Wednesday, September 5, 2018

DNF | "House Arrest"

Noa Yedlin's novel בעלת הבית (House Arrest) won Israel's top literary prize in 2013. It's a novel that had been largely praised and admired, plus it seemed like Yedlin was an up-and-coming star I ought to actually read (I've had her earlier novel, Shelf Life unread for... years). It turned out that the same thing that kept me from ever actually getting around to reading Shelf Life (an odd pretentiousness that has kept me away, again, for literally 7ish years) kept me from getting into House Arrest.

The truth is, I abandoned House Arrest around a third of the way through not even because I thought I couldn't finish it. The style is clear enough that I probably could have managed to finish, plus there's a certain swiftness to the writing that makes it generally pretty "readable" (ah, that word). But here's the thing: I got stuck somewhere around a third, my attention drifting instead to other books. And when I came back to finish reading the book for my "partially read" challenge in the Great Book Buying Ban, I realized I didn't want to.

I didn't want to spend any more time with the insufferable characters that populate House Arrest, I didn't want to have to listen to the obnoxious main character (Asa), a man so pretentious I almost wished he really existed in real life just so I could smack him. I didn't want to spend any more time in a book that feels like it starts 70 pages too late, taking its time to "establish" the characters before getting to the drama that the back cover has already revealed.

One of the things I've been trying to work on in recent years is abandoning books more easily. And it's true, sometimes my motivations aren't entirely fair. Like here. House Arrest probably gets better not long after the point I abandoned it. I'm sure the internal character conflicts grow more interesting. Maybe even the characters themselves become less annoying (though I doubt it). I kept feeling like there was something I was missing; here is a novel that presents one of the more privileged portions of Israeli society, yet continuously casts them as hero-victims. There seemed to be such a huge dissonance between the world Yedlin expects me to recognize and the real world. This, I should note, is actually quite common in "well-received" Israeli literature, particularly of the sort that wins the Sapir prize (indeed, I rarely like the books they select, and even those I did like fit this description).

And so... I abandoned House Arrest. Maybe someday in the (far off) future I'll try to read it again. For now, I have removed the bookmark, placed the book on a high, far-off shelf, and dusted my hands.

Friday, August 31, 2018

WITMonth Day 31 | Where do we go from here?

I always have mixed feelings about the end of WITMonth. Part of me is thrilled that another successful WITMonth has come and gone, with readers actively engaged, excited, and taking part in the women in translation project, seeking out new books, and learning more. Part of me is melancholic, remembering that despite the world of good that may come out of WITMonth (and I do believe that every single book read or discussed throughout WITMonth is a wonderful world within itself), it remains a sequestered achievement, with most readers and literary outlets still swayed by existing biases throughout the year. And another part of me is anxious that nothing is going to change, that despite our best efforts and the increased profile of WITMonth (growing from year to year!), things remain static and that women writers from around the world will always fall behind, either in favor of men writers in translation or in favor of English-language women writers.

I've already discussed some of my goals for the women in translation project's future, how much I'd like to see it go beyond a minor niche and become a reasonable part of the larger feminist diversity movement. But that's not the only goal I think we need to have in mind as readers. Recall that WITMonth is our opportunity to broaden our horizons. That means that yes, we should make sure that we're reading books that extend beyond Europe, Eastern Asia, and Argentina. Yes, we should make sure we're reading books by and about queer women (or nonbinary or trans people). Yes, we should include books by and about disabled women. Children's literature. Genre literature. Nonfiction. Feminist texts and science books and history.

It also means honing in on the fact that WITMonth should not be limited to English-language readers and bloggers. Readers should feel at home discussing and promoting women writers from their own languages, as well as translations between different languages. The same way that I discuss Israeli women writers who have yet to be translated, I would love to see readers promoting Sinhalese women writers or Thai women writers or women who write in indigenous languages. I've loved seeing tweets this year in languages I could only partially understand; I would love to see many more such posts and discussions. This isn't - and should not be - an English-limited project.

I've also already talked about how I'd like to see things change. Literary gatekeepers need to step up and take action. Readers need to hold them accountable. These are all perfectly doable and they should not be limited to August. WITMonth? More like WITallthetime!

As for myself...

Five WITMonths. Five years of hosting this wonderful project. I'm not quite ready to give it up yet, but I do have to admit that it's grown well beyond me at this point. At the very least, I am confident that WITMonth will take place (and successfully!) even if I do not post daily next year. And I may take a few steps back. You - all of you - have made WITMonth happen in the most incredible and beautiful way. We are building a movement here that is growing by the day. Bookstores, libraries, publishers, reviewers, and readers - together, we are all making it easier to find and read books by women writers in translation.

August may be over, but WITMonth never really is. Not for me, anyways.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

WITMonth Day 30 | 15 WITMonth Hits


Well, here we are. Almost at the end of WITMonth, wrapping things up, getting ready for the coming year. But what about books that have already been popular? What about all the books that didn't make it into specific genre lists, or suddenly had a resurgence in popularity among readers, or have remained staples throughout all five WITMonths? Don't those books deserve some attention too? Certainly! And so today's list is a list of 15 books that have been (and remain!) big WITMonth winners among readers. Some are very recent releases, others have been around for a few years, and others still are modern classics that continue to be popular throughout WITMonth. Of course these are not the only WITMonth hits, but I decided to opt for titles that haven't already been listed elsewhere this month in my recommendation lists and go for slightly different choices. Ready?

  1. The Summer Book - Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal): Vignettes of a young girl and her grandmother's slow summer on a small Finnish island.
  2. The Vegetarian - Han Kang (tr. from Korean by Deborah Smith): The gradual erosion of a woman who abruptly decides to go vegetarian.
  3. Go, Went, Gone - Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): An exploration of the European refugee crisis through the eyes of a German professor.
  4. Flights - Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Jennifer Croft): A series of separate stories and anecdotes, building on the idea of flights and travels.
  5. The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): Gentle friendship and family blossoms between a professor with an inability to retain new memories, his housekeeper, and her son.  
  6. Last Words from Montmarte - Qiu Miaojin (tr. from Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich): The Taiwanese classic of queer love, heartbreak, and sorrow.
  7. My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante (tr. from Italian by Ann Goldstein): Volume one of the international phenomenon, introducing two childhood friends and tracking their lives and struggles as they grow to adulthood.
  8. Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto (tr. from Japanese by Megan Backus): A young woman turns to cooking as a means to channel her grief, as well as finding a new family.
  9. People in the Room - Norah Lange (tr. from Spanish by Charlotte Whittle): An atmospheric, dreamy series of imaginations. 
  10. The Hunger Angel - Herta Müller (tr. from German by Philip Boehm): Political, tense, and unrelenting, the story of a young man sent to a Soviet work camp.
  11. Panty - Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. from Bengali by Arunava Sinha): The feverish, loosely written account of a woman caught in a fantasy, or perhaps simply reality.
  12. Umami - Laia Jufresa (tr. from Spanish by Sophie Hughes): In a small housing complex, residents fumble through new and changing realities, grief, and moving on, with stories unfolding in parallel and in reverse.
  13. Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye (tr. from French by John Fletcher): Three stories detailing the lives of three women, living between two worlds and caught in complicated circumstances as they attempt to survive.
  14. Eve Out of Her Ruins - Ananda Devi (tr. from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman): A spare, powerful account of the struggles of young Mauritians, coming of age through violence and anguish.
  15. August - Romina Paula (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft): A young woman returns to her childhood hometown to confront the ghosts of her past.
I could easily have made this list longer. More expansive. Frankly, it could also be more inclusive! But these are definitely among the most popular books in the WITMonth tags and I thought they deserved their moment in the sun. And you, dear readers? What are your WITMonth hits?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WITMonth Day 29 | Going mainstream

I often worry about WITMonth being too niche. It feels like something that shouldn't be particularly complicated, yet it's so foreign to so many readers that there clearly is something about reading women in translation that hasn't quite broken into the mainstream. Literature in translation at large remains this odd sort of genre (even though it isn't a genre!), only occasionally breaking into the mainstream.

