Thursday, June 15, 2017

When you can't review impartially | Maryam: Keeper of Stories by Alawiya Sobh

This review is one of the hardest I've had to write in a very long time. It's a review tinged with disappointment, discomfort, and uncertainty. I spent a long time wondering whether I should even write a review of Alawiya Sobh's Maryam: Keeper of Stories (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi). I wondered if I could write an impartial review.

I can't write an impartial review, perhaps, so I will write an emotional one.

I was fine with Maryam for the first 100 pages. By which I mean I was engaged with these mostly tragic-sometimes-sweet fragments about the lives of mostly-Muslim Lebanese women. Maryam is a book comprised of pieces of stories, told ramblingly and often vaguely. The stories seem to overlap, with characters almost interchangeable. It's a book about women, often delving into the rougher sides of things too. Women are explicitly raped (not "hurt" by men; the text is blunt in this truth), women give birth, women befriend women, women fall in love, women are hurt, and so on. It's bleak, but there's a power to it, I suppose.

Except... something happened around 100 pages into the book. Specifically, an anecdote entered the narrative for no discernible reason. A deeply antisemitic, what-the-f***, unnecessary story.

This page-long anecdote is about the "grandfather", who goes to America to find his fortune. While there, the greedy Jew that he works with cheats the business's owner. The owner asks the grandfather to kill the Jew, which the grandfather does by... throwing "the Jew" into the oven. The grandfather is rewarded with gold, because now that the cheating Jew is gone, the bakery will make much more money. An alternative version to this story exists as well, in which it is actually the bakery owner who is Jewish and the American coworker who is burned. But this version is told in a paragraph as the alternative, rather than the page and a half devoted to the version that ends with the greedy Jew being burned in the oven.

I literally had to stop reading at this point. Sitting out on the balcony with my feet soaking up the sun, hands shaking, mouth open, utterly aghast, I set the book aside. I couldn't keep reading for several more hours. I wondered if I was being overly sensitive. I wondered if I was being unfair. I wondered if it was totally unintentional. Perhaps the Holocaust imagery was a coincidence? Perhaps the linkage between "Jew" and "money thieving" was random? Perhaps I was imaging things...

I couldn't read the book in the same way after that.

I started noticing the way Christian characters hardly existed in Sobh's Lebanon. Despite the fact that almost half of the country is Christian or Druze, the novel doesn't seem to see them the same way it sees its Muslim characters, even if it occasionally references the sectarian differences in the country that fuel so many of its conflicts. I started noticing that the narrative frequently references atrocities from Lebanon's wars with Israel (justifiably enough, though it ignores the triggers that led to these wars), but does not even mention Syrian interference in the country's civil war. The book started to feel like a smokescreen, telling one important story perhaps about the struggles of some Muslim women growing up during wars and atrocities and misogyny, but almost deliberately ignoring anything else around it.

Of course, this reading is heavily biased. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. The above feelings were always framed by that one moment, around page 100, with the Jewish worker being burned in the oven. Every time I tried to set it aside, I found myself coming back to it. Why would the narrative include it? What possible purpose did it serve? It had nothing to do with any of our main characters, provided little emotional depth, and served no purpose to the plot. Why was it there? Why was it translated so uncritically? Why should I read a book that has such a blatantly antisemitic reference and not be upset by it? Why shouldn't it color how I read the rest of the book?

I don't have any good answers to these questions.

Maryam has an interesting concept at its core. I loved the idea of telling women's stories in this muddled way. I loved that the focus really was on the struggles many women face, simply for being born female. The writing is dreamy and lovely, befitting a story that encompasses so large a time span with such a vaguely distant style. On a technical level, I can see that Maryam has a lot going for it. But does that excuse the rest? Does that excuse the dropped stories or aimless frame story? Does it excuse the smokescreen and evasion? Does it excuse a totally unnecessary antisemitic scene that is inexplicable and inexcusable and yet... included?

