Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WITMonth 2020 | Preparations and my reading plan

August approaches, and while some things are the same, others are going to be different this year, for me at least. Since last year's "100 Best WIT" list, I've found myself thinking about the ethnic and racial disparities in WIT quite a bit. As I wrote in March, "Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be."

WITMonth has always been about inclusion. The first ever WITMonth in 2014 divided the month by regions or topics as an optional reader schedule. In retrospect, it was far from a perfect balance, lumping Asia, Africa, and Oceania together, but it was my first attempt at defining the women in translation movement as something that could not simply exist within the (white) borders of Europe. Over the years, I've tried to make a point to include or emphasize works by marginalized women writers of all sorts, whether it's in discussing country of origin, ethnic background, genre, etc. I've discussed the cultural/racial imbalances in translation more broadly, noting the strong Eurocentricity. I've tried to do my part, but that isn't always enough.

This year, I've decided to approach WITMonth a little differently than usual. While I recognize that I can't control how others view it, I can control what I do with it. I will continue to share other people's posts on works by all manner of women writers in translation, but I - for my part - will be focusing specifically on women writers from those countries, continents, subcontinents, and cultures that are too often brushed aside. The past few weeks have only strengthened this decision.

Coming from outside the Anglosphere myself, it is increasingly difficult to justify how and why certain books and writers are far more heavily promoted than others. As the #publishingpaidme has clearly demonstrated over the past few days, the English-language publishing industry is far from balanced even in English itself. While this will likely not be news to anyone, the fact is that Black writers are often paid significantly less than white writers, even when their works have proven themselves or they themselves show tremendous promise. The tag has led to spinoff discussions about racism within the publishing industry at large, ranging from conversations about racist assumptions regarding authors of color (e.g. that works need to be a certain way in order to fit the racial expectations) to flatly racist remarks by white publicists or sales teams to the racially biased power structures in publishing that effectively keep out many potential editors or publishers of color.

These conversations are pivotal, and they are pivotal within the context of translation as well. Here too there is a striking problem of racial imbalance, particularly among translators and publishers. Here too there are countless instances of bias against translators of color. Here too there are rampant assumptions about how works from certain countries or regions or cultures should be packaged for (predominantly white) "Western" audiences. It's an odd balance; I've often written about the difficulty in reading a book that doesn't feel geared to you as a reader, but it's also critical that we learn to read in these different cultural languages. It's just a matter of exposure and familiarity.

Reading is political, no matter what you may believe. Reading books by US-based women of color is as political a choice as only reading books by dead white European or English men. Every choice we make reflects politics in one form or other. Reading women in translation - reading women internationally - is a political choice.

For me, it's long meant an attempt to read as broadly as possible. "Reading the World" challenges don't feel to me like checklists I have to follow, rather they feel like doorways into new worlds. The more I read from other places, the more I'm able to learn without it being an explicit lesson or demanding anything of the writing as a foreign reader. I've learned to feel specific writing styles that are unique to certain literary cultures, and I hope to continue doing so in a way that respects these stories. This is also true for writers within "familiar" cultural contexts whose experiences shape their writing in unique and important ways (e.g. writers of color within dominantly white cultures, queer writers, etc.). Yes, it can often be viewed as "educational", but it's also a joy from the literary perspective. We should not hold up works by marginalized writers to a different standard than we would the so-called-and-very-much-not "default" straight white USian man...

WITMonth 2020 will begin in August as in previous years, and I intend to spend my time recognizing that good literature spans the entire globe. Recognizing that though they face extraordinary degrees of marginalization and dismissal, black women writers in translation have a lot to say from across several continents. So too Indigenous women writers in translation. Women in translation from across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. Women from all sorts of backgrounds. Here and there and everywhere.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The rewards of men (on the backs of women)?

The fallout from the most recent batch of Pulitzer Prize winners has been slow and painful to watch. No, I'm not talking about politics, rather the award given to editor, writer, and translator Benjamin Moser, for his biography of Susan Sontag.

As many of you probably already know, I don't belong to the world of publishing or translating or literature at all. This blog (and associated social media accounts) are all I have when it comes to "associating" with the literary world. I've never met Benjamin Moser and until I started writing this post, I had no idea what he looked like or his age (I assumed, incorrectly, that he was much older and more established than he is, which reveals quite a bit more about my assumptions than anything about Moser himself) or really much about him. My closest interaction with him, you might say, is that I read (and deeply did not enjoy) his translation of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star. I have also spent the past several years working my way through Lispector's Complete Stories (tr. Katrina Dodson), a book that Moser edited and for which he wrote the introduction.

Allow me to linger on this latter work for a moment, both because I like it so much more than The Hour of the Star and because it leads to the point of this post. One of the first things I noticed when I perused Complete Stories was that quote by Gregory Rabassa in the author description: "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf". I remember the quote viscerally, because it thoroughly disturbed me. What sort of quote is that? And why was it included alongside other praise of Lispector as the greatest Brazilian writer of all times or a splendid writer or whatever? Setting aside the sexism of Rabassa's individual statement (though it is hard not to pause and reflect on how the statement is offensive from multiple perspectives), there is an important question to be asked in terms of perpetuating this sexism. Did this otherwise slick New Directions hardcover really need that quote? The answer is a clear no. There was absolutely no need to include a sexist quote in this edition. Shouldn't a series editor catch that sort of thing...? Later, it even began to bother me that the cover image simply focuses on Lispector's face. On the front, we have piercing eyes, on the spine, her mouth, on the back cover her hand resting under her neck. It's all extraordinarily striking, but I can hardly imagine Julio Cortázar, for example, having a cover like that. Sexist? Questionable. Unsettling? Definitely.

The truth is, I thought little of the editorial decisions for Complete Stories or the Lispector literary universe (LLU, naturally) until reading Magdalena Edwards' essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. The essay spent quite a bit of time making the rounds in the translated literature community, with many translators taking Edwards' side and others raising (both privately and publicly) their own issues with Moser. In the essay, Edwards lays out her troubled experience translating Lispector's The Chandelier under Moser's editorial pen. Beyond what seems to be numerous cases of miscommunication between editor and translator, Edwards was eventually downgraded to co-translator (with her name appearing after Moser's) and left bemused by Moser's involvement in the project overall. As she writes: "The truth is that Moser tried to get me fired, arguing that my completed manuscript was not up to snuff, that my level of Portuguese was insufficient, and that he would have to rewrite every line of my translation. What happened?" The remainder of the essay tries to argue that there was a lot more than simply a quality argument between Moser and Edwards (and it is worth noting that Edwards doesn't mention anything about how the final translation looked compared to her original work), rather that Moser has a persistent - indeed, pervasive - aloof and possessive attitude towards women writers, scholars, and translators.

I cannot - and will not - make any claims to knowing the truth in Edwards and Moser's interactions, though it does leave me with many questions. But Edwards raises several points in her essay that made me revisit my initial discomfort in Complete Stories. More than the inclusion of Rabassa's sexist quote, I found myself flipping through the introduction of Complete Stories yet again and marveling at quiet, almost invisible sexist threads. For instance, Moser writes: "Traditionally "female" subjects - marriage and motherhood, kids and clothes - had, of course, been treated before. They are all here. But alongside them the little dramas of women's lives gain expression, sometimes for the first time[...]" Moser then goes on to list some of these "little dramas", including the shock value of reading stories about older women (and particularly, older women's sexuality).

While I don't disagree with the latter point, I struggle to swallow the condescension in the first. Moser is writing about women's lives as a uniform, minor experience, with any exceptions counting as "women's lives gain[ing] expression". Even use of the term "little dramas" sets my teeth on edge. Motherhood and marriage are little dramas? Only certain women can rescue these subjects? It's a literary trope that I simply loathe, the idea that women's writing only gains value through certain works and styles. (This is also the second half of what bothers me about Rabassa's quote, for the record, because I don't think it's a coincidence that he compares Lispector to Woolf, another rare woman writer who has graciously been allowed to belong to the men's club as a non-traditional woman writer and therefore one worth reading. A topic for a separate post...)

