Monday, August 3, 2015

WITMonth Day 3 - Spotlight on Japan

It would be practically absurd to imply that a country that not only boasts the first recognized female novelist - and first novelist at all - lacks women writers on the whole. Indeed, cursory research shows that there are plenty of women writers working out of Japanese, and in a wide variety of genres. That not all are translated or recognized for their works... well, that's what we're here to work on. There's no denying however that Japan's situation is significantly better than most countries around the world (at least in terms of recognition of its women in translation to English), and disturbingly better than many of its East Asian neighbors (to be discussed further later in the month).

And yet all this positivity translates into:
  • 4 books translated by women writers in translation out of 14 translations from Japanese in 2014
  • 5 out of 17 translations in 2013
Hmm. Let's focus on the good, shall we? Let's pull up a short list:
  • Murasaki Shikibu
  • Sei Shōnagon
  • Fumiko Enchi
  • Lady Ise
  • Akazome Emon
  • Yoko Ogawa
  • Sawako Ariyoshi
  • Hiromi Kawakami
  • Banana Yoshimoto
  • Minae Mizumura
  • ...and many many many others...
Some more helpful resources:
Conclusion: There are a lot of Japanese women writers translated into English. But you know what? There are also a lot of Japanese women writers who are not translated into English. It could be so much better. And for now... let's get reading!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

WITMonth Day 2 - Classics Challenge - Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism

I most likely would not have been introduced to Isabelle de Charrière if not for the women in translation project. And this specific collection - a rare title by a woman in translation for Penguin Classics - is a fascinating portrait of Europe at the time, and an even more interesting comparison to significantly more famous writers.

Of course de Charrière is immediately compared to Austen (despite predating her). Penguin Classics resorts to the cheapest of comparative recommendations by noting de Charrière's writing "not unlike Jane Austen" in "[tackling] the intricacies of high society, particularly in matters of love". Really? So any woman writer - since Jane Austen and indeed also before her time - is like Jane Austen for writing about... life? Oh goodness.

This is further made absurd by the fact that de Charrière's writing is nothing like Austen's. Not only does her style itself lean very heavily towards epistolary and conversational (far more than Austen's detached, droll style), de Charrière writes far more bluntly about the problems of the world. The stories rarely end happily, and the nuances of complex existence are not tossed out for the sake of a simple romance. In fact, de Charrière seems to dance around her endings altogether, usually leaving the reader hanging.

And thus does de Charrière's The Nobleman and Other Stories manage to keep the reader intrigued. Not necessarily because each story is flawless - some are distinctly unfinished and fairly dull - but because there's a clear passion in each perspective. The stories follow similar structural patterns (generally epistolary), but often differ in tone or temperament. And de Charrière does a brilliant job of actually making the letters feel realistic. Unlike most epistolary novels (and certainly modern ones...) which lose realism points for talking only of plot, de Charrière goes on tangents and side-stories and rambles about clothing or whatnot. This could be interpreted as sloppy writing (and perhaps it is...), but as a huge fan of the realism side of literature (and realistic fictional webseries, for example), these storytelling quirks actually endeared me quite a bit.

There's a lot more I can discuss as regards de Charrière - her writing, her exciting life, her intelligence, her total lack of naivety and sugar-coating, her approach to storytelling - but I'll focus for a moment on her legacy, and its general lack thereof. de Charrière is not a low-tier writer - she was prominent enough in the day, and her writing largely stands the test of time better than many of her contemporaries (men and women alike). But her placement in the canon is... nonexistent.

I suspect that most readers (like me) have not heard of Isabelle de Charrière. And so consider this your introduction. Penguin Classics has thankfully produced this interesting (if at times unbalanced and repetitive) collection of de Charrière's shorter works, and it's absolutely worth reading through. If the purpose of the Classics Challenge is to showcase classic women writers who have sadly been sidelined, I can think of no better starting point than Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

WITMonth Day 1 - My Personal Plan

Here we are. August 1st 2015 - day one of the second annual Women in Translation Month! Whew. How exciting.

Last year I proposed a general (optional) schedule for readers participating in WITMonth. This year I've decided to go much more casual: I'm posting my personal general plan below, but by no means expect anyone else to stick to something so strict. The point is to raise awareness, find new books, and read excellent literature!

This year I will be focusing on three major challenges:

  1. The Classics Challenge
  2. Queer literature by women in translation
  3. Obscure or otherwise marginalized groups
The last point is perhaps the most vague - it encompasses both out-of-print or otherwise little-discussed books I'll read/find, as well as books by especially underrepresented groups in literature in translation (for example Latin American women writers, African women writers, etc.).

One of the things I realized last year was that I had trouble keeping up with the outright reading demands. And so this year I'm also relaxing my strict daily posting policy. Rather than daily reviews or outright discussions, I will fill August with spotlight posts as well, discussing books I myself have not yet read but would like to. I'll also try to include "Translate This Book" posts about various interesting titles I've come across in my research, in the hopes that some publishers may yet get the hint.