I was ultimately left disappointed and upset by Maryam. Triggered by personal experiences? Sure. Yes. Antisemitism is likely to hurt me more than others, fine. It meant that I couldn't read the story the way that I had wanted to. It meant that I had to reframe the entire story based on identity politics of the ugliest sort. It meant that I had to question whether lovely prose made up for ugly content. It meant I had to challenge my own definitions of ugliness, wondering if perhaps I could set aside my own emotions for the sake of other important aspects. I guess in the end I just couldn't, and I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps other readers will be able to look past what I could not; I remain disappointed, uncomfortable, and uncertain. What a shame.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Abandoned and archived | Malentendu à Moscou by Simone de Beauvoir

According to my Hebrew translation of Simone de Beauvoir's Malentendu à Moscou (translated into Hebrew by Nir Ratzkovsky), this very short novella was "inexplicably archived by the author" and only brought to light in 2013. The edition tries to make a strong case for while this novella is worthy of resurrection or attention. I imagine that from an academic perspective, it's quite interesting. But from a literary perspective?

I abandoned the book despite being over halfway through its very slim frame.

At this point it becomes necessary to ask why. Why abandon such a short book in the first place? Especially when I was clearly so far into it? The answer is quite simply: I was over halfway through, and all there was to the story was a tension that suggested that I didn't want to keep reading.

The novella tells of an aging couple that goes to visit the husband's daughter from a previous relationship in Moscow. The alternating segments tell of each spouse's assessment of their life and situation in Moscow. They ruminate about growing older. They consider their relationship (separately). They think about their aching bodies and the alcohol they're drinking for dinner. It gets absurdly repetitive, coupled with a stunning lack of communication between the couple. This lends a growing tension that something is going to happen, as does the novella's title. It's just that at a certain point, I no longer cared. Let something happen! I won't stick around to read it.

Part of this is in the writing. As I said, there's a deep repetitiveness to their vacation. Daily walks, complaints, and contemplations that loop and loop with hardly any adjustments. And while I'm often a fan of repetitiveness as a literary tool, here it just wasn't supplemented with anything to give it meaning. It felt more like a writing exercise than a genuine unfolding story, and I could understand why de Beauvoir archived it rather than publish it. A story that started with a clear idea, but then got lost in endless meandering.

Hence: I have abandoned and archived it myself. Perhaps next time I should stick to the works de Beauvoir wanted me to read...

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.

The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado | Review

I won't lie: This book is creepy, uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I really enjoyed it. Is it good? Yeah, probably. That disturbing, chilling effect is clearly intentional, reflecting Viola Di Grado's talent as a writer (translated into English by Antony Shugar), but I'll say right off the bat: It's not enough.

Hollow Heart follows Dorotea, a young woman who has recently killed herself. Her foray into the afterlife is rather unremarkable - as her body rots away in the ground, she finds herself completely aware of everything. She's effectively "still alive", wandering around the real world, but now aware of all the other dead souls still walking around. In Di Grado's imagination, people do not really die when they die. They can still interact with the living world, move objects and haunt, but they are invisible to all but a few living souls.

For the suicidal Dorotea, this proves to be a shift in "life". She continues to go to work, invisible to the customers in the stationary store she works at, but her boss can somehow still see her. She makes new dead friends. She writes ambiguously imaginary postcards to other dead people who she knows or has stumbled across. She keeps a journal to track her decomposing body, in gruesome and detailed terms.

Unsurprisingly, Hollow Heart is an unsettling read. Dorotea's description of her rotting body is not flat, rather it's an odd blend of curious and ambivalent. For the reader, however, it can be downright unpleasant. I'll note that any readers with aversions to bugs may be especially disturbed by the graphic descriptions of changes the body goes through during decay. It's... well, it's rather horrifying. I won't pretend that I liked it very much.