I've had a lot of goals for WITMonth over the years. Most of them have even come to pass, with things like the new releases database, recommendation lists, library and bookstore recommendation tables, and more growing out of this once smaller venture. There have also been new things, like this year's WITreadathon on BookTube, which has been an absolute delight to follow (where I've been able) and which I'd love to see happen more in the future as well.

But I think I'm left with only one more real goal, and it's a fairly straight-forward (if not simple) one: I want to see WITMonth go mainstream.

Does that make me sound like a sell-out? Or like I'm aiming too high? Because truthfully, I recognize that going mainstream is a lofty goal. After all, this is a project that focuses on books that aren't typically in the public's eye. Most literature in translation remains published by independent publishers (heck, even AmazonCrossing isn't exactly mainstream), with little widespread publicity or hype like most Anglo titles. (I say most, because of course there are huge problems within the English-language literary community as well when it comes to marginalization, but this is not my personal focus, important as it may be!) To then select from within this small category of books even fewer books that just so happen to be by women/trans/nonbinary authors is almost laughably specific. How could this ever become a commonplace movement?

I believe that it's possible, though. I really do. I've seen WITMonth grow from ten bloggers cheerfully doing their thing to a worldwide movement across multiple platforms with hundreds of participants and active involvement on the part of publishers, translators, booksellers, and libraries. WITMonth has not, it's true, been extensively covered in most of the mainstream media book pages, but it has been mentioned in a few over the years. There are no universally beloved celebrities touting the importance of reading women in translation, yes, but there are passionate readers around the world (literally!) who are encountering this project for the first time every day. And most readers eagerly embrace this project, recognizing their own prior biases and seeking a way to rectify them. Readers want to encounter new worlds, from new perspectives.

My recurring theme this WITMonth has been about action, whether when addressing publisher imbalances or our own reading biases. And before that, I also talked a lot about why I felt that what was missing from WITMonth was the larger feminist movement. In my mind, these two themes are how WITMonth can go from being a niche, popular blog-movement to a worldwide phenomenon, recognizing the need to promote women writers from around the entire globe. It's time for literary-minded feminists to fight for internationalism as a part of intersectionality, it's time for gatekeepers to acknowledge their importance and help open the gates, and it's time for readers to make clear that things cannot stay static forever.

There's nothing niche about the concept of women writers in translation, after all, and there shouldn't be anything niche about recognizing the need to promote those writers within a system that periodically disadvantages them. There is no reason that every reader wouldn't be able to find excellent books by women in translation, from all over the world (remember all those "10 Recommended" lists this month?), which means there is no reason that every reader in the world won't be able to take part in - and fall in love with - WITMonth.

Let's go mainstream, folks.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

WITMonth Day 28 | 10 Recommended Thrillers/Mysteries


One of the most popular genres across the world is undeniably thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. Ranging from cozily whimsical to terrifyingly cold-blooded, these genres have become increasingly prevalent in recent years within the literature in translation niche, boosted in large part by an uptick in Scandinavian crime literature in particular. These are also genres that have long been well represented by women writers from all over the world, writing in many different languages!

  1. Out - Natsuo Kirino (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): A crime sets in motion a psychological thriller set in the lower-middle classes on the outskirts of Japanese society.
  2. Fever Dream - Samanta Schweblin (tr. from Spanish by Megan McDowell): Not a thriller in the most traditional meaning of the word, but a pulsing, eerily suspenseful novella.
  3. The Good Son - You-jeong Jeong (tr. from Korean Chi-Young Kim): This psychological thriller seeks to understand the mind of a killer, from his point of view.
  4. Last Rituals - Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (tr. from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder): When a young man is brutally murdered, a lawyer sets out to investigate, finding herself involved in a world of historical intrigues and dangerous rituals.
  5. Blind Goddess - Anne Holt (tr. from Norwegian by Tom Geddes): A tale of violence, crime, and corruption, led by a lesbian detective trying to uncover the truth.
  6. Thursday Night Widows - Claudia Piñeiro (tr. from Spanish by Miranda France): Three women in an affluent upper-middle class community find themselves widowed, following the murder of their respective husbands.
  7. The Lady Agnès Mystery - Andrea H. Japp (tr. from French by Lorenza García): A historical mystery set in Medieval France, full of intrigue and religious danger.
  8. In the Distance With You - Carla Guelfenbein (tr. from Spanish by John Cullen): A literary thriller centered around Chile's history and a mysterious author.
  9. Confessions - Kanae Minato (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): After the death of her daughter, a teacher seeks her revenge on those responsible: her students.
  10. Eva's Eye - Karin Fossum (tr. from Norwegian by James Anderson): The "Norwegian Queen of Crime" in a set of two murders and the single mother who gets caught up in the investigation.
You'll perhaps have noticed a few things about this list. First, it's rather high on titles from very specific parts of the world (and much lower from others). Second, it unfortunately doesn't have all that much on the cozy end of the scale. And third, there are, unfortunately, a few cases of dead women here (though I tried to avoid them as much as possible)... However, it's important to remember that with crime fiction going through a major boom right now, women in translation follow. Many prominent women crime writers from Scandinavia have been translated as a result of the increased interest in "Scandi noir", and hopefully many more from the rest of the world will soon follow!

Monday, August 27, 2018

WITMonth Day 27 | More things from other people!

Lots of amazing things still happening around the internet, even as WITMonth begins to wind down:

And of course, as always, there's so much I'm still leaving off. But WITMonth isn't really limited just to August, is it? We'll just keep going into September!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

WITMonth Day 26 | 10 Recommended Kids and YA Books


Literature in translation is, alas, too often associated with stuffy, long, pretentious novels by dead Russian men, and as something uniquely mature. But what most readers don't realize is that many childhood classics from around the world actually do get translated and shared, even in English! Children are not lacking for any literature in translation, whether it's picture books, chapter books, or YA epics. While most of the translated literature by women writers has thus far come out of Europe, there is still plenty from around the world as well. Let's dive in.