Stay tuned for reviews, discussions and random rants! And may we all have a very happy August!

Friday, July 24, 2015

WITMonth Prep | The Classics Challenge | Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 here. Note: Titles in bold are readily available and are in print (in English). Translator names were not included in order to prevent any confusion as regards specific editions.
  • "The First Day" and Other Stories (c. 20th century) - Dvora Baron - Hebrew
  • Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar (1886) - Emily Ruete - German
  • The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (c. 20th century) - Anna Akhmatova - Russian
  • The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River (1948) - Ding Ling - Chinese
  • The Chinese Book of Etiquette and Conduct for Women and Girls / Lessons for Women (c. 1st century) - Ban Zhao - Chinese
  • The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River (1938, 1942) - Xiao Hong - Chinese
  • From Wonso Pond (1934) - Kang Kyŏng-ae - Korean
  • Black Butterflies: Selected Poetry (c. 20th century) - Ingrid Jonker - Afrikaans
  • Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (c. 20th century) - Gabriela Mistral - Spanish
  • Gabriela Mistral: A Reader (c. 20th century) - Gabriela Mistral - Spanish
  • My Heart Flooded with Water: Selected Poems (c. 20th century) - Alfonsina Storni - Spanish
  • Jerusalem (1902) - Selma Lagerlöf - Swedish
  • After the Divorce (1902) - Grazia Deledda - Italian
  • Kristin Lavransdatter (1922) - Sigrid Undset - Norwegian
  • Collected Poems I: 1944-1949 (c. 20th century) - Nelly Sachs - German
And a couple collections or authors with collections of stories ranging from before 1960 and after:
  • Women's Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers - Chinese
  • Silvina Ocampo
  • Tove Jansson
As always, this list cannot remotely be considered complete. While I'm uncertain that I'll have the time to publish another Classics Challenge list before WITMonth itself, it is important to note that the main reason these lists are so short is not because there are too few books by women writers in languages other than English, rather that the plethora of poetry collections, novels, essay collections and more is simply untranslated. I'll be writing about that some more in the coming days.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

WITMonth Prep | The Classics Challenge | Part 2

Part 1 here. Note: Titles in bold are readily available and are in print (in English). Translator names were not included in order to prevent any confusion as regards specific editions.
  • The Heptameron (1558) - Marguerite de Navarre - French
  • Suite Française (1942) - Irène Némirovsky - French
  • Poems, Protest and a Dream (c. 17th century) - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz - Spanish
  • And He is the Light (1946) - Leah Goldberg - Hebrew
  • The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself (c. 16th century) - Spanish
  • The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) - Tove Jansson - Swedish
  • Autobiography of a Geisha (1957) - Sayo Masuda - Japanese
  • Industrial Park (1933) - Pagu - Brazilian Portuguese
  • Child of the Dark (1960) - Carolina Maria de Jesus - Brazilian Portuguese
  • Torn from the Nest (1889) - Clorinda Matto de Turner - Spanish
  • Dreams and Realities: Selected Fiction (c. 19th century) - Juana Manuela Gorriti - Spanish
And many, many, many, many other classic women writers from around the world who have not yet been translated. And also others who have been translated! More to come, and not just for the classics challenge. August is coming...

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"What else can we add?" | Some thoughts about women in translation and publishing

I want to preface this post by emphasizing that my criticism of publishers having a poor record when it comes to women writers in translation is only about that. This post is not meant to serve as a general "shame"-post, nor is it meant to incite much more anger than the initial statistics did. The reason I have chosen to write this out as a post at all is because I felt that I would not be able to be fully expressive (and fair) in whatever comments I might put up on Twitter. And I thought that the issue was a serious enough one to justify giving it its space.

The introduction is simple: P. T. Smith tweeted about publisher willingness to talk about and improve on matters regarding women writers in translation. I noted that the positive behavior is very publisher-specific, and that there are some who are better than others, to which P. T. Smith named and tagged a few good ones, and named and tagged Dalkey Archive as one of the "less hot" publishing houses. The full thread can be found here (posted with consent; since Dalkey is not an individual person rather a public entity, I see no need in gaining their consent to re-share their public tweets).

A few hours later, the Dalkey twitter account went active and responded with a barrage of tweets:

The tweets mostly sought to list women writers in translation Dalkey are going to publish, but there were two points in reading these that I had to stop. And stop myself from responding too harshly too quickly. This list is really, really wonderful in that it shows that Dalkey Archive will be publishing women writers in translation in 2015-2016. Compared to the jaw-dropping 0% of 2014, I think we can all recognize this (with absolutely no cynicism) as a step forward. But there's a lot, a lot more here that Dalkey has not yet addressed. They end their barrage with the rather snark-tinged question: "What else can we add?" And so, Dalkey Archive, in all seriousness, here's what:

As far as I have been able to tell and certainly in response to my own inquiries in 2014, Dalkey Archive has never once made a public statement regarding women writers in translation and why their publishing house consistently falls well behind the already-low translation average for women writers. 2014 was a shocking anomaly, but it's not alone. My 2013 statistics found them at a solid 24%, when the overall average was 28% (and recall that Dalkey was the leading publisher of translated literature in 2013 by a comfortable margin).