It's more than the dry way Di Grado writers about death. It's the way the entire book seems seeped in melancholy, depression, and a lack of awareness. And of course, it's hard to resist the urge to compare this to Di Grado's previously published novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. There too Di Grado focused a laser beam on a depressed young woman living with a depressed mother, and the impact this has on both. The two books end up feeling very similar to each other, as though Hollow Heart is an emotional continuation of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, but with the creepiness turned up. Perhaps this was part of the problem - I already knew that Di Grado could write creepy, subversive novels (though I would argue that Hollow Heart is far more "normal" and "standard" than 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which at least surprised me in several places), but this almost feels like a continuation of the same. There is an almost pathological interest in the grossness of death. If not for Hollow Heart's clear de-romanticization of death, taken together, it'd almost feel like these books are glamorizing mental illness. Hollow Heart at the very least does little to dispel it.

The writing is a little jerky, at times somewhat abruptly clunky, but it fits the narrative fairly well. Overall, it casts a sense of distance between reader and story, quite befitting a tale of suicide and the afterlife. It's got much of the punchiness that 70% Acrylic 30% Wool had, but little of the enjoyment that I felt from reading that novel (or the payoff from a strong ending). Hollow Heart left me feeling a little, well, hollow towards Di Grado as a writer. Cooler. While I'm still certainly intrigued by her talent, I find myself wishing she'd try a different angle in her next foray... or at least a different take on this same story. Perhaps a slightly more mature one.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

WITMonth to WITMonth: New releases!

A lot happens in a year. From August to August, we can identify a lot of great titles by women in translation (though not nearly as many as we'd like!), published in different countries, under different presses.

And so to make things just a bit easier for readers getting ready for WITMonth 2017, I've decided to compile a list of some of the books that I'm aware of... with, of course, a desire to add as many additional titles as possible! Publishers/translators/bloggers: If you know of any other titles published between August 2016 and August 2017, feel free to drop me a line and I will promptly add them to this list! Similarly, if you identify any error in my database, let me know and I'll make sure to fix it. This is definitely just the preliminary list, with many more eligible newly released books by women in translation just waiting to be added.

Please note that the list contains titles available in both the US and the UK! Some do not have the same release dates, so keep an eye out for your local publishers.

Link to the WITMonth 2017: New Releases database!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Liliana Ursu's poetry is all angles, all edges

My grandfather - whose second language happens to be Romanian - picked up my copy of Liliana Ursu's Goldsmith Market (translated by Sean Cotter) and examined the open, untranslated poem on the left-hand side of the page. He read it aloud, cautiously, skeptically, translating it back to me (into Hebrew, not English), then handed back the book with a decidedly unimpressed expression on his face.

That expression made sense, in all fairness. Not just because my grandfather is not quite the man for poetry recommendations, but also simply because the poem he had read aloud was weak. It was edgy and sharp, but lacking in any powerful message or particularly evocative imagery.

This isn't to say that all of Liliana Ursu's poetry is lacking. Indeed, I've found several poems in Ursu's first full-length English translation that warrant attention and care, poems with power in their angles and sharpness. Poems that breathe new life into frigid air by cutting through it. Take the second half of "A Day in Winter", for example:
A day in winter, a day in summer: same soulsame words, same list of things;only wild ducks fluttering over the frozen green riverkeeps them apart.
The sentences taste brittle, but there's this eerie strength to them as well. But most of the poems in this collection tend to fall into the first category, even with all these "angles". I've said this before and I'll say it again: poetry to me is about feelings as much as it is about language. I probably won't remember the specific words used in a certain poem, but I'll remember how I felt reading it. This means I'm a little less tolerant to bland poetry, particularly ever since I've discovered that there's so much good poetry (particularly in translation, particularly by women).

Ursu's poems aren't solidly bad, they aren't even solidly boring. They're definitely interesting, with that distinct style. There are poems that had me scrambling for air, poems that had me shivering, poems that had me smiling. But the balance tilts just a bit too strongly towards the poems that didn't really mean much on an emotionally stimulating level. Simply put, it's an okay stylistic collection: some gems, some duds. That's to be expected.

