Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Musings for a new year

There's something uniquely literary about the Jewish High Holidays. As much as every holiday entails some reading and relaxing, the High Holidays practically demand it - with a dozen or so internet-free days, you're left with little else other than reading. (And eating. There's a lot, a lot of eating...)

Reading on Jewish holidays (or the Sabbath) is not always ideal. While you're utterly free from distractions, you also lack a lot of the day-to-day tools usually associated with reading. Do you like to annotate while reading? Yeah, that's not an option. How about researching the author of the book? Not going to happen! Are the sort of reader that needs to look up the historical context of every event mentioned in a novel? You're going to have a rough go at it. Reading during the holidays and Shabbat is reading without context or other people's opinions clouding your own or any sort of external factor (for good and bad). For this Millennial, it feels old-fashioned.

So what are the books I plan to explore this year?

After a remarkably unproductive reading year, I'm finding myself vaguely bored by most of the books I'm encountering, and abandoning stories with greater ease than ever before (likely contributing to my unproductive reading year...). I've been dipping in and out of a lot of different poetry and short story collections over the past few months (particularly during WITMonth, which was far more stressful than I had expected), and getting a bit sick of it. September holds the hope of breaking that spell with full-blooded novels.

In the women in translation department, I'm hoping to tackle Magda Szabó's much-lauded The Door. I'm also currently in the middle of Xu Xiaobin's Feathered Serpent, which isn't quite hooking me as much as I would have liked but it's not losing me yet either. I also have - humming and calling to me in increasingly louder tones - Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child (and I do have reasons for putting it off, but they're starting to sound sillier and sillier to my ears).

In the broader translation department, I feel a bit stuck. I know there are many male writers I've been sidelining of late in favor of women, but... who are they? What are the books I'm supposed to be reading? Where is the rush of excitement at a new novel? Hopefully I'll find something good at the library today before the holiday begins.

But the truth is... this feels like a holiday to reinvigorate my love of reading, and the best route for that is almost always through younger stories. Books without the jaded cynicism adulthood seems to define as realistic. Books without "grittiness" or bitterness or dramatic, gratuitous violence. Books with optimism. Books with hope. (This is something I may someday discuss more in depth, but not right now.)

I have many reading days ahead of me this month, and too few books to fill those gaps. Too few books with positivity and happiness, with fun stories and sweeping narratives, with cleverness but with empathy too. I have too few books which truly give me a unique perspective on the world and add something to my perception of mankind. Too few books which challenge my cultural assumptions. I'm confident I'll find a few, but as always I miss the days when people could tell me "You have to read this book, you'll love it!" and know exactly what they're talking about.

A new year, a new year...

Monday, August 31, 2015

WITMonth Day 31 - The End (for now)

And there you have it, friends. Another August has gone by, and WITMonth is ended. It's hard to find the words (but I'll try anyways).

A lot has changed between this year and last. First and foremost: the scale of the project this year was so much greater than I expected. I'll be exploring this a bit more over the next eleven months, but suffice to say it was extremely gratifying and encouraging to see so many more publishers actively participating in the Women in Translation Month and project. A great deal more bloggers, sites, readers and publications participated as well (in some form or other), with people continuing to discover the project until late in the month!

The project is growing. As well it should.

Like last year, I find myself a bit torn. Does WITMonth truly increase people's awareness for literature by women writers in translation, or does it segregate our reading such that August is the only time for reading women? My hope, of course, is that readers will not simply cease reading books by women writers in translation simply because August is over.

To me, 2015 feels like the year of the resources. Many publishing houses put the spotlight on their existing women writers, publications made lists of worthy women writers, and I believe we have begun the long process of integrating women quite natively into our broader cultural understanding. I cannot be sure it's enough, but one thing is for sure: we now have resources that did not previously exist.  It is getting easier to find books by women writers in translation.

There is more to do, however. First: We need to stop viewing this as a niche problem, and we need to stop viewing literature in translation as a side field. Diversity efforts need to join hands and recognize that we are all fighting the same battles. Within the context of women in translation, we further need to make efforts to ensure our recognition is not limited as well by a lack of cultural diversity. We are still struggling to read books by older women writers, still struggling to find books by queer women writers, and still struggling to recognize books by women writers from all manner of diverse backgrounds. We're doing a far better job than most of the literary community, but that doesn't mean we can dust off our hands and have our job be done.

We also need to turn publisher participation into publisher responses. It has not escaped my notice that the publishers most active in the women in translation project have largely been those with the better translation rates, nor the deafening silence we continue to get from the publishers with the worst rates (who are typically the most prominent and vocal publishers in the business). I'm still not sure what the best approach to this problem is, but one thing is certain - something needs to be done. Publishers need to be held accountable for subtle (and less subtle) sexism in the industry. We need to start seeing improvements and active measures.