  1. Maresi - Maria Turtschaninoff (tr. from Finnish Swedish by A. A. Prime): A dark but ultimately optimistic YA fantasy that marks the beginning of a fiercely feminist series.
  2. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren (tr. from Swedish by Florence Lamborn, among others): The children's classic full of adventure and excitement continues to charm and delight children to this day, without them even realizing its original language isn't English!
  3. Samir and Yonatan - Daniella Carmi (tr. from Hebrew by Yael Lotan): Two boys - Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish - in a children's hospital begin to form a friendship in the shadow of Middle Eastern conflicts of the 1990s.
  4. Tomorrow - Nadine Kaadan (tr. from Arabic by the author): The story of how a child sees war around him and live on. (Expected publication: September 1st, 2018)
  5.  The Happiness of Kati - Jane Vejjajiva (tr. from Thai by Prudence Borthwick): A girl comes to terms with her absent mother's advancing illness, while finding her own path to happiness.
  6. Wonderful Feels Like This - Sara Lövestam (tr. from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg): A music-loving teen befriends an elderly former jazz player, as their stories unfold side-by-side.
  7. Moriboto: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi (tr. from Japanese by Cathy Hirono): A prince, his bodyguard, and a hero's journey, wrapped up in mythology and subversive gender roles.
  8. Inkheart - Cornelia Funke (tr. from German by Anthea Bell): The magic of books literally comes alive in a swashbuckling, fantastical series.
  9. An Elephantasy - María Elena Walsh (tr. from Spanish by Daniel Hahn): No adventure can manage to not be whimsical when an elephant is involved!
  10. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow - Faïza Guène (tr. from French by Sarah Adams): A cynical teenager comes of age in the suburbs of Paris, struggling to understand her place in the world.
It's important to note that this list was also very difficult to compile, and that for a field allegedly "dominated by women", children's and YA literature in translation remain sadly almost as imbalanced as adult literature when it comes to women writers. Kidlit and YA are critical in normalizing the existence not only of literature in translation as a concept, but also in allowing children and young adults to experience worlds utterly different from their own... but also the same! In the same way that kids "need diverse books", kids also need books that reflect the wonderful range and diversity of the whole world (and not just one language).

I've left off a few of the big ones here (Heidi, the Moomins...), but what else do you think is missing? What are your favorite kidlit or YA books written by women in translation? And if you read in languages other than English as well, what kidlit/YA books from your native language by a woman writer would you like to see translated into different languages?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

WITMonth Day 25 | Stats (part 3) | What we need to do now

By now, I hope you've read the women in translation publishing stats for 2017 and for 2013-2017. I hope you've seen a few of the responses I got from publishers regarding their low translation rates of women writers. I hope you've thought a lot about where we are as an English-language literary environment, that the great improvement of the past few years (in which the women in translation movement has grown and hopefully also become prominent) has not yet appeared in publishing itself. Nor has it entirely appeared in literary journals, either, with most review outlets and journals still largely reviewing with a bias towards men writers in translation.

The fact is that many readers still also struggle to read more books by women in translation, whether simply because there aren't all that many books to choose from in the first place (true for translations at large as well, but there are still more than twice as many books by men writers for each book by a woman in translation) or because those few books that do get released don't necessarily get the same attention in the media as comparable men writers do. The situation is improving somewhat in terms of media (Words Without Borders and LARB are good examples of journals that achieve a pretty good level of parity), but there's no denying that the overall trend is somewhat stalled for publishing and it doesn't seem like it'll get better by itself. Most of the publishers with the worst translation rates of women writers don't seem to have made any particular effort in improving their statistics (though of course I did not contact everyone...), nor do a few of them seem particularly bothered by the situation.

So here's what we need to do now:

Hold publishers accountable.

Part of the reason I decided to email publishers to ask for their statements on the women in translation problem was to find out, quite simply, whether they had thought about the issue at all and whether it concerned them. What we learned from the three responses that I got back is that some publishers do care and are making active efforts to improve the situation. I particularly appreciated the frank response from NYRB, who pointed to precisely the need to seek out forgotten or waylaid books by women writers, specifically in spite of the difficulty. This should be true, I feel, for all publishers of "niche" or otherwise marginalized types of books.

But alongside those publishers that do care, we found out that there are publishers for whom there does not exist a "women in translation" problem (and not because they publish books by men and women to equal degree). It's not for nothing that neither Archipelago Books or Dalkey Archive responded to my emails; these were not my first attempts to contact either publishing house about the matter. It's possible that my emails simply never reached their targets or that they've been set aside during the August slump, but... it's time to hold publishers accountable. This means all publishers that fail to meet a basic standard, no matter how defensive they get or how wonderful we find them in general.

There's no easy way to do this, unfortunately. The fact is that even the most egregiously imbalanced publishers of literature in translation still publish phenomenal books by WIT that deserve praise and attention (not to mention those excellent books by men in translation as well). Archipelago, after all, is responsible for bringing to light one of my favorite books of the past few years (Cockroaches). Europa for its part (as they mention in their response) have played a huge role in mainstreaming literature in translation (and women in translation specifically) with authors such as Elena Ferrante and Muriel Barbery. Dalkey has done tremendous work in bringing more international literature to the front stage in the first place, with certain series including books by women from around the world. The same can also be said of academic publishers and just about any of the other publishers of literature in translation. There is no doubt that when publishers that rarely publish women writers get around to doing so, the results are worthwhile.

It's just that it isn't enough. And moreover, simply letting those good books erase the fact that these publishers have embarrassingly large gender gaps in their catalogs benefits absolutely no one, nor should publishers be let off the hook just because of it. Let's be clear about something: There is no lack of literature by women writers from around the world. There is no lack of books by women writers from almost every language on Earth. There are imbalances, yes, but why should those imbalances make their way into translations when most publishers are selecting at most a handful of books to translate from around the world every single year? Perhaps it is time for publishers to prioritize books by women writers. Perhaps it is time for publishers to look at their yearly lists and make sure that yes, parity is being reached. Perhaps it is, finally, time for quotas, despite however much I may have resisted them in the past.

In a sentence: Most publishers of literature in translation need to be publishing more women writers. That's it. That is all they need to be doing.

But the most important thing that readers can - and should - do is make their position very clear. It's time for us to stop tip-toeing around publishers that don't translate women writers, whether they are major publishers of literature in translation (Dalkey, Archipelago, Pushkin, Gallic Books), big-name publishers that occasionally publish translations (Knopf, HarperCollins, FSG), or academic publishers (Yale University Press, Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press). It is time for us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that low translation rates year after year after year don't magically add up to balance when you look over time. (And with regards to academic publishers, it is worth remembering that the stats are actually a lot worse than they seem from my stats posts, since those do not take into account retranslations of classics or nonfiction titles, both of which are categories overwhelmingly dominated by men.)

WITMonth has been extraordinary for a lot of reasons (in my mind, but I suppose I'm rather biased!), but I think one of the things that it really does brilliantly is give people the exposure they need to a lot of books by women writers in translation. While, yes, some readers sequester their women in translation to August alone and rarely read WIT beyond that, most end up with so many new additions to the TBR that they inevitably shift more of their reading towards parity. Even if it hasn't been enough to cause a significant market shift, there are literally hundreds of new readers around the world who are aware of the fact that fewer women writers than men are translated into English (not to mention other languages!) and have been exposed to new and brilliant books by those existing WIT as a result of WITMonth and the women in translation movement at large.

And readers have power. The more we purchase books by women writers in translation - during WITMonth or throughout the year - and the more we discuss these books in equal measure with books by men writers, the more publishers will see that readers really do care. The more publishers are also explicitly contacted and challenged for their imbalances, the more (I hope) they will begin to fix the situation.

Readers also have a role to play.

It's not just that we can influence publishers (though that's huge). We as readers (and reviewers and bloggers and vloggers and feminists) need to begin challenging ourselves. Ask yourself: How many of the books I read per year are in translation or international? Of the literature in translation that I read, how many of those books are by women writers? In the same way that diversity movements have (rightly) pushed for a broader range of books reflecting the world's diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, religion, and more, we also need to recognize that true diversity means reading books from all over the world, in all languages, and by all genders. We will inevitably have biases in our reading and it is highly likely that most readers will still have Anglo-preferences (especially considering how few YA/genre books actually get translated versus how many are read...), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to move towards something better.