Interestingly, I find myself more impressed with the translation, perhaps because of my (very, very limited) knowledge of Romanian. The poems in Romanian had a certain beat to them, one that made some sense to me in terms of that language's style. This rhythm, interestingly, was not maintained in translation. Rather, it seems as though Cotter made a conscious choice to translate style into something English-language speakers would better understand, occasionally changing line structures and thus the poem's flow.

All in all, this collection is far from bad, but it's difficult to offer a rousing endorsement of it either. Its edges provide occasional grasping points, but I can't quite say that I connected with all of it. I can certainly see how other readers might appreciate the sharpness (occasionally harshness) of writing Ursu prefers, but only some of the poems really worked for me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Announcing WITMonth 2017

Hot on the heels of Women's History Month, I find myself wanting to look forward to the summer, to August, and to new ideas for the 4th annual Women in Translation Month (WITMonth 2017). The project has grown from year to year in a truly astonishing way, with more readers, writers, translators, publishers, librarians, and booksellers getting involved from year to year. But of course, there is always room to advance.

As we know, the imbalance regarding women in translation has not abated in recent years. Certain efforts have been made (by publishers, by translators, by bookstores, etc.) to address the imbalance, with the most recent leading to the formation of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Not only is this wonderful news for anyone seeking a comfortably curated list of recommendations, it is also a strong motivator for publishers to step up their game.

Yet despite such efforts, it's hard to look at objective numbers and not grimace. The recently released Man Booker International Prize longlist, for example, highlights the stark imbalance like nothing else, with only 3 books by women writers on a 13-book-strong list. While many have tried to downplay this (by gently, simperingly pointing out that it merely reflects the publishing imbalance), I am less forgiving. Neither imbalance should exist. It's time to do more than talk about how change needs to occur, and start making it happen.

And so, my dear friends, it is time to announce my personal goals for WITMonth 2017:

Increased exposure

Last year saw more and more readers, bookstores, translators, and publishers get involved in Women in Translation Month than ever before. However, the project itself - and WITMonth by extension - remain woefully niche. Most readers have not only never heard of WITMonth, they haven't even heard of the existing imbalance that led to its inception. As with previous years, the first goal of WITMonth 2017 must be exposure. This means contacting your local bookstores and libraries to see if they will include WITMonth displays. This means contacting publishers with abysmal track records and encouraging them to publish more women in translation. This means sharing the data - and the news - with your fellow readers, translators, bloggers, etc.

Reading the world through Women in Translation

Many of you will likely already be familiar with Ann Morgan's brilliant A Year of Reading the World project. This admirable project did a lot in encouraging readers to expand their horizons, however it was very heavy on English-language literature (often from a foreigner's perspective). Over the next few months, I'll be sharing my personal list of "reading the world through women in translation", which will seek to explore as much of the world as possible through as many languages as possible, all through works by women writers. While it will be impossible to visit every country on earth in this way, the stated goal is to read as much as possible from as many different perspectives as possible. The women in translation project - as I have stated many times - must be intersectional in all forms. While my own reading has largely kept me locked into Europe (and straight, white, middle-class narratives), my hope is that a project of this scope will enable me - and any fellow readers who choose to join me on this many-years-long journey - to break free of any preconceived notions.

Exploring different genres

While I have sought to include books belonging to various different genres every year, WITMonth tends to fall into a fairly predictable "literary fiction" pit. Like with previous years, I hope to encourage readers to explore genres beyond plain literary fiction or poetry, instead exploring thrillers, children's literature, science fiction, fantasy, YA, and romance as well. 

None of these stated goals are particularly new. But nonetheless, I find myself wanting to emphasize the need for diversity, within this project that is all about giving voice to those generally left voiceless. We've many months to go before August, but there's no time like the present to begin planning!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation!

On this International Women's Day eve, it's wonderful to have some truly good news on the women in translation front!

The newly announced Warwick Prize for Women in Translation - currently accepting submissions - is a wonderful step towards increasing visibility for women writers translated into English, and raising awareness of the startling global imbalance.