Here's the thing about WITMonth. For one month a year, we decide to place a greater emphasis on a marginalized group. But our work lasts 12 months out of the year. For the next 11 months, we can (and should!) read all of the leftovers from this August. We can (and should!) continue to make clear to publishers that a 30% translation rate (at best) will no longer cut it. We can (and should!) insist that larger media outlets discuss the problem and help solve the awareness gap (at the very least). There is a lot more work to be done, from so many different perspectives.

But for now? August is ended, and I have nothing but gratitude and affection for every participant of WITMonth 2015. Without you, this could not have happened.

Thank you, and see you all soon!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

WITMonth Day 30 - Books I've read

To be honest, WITMonth has not been all that successful for me this year. A stressful first half (schoolwork), followed by a fairly ill second half left me drained and unable to either read as much as I would have wanted to, or review and post at the pace I had initially planned. But... that's not to say I didn't get some quality reading done in August!

I had the opportunity to re-explore classic poetry by women writers in translation through two collections: Women Poets of Japan (tr. Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi) and Yu Xuanji's poetry in The Clouds Float North (tr. David Young and Jiann I. Lin). Both books were a refreshing change from the long-winded poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden), which I also mostly plodded through at the top of the month. All three collections, however, are critical reminders that women have been writing quality literature for a very long time. In the poetry department, I also explored poems by Anna Akhmatova (tr. D. M. Thomas) and Marina Tsvetaeva (translated into Hebrew by Miri Litvak).

But there was more than poetry this WITMonth! I sampled quite a few short story collections as well, most notably Tove Janssons's brilliant The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (tr. Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella), which I've been finding a stylistic contrast to Cubana, a collection of short fiction by Cuban women writers. Jansson's style is fairly minimalist and crisp, while the stories in Cubana feel distinctly heavier and wordier.

In the novel department, we have two main books: First is an Israeli novel by teenager Carmel Ben Naftali ("Stages of Grief", which is not a direct translation but the one provided by the publisher), which is curiously written and uniquely young adult, but also predictably clumsy in its perspective of the world and very immature in its stylings. It's been an interesting experience, if somewhat uncomfortable simply because of the author's youth and inexperience. She shows a lot of potential, though.

The second novel I've been reading this WITMonth is Isabel Allende's classic The House of the Spirits (tr. Magda Bogin). I'm about halfway through but I completely understand Allende's status as a leading voice in Latin American literature now. While I've read her YA fiction in the past (middle school book club choices!), The House of the Spirits has a strength and confidence to it that makes me feel guilty for taking so long to read her more highly regarded titles. Regardless: I'm enjoying The House of the Spirits quite a bit and am glad that this is the novel with which I'll be wrapping up WITMonth.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

WITMonth Day 26 - More places on the internet

August is starting to wind down, the air is cooling, the mosquitoes are receding, and it's time to see what else has been happening throughout the month (see previous post here):

And as always... #WITMonth on Twitter is active as ever, join us as we wrap up the month!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

WITMonth Day 25 - If not at the library, if not digital... then how?

The problem I'm going to describe here is not unique to women in translation, but it's especially noticeable: Books are often technically in print but unavailable for all intents and purposes.

Here I am, plugging in author after author after author into my very liberal, very well-stocked library's database. And when I search for women writers in translation, I find that only a handful are available. And certainly when I look for digital copies through my library, only a handful of recent titles show up. Why?

I know that a lot (a lot) of literature in translation is published by not-for-profit university presses, but here's the thing: most readers cannot afford to buy every book they want to read. And certainly not when the book is more expensive than the average paperback (I'm looking at you, $28 paperback 200 paged novel!). We inevitably rely on other entirely legal and moral resources such as libraries or digital libraries to access literature. (Of course, even this is highly limited - I speak as someone who spends at most a month of the year with access to English-language library books, relying more on the graces of the eLibrary and kind souls who are willing to cart books across the ocean for me.)

But if the books aren't available... what are we supposed to do? Like I said, this problem isn't unique to women in translation, but it's felt much more strongly. The moment the playing field is so much smaller, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get your hands on backlog women writers in translation. Even titles which are still in print but less mainstream are all but impossible to find.

I don't have a solution here. A few years ago, I thought the answer would be through digital books: All publishers would obviously digitize their entire catalogs and provide them to libraries with loan limitations and we'd be on our way to a utopian future full of all books. That hasn't happened, and honestly it seems like publishers - particularly smaller ones - are in no rush. That leaves us with a bit of a problem. Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

WITMonth Day 23 - Women Poets of Japan - A poem

Making my way through this fascinating collection (translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi), and decided to share one of my favorites from it while I focus on recovering.