This sort of reframing of Lispector's writing and repositioning of her work as a woman writer isn't just frustrating as a feminist reader and champion of women in translation. It's also reflective of a pattern. Part of it is the trope I just mentioned, but the other has to do with Moser himself. Edwards' essay is precisely about this pattern of behavior, ranging from accusations of conceptually leaning heavily on Lispector's Portuguese-language biographer Nádia Gotlib's book (leading, as a commenter on the LARB blog notes, to her work effectively being "redundant" in translation due to Moser's heavy and barely-credited reliance on her work, and thus unmarketable) to his public negative review of Kate Brigg's book This Little Art which includes oddly gendered barbs against Briggs to his recently published biography of Susan Sontag.

(Finally, 1000 words in, she gets to the point!)

I haven't read Moser's work on Sontag. To be perfectly honest, I've never even read Sontag herself; she has always struck me as another of those writers (like Lispector, like Woolf) who are othered in the way they are spoken of in literary circles, particularly by the men who adore them. It is undoubtedly unfair of me to doubt these women writers on the basis of their fans (and indeed, see my new appreciation for Lispector on the basis of her short stories!), but there it is. And so I am forced - again - to rely on other people's perspectives of Moser's biography. Edwards' mentions Moser's approach to Sontag several times in her piece, noting that there is a pattern to Moser's rewriting of Sontag's history and interpretation of her work that seems to leap beyond the expected (referring to his additions to Lispector's biography). But hers is not the only essay to take a less-than-glowing approach to Moser's perspective.

Alongside many positive reviews, a few took issue with some of Moser's editorial interjections. In The Atlantic, Merve Emre writes "Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation." Johanna Hedva writes in The White Review: "None of the sentences in SONTAG sing, which makes for a wobbly read. From time to time we get some creative vocabulary – ‘it can only be called memoir in the baggiest sense of the word’ – and Moser is at his best when throwing shade. [...] I started to make notes in the margins whenever Moser’s authorial voice gracelessly intruded on the subject, but again, without an accounting of his own position. I noted, ‘BM being a touch nationalistic,’ ‘BM trying to explain racism lol.’ There are also sweeping generalisations that feel thin and unsatisfying." These two reviews left me wondering how much the praise of a certain biography is really about the biography itself, or the subject. Moser was selected to write Sontag's authorized biography... could another writer have done similar work? There is no doubt that Moser dedicated a lot of time and effort into writing this biography, nor do I doubt that it is meticulously and richly researched. By many accounts, it makes for a remarkably interesting reading experience. But I wonder...

This all became relevant the other day, when Moser's Sontag biography won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for a biographical work. Edwards' essay began to make the rounds again and many translators shared those critical reviews, often expressing their disgust and disappointment in Moser's win. Some - overwhelmingly women - went on to emphasize their own interactions with Moser. Susan Bernofsky tweeted angrily, noting Moser's history of "Bullying Women (for example, me)", with author and translator Idra Novey (another Lispector translator under Moser's editorial influence) tweeting "Can a misogynist who cultivates influential female friends and only undermines women who have no clout go on to win the Pulitzer in the 21st century? Yes, he can."

And so I find myself in a similar position as in October, when I wrote about the Nobel mess in awarding the literary world's biggest and highest-profile prize to Peter Handke, a man who has written in support of ethnic cleansers and troubling nationalism. At the time, I noted that: "there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?" While Moser is accused of very different types of damage, the larger question remains: Does good writing by a damaging person deserve to be rewarded? What does it say about both our literary culture and our willingness to support the victims of this damage?

Moser's win is mostly troubling not for literary merit, but for personal. The literary community has spent years grappling with cases of lit-world "misconduct", to the point where many complain that authors (or critics or whatever) are "cancelled" for unjust reasons. Certainly I have felt that some cases of widespread dismissals and anger have stemmed from stiff reading of complex situations. And as with many other similar movements, sometimes it's hard to pinpoint where the line is drawn. Other times it's very easy. Moser's case strikes me as having been pushed into the murkier realm. Edwards' essay is being shared as a definitive piece, but what strikes me is less her single account as the combination of so many similar experiences. What strikes me is that several of Moser's collaborators on the Lispector project have come out against him (in some form or other). What strikes me - as ever - is the pattern.

Now let's look at the other pattern. By the other pattern, a man is rewarded time and again, in a situation where it is unclear why it must be him. Sontag's biographer would likely always have written an interesting book, because people are interested in Sontag herself. Moser was apparently approached to write the biography (that is, he was offered this reward on a platter), perhaps on the basis of the buzz surrounded his Lispector biography (which we now know is somewhat suspect). Moser is now rewarded again for the outcome of this work, but to suggest that it something unique to him when presumably any writer with access to Sontag's private writing cache could have done the same is... angering? Bewildering? Ultimately, it is reflective of another pattern that exists all too much in the literary world - insularity. That too is a topic for another post, but here we have such a clear example of someone being rewarded for something that... he was explicitly given. Of course his will be the definitive Sontag biography, if he's the only allowed access. It was never actually about his writing!

I'm left feeling frustrated and disappointed. I don't know Moser; it feels odd to write a whole post basically angry at the reward he has been given, but I am also witnessing many translators and writers I do know (at least through the internet...) practically bursting with rage. The publicly available information seems to paint its own portrait. It is entirely possible that Moser never intended to hijack women's words and works as his own, and this was all rooted in a sad misunderstanding, but there still remains the matter of Moser's existing words: the casual sexism in his Lispector introduction, the casual sexism in his review of This Little Art. As several people have already pointed out, rewarding a writer who has been known to bully those around him (particularly those in positions that rely on his power, and usually women) means giving him an even more established platform from which to work. Moser is now in an even greater position of power and influence; who else is likely to suffer from it?

I want to end on this one final observation. Edwards' LARB piece was published in August 2019. It was widely shared within the translated literature community in particular, yet I expect reasonably widely read elsewhere. It was thoroughly discussed. It also, seemingly, left no impact. It is now May 2020 and Moser's Wikipedia page shows no hint of controversy (nor, it seems, did anyone ever try to edit it accordingly), somewhat reminiscent of the erasure of Handke's literary controversy in the immediate aftermath of his Nobel win (I should note that a controversy section has returned to his Wikipedia page). Well-known women - who I will leave unnamed - have not been so lucky, instead having a controversy section emphasizing their faults (justified or not). Despite everything, Moser's public image remains untarnished, his reputation seemingly unblemished. Where do we go from here?

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The European problem | 100 Best WIT

When deciding to craft a "new canon" and creating the list of "100 Best Women in Translation", my initial hope was truly to reshape our existing impressions of literature. How tiring to read the same sorts of "Best of" lists, time and again. Whether it's things like the top books of the year as published by the NYT or "official" canons promoted by various literary organizations or special "classics" series by different well-regarded publishers, the limited mindset of these lists honestly exhausted me at some point. And of course, this extends beyond just literature. Is Hollywood truly the creator of all good films in the world? Does the only quality television emerge from the US or UK? Etc etc.

I always knew that crowdsourcing a list of 100 books by women in translation would be imperfect. I knew that it would not truly be the 100 "best", but the 100 "most popular", and as such would be tilted by all sorts of factors. Changes in the list's winning titles during its nominations period showcased some of these flaws, with the earliest batch of nominations coming from die-hard fans of literature in translation (and a lot of translators!) and reflecting fairly obscure titles, while many of the more "popular" titles fell on the wayside until much later in the nominations process. People also frequently referenced their assumptions about biases when nominating their favorite choices, which led to truly bizarre omissions or results, simply because several readers said things like "well, I bet everyone has nominated [book], so I'll go for [other books] instead" and nobody ended up actually nominating that book until very late in the game! (True story.)