So, dear readers, I ask that we also pledge to read more balanced ourselves. WITMonth is wonderful as an opportunity to put the spotlight on women writers in translation, but it should not be the only time we read WIT. Nor should we allow ourselves to simply follow existing publishing biases without doing our own work in selecting books with parity in mind. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that since embarking on the women in translation project, I have read significantly more WIT than MIT. Yet my Goodreads Translations shelf is only just reaching parity, simply because so much of my youth focused on men writers. Don't forget that parity still does not equal equality!)

We have a long way to go before we reach parity. A much longer (likely impossible) path continues from there to true equality. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I do mean all of us - readers, translators, and publishers alike. Each of us can and must do our part. Whether it is ensuring our individual parity or publicly demanding more from those around us (particularly those in gatekeeping positions), the time has come. We must - each of us - contact our favorite publishers, whether to praise them for their efforts and improvements or to point out their flaws and demand better. We must make our positions clear. Address our own biases. Change our own behavior, if need be.

As I said in my previous post: No more.

Friday, August 24, 2018

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Publishers respond

I left off yesterday with a cliffhanger, having presented data that shows the degree to which publishers of literature in translation have failed women writers in translation. Seeing these numbers year after year is more than disheartening, it's infuriating. At a certain point, I have to wonder what else there is left. Do I simply accept this as the industry standard and continue to promote those 30% of books by women writers that do get translated into English? Do I step back and not point to this injustice, simply because too few books in translation get published at all? Do I continue to disregard the pervasive imbalance in publishing that sees women in translation (and particularly non-European women in translation) as rarities, rather than the perfectly prevalent thing that they are?


I contacted a handful of the major publishers of literature in translation described in yesterday's post, presenting them with this data and asking for public comment. I only emailed publishers with easily navigated websites in which I felt I could verify my data personally, so this of course offers only a narrow view of publisher responses. Someday, I hope to contact the rest of the repeat-offender publishers. (Feel free to do that as well, I think this is a case of "the more, the merrier".) Even with these limitations, I found the responses (and silences...) quite revealing. 

First up, Europa Editions initially pointed to 2017 as a unique outlier, citing a higher rate of publication of English-language women writers and translations of books by women from two new countries for them ("And it was the year we published our first novel in translation from the Japanese (written by a woman) and our first Mexican novel in translation (also written by a woman), and both of those books were high priorities for us so we tried to clear some space around them."). As the five-year data shows, this is only partially accurate: Yes, 2017 is an outlier, but it is not the first year that they've stumbled in terms of publishing women in translation. The official comment from editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds pointed to Europa Edition's involvement in WITMonth at large, and their perceived role in the publishing industry overall: "Our commitment to publishing women writers is hardly an august enthusiasm and it is certainly not circumscribed by our affinity for the goals of the WIT initiative. It is year-round, multifaceted, decades-long, and, I would argue, has done quite a lot to change industry- and market-thinking about the prospects for women in translation in recent years."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have omitted from this statement a single sentence at the end that I feel characterized my original email as an attack on the publisher. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly remind publishers that these stats are in no way meant to be a declaration of war or as any sort of indication that your publishing house is not making any effort. They are, quite simply, a reflection of reality, and if that reality shows that your publishing house isn't doing very well, then I will continue to comment on it and expect better. I will get back to this...

Next, New Directions responded that they were surprised by the low rate, and hoped that the rates had been improving (which, as I reported earlier, they have somewhat!). They reaffirmed that they "are trying", and cite the women in translation movement (and global stats like those I have been publishing here over the past several years) as having "influenced our approach to the issue, which I believe is reflected in more current lists. (As I bet you know, it’s a time-consuming process, finding the books you want to translate from abroad and then getting them translated, edited, presented in catalogs, and out into the world.)  I think ND is moving in a good direction." As I mentioned earlier, this effort is clearly seen in the gradually improving ratios at New Directions, and it is gratifying to know that this has been borne of a concentrated effort. Given where we are, this how it should be.

Finally, New York Review Books responded with a similar acknowledgement of the situation, writing: "It’s pretty disappointing. We should really be doing better. This is not meant as a defense or justification but just to note that we don’t do new fiction and the history of literature is that most books published in all languages have been written by men, which is the source of our books, whether reissues or new translations. Again this should just be a push to work harder to find good female writers from the past." This, too, is an excellent recognition of the problem at hand and I hope that we will begin to see a change in the actual publishing rates in the near future.

Neither Archipelago Books nor Dalkey Archive responded to my Tweets or emails. This is not the first time I have attempted to contact either publisher and received no response.

There are a few takeaways from these responses. First, it is wonderful that publishers recognize that they have an imbalance and are searching for ways to improve them. Really. It is absolutely wonderful. I love that many publishers have embraced WITMonth and I think that it's absolutely the right first step in becoming more aware. Each publisher also pointed to their achievements in publishing women in translation until now (as well as forthcoming titles), which I also think is pretty great. It's good to promote books by WIT, keep at it!

Second: Defensiveness is not a tactic. The truth is that sometimes - typically - human beings mess up. I can say that as a reader, I know that I don't read nearly as diversely as I'd like to. I ultimately read very little queer lit, not enough Southeast Asian literature, etc... We are all influenced by bigger forces than our own taste or interest. Publishers are no different. But pointing out that we have these biases isn't an attack, nor is it an erasure of those few books you have published by women in translation. (I'll get back to this later as well.) 

Here's the problem: We all know that it's not enough to simply state your support of a project. Archipelago, for instance, are one of those publishers that have used the #WITMonth tag in order to promote books translated by women (and not women in translation), all the while steadfastly ignoring any and all attempts to communicate with them regarding their abysmal publication rates. The defensive stance that many publishers take in response to literally pointing out the facts to them is disappointing in large part because it shows a lack of commitment to the cause itself, where the bottom line is ultimately consistent parity. It's not enough to have published men and women in equal rates for one year.

But what do we do to make that better? Europa suggest - and perhaps with good reason - that this isn't something that can be solved with a snap of the fingers, rather that there is a process. To be honest, I don't think that this approach is inherently wrong. In the years I've worked on this project, I've seen how many factors play into the global imbalance. It's not inaccurate to say that the US translation market is influenced by markets in other countries, biases in other countries, and imbalances in other countries. But as I've explained many times, I also think that it's a cop-out to use those as an excuse not to publish more women in translation in the Anglosphere (or other languages, for that matter!). Translation is already so highly selective and curated that yes, it might require some more effort on the part of publishers. 

But the time has come for all of us to do our parts in ending this imbalance.

To be continued...

(Yes, I'm sorry, but this is just getting really long and I want it to be as coherent as possible and it's already pretty messy!)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

WITMonth Day 23 | Stats (part 3)

Introduction
Here's the thing about math: Cold as it may be, it can often hide pervasive truths. Numbers don't lie, but they can mislead. They can omit. And sometimes, even as they tell the truth, they hide its depth and scope.

I've been publishing yearly statistics for a while now, but each time it feels like a snapshot. Every year, I get comments along the lines of "okay, but this is just an outlier" or "the average is skewed" or something to that extent. If we're being fair, these arguments aren't wrong. If a publisher is consistently doing good work in terms of publishing women in translation and suddenly has a bad year, isn't it a little silly to single them out? Wouldn't we expect to see some fluctuation in the rates of publication and publication trends themselves?