And so simply publishing the names of women writers Dalkey plans to publish is not merely not enough, it's meaningless. Are these all of their women writers for 2015-2016? If so, we're right back to the beginning with atrocious ratios... At this stage, we are working largely from percentage-based work. Amounts are wonderful - yes, truly wonderful that each and every one of these books will be published! - but they do little to address the fact that for every woman writer it publishes, Dalkey by and large publishes 5-6 more books by men (from the years I've counted, at least, and most likely worse statistics the further back we go).

Furthermore, one tweet touts fairly balanced Best European Fiction anthologies. While I do not have the statistics in front of me, my recollection was that the 2013/4 anthologies were at around 40% when it included the English-written stories. Perhaps I am doing Dalkey a great injustice by quoting merely from my unreliable memory (and I strongly encourage anyone with access to the book to fact-check me because I absolutely do not want to spread false and hurtful claims), but I recall specifically noting that Dalkey had included an interesting array of English-written stories by women writers, and then had a similar 30% stumble when it came to the translations. I will happily correct this notion if it turns out to be wrong. I will point out that the other Dalkey anthology I've encountered (Georgian literature) had a solid 25% women writer representation rate.

The main point is this: Dalkey Archive has a pattern of publishing significantly fewer women writers in translation than men. And it has a bad track record when it comes to addressing the problem. Merely pointing to your upcoming women writers does not explain how you went an entire year without publishing a single work by a woman writer in translation. Listing writers does not tell us what their percentage is within the larger body of your publications. It does not change the pattern, and it explicitly refuses to address the problem in the way that other publishers have daringly done.

"What else can we add?" Well, answers to these questions. Clear statements regarding Dalkey Archive's future efforts to reach gender parity in publishing (I hope). Explicit publication lists with transparency regarding the gender breakdown and ratios. Explanations for 2014. Perhaps even public explanations for why women writers have until now been so marginalized.

"What else can we add?" Let's start here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

WITMonth Prep | The Classics Challenge | Part 1

As promised, here is the first installment in my potential titles for the Classics challenge in this year's Women in Translation Month! These lists will unfortunately be very scattered and disorganized, with no consistency in terms of list-building and of course extremely limited to what is available in English. There are hundreds more works of classic literature that have simply never been translated. I'm still trying to collect as many potential titles as possible, so these lists will inevitably be messy in terms of language, era and genre. I also cannot necessarily vouch for the titles on these lists in terms of quality and/or content, as I have only read a handful...

Happy WITMonth planning!

Note: Titles in bold are readily available and are in print (in English). Translator names were not included in order to prevent any confusion as regards specific editions.
  • The Tale of Genji (c. 11th century) - Murasaki Shikibu - Japanese
  • The Diary of the Lady Murasaki (c. 11th century) - Murasaki Shikibu - Japanese
  • The Pillow Book (1002) - Sei Shōnagon - Japanese
  • Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar (c. 1920-40s) - Gertrud Kolmar - German
  • A Jewish Mother from Berlin; Susanna (c. 1930s-1940s) - Gertrud Kolmar - German
  • The Princess of Cleves (1678) - Madame de Lafayette - French
  • The Nobleman and Other Romances (c. 18th century) - Isabelle de Charrière - French
  • The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) - Christine de Pizan - French
  • Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan (c. 9th century) - Xue Tao - Chinese
  • The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji (c. 9th century) - Yu Xuanji - Chinese
  • Complete Poems (c. 12th century) - Ching-Chao Li (Li Qingzhao) - Chinese
  • The Alexiad (c. 1148) - Anna Komnene - Attic Greek
  • Parvin E'tesami: Life and Poetry (c. 20th century) - Parvin E'tesami - Persian
  • Ruba'iyat of Mahsati (c. 12th century) - Mahsati - Persian
A few collections which include works by classic women in translation:
  • Women Poets of Japan - ed. Ikuko Atsumi and Kenneth Rexroth
  • Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism - ed. Kang-i Sun Chang, Huan Saussy
And this is just the start! Many, many, many more titles to come. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments and let the WITMonth preparations begin!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ways to participate in WITMonth 2015 | Video

Hi everyone! I thought it might be nice to organize some ideas for the August 2015 Women in Translation Month! Reminder: There are ZERO requirements or expectations. Even sharing the information or thinking about the issue is a lot. It would be amazing to see more readers, bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, publishers, translators and everyone involved in WITMonth. So please SHARE the video and the stats, and let's make WITMonth 2015 an event for the ages! :)

Check out other useful WITMonth resources here on the blog, under the "women in translation" tag! 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

WITMonth 2015 Intro Post: FAQs and helpful references

What is WITMonth?