I might discuss some of those biases someday, but the truly biggest and most apparent bias is one that I realized right away was going to happen, and the one that disappointed me most by the end of the nominations process - the 100 Best WIT is a highly Eurocentric list.

Let's be clear: Literature translated into English on the whole is overwhelming Eurocentric. European titles accounted for 64% of new fiction and poetry translations into English from the years 2013 through 2017, based on the Three Percent Database. There are few differences between the global rates and those for women in translation specifically. When breaking it down into smaller (approximate) regional definitions (recognizing that there are cultural biases within European translations as well), it's clear that translations into English have a "close-to-home" bias - 27% come from Western Europe, 15% from Central Europe, and 12% from Nordic countries. Only 7% and 2% of translated literature comes from Eastern or Southeastern European countries.

This, as you might imagine, has little correlation with actual population distributions across the world. Asia - both the world's largest and most populous continent - provided only 18% of translations into English in that 2013-2017 timeframe. Think about it. China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines... countries with literally hundreds of millions and billions of people, the vast majority of whom read and write in languages other than English, are represented by a handful of titles for all. South Korea and Japan are slightly better represented, but we're still talking about significantly fewer titles per capita as compared with France, for instance (South Korea has 68 translations for a country of 51.7 million people, while France has 372 for a country of approximately 67 million). Translations are biased in a lot of ways, and country of origin is absolutely one of them. And all of this without taking into account the truly abysmal representation for African literature in translation.

Breakdown of country of origin for new fiction/poetry translations into English published between 2013 and 2017 (data from the Three Percent database)

So let's go back to the 100 Best WIT. I expressed my disappointment at how Eurocentric the list is, due to the fact that 56 of the top 100 were of European origin. It can be argued that this is actually a somewhat positive value - after all, it's a bit less than the industry-wide 64%. And not all of the European writers are necessarily white European writers, introducing an additional degree of diversity for which country alone does not account. And yet wonderful as it is to have a list of the 100 Best WIT, it frustrates me to see the continued hurdles women writers from around the world face. Why doesn't our list have more African women writers? More Indian women writers? More Arab women writers? More Southeast Asian writers? Why do we tear down certain barriers, only to reveal additional ones?

There is an answer to these question, and the answer lies in that chart above. The fact is that translations are not made equal. The translated literary landscape remains thoroughly rooted in European stories, whether classic or modern. The 100 Best WIT list is tilted extraordinarily modern (note how many classic [European] women in translation didn't make it!), yet it still cannot overcome the simple availability bias. How can we expect English-language readers to nominate books they haven't read? (And while I wanted the 100 Best WIT to truly be international and not just about translations into English, there too lies a bias - the list was largely compiled by English-language readers, and of those overwhelmingly American or British readers.) So it really boils down to... how can we expect readers to love books they haven't read?

Allow me to emphasize this last point: Readers cannot be expected to love books they haven't read.

This leads back to that original WIT question in the first place. After all, the reason I care about WIT is because I care about actually getting a chance to read books from all the world, by all sorts of writers. Women writers obviously exist and always have, but their availability has been limited as compared to men writers in translation. The struggle has been to carve out that cultural space for their existing works, while also making sure we give room to more works overall. Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be.

I won't pretend I'm surprised that the 100 Best WIT list is Eurocentric. I won't pretend that I'm not still proud of the work that we did. I also won't pretend that I don't desperately want to revisit this project someday in the future, and create a wider, more inclusive version of the 100 Best WIT once we've worked on improving the publishing stats. (But, like, someday far in the future, because this was actually a bit exhausting in how much work it ended up being...)

Things are changing. We're slowly seeing a greater awareness for the lack of diversity in the translated literature world. Of the publishing world overall. The numbers for women in translation are slowly going up, though they are somewhat hampered by wide gaps in nonfiction and among certain publishers. Outside of the world of literature in translation, we're also seeing more and more readers becoming aware of cultural biases against writers from around the world (or even just different backgrounds within certain cultural contexts, e.g. "We Need Diverse Books" or the recent discussion of Latinx writers in the publishing industry). And while women - particularly women of marginalized backgrounds - face almost insurmountable hurdles in advancements across a lot of fields (politics is sharply on my mind today, but science, as ever, remains my home territory and most frustrating lived experience), there are pockets of improvement and good around the world.

The 100 Best WIT is a pocket of good when looked at from one angle, in the fact that thousands of readers have now read the list and begun to engage with the women in translation project for the first time. As I already said, I remain extraordinarily proud of the work we (and I) did. Of what we created. It remains unique and revolutionary in a lot of ways. But the list also reflects the gulfs we have yet to cross. It's something that will absolutely be shaping my own reading in the coming months and years; again, I will not eliminate one bias just to introduce another. May this be a lesson for us all, and an opportunity to begin to create that next canon with a better understanding of the next battles.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The 100 Best Women in Translation - The rest?

It's been several months since I posted the top 100 nominated titles from the 100 Best Women in Translation list. At the time, I promised to quickly released the full list, once I'd clean it up and sort through it to make sure I didn't have any errors or redundancies. Unfortunately, life caught up with me. WITMonth this year proved significantly more difficult for me than I'd anticipated, and by the time I was feeling somewhat recovered from the stress and burnout from compiling the list in the first place, I found myself in the midst of one of the more difficult periods of my life due to some health matters. As I'm finally emerging back to life, I realize that I'm not going to find the energy and motivation the fully organize the almost-800-title list (in which there are probably errors and redundancies), and will instead simply... upload it as is. This is the list as I compiled it, not as I ultimately tallied. It's entirely possible that I mess things I'm - I'm just a person! - but that's how the world goes. Besides, what popularity contest doesn't have some sort of error in it, hmmm?

Anyways, enjoy!

The complete, raw, unedited 100 Best WIT nominations list

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Nobel mess

I've been thinking about the Nobel award winners for 2018 and 2019 quite a bit for the past few days. It's hard not to; pretty much every winner in the past few years has had some degree of controversy, not to mention the shameful scandal that led to the Nobel to push off the 2018 award to this year in the first place. But something about this year feels extra frustrating and disappointing, possibly because there are two winners and that only emphasizes all of the flaws inherent in the award.

Also, one of the winners is... not great. We'll get to that in a moment.

Like many readers, I used to have great admiration for the Nobel prize. When I was a teenager and starting out work on this blog, I wrote a full list of all of the Nobel winners in a notebook and marked which I wanted to read, at what priority, which work I most wanted to read... and I set myself the goal of reading through all of them. That project fizzled quickly, once I realized how mediocre a lot of writers were (particularly in the early 20th century) and once I started to feel how imbalanced the list was. Once I started working on expanding my definition of the canon, it felt even more outdated to focus on Nobel winners in particular - why bother with a list of European men?

My shift in opinion doesn't match reality, in as much as regular readers are still mostly influenced by the "big name" awards than they'll ever be by... smaller and more obscure literary movements. (*cough*) The Nobel award winners are published in almost every major news outlet in the world. Their books are typically translated widely and sell (reasonably) well. A Nobel carries weight in a way that no other international award does.

So let's talk about why this year's award is so disappointing.

In 2018, an alternate Nobel ("New Academy Prize in Literature") was given to the French-Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. The prize was seen as a bit of a filler, a "kiddie" award that was quickly dissolved. Condé was a noble choice - she is a remarkably good and diverse writer whose works absolutely deserve greater exposure and attention. Sidelined as the alternate Nobel may have been, it nonetheless gave some degree of attention to an author who, frankly, is more than worthy for the "real" award.