And so I did what any reasonable scientist would do: I decided to look at the bigger picture. Instead of analyzing data year-by-year, I decided to look at the past five years as a whole (2013-2017), representing the five WITMonths that mark this project.

The problem is that the data doesn't actually change. Yes, numbers may hide nuances, but in this case... they don't. That generally unchanged average of 28-30% publication of women in translation? It's unchanged because most of the prominent publishers of literature in translation haven't changed anything. Not in their averages, and not year by year. As you will see, there's a disheartening lack of progress. Hopefully seeing these numbers laid out will trigger the realization that yes, something needs to change.

Results


The first thing I decided to look at was the total number of books published from 2013-2017. I selected major publishers based on their overall translation publication rates, and mapped out the flat sum of books published by men or by women. As you can see, overall publication rates vary widely between different publishers, with some "major" publishers only releasing 15 or so books over five years. Even so, it's very easy to see that the overwhelming majority of publishers not only publish more men than women in translation, but do so at staggering rates. This becomes even more apparent in the figure below:


If 30% has been the approximate base rate of publishing women writers in translation for every year since 2013, it seems likely that most major publishers would simply hover around this rate. It turns out that this isn't actually true, and that the influence of a single publisher - AmazonCrossing - is even greater than I had previously assumed (alongside the significantly more minor effect of smaller publishers, which I did not include in these counts). If we take the grand sums of all of the top publishers, the rates of publication of women writers look fairly similar to those yearly values: 31% books by women writers. But if we remove AmazonCrossing, the rate fairly plummets to 24%.

It's not hard to see why. Out of the major publishers, only two even reach 50% (Deep Vellum at a solid 1:1, AmazonCrossing at 61%), with 5 additional publishers crossing the industry average of 30% (Other Press, Open Letter, HMH, Bitter Lemon, and Atria). There are then a few publishers that hover around the industry average (Europa Editions, Seagull Books, Graywolf, Minotaur) and publish just over 25% women in translation, followed by a shocking sequence of 15 big-name, high-prestige, acclaimed publishers of literature in translation that don't even come close. Publishers like Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago, Gallic Books, Knopf... it's not even an imbalance, as much as an outright lack.

This made me wonder whether I was missing something fundamental. In order to make sure these numbers weren't as a result of a single outlier, I looked at each of the five years individually for six major publishers, going both by sheer numbers of books translated and publishers who were frequently associated with publishing literature in translation.






There are a few interesting takeaways from this breakdown. First: It's interesting to note that AmazonCrossing wasn't always as focused on publishing women in translation as it is today. It also shows that the 60% rate cited above is a low-ball, shifted somewhat because of 2013. Since 2014, they have published comfortably more women writers than men in translation. They remain the only major publisher to do so. (Remember that many smaller publishers such as Feminist Press consistently focus on books by women writers, even if I do not include them specifically in these stats posts!)

Things get a little complicated after that. I actually first want to highlight Open Letter, since they're a bit of an interesting case in this group. With an overall rate of 34%, they fall somewhat on the side of better publication of women writers. But as you can see, this mostly follows a back-and-forth fluctuation - one above, one below. They also never quite make it to 50%. In my mind, Open Letter serves as a great reminder of what happens if you just follow the market flow without any critical assessment. This is the ultimate baseline... and no, it isn't good enough.

Next we have publishers like Europa Editions and Seagull Books. Both have rates just under the industry average (~28%), where it seems like a single year pushes that number just a bit lower (for Seagull, 2015; Europa, 2017). Even so, neither publisher quite manages to break free of the industry average. Europa does have one year of publishing parity, but it too is an outlier in a different way - it's the year in which they published the least amount of books in translation overall. Seagull's situation is a little more erratic, again showing how prevalent the baseline 30% really is.

In the next category, we have an interesting, singular example of a publisher that has been improving in their stats from year to year: New Directions. Despite publishing approximately the same number of books every year since 2013, they have steadily increase the share of books by women that are released per year. While they have yet to crack the base threshold (and have an abysmal 19% rate overall from 2013-2015), there is a clear upward trend. New Directions thus emerges as a unique beacon of hope when it comes to publishing women writers in translation, suggesting that this movement may actually lead to concrete change in the near future (I will discuss this more in depth in tomorrow's post).

Finally, we have a series of publishers that not only have low average rates, not only seem to publish very few women writers in translation, not only don't really change from year to year, but also simply go entire years without publishing a single book by women in translation. Take Archipelago, which does not actually publish all that many books in translation every year (but are uniquely associated with translated literature) as an example. This is a publisher that comfortably did not publish a single book by a woman writer in translation in both 2013 and 2015. Dalkey Archive is its counter, a publisher that puts out a massive amount of literature in translation every year, yet also managed to go the entirety of 2014 without publishing a single book by a woman writer in translation (I've written about this before, of course, quite specifically). Gallic Books, Pushkin Press, and NYRB all also have at least one year in which no women in translation were published. Interestingly, for both NYRB and Gallic Books, years in which women weren't published amount to the years in which they published fewer books overall. This should not be an excuse, however; books by women in translation are not simply add-ons, with room leftover only after the men have had their chance. In the other direction, Pushkin Press published its highest number of books in 2015, the same year it published zero books by women in translation.

There is, however, important context missing behind this data. First: The wonderful Three Percent Database on which I based these numbers has its own biases, for instance the limited focus on fiction and poetry, the lack of YA/children's literature, the omission of previously released/translated titles... Several of these publishers (Pushkin, Archipelago, NYRB) publish many additional books in translation that simply aren't getting counted here. However. I looked over the catalogs of each of these publishers, specifically those books that do not make it into the Three Percent Database. The situation not only does not much improve, it often gets worse. Archipelago, for instance, has an entire publishing line specifically for children's literature, in which I found a rate of below 20% (children's literature! that field allegedly so dominated by women!). For many academic-associated publishers, the situation is far worse, as there is a huge imbalance in nonfiction translations.

W - women, M - men, B - both

These numbers are, quite frankly, enraging. They demonstrate an across-the-board lack of interest in the women in translation project, alongside the global stagnation I've described in previous posts. Publishers of literature in translation are supposed to be showing us the best that the world has to offer, but how can that possibly be true if we are only seeing a tiny fraction? (And don't forget that an overwhelming slice of these titles is from Western/Northern Europe!) Something has to change.

...and so I decided to do something about it.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

WITMonth Day 22 | 10 Recommended 20th Century Classics


We've covered older classics, but what about books from last century? Hundreds of thousands of brilliant books by women from around the world were written in the 20th century, so this list will of course be woefully incomplete. But it can be a jumping off point!

