged man. Each story has some kind of weather or nature related theme. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of chain smoking. A lot of connectors between events that never quite pan out. A lot of innuendo. A lot of general melancholy.

Because of Askildsen's propensity for keeping things very, very simple, it turns out that this short collection ends up lacking a bit of punch. The writing is still clear and sharp and perfectly minute, but I didn't get the same overall clarity that I got with the significantly longer Thomas F. The characters aren't particularly distinguishable one from the other, to the point where I strongly suspect that Askildsen had absolutely no intention of them ever being viewed as anything but the same character in a slightly different variation. The obviously recurring character traits - bursts of sudden unexplained anger or violence, smoking and drinking patterns, treatment of women, and general attitude - all tie together so vividly it's hard to view any of them as anything other than belonging to a single male character Askildsen has in his head. I left the book strongly suspecting that this man is either heavily based on Askildsen himself, or is some sort of manly ideal which he's fascinated with.

Either case, quite frankly, would make him an extraordinarily unsympathetic man, even if he's a talented writer.

I have trouble with collections of this kind. My favorite short story collections generally have some sort of loose binding that make them novel-esque, or they have stories that are so different from each other in tone, content and style that I don't feel as though I'm going down the same path again and again. Askildsen's writing is best taken in small portions, then, not read in one sitting (though I actually read half the stories across a few days, then finished the remaining half in one evening). For fans of minimalist prose, there's really no way to go wrong here. Askildsen may not know how to build characters or spin wildly ornate plots, but he knows how to set a mood (typically an unpleasant one), how to make the reader just uncomfortable enough, and to do all this while scarcely using any words. Talent... but I think I've had enough of it for now.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Women in Translation | Moving forward (a short update)

Previous posts in Women in Translation series:

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist is out, ladies and gentlemen, and there's some fantastic news for women writers in translation. Why? Because for only the second time in its history, a full 50% of the shortlisted authors are women. Three out of six. Which is well above the baseline publication rate for women in translation. Fantastic news, right?

I'm not going to lie - this is fantastic news. For several reasons.

The first is the most obvious: three books by women writers are now in the prestigious club of shortlisted titles. They're getting coverage, attention, and respect. This is great news for Yoko Ogawa, Birgit Vanderbeke and Hiromi Kawakami. Three great books (technically I haven't read Kawakami yet, but a lot of other reviewers seemed to quite like the book), well-deserving of their place in this coveted list.

The second is a bit broader: the topic of women in translation - that thing I've been writing and ranting about, trying to raise awareness - is being discussed. Straight up. Maybe it's convoluted, maybe it's meta, maybe it's political, maybe it's discriminatory correction (which I don't think is true at all, by the way)... but the point is that we're talking about the fact that there is a problem in publishing (and a problem in award recognition). We're discussing exactly what we need to.

The third is that it states - strongly and unequivocally - that books by women are just as good as books by men. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it really isn't. Enough readers subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) weed out books written by women for a multitude of reasons. I used to be one of those readers. Sometimes it's a wildly unrepresentative cover (what the heck is going on with the Kawakami cover?), sometimes it's stereotypes about the "type of books women write" (and a general genre elitism), and sometimes it's outright sexism (the examples I raised in my review of How to Suppress Women's Writing). By including three books in their shortlist, the IFFP is directly challenging the idea that books by women writers are not at the same level as those by men. Which is wonderful.

We're moving forward. And that is, without a doubt, excellent news.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Trieste | Jumbled thoughts

It's been well over a month since I finished Trieste (Daša Drndić, tr. Ellen Elias-Bursac). Well over two months since I started it. My opinion of it hasn't changed much since I began this strange book; I appreciated some of the many things it tried to say, but I didn't like the book and overall felt like it was a form of torture to keep reading it.

Splendid, right?

The problem with books like Trieste is that it's very hard to separate between what I feel and what I know. I know that I should find Trieste to be a powerful statement on war, and love, and all politics, and the Holocaust, and literature as a whole (because goodness, it takes some audacity to spend a good chunk of a novel with a straight-up list of the names of Italy's Holocaust victims). My logical, "literary" mind sees that Trieste is probably a Great Work of Literature. It's Important, and Powerful, and is making a Statement.

That doesn't mean it's doing any of that particularly well, though. And that doesn't mean I have to like it. Because I didn't like it. I understand it, and I accept it, and I even appreciate it to a minor degree. But I didn't like or enjoy the reading experience at any single point.