WITMonth stands for Women In Translation Month! It's an annual event held in August, with the designated purpose of encouraging readers, reviewers, translators and anyone really to take part in the dialogue about women writers in translation, as well as providing us all with a convenient outlet to explore more books by women writers in translation.

Why do we even need WITMonth?

Simple - look at the stats. Women writers represent approximately 30% of translations into English. And if you don't mind me throwing in some anecdotal evidence as well, women writers in translation seem significantly less likely to get profiled by major literary outlets and are less likely to have their books sent for review. Further numerical stats: women are significantly underrepresented in translation awards and additional critical recognition. The problem is widespread and especially worth noting because of the generally low representation of translated literature in the English speaking world.

So what does it mean that I'm participating in WITMonth?

Whatever you want it to mean!

Seriously. That's it. WITMonth requires no effort on your part, except maybe some curiosity and interest in the problem. If you're like me and struggle to plan your reading or follow any sort of plan, having a designated month may seem like torture but it really doesn't have to be. There is no pressure whatsoever involved with WITMonth, and there are no actual demands. Do what you want at the pace that you want in the way that works best for you.

Okay then... what are some different ways to participate?

Here are a few suggestions, with varying levels of involvement and difficulty:
  • Share! Let other people know that you are aware of the women in translation problem. Share the stats, share this post and share the love!
  • Tweet! The hashtag is #WITMonth (original, right?) but yearlong we use the longer #womenintranslation tag to discuss the issue and link to interesting resources. Check it out!
  • Think about the issue. This is probably the easiest. If you're reading this post in August, congratulations! You're participating.
  • Read at least one book by a woman writer in translation. It'll be fun, there are a lot of brilliant recommendations.
  • Read only books by women writers in translation. If you want to be extra focused, you can say that in August, you're only reading books by women writers in translation. This is a tougher challenge, but a rewarding one: you may be inspired to pick up a book you weren't expecting. I know I was (in 2014).
  • Read books by women in translation written before 1960. Go back in time! Contrary to popular belief, non-English or American women did indeed write literature prior to the 1960s and the Feminist Revolution. There's a lot of fascinating literature out there, ready to be explored and rediscovered. In fact, some of the best classic literature was written by women writing in languages other than English. The first novel? Yep, that's a woman in translation.
  • Read books by women of diverse backgrounds. Don't get me wrong, Europe is great, but what about the rest of the world, which is also less represented in translations? What about queer women writers, whose identities are often ignored or outright erased? Diversity has many forms, and this is another extra challenge to try to explore it in as many different ways as possible!
  • Put the button on your blog, to show your support and participation:
  • Read books by women in translation in different genres. Yes, literature in translation is usually of a similar, more "literary" cut... but it doesn't have to be. Another fun challenge is to try to explore the women writing in different genres. Young adult, thrillers, sci-fi, picture books, romance, poetry, nonfiction... there's loads of diversity of genre if you know where to look...

Ahhh! Where do I look for books by women in translation?!

While this is still a work-in-progress database (and yes, you can help make it better), it's got loads and loads of titles just waiting to be tracked down. While the overwhelming majority of the metadata has not yet been filled in, you can still search for language and author for all titles. And for the few that might have some metadata, you may just find the perfect book!

Now what?

Remember how we started WITMonth? The most important thing to remember here is that we are facing a battle of awareness. Despite many people's good intentions, most readers do not realize how few titles are translated per year into English. Certainly very few are aware of the huge imbalance between publications of women vs men in translations. And so now - armed with all the knowledge on WITMonth you could possibly need - you are ready to go out and do the absolutely only thing that needs to be done: use this knowledge. Share this with other readers, so that more people can recognize this problem. Use it in the bookstore, when looking for your next translated read. Talk about in the industry, where perhaps more publishers may try to improve their publication stats. 

And read. And most importantly... enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Women in Translation | The grim improvement of 2014

It would be wonderful if when I ran the statistics on women in translation, I looked only at the raw percentage. I could come and point to the slight increase - from 28% to 31% - and say that there's been an increase. There's been an increase! Excellent! Let's pack up and go home, we're done here, right?

Well... no.

It should be fairly obvious actually. A 3% increase is fairly pathetic. I don't particularly consider it to be a significant change, considering how fluid these things are. One tiny uptick does not yet qualify a trend, and it's worth digging a little deeper into the numbers before we start to celebrate. So let's dig deeper. Warning: I will try to remain objective in this post, but I'm not going to pretend that there aren't problems where they exist.

As always, statistics were taken from the excellent Three Percent database. I'll also point out that another batch of statistics was recently released at Our calculations were completely uncoordinated, so take that as further proof of the existing problem. Oddly enough, we seem to have reached different calculations for many fields... I expect I used an outdated database but the percentages largely stand. I also find their charts to be less intuitive and comfortable, so I'll be posting my data regardless. Check it out though. It's grim.