In the leadup to the double-awarding of 2019, the Nobel committee seemed eager to smooth things over with anxious readers. Just last week, the Guardian had a whole article devoted to the committee's desire to expand beyond male dominated and Eurocentric winners. It's hard not to stare at the sketches of the writers - both white Europeans - and feel cheated. Weren't we promised something different? But the disappointment feels even more tainted - I desperately want to support Olga Tokarczuk (a writer I think is also quite worthy of recognition, and one whose work Flights, for example, explicitly tackles questions of narrowmindedness and diversity) and recognize that it's still absurdly difficult for any woman writer in translation (even European!) to win a major award. Whatever else I may think of the fact that non-white European women still aren't getting any attention (and recall that there has yet to be a single women of color in translation who has won the Nobel in its entire history), I cannot be disappointed by Tokarczuk's individual win.

But, of course, it's not just that the Academy selected two white Europeans for its prize, there's also the matter of Peter Handke, the 2019 winner.

I've spent days mulling this over and wondering how to address the matter, or indeed whether or not I should. Ultimately, I've never read and Handke and have little desire to do so; I recall seeing a description of one of his books back when I began to read a lot more literature in translation (overwhelmingly by white, European, men authors...) and thinking to myself "meh, sounds stuffy and douchey". I was largely unaware of Handke's controversial - aka awful - support of ethnic cleansing and nationalism prior to his win. But as the news got out, I saw a trickle of criticism from book bloggers, translators, and publishers on my Twitter feed that eventually became a full-on onslaught of horror, finally culminating in a PEN America denunciation. (For the record: When I began writing this post, his Wikipedia page included a paragraph on his controversies and that paragraph no longer appears. I had planned to cite this as proof of Handke's status as a controversial writer; the omission frankly feels even more telling in its clumsy attempt to whitewash Handke's messy status.)

Handke's win feels dirty from a lot of different angles. First, there's the matter of his politics. In a time of rising nationalism (and violence inherently linked to nationalism), what does it mean to give a nationalist-sympathizing, genocide-denying guy a massive prize and an effective endorsement? Separating art from artist is a heavy question I still struggle to answer (further complicated by the fact that I'm Jewish and fun fact, a lot of people in the world and throughout history have desperately wanted me dead), but there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?

Second, there's the identity politics matter. For people who try to argue that the Nobel goes to the most worthy writers, the history of the Nobel is enough to dispute that claim. It is obvious that talented writers from around the world are constantly looked over, whether because of genre, country of origin, language of origin, race, or even popularity (in both directions...). Women in particular have long been looked over, and I can easily name several women writers from around the world who passed away in the past decade alone who deserved the prize far more than a solid third of the actual winners. When the Nobel committee makes the explicit claim to notice and care about the historic imbalance in their award and then continues to give it to white European men, they are trying to have it both ways. Yes, addressing the imbalance in the award is important! they admit. But we're not going to do anything about it if it means that we have to stop awarding the prize to white European men.

I'm left feeling bitter and disappointed. Tokarczuk deserved better than this and deserves praise without an asterisk next to her name, pointing to Handke's controversies (and why, why do women always have to bear the burden of unsavory men?). I also feel like we once again got cheated out of brilliant women writers from around the world who definitely deserve more attention. Marie NDiaye. Yoko Ogawa. Banana Yoshimoto. Han Kang. Maryse Condé. Scholastique Mukasonga. Can Xue. Ambai. Isabel Allende. Nawal El Saadawi. Goli Taraghi. Ece Temelkuran. Minae Mizumura. Yanick Lahens. Ananda Devi. Dương Thu Hương. I haven't read every work these writers have written (not least because... many have not been translated into languages I speak/read in), nor can I vouch that they have not said or done objectionable things in the past as well. But I look at them and know that they have all written excellent, powerful, and life-changing books. I know that each one has contributed to the literary landscape in some form or other. They represent a wide range of cultures, experiences, and stories. And they could all benefit from the attention, money, and respect that the Nobel committee could easily bestow upon them.

The Nobel prize will always anger someone. Sometimes it might be because a winner is too obscure and your favorite didn't win. Sometimes it will be because the writer is too popular and deemed not "literary" enough by some. There's always going to be something! But at the very least, the Nobel committee can stop angering people by picking poorly... and recently, it has been. Unfortunately, it continues to be the most relevant prize in literary consciousness, which means that we readers have to work extra hard to get the word out that it is not actually reflecting on the "best" authors the world has to offer. And we need to push for it to begin to reflect the realities of the world around us. Literature is not (nor has it ever been...) white European men with a handful of English-language writers and the occasional (rare) woman writer. It is time the Nobel prize understood that.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

WITMonth Day 31 | Another year past

This post may be a bit more... personal than most.

August 31st always seems to sneak up on me. Wasn't there so much more I wanted to do? Weren't there more posts and issues I promised to write about?

This year, there absolutely were. There were a lot of subjects I left dangling and promised to return to. And I will! But I also took a few days off from blogging these past few days after  the intense compilation of the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation (100 Best WIT), what has quickly become the most popular post on the blog of all time (...by far...) and has comfortably passed the 5000 direct hits milestone. The project was extraordinarily rewarding and I am proud of the work I did to help compile the final list, but it was also very draining. I also won't pretend that it hasn't cast my own role in WITMonth in a new light - am I really that necessary as an individual?

I've promised a lot more blog posts and I will complete them. The analysis of the Hebrew-language publishing market is forthcoming, as are many more posts on the 100 Best WIT. There's so much I want to discuss, from the process of compiling the list, the ways in which its biases emerged early in the compilation, the contemporary tilt, and the degree to which I struggle with the inevitable imperfections of a crowd-sourced list. I also want to share the full list of nominations, but that will require a lot of work - I was not so organized while compiling the data and it's possible that there are errors or duplicates along the way, some which may even impact the top 100 themselves. Human error feels like an inevitable outcome here, and I will need to spend a lot of time/effort ensuring that the full list is accurate. (Not to mention, I didn't record a lot of metadata like country of origin, language of origin, or even proper spelling for most of the authors...)

There's a lot I plan to do on the blog, but I'm also going to begin to ease my foot off the gas. I adore this project and I am extremely proud of everything I've done since late 2013 and I have every intention of continuing to work on the @read_WIT Twitter and @readwit Instagram and posting and organizing and so on. But I'm not sure I'll be doing as much. I think the era of daily WITMonth posts is over, as is the urgent need to reblog/respond to all Twitter posts in the tag. The joy of having a project grow so much is that... I can't actually keep up with everything! And so I'm not going to. At the end of the day, I do this project on a purely voluntary basis, I do it with nothing in exchange (except the rare review copy, and I do mean rare), and I'm doing it alongside full time work/school. (Yay PhD life!) I want to be able to continue to enjoy this project without completely burning out. So things are going to have to change.

I love seeing how WITMonth has grown. I love seeing how WITMonth is constantly changing. I love every single blogger, Instagrammer, Booktuber, critic, publisher, translator, or whatever who takes part in WITMonth, who creates new avenues for promoting women writers in translation, who takes steps to move our cause forward. I am grateful to all of you and all of the work you all do. Another year has passed us by, and as always, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.

Monday, August 26, 2019

WITMonth Day 26 | The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

For the past almost-two months, readers from around the world have been sending in their nominations and votes for this list: The 100 Best Books by Women in Translation. Inspired in part by Catherine Taylor's excellent review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, fellow bloggers (including Twitter user Antonomasia), and subsequent conversations on this blog, the idea was to create a new canon of sorts. Every reader could send up to 10 nominations of books written by women, trans, or nonbinary authors, originally written in any language other than English. Ultimately, almost 800 unique books were nominated. Most of the titles only ever had a single vote, but it speaks to the passion and love that readers have for women writers from around the world that we reached such a number. Many people sought to promote books that they felt didn't get enough attention, or books that they hoped might someday be translated, regardless whether they expected that book to make it to the top 100. The whole list - and specifically the one comprised of untranslated-into-English books - is also a worthy one, but I'll talk about it at a later time.