Prizes are more than just a monetary reward for a certain author (or in this case, author/translator team). Prizes are more than just ego boosts. Prizes are a brilliant way for many readers to identify high-quality books that might interest them. They provide authors with exposure, something sorely needed in a field as marginalized as that of women writers in translation. Prizes also encourage publishers to produce more of the thing, in this case showing many publishers of literature in translation that there is a market for women writers from around the world. This prize will help raise awareness of the problem, as well as provide many new readers with great recommendations across genres.

I cannot express how thrilled I am that this prize is happening and how happy it makes me. And who knows, maybe there'll be a longlist by next August (WITMonth!) that we can all shadow...!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dear Diego - Elena Poniatowska | Review

Will I ever cease to be surprised by the power of such slim books? Dear Diego is an especially light novella, framed with a softness of prose that makes it seem even shorter, but it has a lasting impact. Two weeks since reading it, and my mind is still turning over its quiet characterization of Angelina Beloff.

Angelina's is the sole clean voice in Dear Diego (translated from Spanish into Hebrew by Michal Shalev), a fictionalized set of letters from a lonely, abandoned, forgotten, and still-loving wife to a man whose place in history is assured. These letters are based on the real correspondence between Angelina and Diego (after he left France for Mexico), yet there is something subtly ethereal in them.

Elena Poniatowska's writing places Angelina at the forefront, writing wistfully to a husband who simply doesn't respond and doesn't seem to care about his wife anymore. At first, Angelina's messages both acknowledge this abandonment and wait for it to end - she signs off with love, hopes to hear from him soon, is eager for return letters. But as the novella progresses, Angelina's expectations seem to fade (even as her declarations of love do not). She begins to address his lack of responses more bluntly. She references rumors she's heard from other friends. The gentle tone turns almost fragile, brittle.

It's always strange reading fiction based on real historical figures. The trick to Dear Diego's success lies in Angelina as narrator. Her stories - of her marriage with Diego, the loss of their son, her arrival in Paris as a Russian ex-pat and painter, her own artistic ambitions - turn her into a living, breathing woman. Whether all the facts align with history itself is unclear, but it almost doesn't matter.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the presentation of Rivera. While Angelina's tone is often loving and gentle, she (through Poniatowska's sharp eye) paints a portrait of a deeply selfish man, whose at-times cruelty is forgiven simply because he is a "great artist".

My edition of Dear Diego came paired with another Rivera-tangent story by Poniatowska - Diego, estoy sola, Diego ya no estoy sola: Frida Kahlo. This short-story is significantly less powerful than Dear Diego, fading rather quickly from my memory and leaving behind only a very strong sense of Frida Kahlo's physical struggles. The story is somewhat uneven, though this may be a result of its pairing with Dear Diego - I have rarely enjoyed reading short stories immediately after novellas. Even so, the book presents Poniatowska as a first-rate writer, one whose works wholeheartedly deserve a revival. I can't wait to read more.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Is Awareness Enough? | How We Fight (Part 3)

I expect most people reading this blog know me from the Women in Translation project, or #WITMonth. Throughout that project, I have argued that a huge step in improving the abysmal state of translation - and women in translation in particular - must be in increasing awareness. I have argued that when people are aware of a problem, they are halfway to solving it.

This argument becomes murky in a world populated with "alternative facts" and outright misinformation. When truth itself becomes a question, does awareness of a problem mean anything?

The past few days and weeks have seen turbulence in all directions. I have often found myself speechless, incapable of even comprehending how quickly things have fallen apart. I have found words almost impossible to come by. Yet there has also been a strong backlash, one driven not by awareness but of action. "We're done being aware of the problem," these protests seem to say. "Now we're going to tear it down."