I find it very interesting that women are better represented in poetry than fiction. I don't have an explanation for it, but it's interesting and worth noting, especially given (false) assumptions that women are more likely to write "thrillers" and "Genre fiction".

Some of you may recognize this graphic from Twitter, which I posted a while back. This looks at the top six translated languages, and the gender breakdown. As you can see, the "other cultures" excuse that is so loved by denialists is moot. Essentially, we see that the lack of women writers starts at the top and continues on down (evidenced by the complete language chart below, which sadly is much less visually clear but paints the picture quite well). A country like France does not for a moment lack women writers (and yes, France is the overwhelming source of books translated from French), yet it fails miserably at translating them. Is the problem really in French? Or is the problem in our translations into English?

As we can see, the overwhelming majority of languages have a male-majority translation rate. Even the usually gender-balanced Scandinavian countries suddenly have gender imbalances (Finland excepted). Again we're forced to ask ourselves whether the problem is abroad in other languages, where "women are perhaps not writing" or whether the problem is in the English-speaking world which devalues those books which women are writing and just aren't having translated.

Here we have the top publishers (published 10 or more books in translation in 2014), numerically. This chart is important alongside the next, but I want to look at it harshly for a moment. Note that the top publisher of literature in translation - AmazonCrossing aka The Devil Itself - crosses the halfway mark for women. Of the top publishers, AmazonCrossing is the only publisher to pass the 50%, with Atria the only other one to reach it at all. And note that the second highest publisher of literature in translation - Dalkey Archive - published a stunning grand total of zero books by women writers in translation. Quite frankly, we could leave the chart with just those two stacks and dust off our hands.

Chart arranged from most books published to least, with at least 6 translated titles in 2014

But now let's look at the percentages. Percentage-wise only, we see only three publishers reach/pass the equality mark. Four managed not to publish any books by women writers at all. And another eight published only one book. Taking into account only the top publishers, we see that the translation rates suddenly shift down drastically. Instead of that initial 31%, we get 27%. Uh-oh.

So what do these results even tell us? What did we get from all this supposedly pointless number crunching?


Like last year, we see that the spread of languages indicates a problem here at home rather than in the countries of origin. Like last year, we see that the problem is very publisher specific, with some publishers striving to make improvements and others distinctly not. We see that same ~28% number everywhere - awards and translations and reviews. And from the results that the Women In Translation Tumblr posted, we see that the myth of "women translators dominating the field" is just that - a myth. The Tumblr found that women actually made up just under 50% of translators. Hmmmm. It's almost as though women are perceived to "dominate" in fields even when they don't, and this is used against them...

And now the million-dollar question... what do we do?

As readers, there's a lot. First and foremost, I highly recommend taking part in the conversation. Looking at your personal reading trends. Challenging yourself as to why you picked this book over another. Challenging publishers. Questioning, checking, thinking and being aware. That's the first step, before anything else. Before you even begin to read or buy books, just ask yourself these questions.

Second: Take part in the Women in Translation Month. Yes, shameless self-promotion! Spread the word and make WITMonth a major part of the discussion. One of the biggest problems the fight for equality in literary translations has at this time is how utterly spread out it is and uncoordinated. We've got lots of different passionate people who are completely unaware of the fact that others are fighting the same fight. Let's find each other, and we can only do that through the help of the hivemind internet. Let's work together. Let's localize and give ourselves this organized space to discuss and move forward. The idea of WITMonth - far beyond just reading books by women writers in translation - is to spread the word about the specific problem of the lack of women writers in translation. So let's help fix that.

Third: Help build the Women in Translation Database! This bigger project is meant to make it easier to find books by women writers in translation, so that we're able to at least offset decades of completely unbalanced publication rates and erasure. There are many different ways to help the database: if you're wondering how to help, feel free to contact me through any of the acceptable means (email, Twitter).

Fourth: Make the change yourself. If you're a publisher or a translator or someone involved in the industry, look at these numbers. Look at the numbers over at the Women In Translation Tumblr. Look at them again and again and ask yourself what you can be doing to fix it. It's a complicated question, and I'm afraid I can't think of any easy answers (because no, I don't think that quotas are necessarily the way to go). But the moment you start to think about it, you start to fix the problem. And that's a huge first step that we need to take, readers and industry-folk alike.

Fifth: Spread the word.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Announcing WITMonth 2015!

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the weather is getting extremely and unbearably hot (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere)... must be time to announce Women in Translation Month, 2015 Edition!
Like last year, WITMonth 2015 (still #WITMonth for those following on Twitter, mostly because it seems easier) will be taking place in August. This gives us three full months to prepare.