Let's focus on the top 100.

First and foremost, a disclaimer: This is obviously not really a list of the 100 best books by women in translation... because no such list could ever possibly exist! Every canon will be flawed in some form or other, as I'll be discussing more over the next few days and weeks. Our list is crowdsourced and borne of reader-love; it is a list that is strongly rooted in current reading trends (even if you might be surprised by some inclusions/omissions... I certainly was!). There's a lot of ink to be spilled over just about every title that ended up making it into the top 100 and much more over those that didn't make it, but here's the bottom line: Whether or not these are truly the 100 best books by women writers from around the world, whether or not this is a flawlessly representative list, and whether or not we'd get the same list if we tried again next week (I am confident we would not), this is a list of 100 books by women writers from around the world that people loved. That's worthy in and of itself.

But enough of my thoughts! I'll have plenty of time to talk about things I find interesting, surprising, or disappointing about this list at a later time (and I assure you, I will). Instead, I now present to you...

The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

Title Author Translator(s) into English Language Country Vote tally Original publication
My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinItalianItaly262011
The VegetarianHan Kang Deborah SmithKoreanSouth Korea242007
Fever DreamSamanta Schweblin Megan McDowellSpanishArgentina222014
Human ActsHan Kang Deborah SmithKoreanSouth Korea192014
The DoorMagda Szabó Len RixHungarianHungary191987
FlightsOlga Tokarczuk Jennifer CroftPolishPoland192007
Convenience Store WomanSayaka Murata Ginny Tapley TakemoriJapaneseJapan192016
The Summer BookTove Jansson Thomas TealSwedishFinland171972
The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa Stephen SnyderJapaneseJapan132003
The YearsAnnie Ernaux Alison L. StrayerFrenchFrance122008
Things We Lost in the FireMariana Enríquez Megan McDowellSpanishArgentina122016
Death in SpringMercè Rodoreda Martha TennantCatalanSpain121986
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the DeadOlga Tokarczuk Antonia Lloyd-JonesPolishPoland122009
SphinxAnne Garréta Emma RamadanFrenchFrance111986
Die, My LoveAriana Harwicz Sarah Moss, Carolina OrloffSpanishArgentina112012
KitchenBanana Yoshimoto Megan BackusJapaneseJapan111987
PersepolisMarjane Satrapi Mattias Ripa, Blake Ferris, Anjali SinghFrenchIran / France112000
DisorientalNégar Djavadi Tina KoverFrenchIran / France112016
The Mussel FeastBirgit Vanderbeke Jamie BullochGermanGermany101990
The Notebook TrilogyÁgota Kristóf Alan SheridanFrenchHungary91991
InnocenceHeda Margolius Kovály Alex ZuckerCzechCzech Republic91985
The House of the SpiritsIsabel Allende Magda BoginSpanishChile91982
The End of DaysJenny Erpenbeck Susan BernofskyGermanGermany92013
A True NovelMinae Mizumura Juliet Winters CarpenterJapaneseJapan92002
The Unwomanly Face of War Svetlana Alexievich Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky Russian Belarus 9 1985
Eve Out of Her Ruins Ananda Devi Jeffrey Zuckerman French Mauritius 8 2006
Trieste Daša Drndić Ellen Elias-Bursać Croatian Croatia 8 2007
Bonjour Tristesse Françoise Sagan Irene Ash French France 8 1954
Love Hanne Ørstavik Martin Aitken Norwegian Norway 8 1997
Suite Française Irène Némirovsky Sandra Smith French France 8 1942
So Long a Letter Mariama Bâ Modupe Bode-Thomas French Senegal 8 1979
The Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu Various Japanese Japan 8 1008
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery Alison Anderson French France 8 2006
Tentacle Rita Indiana Achy Obejas Spanish Dominican Republic 8 2015
Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset Various Norwegian Norway 8 1922
Second Hand Time Svetlana Alexievich Bela Shayevich Russian Belarus 8 2013
Territory of Light Yūko Tsushima Geraldine Harcourt Japanese Japan 8 1979
The Hour of the Star Clarice Lispector Benjamin Moser Portuguese Brazil 7 1977
Woman at Point Zero Nawal El Saadawi Sherif Hetata Arabic Egypt 7 1975
Soviet Milk Nora Ikstena Margita Gailitis Latvian Latvia 7 2015
Notes of a Crocodile Qiu Miaojin Bonnie Huie Chinese Taiwan 7 1994
La Bastarda Trifonia Melibea Obono Lawrence Schimel Spanish Equatorial Guinea 7 2016
Vernon Subutex I Virginie Despentes Frank Wynne French France 7 2015
Revenge Yoko Ogawa Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 7 1998
Memoirs of a Polar Bear Yoko Tawada Susan Bernofsky German Germany 7 2014
Nada Carmen Laforet Edith Grossman Spanish Spain 6 1945
Near to the Wild Heart Clarice Lispector Alison Entrekin Portuguese Brazil 6 1943
Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase Hiromi Kawakami Allison Markin Powell Japanese Japan 6 2001
Go, Went, Gone Jenny Erpenbeck Susan Bernofsky German Germany 6 2015
Seeing Red Lina Meruane Megan McDowell Spanish Chile 6 2012
Fish Soup Margarita García Robayo Charlotte Coombe Spanish Colombia 6 2018
The Lover Marguerite Duras Barbara Bray French France 6 1984
Memoirs of Hadrian Marguerite Yourcenar Grace Frick French France 6 1951
The Wall Marlen Haushofer Shaun Whiteside German Austria 6 1963
Family Lexicon Natalia Ginzburg Various Italian Italy 6 1963
People in the Room Norah Lange Charlotte Whittle Spanish Argentina 6 1950
Mouthful of Birds Samanta Schweblin Megan McDowell Spanish Argentina 6 2008
Poems Sappho Various Ancient Greek Greece 6 -570
The Faculty of Dreams Sara Stridsberg Deborah Bragan-Turner Swedish Sweden 6 2006
Thus Were Their Faces Silvina Ocampo Daniel Balderston Spanish Argentina 6 1993
The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir Various French France 6 1949
The True Deceiver Tove Jansson Thomas Teal Swedish Finland 6 1982
Faces in the Crowd Valeria Luiselli Christina McSweeney Spanish Mexico 6 2011
A View with a Grain of Sand Wisława Szymborska Stanislaw Baranczak, Clare Cavanagh Polish Poland 6 1995
The Queue Basma Abdel Aziz Elisabeth Jaquette Arabic Egypt 5 2016
Fox Dubravka Ugrešić Ellen Elias-Bursać Croatian Croatia 5 2017
The Days of Abandonment Elena Ferrante Ann Goldstein Italian Italy 5 2002
History Elsa Morante William Weaver Italian Italy 5 1974
Arturo's Island Elsa Morante Various Italian Italy 5 1957
Confessions Kanae Minato Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 5 2008
The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût Hans Koning Dutch Indonesia / Netherlands 5 1955
My Heart Hemmed In Marie NDiaye Jordan Stump French France 5 2007
The Unit Ninni Holmqvist Marlaine Delargy Swedish Sweden 5 2006
The Bridge of Beyond Simone Schwarz-Bart Barbara Bray French Guadeloupe 5 1972
Purge Sofi Oksanen Lola Rogers Finnish Finland 5 2008
The Story of My Teeth Valeria Luiselli Christina MacSweeney Spanish Mexico 5 2013
Swallowing Mercury Wioletta Greg Eliza Marciniak Polish Poland 5 2014
Tokyo Ueno Station Yu Miri Morgan Giles Japanese Japan 5 2014
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe Adélaïde Bon Various French France 4 2018
Extracting the Stone of Madness Alejandra Pizarnik Yvette Siegert Spanish Argentina 4 1972
The Remainder Alia Trabucco Zerán Sophie Hughes Spanish Chile 4 2015
The Seventh Cross Anna Seghers Margo Bettauer Dembo German Germany 4 1942
The Naked Woman Armonía Somers Kit Maude Spanish Uruguay 4 1950
Waking Lions Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Sondra Silverston Hebrew Israel 4 2012
The Quest for Christa T. Christa Wolf Christopher Middleton German Germany 4 1968
A Winter's Promise Christelle Dabos Hildegarde Serle French France 4 2013
Mirror Shoulder Signal Dorthe Nors Misha Hoekstra Danish Denmark 4 2015
Sweet Days of Discipline Fleur Jaeggy Tim Parks Italian Switzerland 4 1989
Zuleikha Guzel Yakhina Lisa Hayden Russian Russia 4 2015
The Hunger Angel Herta Müller Philip Boehm German Romania / Germany 4 2009
Please Look After Mom Kyung-sook Shin Chi Young Korean South Korean 4 2008
Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel Thomas Christensen, Carol Christensen Spanish Mexico 4 1989
La Femme de Gilles Madeleine Bourdouxhe Faith Evans French Belgium 4 1937
The History of Bees Maja Lunde Diane Oatley Norwegian Norway 4 2015
The Weight of Things Marianne Fritz Adrian Nathan West German Austria 4 1979
Translation as Transhumance Mireille Gansel Ros Schwartz French France 4 2014
Out Natsuo Kirino Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 4 1997
Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique Mukasonga Melanie L. Mauthner French Rwanda / France 4 2012
Subtly Worded Teffi Anne Marie Jackson, Robert Chandler Russian Russia 4 1990
The Letter for the King Tonke Dragt Laura Watkinson Dutch The Netherlands 4 1962