Awareness serves a critical purpose in this resistance. Without it, there would simply be no-one protesting. It is much simpler to accept a broken world if you never know/acknowledge that it is broken. This is true of all activism, and indeed is often its limiting factor. Why should someone protest that "black lives matter" if they don't know that a horrifying imbalance exists between the way white and black Americans are treated by police? Why should someone protest a lack of women in STEM if they don't realize that women go through years and years of social conditioning and at-times outright discrimination that prevents the field from being properly integrated? Or to use an example closer to home: Why should someone care about the women in translation problem if they've never even heard that such a problem exists?

Large or small, major or insignificant, activism is built on the back of awareness. On education. On exposure to different voices and ideas. But awareness only sets the stage. Awareness makes it possible for activism to go forward, and go forward it must.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What Are the Important Stories? | How We Fight (Part 2)

There is an endless discussion within many progressive communities regarding how to define the movement. Does the term "diverse" effectively ghettoize authors and stories by otherizing their writing? Should we specifically refer to "people of color", or does that hearken to outdated and offensive terms? Should "queer" romance be labeled as such, or does the use of the label effectively mark it as different from "regular" romances? What demands notice? Is discussing one marginalized group effectively a means to ignore another marginalized group?

These are arguments I usually find to be pointless. Not because they don't highlight important movements, but because there are no simple answers. If we only focus on the label question for a moment, different people just have different personal preferences. To use a fairly common example, the term "queer" is slur for some, while a reclaimed and proud label for others. Neither is wrong, of course. The same can be applied to questions of diversity or marginalized groups. Some writers might feel that being labeled as "diverse" is highly offensive, and places them within a box that explicitly separates them from the "normal" straight, white male standard. Others feel that this is an important way to highlight their works and help guide readers to read more broadly. There is no simple answer.

This ties into the question at the heart of today's post: What are the important stories? What does it even mean to seek out "diverse" works, or books by "marginalized" writers? Is it a simple question of authorship, or is there meaning to the content of the work? How do we identify those stories which will broaden our horizons?

This question is further complicated by the fact that "importance" is relative. As I mentioned in the previous post (Why Stories Are Important), there are two factors to the power stories might have. They can either serve as a form of representation - either for a person who wishes to see themselves belonging in a certain role or for someone outside that group in recognizing the legitimacy of belonging - or as a form of normalization. Each of these factors is inherently dependent on the context of the person engaging with the story.

It's important to recognize that context changes. Chinese literature, for example, is not "diverse" by Chinese standards. However, Chinese literature in translation is extremely rare in English (and rarer still in other languages!), giving it a different cultural context for non-Chinese readers. Though the stories themselves may range in subject matter and culture-specific representation, they both normalize Chinese culture for foreign readers and represent one slice of life. (The problem, I should note, begins with the fact that single stories can never be representative. See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk about "The Danger of a Single Story".)

Even within Anglo-American stories, the range may change according to where you come from. Small town readers can encounter the swell of different people they may never meet in their day-to-day lives. City readers can encounter the intimacy and individualism bound up in rural communities. Wealthy readers can learn about the struggles of working class life. Majority readers can learn about the difficulties in growing up in a minority or otherwise oppressed group. Everyone can learn about other cultures from around the world.

Important stories are not necessarily created equal, however. Privilege is a tricky Venn diagram to navigate, in which you may belong to a marginalized group in one circle, but be privileged in another. As previously discussed on this blog, intersectionality is critical and must be kept in mind when seeking true diversity/representation of the world as it is. It is also important to remember that belonging to one marginalized group does not automatically make the artist/the art immune from criticism in other fields. (This too is a common argument within the field; do we perhaps judge works by marginalized artists more harshly than those by culturally dominant voices?)

I think it ultimately comes down to a much simpler question: Does this story have the power to introduce you to new ideas, new cultures, or new perspectives?

Not all new ideas are inherently good. Many of the "new" ideas being raised today are far from it. However, almost all new ideas will force you to critically examine their position and unravel their implications. And while that doesn't automatically translate into good, it's at least a step in the right direction and an excellent tool in our fight.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Why Stories Are Important | How We Fight (Part 1)

I am 25 years old, and I will never meet everyone in this world.

