Wednesday, August 18, 2021

WITMonth Day 18 | Assessing Archipelago

This post is a long time coming. It is also an extremely difficult one to write, but here we are.

I have long prided my independence as a book blogger. This is something I've written about separately, here and there, but the truth is that I've always wanted to remain strongly independent as a blogger, because I do not want to feel beholden to anyone in the publishing industry. Much as I respect and admire many voices within that framework (publishers, writers, translators), I cannot view myself as one of its ranks. And because of this, I also feel comfortable ostensibly burning bridges where necessary. This is why I felt comfortable pushing back against Dalkey Archive's absurd argument that they had said enough on the matter of women in translation, back in 2015. (Note that the link to the original thread is now dead, but Dalkey's responses remain up.) When push comes to shove, my duty is to truth and reality, not to any one publisher or voice in the publishing industry.

I have, however, largely avoided challenging publishers publicly and directly. For years, I've politely reached out to publishers to get their statements regarding the dearth of women writers in their catalogs. Archipelago were one of those that ignored me most frequently, rather outrightly. Eventually, I got a placid reassurance that they are working on the matter. That was 2019. Now, in 2021, I can rest assured that the benefit of the doubt that I gave them at the time was unwarranted. Enough is enough.

I have purchased plenty of books from Archipelago Books over the years. I have also recommended them plenty, seeing as one of my absolute favorite books of the past decade is from their catalog (Scholastique Mukasonga's Cockroaches, and yes, you should read it if you haven't yet). I am also on their mailing list, and as such frequently receive their self-laudatory calls for donations and support. But we'll get to that shortly. The point is that I'm not writing this post out of a sense of cancelling Archipelago. I have no interest in folks no longer buying their books and penalizing their authors (particularly not their brilliant women writers), I am interested in Archipelago getting their act together and acknowledging and addressing their bias against women writers.

Here's the deal: I tallied up all of Archipelago's publications. Both in translation and not (though the overwhelming majority are in translation). Archipelago and their children's imprint Elsewhere Editions. All the books, of all times per the website. And the conclusion is stark: Archipelago Books apparently does not have any interest in publishing women writers. Among their publicly cataloged books, they have 153 books exclusively written by men, 1 anthology written by both men and women, and only 27 books exclusively written by women. For those who don't want to do the math, that's 15%. Or, in visual terms:

And at Elsewhere Editions, their children's literature imprint? Well, going by authors (which is how I judge the women in translation project), Elsewhere Editions has published a grand total of 15 books by men authors...

...oh, sorry, were you waiting for the number of books by women writers? You'll have to wait until they publish one. (Reminder: Elsewhere Editions was founded after I began the women in translation project/WITMonth and after several attempts to contact Archipelago about their massive gender imbalance in the parent catalog. They knew.) Let me reiterate this point: A children's literature imprint has somehow managed to publish 15 books of which none are by women writers. Children's. Literature. No women.

If I sound exasperated, it's because I am.

Archipelago are a disaster when it comes to publishing women writers, plain and simple. Across the board. No matter how generous I would like to be, it's simply impossible to come away from this data and not recognize that something very rotten lies as its core. Moreover, I have little desire to be particularly generous, given the ways in which Archipelago seem either willfully unaware (or cynically mocking) of their astonishing gender gap. Last year, I was stunned to receive an email regarding Elsewhere Editions, that, in their words, "respond[ed] to the urgent need for diversity in children's literature". This email was a call for donations, and possibly a successful one, based on the subsequent donation requests I have received since. It is difficult to express how unsettled this email left me; how, I wondered, could a publisher of all men writers from a majority Western/Northern European countries (overwhelmingly white, otherwise) cite diversity without feeling at least the tiniest bit of shame and self-awareness?

It's not the first time this sort of cynicism has emerged, at least on my part. Against all odds, Archipelago are sporadically involved in WITMonth, with occasional promotional tweets and discounts. Just this month, I received an email regarding their ongoing WITMonth discount, attached with what looks like a very respectable list of women writers, until you realize they included works with women translators, and also that the list is actually way shorter than the 80 or so which would bring them close to the parity mark. Women, it seems, are perhaps not worth actively seeking out and publicizing, but excellent as a marketing device?

I'm writing this all with the knowledge that my individual post won't make a difference. It's not as though I haven't reached out to Archipelago in the past. In the first few years of the women in translation project, they simply did not respond to my queries. In 2019, they gave me the laundry list of individual case studies, without acknowledging the broader picture and existing imbalances. And it is clear that they did not make any active effort to change matters. As of writing this post, the latest catalogue on Archipelago's website is their Fall 2020/Spring 2021 collection, which has 1 English-language work by a man writer, 8 books by men in translation, and 3 books by women in translation. 25%! Elsewhere Editions remains woman-less, though there is at least one woman illustrator (huzzah...?). At this point, I see little point in personally reaching out again.