  1. The Complete Stories - Clarice Lispector (tr. from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson): A stellar collection of a 20th century icon, spanning works that weird, wonderful, and powerful.
  2. Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset (tr. from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, among others): The historical epic that remains popular to this day, detailing the lives of ordinary women in late medieval Norway.
  3. The Bridge of Beyond - Simone Schwarz-Bart (tr. from French by Barbara Bray): A transcendent, powerful, and absolutely unique novel about the memory of horror, within a life of beauty.
  4. History - Elsa Morante (tr. from Italian by William Weaver): History, but only of a certain time and place, lingering somewhere between the intimate story of a single family trying to survive fascist Italy, as well as the larger story of Europe during the same period.
  5. Woman at Point Zero - Nawal El Saadawi (tr. from Arabic by Sherif Hetata): What brings a woman to the edge of her life, having murdered a man and remaining unfazed in the face of her impending execution? A stunning feminist exploration of the lives of poor, under-educated women and the struggles that emerge.
  6. So Long a Letter - Mariama Bâ (tr. from French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas): Written in the form of a letter between two friends, a Senegalese woman reflects on her life and her status as a woman.
  7. The Door - Magda Szabó (tr. from Hungarian by Len Rix): A complicated friendship with a complicated woman leads to a fascinating meditation on a writer's relationship with her housekeeper, neurosis, and life.
  8. The Book of Lamentations - Rosario Castellanos (tr. from Spanish by Esther Allen): A fictional account of an indigenous Mayan Mexican uprising, shining light on the racial boundaries, oppression, and violence that dominated the early 20th century.
  9. Masks - Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter): Two men seek the love of a young widow, whose life remains intrinsically linked to her former mother in law.
  10. Mother of 1084 - Mahasweta Devi (tr. from Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay): A mother remembers and grieves for her son, killed in during an attempted communist uprising.
There are, as usual, many more titles that could have made this list. Some have already appeared in other lists this month (The House of the Spirits, to name but one example), others may yet make future lists (The Summer Book), and others still will just have to wait their turn! What are some of your favorite 20th century books by women in translation? What do you think I've missed in this list?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Monday, August 20, 2018

WITMonth Day 20 | 10 Recommended Pre-20th Century Classics


One of the most common (dismissive) responses to WITMonth's existence is that of course there is bias, since women did not historically write as much as men. While true that women often did not have the same opportunities to write as men did, it is simply not true that women did not write at all. Nor is it true that women only began writing from a certain period and onward. In fact, women have been writing and telling stories for literally hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. The first credited novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Some of the finest ancient poetry was written by women. Not being a literary scholar or historian, it's certainly hard for me to point to the best classics by women in translation... but it's not impossible! So here is just a taste. (And keep an eye out for the 20th century edition!)
  1. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (tr. from Japanese by Royall Tyler, among others): The literal first novel, a genuine classic and cornerstone of literary culture at large!
  2. The Book of the City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. from French by Rosalind Brown-Grant, among others): Before feminism was feminism, there was Christine de Pizan, eloquently arguing for women's rights (albeit through a deeply Christian, European, and at-times narrow-minded lens).
  3. The Clouds Float North - Yu Xuanji (tr. from Chinese by David Young and Jiann I. Lin): One of China's early poets, with poems ranging from the personal to the atmospheric.
  4. The Princess of Clèves - Madame de Lafayette (tr. from French by Nancy Mitford): Romance, intrigue, and drama combine in a novel that is clearly rooted to its time period, but also surprisingly modern.
  5. Indiana - George Sand (tr. from French by Sylvia Raphael): A pre-feminist novel exploring the rights of women (and poor women) in a world that simply does not view them as worthy.
  6. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings - Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, among others): Nun, writer, proto-feminist, and scholar, Juana Inés de la Cruz is not the name of a leading Mexican prize for Spanish-language women writers for nothing!
  7. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (tr. from Japanese by Meredith McKinney): Musings on life, poetry, art, and boredom by a writer who would probably feel perfectly at home on Twitter... even though she wrote over 1000 years ago.
  8. The Appeasement of Radhika - Muddupalani (tr. from Telugu by Sandhya Mulchandani): An erotic poem about Krishna and Radha, groundbreaking in the sexual liberties its women have, as well as having been a Telugu classic for hundreds of years.
  9. Birds Without a Nest - Clorinda Matto de Turner (tr. from Spanish by J. G. H., among others): A Peruvian novel detailing the struggles of indigenous South Americans, heaping criticism on existing power structures and demanding a better future.
  10. The Book of Mahsati Ganjavi - Mahsati Ganjavi (tr. from Persian by Paul Smith): A 12th-century Persian poet and court-member, whose surviving works primarily focus on love and emotion).
Here's the thing: This list isn't easy to compile. It's not all novels. It doesn't quite cover the entire world. It's limited in terms of the backgrounds of the writers (almost all of whom were at the very top of their respective cultural classes). But it also is a list of classic women writers, and given another hour or two, I could come up with another 10, 20, or 50 more titles (especially if I let myself include a lot more European women!). There are dozens of brilliant women writers from all eras whose works have been translated into English; there are thousands still more who have yet to be translated.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

#WITMonth Day 19 | I'm tired | Thoughts

This will be an atypical blog post (certainly for WITMonth), or perhaps a blog post more akin with what a personal blog would normally look like.

As the title says, I'm tired.

In a few days, I'll be posting Part 3 of the 2018 WITMonth stats. In this post, I'll be detailing 5-year trends, looking at women in translation statistics from 2013 through 2017. This will be a long post (possibly split into two; we'll see once it's finished), with my attempt at looking at the problem more broadly and not within the limited confines of a single year. In the context of preparing this post, I have also contacted a few key publishers (mostly those that Twitter users predominantly associated with literature in translation, when I posed the question a few weeks ago) to ask for statements about women in translation and these publishers' track records.

But you have to understand something before I post these stats, and it's this: I'm tired. I'm tired of seeing that base 30-31% translation rate for women. I'm tired of having to explain why promoting individual titles does not make up for a global lack. I'm tired of having to explain to publishers that each book they publish is a choice, and that they can, simply, choose to publish men and women in equal amounts (and trans and genderqueer and nonbinary authors as well). I'm tired of having to justify why it's important to publish women writers - and women writers from around the entire world - when it should be obvious.

Most of all, I'm tired of making excuses. And I will be stopping, as of today. I will no longer be excusing away certain publishers that consistently behave in a certain way. I will no longer be excusing away inexcusable gender gaps. I will no longer be accepting nonresponses or justifications; I will be demanding more. I'm tired, and I'm tired of feeling like this incredible project and the community that you have all built isn't doing enough. Because remember this: WITMonth 2014, the first WITMonth, had maybe 10-15 participants. The entirety of it, every. single. post. can be seen in this list. Today, I'm lucky if that's the amount of posts I see in a day. We have grown so, so much and we have done so, so much and we deserve more than this.

I mentioned in this year's first stats post that I felt like the work I do is useless. After all, I've been doing it for years and nothing has changed and the important gatekeepers have simply not budged. But many of you responded very strongly to those lines, messaging me and commenting that the stats were not meaningless, that they were necessary, that they were having real-world consequences that I couldn't yet see. You all have no idea how much hope and comfort those comments and messages gave me, and I am truly grateful to each and every one of you for your participation in WITMonth.

Now it's time for us to act. Enough is enough.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

WITMonth Day 18 | 10 Recommended Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books


I love science fiction and fantasy. I love science fiction and fantasy infused literature too. I love books that have magic in them, books that explore new and invented worlds, and I love books that play around with setting in order to tell their magical stories. I also love women in translation, as you might have noticed, so this overlap was pretty much to be expected. That being said, whatever list I give today will not be able to hold a candle to Rachel Cordasco's brilliant http://www.sfintranslation.com/, which covers a whole lot more excellent speculative fiction in translation (including a lot of WIT) than I'll ever be able to recommend. Check it out!