A girl grows up in a small town. She is surrounded by family, a community, and her life is complicated and difficult in its own ways. She works hard. She has her faith, her beliefs. She watches boys and girls in her community go to war, some come back and some don't and some are unrecognizable. She watches some films, reads some books, watches some TV.

She sees certain stories played out, again and again. She watches a film about a man not unlike her neighbor who goes to fight a war against an enemy. She knows what that enemy looks like. She reads a book about a romance between two people who remind her of her parents. She knows what those good people look like. She watches the news and sees that a young man who looks just like her son is being accused of committing a crime so heinous, it can't be real. She knows what injustice is. She reads the newspaper and sees that a policewoman who looks just like her sister-in-law is being rebuked for the obviously accidental death of an older woman (who can't be from around here, she looks so out of place).

Our world is shaped by the stories we encounter. This is not something that applies only to readers or certain types of people, rather it's a trait shared by all humans across every culture on earth. Storytelling - in some form or other - has guided mankind since our first days.

Storytelling has also always had another power, one that has not yet fully been unlocked. This is the power of expansion.

Like me, the hypothetical girl/woman described above, will never be able to meet everyone on earth. Like me, she will navigate life doing the best she can with the tools she has. She will look at people and make connections to what she knows. She will make decisions based on these connections. She will recognize the humanity in other's based on her experiences.

And like me, she will fail.

She will fail because it is impossible to know everyone. Humans are complex and baffling. Our lives are huge, but they are also tiny and isolated. There will always be things in this world that are foreign to me, types of people I have never met, situations I've never imagined, beliefs I could never conceive of. Some of these things will be frightening in their foreignness, in their difference from what I believe in.

The question then becomes: How do I learn to set aside that fear?

Stories provide us with settings that we could otherwise never encounter. Not only can stories force us to see the world through the eyes of someone different or foreign, it can introduce us to entire contexts that we might not have otherwise encountered. These don't have to be fiction and they don't have to be literature. I learned about Chinese marketplaces from a friend who wandered through them. I learned about the struggles of being blind from the side of a blind friend. I learned about the discrimination against queer people from friends who almost didn't have the words.

But I don't know everyone. I learned about the changing landscape of modern Nigeria from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I learned about Georgia's post-independence struggle in the early 1990s from Nana Ekvtimishvili's film In Bloom. I've learned about ancient Korea from Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard, about the struggles of being black in upper-class 18th century England through the film Belle, about one girl's experience with mental illness from the television show My Mad Fat Diary, and so on.

And this, of course, does nothing in regards to stories that simply normalize things I'm not familiar with. Sometimes, just the act of showing that something different to one person is, in fact, normal is critical, whether it relates to race, ethnicity, religion, physical ability, gender and identity, sexuality, or class background. Stories allow us to recognize humanity in people we've never met, in situations we've never encountered, in cultures we previously didn't understand.

These all combat hate, and this is one way in which we fight.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How We Fight

Hello friends.

This is a book blog. It's a book blog that focuses predominantly on a specific subset of literature in translation these days, looking at the women in translation project and guiding readers throughout Women in Translation Month. This was never an especially personal blog, nor was it meant to be a political one. But it morphed along the way. As my literary focus shifted, so too did the political nature of that interest. Fighting for representation of more women writers in translation in our cultural consciousness is, after all, inherently political. Seeking the power of stories is inherently political.

Another shift is coming.

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, I find myself seeking more than just words. More than just comfort in a frightening time. I find myself seeking action and results. I find myself frustrated with a world in which it is too easy to let hate triumph. So it's time to do some things.

While the "How We Fight" series will predominantly focus on the arts, it will not be limited to books. Rather, I want to look at the power of stories. Books are hugely important in providing us with a means of seeing through the eyes of someone very different from us, but they're not alone. Television, film, webseries, photography, etc. all carry great weight in how we learn about the world around us. About ourselves and others.

This series will look at things that we as individuals can do and changes that we as a society must make. It will attempt to focus on books and stories that contribute to this cause. Please join me. Let's fight back.