This year's goals:
Last year I noted that while it was incredible to see so many reviews, the books were largely very popular recent releases. I proposed - and now make official - a trickier challenge: reading older titles and less-known gems. I've been compiling (and will soon publish) a list of potential titles (with publications from the 11th century and on!), and definitely encourage readers to explore some of these older titles a bit more. The challenge will be to read books written before 1960. Obviously these will be harder to track down and likely not to everyone's taste. If this challenge isn't to your taste, feel free simply to focus on women writers in translation. 

Another one of my personal goals last year was to broaden my general horizons. While I try to maintain diversity in my reading overall (so that I'm not simply reading books from France or Scandinavia), there are areas in which I could be doing better. As with last year, I strongly encourage readers to look beyond Europe. More so, I found it extremely difficult last year to locate titles by queer women writers in translation. My hope is to find a few titles/authors to showcase this year, though at this stage it's unclear which books precisely this will be. I'm open to suggestions.

Like last year, this is a very, very open challenge. The idea is not to force yourself to read books you're not interested in, rather it's to give voice to so many women writers who perhaps get lost in the male-dominated field. Explore and experiment, read and delight. If you find yourself struggling with the challenges... don't do them. If you find yourself too busy to read any books by women writers in translation... it's fine, just join the discussion. This is a no-pressure event.

Finally: The final 2014 Women in Translation Tally will be published in the coming days. I've spent a lot longer on it this year for a number of reasons which will be mapped out in the post itself, but suffice to say that despite growing interest in reading more women writers, there's still a long way to go in terms of the actual publication statistics. And this is the reason I find WITMonth to be so important: while of course we ought to be reading women writers in translation throughout the year, the difficulty in finding many of these titles is genuine, as is the general lack of availability. As long as such a striking imbalance exists, I will continue to encourage readers to take up this mantle every August. If only for a month to raise awareness and foster a discussion. And read lots of excellent literature, of course.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Women in Translation Database - Update and Plea


A few months ago, I posted a general call-to-arms/plea-for-help as regards the Women in Translation database. Many of you have by now likely noticed that the database currently online is both woefully out of date and dreadfully lacking in metadata. This is something I've been striving to change, though unfortunately I have found it difficult to work according to my originally planned timetable (obviously). I have also found that the work is virtually impossible to do alone.

I have asked a number of times for help on Twitter (and thankfully received it on occasion), but the problem with Twitter is that it doesn't show the whole story. And the whole story is actually quite simple in this case: I'm a bit swamped with school and music responsibilities (reminder: I am in a band, reminder: we released our first EP at the start of the year, reminder: I am shameless in advertising myself). I literally cannot go through over 1400 titles in the database and fill in the metadata for all of them by myself. It's the definition of "too much".

Most of the column options are fairly simple. All the titles currently in the database include the basic author-title (obviously), almost all titles have the language from which the book was translated (a rare handful have unclear original languages) and a couple dozen have full metadata. The metadata options are where it gets a bit more complicated: readers are encouraged to identify the "genre" to which the book belongs. There are two genre options, and both are fairly flexible - at the end of the day, I will go through them just for the sake of consistency.

The idea of the database is to make finding books by women in translation a little easier. The idea of the metadata is to help readers. And so genre is geared with the idea that someone seeking out romance books will be able to find them. Someone seeking sci-fi will be able to find it. Someone seeking books by Chinese women writers will be able to find them. Someone seeking books by a specific indie press will be able to find them.

Here's what I need you to do: Look at your bookshelves. Find your books by women in translation. Fill out the available metadata (US/UK distinctions are obviously a lower priority). And then pick 5-10 additional books or authors to "research" and fill in the metadata. One person alone cannot fill in close to 1500 titles. But if 150 people fill in the metadata for 10 books, we're done. Encourage publishers to add whatever books may still be missing from the database with their direct details. Encourage translators to point us to the works they've translated by women writers.

The purpose of this project is to serve the broader literary community. This is meant to be helpful to any and all readers who want to find diverse writing by women, from whichever angle. As long as women writers are so poorly represented (particularly in backlog titles), it's simply difficult to find their books. And so this database is here to help.

Please spread the word and help in whatever way you can!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Goldfinch | Review

This is a difficult review to write because I feel that The Goldfinch was so far from either the book I expected from positive reviews, and so far from the book I expected from criticism. I found a book that was complex in my own response to it - I may have read it quickly and avidly and very... deeply, but I cannot claim that I liked the book. Overall, I distinctly didn't.

The problem with reviewing The Goldfinch so many months after its publication and sweeping adoration and imminent backlash is that it no longer feels relevant. Is Donna Tartt the "new Dickens"? Is The Goldfinch a stunning work of modern literature, or an overblown mess? Is this quality literature, or pedestrian writing neatly wrapped?

These honestly aren't questions that interest me.