Sunday, August 25, 2019

WITMonth Day 25 | Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar | Minireview

As always, I remain totally stumped when it comes to reviewing poetry. What can I say, other than "I liked this collection!"? The book - not even 70 pages including the translator's note/introduction - feels like a cool summer breeze that passed over me. It gave me immense pleasure as I encountered it and it left a soft memory on my skin. It made me feel something in a distinctly positive sense. But there's not much I can say or do once it's passed. It's passed! That's it!

I guess I can say: Read this, you might enjoy it. You might enjoy, like I did, the diversity in styles between the different poems. You might appreciate, like I did, the way certain poems seem to continue each other (sometimes intentionally and sometimes maybe less so). You might learn about new writers and literary traditions from the translator's note, like I did, and find yourself nodding in agreement with Blake Atwood's description of Roja Chamankar's poems as both "intimate" and "marked by disappointment and loss". You might just like the poems themselves, the translation, the language, and the way the poems feel like they're ready to jump off the page into a new dimension.

You might enjoy this collection. I certainly did.

Note: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Introducing a new project

One of the biggest lingering questions facing the women in translation movement has to do with... the world. Literature in translation is a nice catchphrase, but when we focus so much on English, it's easy to forget that the reason the literature is in translation is because it's originally written in other languages. Most literature does not get translated, not into English and not into other languages across the globe. Anywhere you go, you're likely to find a degree of marginalization in translation, simply because only select titles even get to breach that gap... and fewer still break out into the mainstream.

People have long asked what the source of the "women in translation" problem is. When we're talking about translations into English, it's obvious that there's a huge problem (see: literally every stats post prior to this one...), but there's a legitimate question to be had regarding source languages. If women writers are thoroughly underrepresented in their original countries/languages, doesn't it stand to reason that they'd be underrepresented in English (or other) translation as well?

I'll note that I don't actually buy this claim. Translation is a form of selection/curation, and as with all cases in which specific, select titles are chosen, there is absolutely no reason to adhere to "natural" forces and not choose with a sharper eye. As I've argued before, exclusion is a choice.

But let's get back to that question: How are women writers represented in other languages and countries? What can we learn about how women are then represented in translation, and specifically in translation into English?

As you can imagine, these aren't easy questions to answer or approach. For starters, it's hard to know what goes on in other languages when you don't speak those languages! Luckily, I do happen to speak one other language fluently and I do happen to have a degree of familiarity with another country's publishing industry, and so I decided to carry out a new project this year and see whether I could begin to answer the above questions.

I began by selecting a few major Israeli publishers and examining their catalogs over two years - 2017 or 2018. Simply put, I do not have the time or resources to compile a more comprehensive list, much as I'd love to. I wanted to look at a few different matters. First of all, I have long had the feeling that the translation rate out of Hebrew (just around 33% women writers) is not reflective of the actual Israeli market. Women writers are extremely popular here, often topping the bestseller charts. Could it possibly be that the rates in English are actually representative of a bias in Hebrew itself that I've simply never noticed? I wanted to compare overall publication of original titles by men and women, to see what that source of the problem in English really is.

Then there's the question of translations. Every time I walk into a bookstore or go bookhunting during Hebrew Book Week, I always have to explain to the booksellers that I'm explicitly not seeking books originally written in English, since I would much rather read those books in the original. Time after time, I have seen the booksellers' faces drop somewhat, and they begin to scramble to find alternatives. I have long felt that translations from English dominate the Israeli book market, not just in terms of all literature in translation, but even in comparison to original Hebrew-language literature. And this in turn led to my final question: What of those translations? Are women writers well represented in translation between different languages?

There's a lot to learn from what I found.

(To be continued...)

Friday, August 23, 2019

WITMonth Day 23 | The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi | Review

The Baghdad Clock's cover and marketing is both exactly what it seems like and not quite what it's sold as. With a blurb that seems to set the story predominantly during the Gulf War, the book surprises somewhat in how quickly it moves past that war and focuses on the remainder of life in the aftermath (...within scant pages, to be honest). Yet it also hints at the type of story this is - my hardcover edition comes with shiny gold print and dots circling the edges of the cover. These make The Baghdad Clock feel a little... ethereal.

It's hard for me to describe The Baghdad Clock, written by Shahad Al Rawi and translated from Arabic by Luke Leafgren. Generally speaking, I liked the novel. It's not the sort of book that necessarily excels at every technical beat, but it does a reasonable job at enough different things that the end result is a good book. The writing style is very straightforward, though sometimes a little old-fashioned in a combination that didn't always work for my taste. Pretty much everything about the book is solid, but that's also a little bit of what made me a little cooler toward it in the end; it didn't spark particularly strong emotions in me in one way or the other.

At its core, The Baghdad Clock is a coming-of-age story. This is the part that felt undersold in the marketing - it felt at times like The Baghdad Clock was being framed as more political/about war than it actually is. Which is not to say that the book isn't political (it covers some serious ground), rather that my initial reading of the blurb leaned more towards a "war story" than "girlhood" story. It ends up being a little bit of both. While there is little of the Gulf War in the book itself, its shock-waves clearly felt throughout the narrator's childhood. Moreover, the back half of the book settles into more recent Iraqi wars and turbulence. It's still not an explicit war story, but it lives in themes of war, sanctions, and uneasy peace.

Even so, the coming-of-age narrative remains dominant. Like many books of this sort, the book skips along through childhood relatively quickly, slowing down for the narrator's teenage years and early adulthood. It's important to note that while the narrator is unnamed, she is very much our guide within this story. Not only does she filter her best friend Nadia's stories through her own experiences, the narrator also tells of her neighborhood at large. As the story progresses, she humanizes her neighborhood more and more, almost as though it itself is a living character in her story. 