I Forget - Yoshihara Sachiko

when i awake
i wonder
if the color
i thought i saw
in my dream
was real
or imaginary

was it red?
i turn back
towards the word red
but the color is gone

what i thought was being alive
is only various colors
reflected and
in my mind

sun setting
turned the windowpane orange
shower spray
was a diamond color
so i thought

now only the memory
of color remains
the window
and the shower spray
have vanished

Saturday, August 22, 2015

WITMonth Day 22 - Spotlight on Argentina

After a few days of illness... I'm back(ish)! This time with some of Argentina's excellent women writers. Of whom, I should note, there are many!
  • Alicia Steimberg
  • Angélica Gorodischer
  • Cecilia Pavón 
  • Silvina Ocampo
  • Alejandra Pizarnik
  • Liliana Bodoc
  • Alicia Borinsky
  • Silvina Bullrich
  • Manuela Fingueret
  • Juana Manuela Gorriti
  • Liliana Heker
  • Sylvia Iparraguirre
  • Alicia Kozameh
  • Tununa Mercado
  • Claudia Piñeiro
  • Ana Gloria Moya
  • María Negroni
  • Olga Orozco
  • Lucía Puenzo
  • Beatriz Sarlo
  • Luisa Valenzuela
  • Alfonsina Storni
  • Ana María Shua
Furthermore, there are dozens of writers I've encountered in my research who despite clearly playing an important role in Argentine literature have not been translated. Though I have not done this for other languages, the gap appears significantly more wide with South American literature and so below is a distinctly abridged list of untranslated Argentinean women writers, many of whom are award-winners and critically acclaimed.
  • Agustina Andrade
  • Ariana Harwycz
  • Margarita Abella Caprile
  • César Duáyen/Emma de la Barra
  • Emma Barrandeguy
  • Elsa Bornemann
  • Susana Calandrelli
  • Sara Gallardo
  • Betina Gonzalez
  • Norah Lange
  • Marta Lynch
  • Eduarda Mansilla
  • Martha Mercader
  • Liliana Díaz Mindurry
  • Elvira Orphée
  • Luisa Peluffo
  • Samanta Schweblin
  • María Dhialma Tiberti
  • Aurora Venturini
  • María Elena Walsh

Monday, August 17, 2015

WITMonth Day 17 - Elsewhere online...

That's right, another lazy blog post, this time directing you to other blogs and sites that have been churning out excellent WITMonth posts right, left and center, or roundups, or lists, or... honestly whatever is currently on my radar. This doesn't begin to cover everything, though! Check out the Twitter tag for a more complete picture of the fun we're having.

First, BookRiot have a great post up with a bunch of WITMonth recommendations. Happy Women in Translation Month, indeed! Very excited to see such a major blog getting involved. There's also For Books' Sake, which have a whole page dedicated to their women in translation posts... well worth checking out.

Like last year, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have both been knocking it out of the ballpark with a jaw-dropping and frankly inspiring number of reviews and books read. Another scale entirely. Hats off does not even begin to cover it. If you're looking for a place to start with diverse WITMonth recommendations, the Tonys have you covered.

Publishers have also been getting involved! Shoutout to Europa Editions for their series to introduce readers to their women writers in translation, as well as to Two Lines Press who are encouraging readers to share photos of their WITMonth reads. Love seeing more publisher involvement this year, but there's of course room for more! Publishers who haven't caught on yet... you've still got just a little under two weeks to go, that's plenty of time to surprise us all.

And of course... a lot of excellent people on Twitter are engaging in discussions and posting reviews, but alas I cannot link to everything. So check out the tag, find the reviews and recommendations and stories that interest you and... get reading!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

WITMonth Day 16 - Spotlight on Northern Africa

Jumping around continents a bit, but it's definitely time to broaden our horizons a bit. Let's see what Northern Africa's women have to offer, shall we? Note: This list contains books translated from several different languages, as befits such a broad and diverse geographic region.

  • Leila Abouzeid (Morocco)
  • Rita El Khayat (Morocco)
  • Mririda n’Ait Attik (Morocco)
  • Malika Oufkir (Morocco)
  • Amina Said (Tunisia)
  • Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt)
  • Radwa Ashour (Egypt)
  • Hala El Badry (Egypt)
  • Mansoura Ez-Eldin (Egypt)
  • Alifa Rifaat (Egypt)
  • Maïssa Bey (Algeria)
  • Assia Djebar (Algeria)
  • Malika Mokeddem (Algeria)
  • Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algeria)
  • Leïla Sebbar (Algeria)
As always, this list is woefully incomplete and narrow. As always, compiling this list made me realize how many writers are not translated (and I'll talk about this a bit more in depth later in the month). But once again I find myself thinking, "Well, at least it's a place to start." So... onward we march.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

WITMonth Day 15 - Books I want to read (part 2)

If my last list contained the books on my bedside and more highbrow books, I want to talk a bit about some SFF and YA books by women writers in translation I'm curious about and want to read.