  1. The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (tr. from German by Shaun Whiteside): Post-apocalyptic literature shrunk down to its most intimate, as a single survivor of a mass catastrophe continues to live.
  2. Amatka - Karin Tidbeck (tr. from Swedish by Karin Tidbeck): Queer, dystopic science fiction, exploring individual freedom within an oppressive society.
  3. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was - Angélica Gorodischer (tr. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin): A tremendous fantasy powerhouse detailing the history of "the greatest empire that never was", beautifully translated by another fantasy powerhouse and legend.
  4. The Queue - Basma Abdel Aziz (tr. from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette): An almost too-real totalitarian dystopia turns its eyes on its people following an attempted revolution.
  5. One Hundred Shadows - Hwang Jungeun (tr. from Korean by Jung Yewon): Shadows quietly begin to rise in the slums of Seoul, as two lonely young people grow closer together in their wake.
  6. The Days of the Deer - Liliana Bodoc (tr. from Spanish by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar): Fantasy, but from a purely indigenous American perspective, creating a unique spin on the European invasion of the continents.
  7. The Gray House - Mariam Petrosyan (tr. from Russian by Yuri Machkasov): Disabled young boys and teens in an otherworldly boarding school, in which nothing is quite as it seems and neither are its denizens. 
  8. The Core of the Sun - Johanna Sinisalo (tr. from Finnish by Lola Rogers): A "Finnish weird" dystopia in which women are bred for docility, and life is tightly controlled. 
  9. Hybrid Child - Mariko Ōhara (tr. from Japanese by Jodie Beck): A biological specimen escapes, and begins to live an independent life in a world of rogue AIs and cyborgs.
  10. Memoirs of a Polar Bear - Yoko Tawada (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): Three generations of entertainer polar bears recount their lives and relationships.
SFF has a problem with publishing women writers, and the overlap with women in translation is even smaller and more disheartening. But as you see, there's still no lack of excellent, exciting, or intriguing books, old and new! Not to mention many YA titles which will be summarized in the next post. What are some of your favorites?

Friday, August 17, 2018

WITMonth Day 17 | The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari

It's difficult to review a book that I know wasn't written for me. This is one of the best parts of the women in translation project, when I get to encounter a book that is so utterly outside of my comfort zone and area of knowledge that I feel my mind reaching out and growing in response to the new information. The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari (translated from the Indonesian by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed) was not written for me, for a Jewish-Israeli woman specifically who has never formally learned anything about Indonesian history or culture.

That's part of what made The Years of the Voiceless so appealing to me. I often feel like the translations I read are inherently politically framed (see this post from last WITMonth), especially in terms of which books are chosen for which audiences. So many translations feel as though they are heavily vetted by whether the English-speaking audience will be able to "handle" the text (this, I should note, is true of both very "highbrow" literature, and "commercial", but this is a topic for another time). The Years of the Voiceless didn't feel like that at all, probably because it wasn't. I didn't get The Years of the Voiceless from an indie US/UK publisher. I got it from the very excited Indonesian representative at the London Book Fair in 2016, after I told her about the women in translation project. She happened to have a copy of The Years of the Voiceless on hand and gave it to me as a gift. It may have taken me two years to get around to reading the book, but I am grateful for the gift, which was more than just a book.

From a technical perspective, there are a lot of things I can point to in The Years of the Voiceless which are less than perfect. Bearing in mind that this is a translation done internally, published by an Indonesian publisher and likely not really meant for particularly broad international audiences, the writing/translation is not exactly stellar. There are clunky bits and awkwardness in the use of footnotes to explain certain cultural nuances (but not others). The pacing of the novel is also somewhat suspect, with a remarkably (disappointingly) rushed ending that feels like it cheated its characters out of a proper, dramatic denouement.

Yet these points feel minor in the face of how intelligent the novel is, and how much it demands of its readers. While reading The Years of the Voiceless, I kept wondering what it would be like if I knew more about Indonesian history or literature. Indeed, I've read only one book out of Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori's Home) and that was specifically about the expat experience. The Years of the Voiceless was the first time I had ever encountered Indonesia up close. The two books end up forming an interesting contrast, with Home bluntly addressing the source of Indonesia's conflicts (Suharto's authoritarian regime at its most obviously cruel) and The Years of the Voiceless quietly pointing to the seismic shifts in Indonesian culture under his influence (without once mentioning his name).

In this form, The Years of the Voiceless ends up feeling more sharply tuned than Home. Where Chudori uses exile as a narrative framing device, The Years of the Voiceless is immersed in day-to-day, village Indonesian life. Madasari exposes authoritarianism slowly, its creeping influence growing in the lives of the characters until it eventually encompasses them.

The Years of the Voiceless revolves around mother and daughter, Marni and Rahayu, each representing a different generation of Indonesian women and their own struggles with a "modernizing" Indonesia. Where the illiterate, traditional Marni builds herself up as a businesswoman and money-lender only to constantly face hatred/bigotry, sexism, and a corrupt system that only takes, Rahayu is a modern Muslim ashamed of her mother's "sins" who finds herself immersed in a political mess as her interest in Islamist teaching increases. The two encounter the power of the state in markedly different forms, but the outcomes remain the same - when Marni and Rahayu's story converge, the full tragic implications of authoritarian regimes may be seen on full display.

One of the things I especially liked about The Years of the Voiceless was that it never offers simple explanations. Marni's business grows as a result of her money-lending, directly borne out of her hard work. Yet her wealth is deemed to be her husband's before hers, she is loathed by the very people who use her services, she is constantly forced to "donate" to the ruling party and to petty bureaucrats in order to survive, and her daughter views her with disgust. This latter point is of particular interest, with Marni exasperatedly trying to understand how Islam can denounce her business, while their local Islamist teacher constantly uses her services without paying his debts. Marni may be illiterate, but she has a clear-eyed understanding of business. We see most of the world through her eyes, where she largely ignores the actual politics of Indonesia and focuses predominantly on her own struggles.

Rahayu's story complicates things further. It is here that the extent of state-inflicted violence becomes apparent, once Rahayu effectively abandons her agricultural studies and becomes a teacher of Islam. Rahayu is simultaneously a reflection of Indonesia's modern Islamist leanings, but she also represents a lot of the hypocrisy that came with the shift. The novel is not explicitly critical of Islam, not by any means, but there is a quiet recognition of the way it was used (and occasionally abused) in the name of power. Much like Marni's interactions with the Islamic teacher from their village, Rahayu finds herself as a second wife (unrecognized, effectively no more than mistress) in a way that seems to emphasize the hypocrisy of several men of faith taking advantage of their position and the women around them. That her relationships and their consequences ultimately drive the drama of the last portion of the book feels especially meaningful. The personal becomes the political; the political is inherently personal.

All in all, it's hard for me to assess The Years of the Voiceless in a truly objective way. From a technical perspective, there is a lot to criticize (as I mentioned earlier), but the technical feels absolutely secondary to the story and the message. But how much of my response to the story is driven by the fact that I personally have hardly been exposed to these sorts of narratives? Would The Years of the Voiceless feel as intelligent and sharply critical if I had read significantly more Indonesian literature? Perhaps it would simply feel like another narrative describing the creeping onslaught of authoritarian horrors. (And I can't possibly imagine that being relevant to any of the political situations in the world today, not one, nope.) I feel as though I lack the proper context and understanding to give The Years of the Voiceless its proper due.