By the novel's end, we definitely feel that we've encountered the world through the eyes of a specific girl (our unnamed narrator), but also that we've met her friends and neighbors. She remains somewhat elusive, though. The narrator shares bits of her budding romance with a neighborhood boy, but we learn little about her family life or even much about her personal aspirations. This too may have influenced how I felt about the book overall; I felt like the narrator was someone I just spent hours with, without really knowing who she was. A huge part of reading for me lies within the personal connection. Here, The Baghdad Clock almost explicitly sought to keep some distance between reader and main character. It's something I imagine won't bother most readers as it did me, but it still affected how I read the book.

But like I said: Pretty much everything about the book is... solid. The pacing is good. The way Al Rawi builds and populates her neighborhood is good. The way the story sometimes feels entirely real and sometimes just a little bit otherworldly is good. (This was actually one of my favorite touches and I would have been happy to have some more almost-fantasy in the story.) The story is interesting, the characters are solid, and the writing is fine. It's the sort of book I'd passively recommend, if it comes up. It might not make my "favorites" list any time soon, but I think readers are largely in for a good read.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

WITMonth Day 22 | A vlog about the #100BestWIT!

A vlog! They happen, on occasion.

In which I ramble about the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation and some plans for the future list!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

WITMonth Day 21 | The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga | Minireview

Some of you might remember that I'm quite a fan of Scholastique Mukasonga's writing. In fact, I still cite Cockroaches as one of my absolute favorite books of the past few years. It's a powerful gut-punch of a memoir, beautiful and heartbreaking and essential all at once. While I certainly liked Our Lady of the Nile (Mukasonga's earlier-translated novel), it has not had the same sort of lasting effect that has turned Cockroaches into one of my favorite books. It was obvious to me that I'd have to read Mukasonga's newly released The Barefoot Woman, though I kept reminding myself that it would likely not hit me to the same degree.

And, indeed, it didn't, in exactly the way I expected. The Barefoot Woman is far from a bad book or mediocre memoir; on the contrary, it's quite good. Slim, concise, and achingly real, The Barefoot Woman recounts Mukasonga's memories of her mother Stefania and her childhood home. Through her mother, Mukasonga describes details of Rwandan - Tutsi - life. There's a cultural reckoning here, alongside deeply personal and traumatic memories. It's hard not to recognize The Barefoot Woman as that combination of powerful and beautiful.

It's important to come into the memoir knowing that The Barefoot Woman is not seeking to replicate Cockroaches. While touching on similar themes and addressing Mukasonga's own past, The Barefoot Woman feels like it's much less about the Tutsi genocide than it is about the Tutsi. Often, it is more specifically about Mukasonga's mother - focused, directed, and intimate. It's neither a sequel nor a prequel to Cockroaches; at best, this could be called a companion piece, but truthfully it felt like it deserves its own space. It's a very different sort of book, at once more mainstream in its humanity and yet unique in its internal conflicts. I can't say that this had the same effect on me as Cockroaches, but it remains a very good memoir, well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

WITMonth Day 20 | Stats (part 2) | Where do we still need work?

I left the previous post on a cliffhanger. The truth is, I wanted a full post that detailed the positive. A lot of good things are happening in the world of literature in translation, and for women in translation in particular! WITMonth is bigger than ever and the movement is starting to have a real impact on translation rates. We should definitely take a moment (or more...) to celebrate that.

The problem is that despite all of the good, we've still got a lot of bad. It's not just an individual publisher matter, either. There's a systemic problem when you start to look at publishers who define themselves in certain ways, those who engage with WITMonth, and those who distance themselves from it.

Take Archipelago Books. This is a publisher I've been tracking for years, with the knowledge that they're one of the yearly disappointments. And so I was not particularly surprised by what I got: Archipelago sits at an 18% publishing rate of women writers in 2019. Year after year, Archipelago has proven to be one of the least WIT-friendly publishers. Considering how many of my favorite works by women in translation have been put out by them, it's disheartening that they don't seem to be making any effort whatsoever to balance out their catalog.

But, I reassured myself, they also have a children's literature imprint! Archipelago: Elsewhere Editions is an imprint devoted to international, quality literature for children. We all know, of course, of the "industry bias" towards women in children's literature, right? (...right?) Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that all 4 books published by this imprint in 2019 were books by men. That puts women in translation at 13% between the combined catalogs. That is... honestly inexcusable. When I reached out for comment, the response was a friendly reassurance that the publishers are aware of the imbalance and seeking to correct it, alongside a list of recent and forthcoming releases. My policy has been, until now, to give publishers the benefit of the doubt when they express an interest in improving things. I hope that next year I'll be able to add Archipelago to the list of publishers on the rise.

Dalkey is another eternal disappointment. Despite not having a publicly available catalog, I collected publication data from Amazon (seriously, that's all I could think of...) and was distinctly unsurprised to count 2 books by women in translation (alongside one mixed anthology), compared to 10 by men. How sad is it that 23% is still fairly good for Dalkey? Let's move on...

It's the last category that I want to talk about the most, though. We've already discussed how things are getting better among literary publishers, and my hope is that they'll continue to do so. We've seen that there's consistent improvement among titles in the Translation Database, but as Chad Post has been reiterating the past few weeks, there are still issues. I explained in my last post that I decided on a different methodology this year, opting out of using the Translation Database in favor of reviewing select publisher catalogs myself. In this way, I hope to include a wider range of genres, categorizations, and books overall, specifically kidlit, nonfiction, and previously published titles. And so the best way to look at the latter two categories is to analyze what's going on in university presses.

University presses have long been bastions of fascinating, diverse, and important literature. They are often the first to "rediscover" lost masterpieces, they publish works by researchers from around the world (and in just about every imaginable field), they push boundaries, and they have published some of my favorite books from the past few years, personally. I find university presses to be remarkably important in the grand scheme of literature in translation. It is therefore doubly disappointing that they are among the worst offenders when it comes to publishing women writers in translation. I looked at four different university presses that had enough titles in translation to be able to conduct statistics (and also easily searchable catalogs) and found that university presses remain abysmal when it comes to publishing women writers in translation: The four published a combined total of 22 women writers (plus another 7 cases of books with multiple authors) to 117 men writers in translation. That means that men make up 80% of the books in translation published by university presses, with mixed groups responsible for 5% and women 15%.

Fifteen percent.

Academic presses are important for a lot of reasons, but it's important to remember why this stings a bit more than most of the other low-rated publishers: Academic presses carry with them a degree of prestige, canonization, and clout. Having so few works by women writers and even fewer works by women writers from around the world merely perpetuates our existing (flawed) assumptions about academia, women, and women's contributions to culture and science. Women have been contributing to the canon for literally the entire span of human history... why is this still erased? It's like another publisher - Penguin Classics - which published exactly zero works by women writers in translation this past year (versus four by men in translation). There are countless classic and modern works by women writers from around the world that deserve our attention and scholarship. We're still not there.

We have a long road ahead of us with many different problems to tackle. As the rates of women in translation steadily rise for fiction and poetry and as women in translation begin to receive the recognition they deserve in the English-language world (for example, the recent Man Booker International shortlist!), we can turn our attention to other matters. Why are there still so few children's stories in translation? Why is nonfiction in translation as dominated by men writers as it is? What's going on in other languages? Some of these are question we can't answer quite yet or still don't have solutions for.