I want instead to discuss how The Goldfinch is essentially four or so books in one. The first is my favorite, and one I actively liked: a novel of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death as he tries to maneuver his own emotional turmoil and that of the family who takes him in. This first novel is the story that opens The Goldfinch, and I really enjoyed it. We meet Theo, we get swept up in his drama and follow his lost narrative. It's not the most original story, but Tartt writes it well and I found myself truly feeling for Theo. I liked his agency and I liked the high-style language (which completely did not fit the voice of the narrator himself, of course, but there was something so deliberate about it that it  worked well). As a starter story, it's brilliant - it hooked me and kept up momentum for the rest of the (disappointing) book.

This book ends with little closure, and Theo is instead launched into another part of his life. And from that moment, I felt my dislike of the book settling and I felt myself growing more and more uncomfortable with the narrative.

Remember in my review of Americanah I mentioned that I found myself very disappointed by the use of a specific trope which I especially hate? So The Goldfinch takes another of my most hated storytelling pet peeves, and lives it in full: drug use. Now, to be clear: a lot of The Goldfinch deals directly with drug use. It doesn't show drug use as something without consequence or without hardship, and it doesn't just raise the topic without delving into it. Drug use is a recurring and persistent theme in the novel, one that is furthermore often linked to the artistic theme, if obliquely.

And so yes, Tartt does not merely raise drug use, Tartt seeps her novel in it. And truthfully, the loving tone with which Tartt refers to this copious drug use really disturbed me. If there's one thing that frustrates me in modern culture, it's the absolute normalization of drug use in society. Reading a novel in which drug use is so gently caressed made me wholly uncomfortable. Sue me, I have personal preferences. And these personal preferences colored much of my further appreciation of the novel.

But let me turn back to the separate books. So we have Theo's coming of age spread out across two different books, and then his strange "return to childhood" book (which I frankly found more interesting than his dull and frankly overwritten teenage years). But then the final book... is a total mess. Tartt switches gears quite abruptly at the novel's end, and it suddenly becomes something of a thriller. But it's a pretty poor thriller - I found myself skimming sections which were far too long and deeply descriptive without actually telling me anything new. The Goldfinch thus ends whimpering when it's trying to be bold and decisive, simply because it tries to make a shift into something that just doesn't work. Not that it really could have ended otherwise: the entire novel does feel like a build-up to something. I just didn't expect the something to be so dulled.

There's another thing I feel needs mentioning, as complex an issue as it may be: Tartt's treatment of women. This is something that I've struggled to put into words, but here it is: The Goldfinch writes women poorly, flatly, or not at all. As I was thinking about how to write this review, I found myself imagining words like "masculine" and "male-oriented". The "masculine" term is the more complex of the two (because it's harder to define), but it occurred to me that there is hardly any woman-to-woman interaction in the novel. The book centers around a young man, true, but it centers around him in a way that all but erases women into flat tropes: there's the obvious fridging of his mother, the later treatment of his one-time foster mother, the treatment of his father's girlfriend, the romanticization of Theo's "love", the descriptions of his fiancee as an ice-queen, who gets little agency to prove herself...

And suddenly I had the unpleasant (and frankly unfair) thought that The Goldfinch is so well-regarded because Donna Tartt has written the ultimate "white male novelist" book - full of disaffected men, one-dimensional women, drug use, cigarettes used as mood setters and a brooding young man (from New York, no less!) who is swept up in a story that's much larger than him.

That was when I realized the depths to which I was unhappy with The Goldfinch. Here's a novel that's been touted as this brilliant masterpiece by a woman, yet it's no different than dozens of other similar books (except perhaps in length, where it... trumps). The artistic angle that The Goldfinch claims to come from simply never materializes on the level it deserves. What's left is... meh. Maybe these are connections I'm not allowed to make, but that's where I am right now. I see a familiar novel in place of a revolutionary one, and it's not even a novel I particularly enjoy.

I do want to give Tartt credit where credit is due: I was rightly swept up in The Goldfinch, and the writing is largely top-notch. I'm quite curious now as to whether Tartt's previous works are actually worthwhile, or if they're similarly trapped in familiar tropes and stylings. I sort of understand why many readers enjoyed The Goldfinch as much as they did, and I absolutely understand why many award outlets flung their seal of approval at the book. But I didn't like the book. Not wholly, not as a complete novel. Aspects? Brilliant. Certain pages or observations or descriptive passages? Possibly even genius. A novel on the whole? Nope. Nope nope nope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Americanah | Review

I'll start by saying that until page, oh, 400 (out of 477), this review was going to be overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to appreciate in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah, particularly for someone like me who has shuffled between the US and the not-US my whole life. Questions of race, racial identity and cultural identity resonated with me quite strongly (racial aspects perhaps less so, but the concept of "race issues" not existing outside the US, or not existing the way many within the US assume it to exist is one I've discussed at length in recent years), as did the entire discussion of how to return to a home that is no longer a home.