Trieste is another in a long line of novels that bothered me with its completely disjointed writing style. This is a style I've seen more and more frequently in literature in translation, often with all sorts of boasts about the writing's "subtlety" or "intelligence" or a number of other code words for LITERARY. The truth is that most of these books are actually more concept that content, and the trend towards this type of writing has pissed me off on more than one occasion. Trieste can't escape the pitfalls that frustrate me: vagueness does not equal subtlety. Lack of context does not mean complex. And blurring the liens between fact and fiction to the point of including photographs with absolutely no references and without bothering to explain yourself does not make the book clever, it just makes it confusing.

So here we have a book that wears its confusion like a badge of honor, and writing that alternates between two major styles that essentially follow two major stories: one, a completely loose, meandering writing that follows the life of Haya Tedeschi, and two, tightly constructed dialogues about the Holocaust. Suffice to say I found the dialogues to be much more successful than Haya's story, in large part because there's little I hate more than a book that only reaches the blurb-promised story in its last fifty pages. And because following Haya's story was a bit like trying to keep your eyes on a mosquito late at night after it's bitten you four times - impossible.

The dialogues succeed in a way that Haya's story doesn't for a simple reason: their task and goal is clearly defined, with little room for variation or getting off track. The dialogues have their breadth, certainly, ranging from discussions about actual war crimes, to "interviews" with dead victims, to interviews with SS officers. Here, Drndić also blurs the line between fact and fiction, but the result is a powerful Holocaust narrative that succeeds in breathing new literary life into a genre typically bogged down by its predecessors. These snippets alone could have formed a very different, but altogether more successful book, in my opinion.

Alas, now we need to turn to Haya's story. Which is altogether a messy, disappointing setup to a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking final quarter. I won't pretend that I didn't find the last portion of the book to be significantly more interesting than the first three, but there's a saying: too little too late. After an epic struggle to even reach the novel's end (despite being consistently interesting and thought-provoking), I certainly found myself thoughtful by novel's end, but also extremely unhappy and fairly disappointed.

The disappointment stems from a fundamental approach to literature - characters need to have something that draws a reader to them. Sometimes that's a powerful voice, sometimes it's a strong personality, and oftentimes it's just a rollicking good story. Haya's story in and of itself is fairly tame in the context of Holocaust literature - until the final portion of the book, her story mostly revolves around her family's history of moving around, her later years as a math teacher (a detail I quite enjoyed, I'll admit), and connectors to the broader Holocaust story. But on a personal level, it was definitely lacking.

I think to a large extent another reason I was unhappy was because of how many topics Trieste attempted to tackle. Stories about each of these individual elements - the Italian/Baltic Holocaust, the Catholic Church's policy regarding Jewish children who'd been placed in Christian homes and their abhorrent policy of keeping them from their parents post-war, a Jewish woman having a child with an SS officer, German racial policies, etc. - would have been powerful and interesting. A story that tackles each and every one of these is, for lack of a better term, too much. It's all over the place. It's exhausting. And it loses from its impact.

I don't think I can say I actively disliked Trieste, though I certainly didn't like it. I didn't want to keep reading it, and though I did ultimately feel as though I gained something from this book (can I really call it a novel?), it was the sort of wiped out feeling you get when you climbing to the top of a steep mountain and instead of the promised view, see only a cloud of fog around you. Trieste is not a book I can ever see myself handing off to other readers, nor can I possibly imagine myself rereading it. So while I can appreciate what it was trying to do, alas, I don't think it's a particularly good book. I'd be curious to see what Drndić does with a slightly less overly-ambitious setup, but let's be clear: if someone ever tries to recommend a book to me based on similarities to Trieste, you can bet your finest hat that I won't be reading it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons | Review

I'm honestly surprised that I'd never heard of Goli Taraghi's The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (tr. Sara Khalili) before reading it. It's not that I think I know of every new book that's published, but as a longtime book blogger, there's always a bit of awareness of new titles. Particularly titles from more mainstream publishers. The irony of it is that I'm often more aware of literature in translation from smaller publishers than I am from the heavy-hitters, where they seem almost passive in their attitudes despite more newspaper coverage. The fact is that I can't recall having seen any reviews of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. Fairly undeserved.

It's been a bit over a month since I read this short story collection, so I won't pretend that all the facts and figures are perfectly aligned in my head. But truthfully, that's less relevant for a book of this sort. Like many short story collections, the plot is not really the point. More important is the clear-headed assessment of a culture, and a culture of emigration.