But some of these questions we can begin to answer. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 19, 2019

WITMonth Day 19 | Awu's Story by Justine Mintsa | Review

For a book that's not even 100 pages long, Justine Mintsa's Awu's Story has a surprisingly long introduction. Clocking in at 24 pages (not including references), the University of Nebraska Press translation into English solidly leans into the idea that a short story can have a major impact. Unfortunately, like the introductions to many modern (and not-so-modern...) classics, translator Cheryl Toman's extensive (and fascinating) introduction also tackled some of the plot points in the book. Luckily, I've already learned to merely skim introductions for author-specific information and only read it fully after finishing the book itself. I advise other readers who prefer to go into the story with a clear mind to do the same.

And oh boy, do I advise readers get their hands on this book. Slim, yes, but Awu's Story packs major punch in such a brief space. The writing style is simple throughout, very direct and clear-eyed. Pieces of the story that feel unaddressed are almost all addressed more fully later. The book tackles huge subject matters, from ordinary village life, to family relationships, to love, to child pregnancy, to grief, to tradition... yet none of these feels out of place or dominant. With the exception of a single, somewhat rushed "payoff" scene near the end, the book largely feels like it earns its emotional beats.

To be honest? I kind of loved Awu's Story.

I mean, I guess I shouldn't sound so surprised or dismissive. There's nothing in Awu's Story's marketing or framing to suggest I shouldn't love it. On the other hand, there also isn't much to suggest it would hit me much beyond "oh this is a good book". Except Awu's Story really does end up feeling different, both in terms of my outsider view of Gabonese culture (of which, as you can imagine, I have limited exposure to) and just from a literary perspective. I have a mixed relationship with very simply written books, sometimes loving them and sometimes Awu's Story fell on the right side of that balance. The simplicity translated into straight-forward storytelling. The book progresses in a linear fashion; events happen one after the other and are cleanly described. The language is, by and large, direct. The one thing that bothered me a little bit was the dissonance between an older-style simplicity and occasionally very modern language (use of words like "hey" or "guy" in contexts that sometimes felt a little whiplash-y), but this too may have something to do with my expectations. It's also not really the point.

Awu's Story has a clear, progressing story, but it's hard to characterize this as a plot-based book. It is, as the English title implies, simply Awu's story, following life from early marriage through to middle age. It is, to a large extent, a feminist story with several characters breaking with traditional gender expectations within the story (Awu included). Its overarching themes and messages are definitely present and not particularly quiet, but they also still feel somewhat in the background. It's a book that feels natural in a lot of different ways. And I really did just love it. It's a short read that feels totally rewarding and enlightening and narratively satisfying. No, this is not a particular cheerful book in parts and I definitely cried a little bit by the end, but it's lovely and powerful and I hope that a lot more readers get the chance to read this. Awu's Story is far from one of the more popular, mainstream books you're likely to get a chance to read, but... you should. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

WITMonth Day 18 | Down with the Anglo-archy!

The 50 Day Countdown (part 3)

In my last post, I talked about how I felt the 50 Day Countdown list really showed the breadth of women writers in translation from around the world. But I hedged and hesitated, hovering around the topic that I really wanted to point out and that is... overall, the list is extraordinary wide-ranging with one major exception: Very intentionally, there is not one white European author on the list.

There have been plenty of lists in recent years focusing specifically on women of color or women from particular regions. In fact, it's become a movement in its own right and justifiably so - the same marginalization that keeps women writers outside of mainstream recognition in the literary world applies doubly so for women of color. And yet whatever the effort needed to get English-language women of color in the public view, it is almost exponentially more difficult for women in translation, and so on. If we were to imagine a Venn diagram of the intersectional struggle, we'd see that we're left with a tiny overlap.

That the 50 Day Countdown is entirely comprised of women of color is not by accident; it is carefully deliberate. (Note: The term "women of color" is often problematic in an international context, as I'll discuss a bit more below.) I kept a close eye on people who shared the list to see whether anyone commented on the fact that it is entirely comprised of women of color. With the exception of one reader who expressed delight at the list's diversity, no one made any explicit mention. And wouldn't people say that's such a good sign? Look, here's a list of 50 women writers in translation that just so happen to all be women of color! When on day 49, I invited readers to suggest women they might like to see on day 50, a few recommended white European authors - it seems that the list's quiet revolution was subtle enough that it didn't even occur to those readers that their recommendation might be out of place.

As most of you probably know, I have a longstanding frustration at the general attitude toward translation as something niche or secondary. Take this list of African women writers as an example - the overwhelming majority are English-language writers, for absolutely no reason rooted in the reality of the continent's native languages. Resources by English-language readers or scholars almost always include books by exclusively Anglo-American/English-language authors. The women in translation movement is still on the outskirts of feminism and indeed, it largely seems to reside within the translation movement, rather than the feminist movement! This is something I've complained about before in many different ways.

My frustration is a muddled mess of emotions. I recognize that it's a good thing that people can skim through the 50 Day Countdown list and not be too surprised by how many different backgrounds they're encountering. Many readers, in fact, have commented on how they felt that the list introduced them to writers from countries they didn't expect, or that the list itself was impressive, or whatever. It's a mark of how far we've come that the race/ethnicity/backgrounds of these writers is not the only important thing about it, rather that these are remarkable, talented, award-winning, different, and interesting women writers who just so happen to be from all over the world.

But it doesn't feel like a good thing that the list again went ignored by those (very loud) voices who claim to support "diversity" the most. Diversity is a word that divides many and for good reason - human beings, after all, are simply human beings, not diverse. The way that we have this conversation is already tainted. I always recall Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sharp observations in Americanah about what it means to be a non-American-black within a culture that automatically conflates blackness with certain cultural expectations (i.e. African-American culture). Similar to discussions in Americanah over immigrant identity in the US, my dissatisfaction with the phrase "women of color" in an international context comes into play. When your country is comprised of black people, you are not black as an identifying feature, nor are you a "woman of color". The phrase is one that is defined by white-dominant countries and cannot apply in the same way to non-white-dominant countries. Racial, religious, and cultural discussions are all entirely unique within the borders of different countries, and the fact that Anglo-American readers often gloss over these differences in the name of so-called progressive inclusiveness is to no one's benefit.

But just because diversity is a phrase that is context-dependent doesn't mean that it's not something we ought to discuss. From an Anglo-American perspective, it is important to point to writers of "diverse" origins, which is precisely what the 50 Day Countdown list did. When we discuss "literature in translation" we're already assuming an English-language bias and cultural context, which means that there is little excuse for Anglo-American-based diversity movements to continue to ignore women in translation.

So what is the purpose of this post? Am I just complaining about not getting the attention that I wanted? Well, yes, to a certain degree. Mostly, though, I find myself exhausted by the hypocrisy of a movement that doesn't pay any attention to something if it's not blatant. Would the list have gained more traction if I explicitly framed it as "50 WOC You Have to Read!"? Is there some magic trick that we need in order for most Anglo-American feminist readers to recognize their Anglo-centrism? I'm tired of having to fight for WITMonth to have a seat at the table. I'm tired of having to fight for mainstream feminist groups and movements and voices to notice. To use an example of a white woman whose intersectional feminism does include many women of varying backgrounds, Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club still has, by my count, only one book by a woman writer in translation (out of 27). The erasure happens everywhere, every day.

As I've argued a hundred times before, women in translation should not be niche. They should not be bonuses. They should not be the rarity that crops up one month a year, and even that's just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other books everyone is reading in August. The 50 Day Countdown shows that it's possible to make a list of 50 women writers from around the world, without country repeats; the 100 Best WIT nomination list shows that it's possible to read hundreds of books from around the world with strong endorsements for every single title. While the women in translation movement exists due to a relative imbalance, I will repeat what I've said since 2014: There is no lack of women writers in translation, but we do have to put in the work to find them. This is true for established readers of literature in translation and it's true for new readers of literature in translation and it's true for feminist readers who have never considered translation as an intersection worth exploring.

Let's get the word out in feminist circles: The era of English-only diversity is over.