But as it stands, with this reader being the uneducated, ignorant boor that she is - I found that I really appreciated The Years of the Voiceless, learned a lot from it, and was emotionally engaged. This wasn't a mere technical exercise - I truly got angry for Marni on a number of occasions, at one point even directing my anger aloud and declaring that she should just leave her village behind. It's far from a perfect book, but it worked for me and it provided me with a fascinating perspective on Indonesian history that I don't think I could have gotten in any other way. I have a feeling it might do the same for other readers as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

WITMonth Day 16 | ...languages other than English | Thoughts

One of the common misconceptions during WITMonth is its English-language exclusivity. This is an understandable mistake: Everything on this blog is in English, as are most of the books that I discuss. The statistics I present are all about translations into English, the publishers I promote/discuss/criticize are for the most part working in English, and it's difficult for me to share content from languages that I don't know how to read or understand.

But as I've said before, WITMonth is not actually limited to English. On the contrary, I would very much like to see people having the conversation about publishing, promoting, and supporting women writers in just about every language and country on Earth; I don't think it would be out of place anywhere.

There is a single exception, though, and that's when people use WITMonth to promote books by women written in English and translated into other languages.

This is a bit like the translations versus translators issue (also in the fact that I won't police how people interpret WITMonth, no matter how frustrating I find it). At its base, I'm not against promoting women who write in English. There is a reason the #readwomen movement exists - women writers have notoriously been sidelined by critics, awards, and prestige. This is a phenomenon that crosses borders and languages, apparently.

That being said, women who write in English do not have a problem when it comes to translations. In general, English-language books are among the most translated in the world, even when they don't really deserve it (see this old post). Translations from English dominate SFF and YA book markets almost entirely, and aren't lacking in other genres. And I have seen little evidence to suggest that English-language women writers are translated into other languages less frequently than men; my gut feeling tells me the numbers are about equal, though I obviously cannot commit to this statement without actual data.

There's a reason WITMonth exists. That reason is that hardly any books by women who write in languages other than English get translated into other languages. Evidence suggests that they are also underrepresented in their own literary cultures, often ignored in favor of men writers. The purpose of WITMonth is to promote women writers from exactly those parts of the world that don't typically get attention, whether in English or not. Promoting Margaret Atwood translated into German... just doesn't do that. Yes, Margaret Atwood has faced barriers because she is a woman, but she has never faced barriers for not writing in the marketable, "universal" language of English, or being a woman in a country in which writing is considered immodest, or being a woman in a country that has a small literary tradition that rarely gets attention beyond its borders and only has a few million potential readers, or... the list can go on. It's really not the same thing.

It's true, WITMonth doesn't cover everyone. Nor will it ever be a perfect encapsulation of intersectionality or literature at large; WITMonth excludes many underrepresented women who write in English, after all. It's not meant to be perfect, though. For me, very simply, WITMonth is just about promoting women who write in languages other than English. Giving this attention to women writers who already have a huge movement behind them ends up, in my view, erasing those writers that do need the extra space. Women who write in English have a unique set of opportunities; let's save our August energy for those who don't.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

WITMonth Day 15 | 10 Recommended Poetry Books



Well, we're back to my lists, as always helped by the excellent people of the internet who filled out my WITMonth Recommendation Survey a couple months ago! Today we're moving onto poetry, a category that can include some of the most lyrical writing the world has to offer, as well as some of its most political, powerful, amusing, entertaining, and emotionally wrenching. Not to mention innovative, inspirational, and educational! Let's go.

  1. alphabet - Inger Christensen (tr. from Danish by Susanna Nied): A unique poetry book with its own heartbeat and rhythm, and one that demonstrates the very best of experimental poetry.
  2. Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 - Alejandra Pizarnik (tr. from Spanish by Yvette Siegert): A comprehensive collection from an author who has attracted a passionate following in the years since her tragic early death, renowned for her lyricism and personal touch.
  3. Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets - Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani (tr. from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom): A collection of four controversial Tamil women, whose writing inspired threats against them but also recognition of their strength and power.
  4. A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women's Poetry in Francophone Africa - edited by Irène Assiba d'Almeida (tr. from French by Janis A. Mayes): Too often forgotten in conversations about women in translation, this collection showcases African women writing in French and spanning a continent.
  5. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova - Anna Akhmatova (tr. from Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer): An iconic writer whose works have become modern classics, exploring horror and beauty and war and peace.
  6. Women Poets of China - edited and translated from Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung: This collection spans Chinese women's poetry from early literature through the early 20th century, showcasing stylistic changes across the eras and the unique perspective women had when writing poetry.
  7. Poems: New and Collected - Wisława Szymborska (tr. from Polish by Clare Cavanagh): A Nobel Prize winning poet in a rich collection (though you can't go wrong with just about any of her works).
  8. The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology - edited by Nathalie Handal (various translators): While not exclusively women in translation, this collection is vast in its scope and variety with women writers spanning the entire Arab world.
  9. Poems - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden): An early, pre-feminist writer whose poetry remains powerful alongside her more political works.
  10. The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems - Natalia Toledo (tr. from Zapotec by Clare Sullivan): Poetry's eternal power on display in this collection of Zapotec poetry, through themes of love and loss and mystery.
Any excellent poets in translation missing from this list? Who are your favorites?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

WITMonth Day 14 | WITMonth lists from other people!

One of the most incredible things about WITMonth has been watching it grow over the years. Today, there is no shortage of excellent writers, translators, publishers, reviewers, critics, etc. engaging with WITMonth, reviewing books by women in translation, and writing about the topic. If in 2014 it was possible to keep track of every. single. post, this simply isn't possible anymore (and for the best reason ever). And just as there's been a huge influx in reviews and thoughtful pieces about women writers in translation, there have also been quite a few stellar recommendation lists out there! So to give you all a bit of a break from my ramblings, I'm going to link out today to a few lists that I've seen around this WITMonth:

I'm missing a lot of excellent lists, but there are still plenty more days this WITMonth to explore them. What lists have you been working off? How have you been finding new books to read this WITMonth?

Monday, August 13, 2018

WITMonth Day 13 | "The Option" | Translate This Book

I never seem to start with the right book. Author Yael Neeman became a bestselling, household name author in 2011, with the novel We Were the Future that details the lives of children coming of age in a Kibbutz (autobiographic, by all accounts). Yet when a collection of her short stories became available a few years later, that was, for some odd reason, the book that I ended up buying and reading. And liking.

It's hard to review short story collections, particularly when those collections were written in another language and I have little with which to describe them. How can I explain that despite my notoriously terrible memory, the first story (which translates to "Barrenness") has lingered with me for literal years? How can I explain that Neeman's writing has an edge to it that is simultaneously brilliantly sharp, but also delightfully light?

I'll say this, briefly: I didn't love all of the stories in The Option (כתובת אש). There were a few that I skimmed through, because they tired me. But even as some of the stories didn't jive well with my personal style, they were all interesting and Neeman managed to avoid that oh-so-frustrating pitfall that many single-author collections have by creating a series of truly distinct stories. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are melancholic, some are whimsically tragic, some are just weird, and some are, yes, forgettable. Overall, though, she creates a truly enjoyable, well-written collection. It makes me want to read We Were the Future as soon as I can get my hands on it, to experience what was supposed to have been my introduction to a talented writer's works. It makes me want to read her latest work, just recently released. I've got what to look forward to.