The fact that most of the stories in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons either revolve around emigration (or return), or some form of outside cultural influence, says quite a bit about the collection as a whole and about the state of Iranian culture. This is not particularly surprising given Taraghi's current status as an expat herself, but there's power to the fact that she continues to write in Farsi. There's meaning to the fact that these stories have such strong themes of coming and going, forming a core that does not dismiss offhand cultural differences between Europe/America and Iran, but also does not entirely embrace them.

One of the nice things about this collection is in its rather excellent balance of pace and story. These are short stories that know how to breathe - nothing is rushed, but no story feels unnecessarily bloated either. One story tells of a dinner party broken up by a raid. There's anxiety running throughout the story, the narrator's tense apprehensions and unease with further complications that result from her arrest. Taraghi's writing conveys this tension without resorting to blunt measures. Everything flows gracefully and smoothly, straight through to the story's end. This makes for a nice change from most novels, and certainly from flash fiction which often ends up missing important story elements.

Though certain themes crop up again, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons nonetheless relatively succeeds in staying fresh. This is not a collection bogged down by the same story again and again with slight variations; even the most similar stories feel distinct in their characters and settings. Some also sharply deviate from the standard mold, making for an overall bolder, more diverse collection. There's a lot here about human nature, quite a bit about passion and force of will, and sprinkles of love, often in the most roundabout way.

I liked The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons when I really didn't think I would. The stories grow on a reader, and though the writing was a little awkward at times (a fault whose source I'm not sure of - writer or translator...), generally speaking I found myself delving quite deeply into each story. Nothing bombastic happens in any of these stories, nor are they unique for their sparseness. Instead, Taraghi looks at characters (primarily women) in different situations, calmly building the broader world around these characters and ending on just the right note. All in all, a good, balanced collection, deserving of more attention.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Women in Translation | Awards

Previous posts in Women in Translation series:
In my previous post in the Women in Translation series, I looked at the general issue of availability and bias. Today, I want to narrow that focus just a bit and take a look at various translation awards in relation to international women writers.

Let's start with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which just released its 2014 longlist. The IFFP has long had an issue with recognizing women writers, to the point where I kept hearing this year that they were making an explicit effort to find more women writers in translation. Before we look at 2014, let's have a brief recap: the prize was launched in 1990, with a grand total of zero women taking home the prize until today. According to Wikipedia (which only includes complete shortlists from 2003 and on), less than 20% of shortlisted books from 2003-2013 were written by women. This amounts on average to one book a year by a woman.

The longlists paint a darker picture, if that's even possible. Looked at one way, you can point to a slightly greater number of women writers in some years as a sign that the award is not so skewed... yet these women are somehow consistently shut out of the next stage of deliberations, snubbed of the opportunity to actually win the prize. Meanwhile, a glance at 2012 and 2013 shows that only 2 women were even longlisted, which is, quite frankly, an embarrassment that I'm glad even the IFFP recognized. This year - 2014 - the situation is definitely brighter. A grand total of 5 women (out of 15) have been honored, a number that is comfortably above the average publishing statistics. And having read two of those books, I can easily say that both are brilliant without a doubt deserve their place on the list (more, I think, than the male-written book I've read from the longlist).

Now over to the US, we look at the Best Translated Book Award (fiction). This younger award turns out much better numbers overall, with a surprising 50% win-ratio by women authors. However, despite women writers' oddly skewed propensity to win, it turns out that the proportions of women nominated are actually much worse than the overall publishing trends, with something like 15% representation.

Taking another step back and looking at broader international awards like the Nobel, we can see further examples of women writers from around the world getting somewhat sidestepped. Over half of the prizes the Nobel has handed out to women over the past 25 years (still a clear minority overall, remember) have gone to women writing in English, from English-speaking countries. Not particularly representative either, it turns out.

The number one goal of these posts is to raise awareness - I want people to think about women's place in international literature. Awards are pivotal in getting readers excited about a certain genre or field, and are often instrumental in guiding readers to many new books they never would have read otherwise. If awards are consistently failing to recognize women writers, readers are again losing out on brilliant books by brilliant authors. Which is a shame, knowing how many other wonderful books are out there. Luckily, the trends overall seem to be improving - here's to hoping for more and more balanced lists as the years progress, and lots of new and excellent books for us to read.