I won't get into details as to what happened after page 400. It's not exactly a spoiler - the book leads very heavily towards this - but I really don't want to discuss it regardless. What I'll say is that Americanah careened into one of my all-time literary pet peeves, without critiquing it as it should have. And suddenly I was able to recognize that this issue had actually come up several times throughout the book. This made my appreciation of the end... not amazing. I was disappointed, I finished the book with a whimper and not a bang, and found myself wishing, desperately, that Adichie could have been as brave with this issue as she was with others.

But let's get back to what this review was supposed to be: a discussion of why Americanah is a brilliant book for foreigners and expats and others.

Most reviews I've read have discussed where Americanah is brave in its presentation of race. And I'll say... yes. It's a pretty audacious book, when you think about it. Adichie is a non-American-black (NAB, as she calls it) writing about Ifemelu, a NAB, who writes about what it's like to be black in a society that has a heck of a lot more racial issues than it's capable of recognizing. There are multiple levels of meta in Americanah, not least within the blog posts integrated throughout Ifemelu's narrative sections. Ifemelu's blogs deal largely with race and racial disparities between African American and, shall we say, American Africans, as well as general racial observations.

Ifemelu's writing will be fairly familiar to anyone who reads feminist blogs, or black-feminist blogs, or even just blogs about racial issues (though the feminist side comes through fairly strongly, which I obviously was thrilled about). Writing like this, by itself, in a clearly elevated status without further discussion, would have frustrated me, but Adichie is more intelligent than that: though Ifemelu is clearly our protagonist and our enlightened outside observer (the one constantly critiquing narrow-minded aspects of Anglo-American racial perspectives), there is enough of an understanding that Ifemelu too has her biases and observations. Ifemelu's blog posts aren't entirely good criticism, and they're not necessarily 100% right (her own ideas evolve enough throughout the book to make that abundantly clear), but they're the closest thing we get. In that sense, Americanah forces the reader (whoever it may be - white, black, Anglo, foreigner, other) to reach their own conclusions and read more deeply. It's a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking book.

But to be honest, I'd rather spend a few more moments talking about the "outsider effect", and why having a book written by a non-American written for an audience that is simultaneously American and non-American is so very important. As you'll all know by now, I'm a very big fan of the international approach to literature (duh). I don't believe that "literature in translation" guarantees true diversity, and I don't believe that one can truly read diversely within one language alone (whatever that language may be). When readers and reviewers and writers come at stories from the perspective that Anglo-American is the norm, the default, the everything... I get angry. Apparently Adichie agrees with me

I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that American/British English is the default (in the discussion of accents). I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that Western melting-pot perceptions of race are the most progressive (in the discussion of the non-American black and that brilliant quote about not thinking about your race and racial identity until moving to the US). I loved that Americanah discussed the internal American discussion of African Americans and new African immigrants, and where the two groups are not entirely meshed. I loved that Americanah looked at the new immigrant experience from a place of warmth and acceptance, and didn't reject offhand the idea that someone might someday want to return, that the concept of home might trump.

I loved a lot of things in Americanah - the shift from casual blog-style writing to the larger discussion, the flow, the depth with which Adichie builds her side characters, the warmth with which Adichie delves into different sorts of love. But it's not a perfect book, and it was so close to being so much better that the disappointment stings so much more.

Before page 400, my biggest complaint would have been about the shift in tone between Ifemelu and Obinze. The book semi switches off between the two, but it's entirely unfair to present it as a balanced story - we spend significantly more time with Ifemelu than Obinze, and the story is built in such a way that I found it much easier to relate to Ifemelu than Obinze. Obinze's parts felt slower to me, and also less focused. While this is obviously a reflection of his character arc, it still managed to frustrate me as a reader. I'd have preferred for a more cohesive story told entirely from Ifemelu's perspective, but I suspect this is more about personal preference.

After page 400 (and to be clear, page 400 is an arbitrary approximation meant to symbolize my frustration with the general final arc), I found myself thinking over previous parts of the book and realizing that as talented as Adichie is (and goodness, she's talented - I'm without a doubt going back to read the rest of her books), she relied heavily on a number of tropes I absolutely hate. These tropes undermine so much of the strength of character that Adichie has built previously, and feels like sloppy storytelling to cover up the more intellectual aspects of the novel. It made me... angry. And it's something that unfortunately ruins too many good books.

Americanah wasn't ruined. It's not a bad book by any measure, and the fact that it personally fell into one of my personally most-hated traps does not for a moment mean that it's a worthless novel. Readers should absolutely read Americanah for its outsider perspective, for its blunt discussions of race and privilege and belonging and identity. Readers should absolutely read this book deeply, and wholly - it's a book to learn from, to a large degree. And in parts, it's also a wonderful feminist text (in other parts, I again note, I wanted to smash it against a wall). On the whole, it's an intelligent, thought-inducing, challenging (in that it challenges the reader to reassess much of their previous biases), engaging and readable book. You should read it.

...but I do so wish that it hadn't included that one thing.