  • The Island of Eternal Love - Daína Chaviano (tr. Andrea G. Labinger). Fantasy! Always.
  • Prodigies - Angélica Gorodischer (tr. Sue Burke). Um. New sort-of-fantasy from one of my favorite writers (and favorite women in translation)? I need this in my hands right now.
  • A Time of Miracles - Anne-Laure Bondoux (tr. Y. Maudet). Some translated young adult literature, definitely an area I have not yet explored enough.
  • Full Metal Alchemist - Hiromu Arakawi. My friend has been bugging me to read this for years, and frankly I think it's about time. Bit different from my usual fare, but... isn't that the whole point?
  • The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (tr. Amanda Prantera). I wanted to read this last year, plus it's been recommended to me a few times.
And of course... there are many, many, many others. Don't worry... more posts to come!

Friday, August 14, 2015

WITMonth Day 14 - Spotlight on the Caribbean

Truthfully, I haven't read enough Caribbean literature in any language. But WITMonth is a great opportunity to broaden our horizons, and so here's a starter-kit for Caribbean women writers in translation!

  • Marie Vieux Chauvet (Haiti)
  • Full Haitian resource:
  • Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Cuba-Spain)
  • Cubana (anthology of Cuban women writers)
  • Daína Chaviano (Cuba)
  • Julieta Campos (Cuba-Mexico)
  • Wendy Guerra (Cuba)
  • Dulce María Loynaz (Cuba)
  • Mayra Montero (Cuba-Puerto Rico)
  • Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico)
  • Giannina Braschi (Puerto Rico)
  • Julia de Burgos (Puerto Rico)
  • Rosario Ferré (Puerto Rico)
  • Ana Lydia Vega (Puerto Rico)
  • Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
  • Simone Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe)
  • Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic
  • Hilma Contreras (Dominican Republic)
Once again, many older titles (indeed classic feminist works, by the looks of it) have not been translated. There's always more to explore!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

WITMonth Day 12 - Brief thoughts on genre diversity

First off: here's the link to my post from last year about "genre" writers. I don't have many more titles to add for this year, but I wanted to note a few things specifically I've learned over the past year.

For example, at some point this year it occurred to me that I was doing a pretty poor job of even defining "genre". Last year I lumped mysteries and thrillers in with SFF, ad tat was probably unfair to both genres. Furthermore, I completely neglected to look at things like graphic novels or comics, where you can actually find a fairly diverse range of women writers in translation (Moomins, Persepolis, Full Metal Alchemist to name but three).

I also didn't try to build a very comprehensive list. While that's not quite ready for this post, I do hope to have an encompassing "spotlight" post for diverse genres later in the month. There's a lot genres like SFF or historical fiction or whatever can offer the literary community at large, and this is certainly true within the fairly elitist "literature in translation subcommunity". While obviously genre diversity is often about personal taste, I do think it's important that we recognize the entire range of literature written by women in translation, and not just select titles. I didn't do a very good job of championing different genres last year, so hopefully I'll be able to improve on that this year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

WITMonth Day 11 - Books I want to read (part 1)

Today is going to be a bit of a lazy day. Rather than telling you about a book I've already read, or compiling a list of specific books from a certain country or author or category... I'm just going to swipe a few books off my shelves and off my lists and tell you why I want to read them. This will likely become a recurring thing... my lists just keep getting longer and longer, and unfortunately my reading pace isn't quite up to speed!

For part 1, I'm going to be especially lazy and just tell you about one of the stacks of books by my bed:

  • The Vegetarian - Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith). I don't think I've seen a single unimpressed review of this one, and honestly I'm just itching to get to it. It looks weird and interesting and I want.
  • Women Poets of Japan - ed. Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi. A really recent acquisition, looking forward to getting back into Japanese poetry after so many years!
  • The City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. Rosalind Brown-Grant). Medieval feminism for the win. 'nuff said.
  • The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende (tr. Magda Bogin). A classic I've never quite gotten around to, seems about time.
  • The Three Fates - Linda Lê (tr. Mark Polizzotti). I have not yet figured out what this book is about, but it's been on my radar since the start of the women in translation project and I just... feel like reading it.
But these are only a taste... somehow, my WITMonth to-be-read list seems to grow exponentially by the day, as more and more readers share their personal plans and books. Which is frankly excellent, so keep at it!