As I mentioned at the top, Archipelago have published some of my favorite works of the past few years and have a remarkably interesting catalogue overall. It's important that we as readers acknowledge the good alongside the bad. But we as readers have to seriously address when publishers are simply not up to snuff. And we have to do something. We have to make sure that Archipelago understand that this isn't acceptable. The cherry-picking of individual women writers is not an acceptable response to a catalog of bias and omission.

I ask readers of this blog (and all WITMonth aficionados) to make your voices heard. Tweet at Archipelago. Write to them. Make clear that your support of their publications (whether during their donation drives or otherwise) is contingent on them actually publishing women writers. #PublishWIT, as far as I'm concerned, should go viral. While Archipelago are far from the only publishers out there to stumble in this regard, they are one of the most egregious. It's time for this to change.

In case anyone was wondering a bit more about the placement of the pen and the underlined line in the photo above, those represent the ten titles written by Karl Ove Knausgård. Alone. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

WITMonth Day 16 | The backlog, or, the Classics

No, women did not begin writing in 1950. No, women writers in translation didn't only come into existence in the early 2000s. No, women writers weren't always anonymous or writing under a pen name. No, early women in translation weren't all just European...

Before I ended up formulating the idea for the DailyWIT, one of the thoughts I had for something I could do for WITMonth this year would be a list of classic women writers in translation, all of whom predominantly lived and wrote prior to the 20th century. The term "classic" is hardly fixed, of course, and numerous women writers are (finally!!!) being welcomed into the hallowed halls of that definition, but it remains deeply gender-divided. And it remains a category that is largely devoid of women writers in translation, at least when compiling lists in English. Remember the impetus for crowdsourcing the 100 Best WIT? Remember the fact that from the onset, the original 100 Best Novels in Translation set a cut-off such that it simply could not count The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel (which just happens to have been written by a Japanese woman)?

Let's start with the usual disclaimers: There is no guarantee that older works by women writers are good, but it is worth noting just how many works by women writers in translation have been lost to time, while mediocre works by men writers remain firmly part of "the canon". It is also difficult for me to ascertain whether a certain writer belongs to the canon, seeing as I am not really engaging with the whole of literature in any way and really don't want to make any grand claims as such. I'm not coming to say that Tolstoy or Cervantes or Dante shouldn't continue to be read and admired (I have, in fact, read all three!). What I'm saying is that maybe it should be better known that The Tale of Genji was the first novel, and Murasaki Shikibu the first novelist. Maybe it should be better known that the first named writer in human history was a woman - Enheduanna. (And no, I haven't read the fragments of her work yet! I only just learned of her this year.) Maybe it should be better known that there were extremely popular and well-recognized poets who just so happened to be women across modern-day China, Vietnam, Nepal, Korea, Cambodia, India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and more. Maybe it should be better known that women have written across minority and today-marginalized languages throughout history as well, such as Glikl Bas Leib, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawage Zhikaquay), Mwana Kupona, and many others. 

And maybe those works that are known and publicized deserve a lot more recognition from readers. As we saw from the 100 Best WIT, readers tend to skew toward newer titles. That makes sense, of course, but it's worth asking why we're not leaving space for the backlog. And I can't absolve myself of this either! With only one exception, all of the books I've finished this past year have been originally published in either the 21st century or the last two decades of the 20th. But that one exception was notable - Moderata Fonte's The Merits of Women, a short proto-feminist treatise on womanhood and women's rights from the 16th century. Like other works of its kind, it both strikes the reader as an important step in European feminist discourse throughout the centuries, but also challenges in the ways in which it very clearly is not applicable or relevant to modern conversations. 

Other classic women writers in translation on my TBR challenge me in other ways: Anna Komnene's The Alexiad seems to be a historical text to rival Herodotus, Glikl Bas Leib's memoirs a work that may be as close to a glimpse of some of my ancestors' lives as I'll ever get, George Sand's Indiana a novel of the sort that enlightens, entertains, and engages... and then, of course, there's the book I've been reading since the start of the year - The Tale of Genji, that most exhausting and fascinating and intriguing and angering and emotionally inspiring work that, again, just so happens to be humanity's very first novel. (And first historical romance? Go figure.)

And these are just the start. The backlog is mostly unavailable to me and the vast majority of readers across pretty much all languages, because classic women writers remain woefully under-translated (not just into English). In compiling the DailyWIT, I have encountered so many pre-20th century women writers who were highly acclaimed in their times and appear to have been forgotten. Sometimes this is an English-specific amnesia, but not always. A lot of women writers have been forgotten in their native languages as well, or deliberately erased. My hope is that the few classic WIT I have promoted so far (and will continue to promote until the end of the year!) will someday have their moment of recognition. There are so many new books to read, yes, but can't I take a break to read the old ones too?

Monday, August 9, 2021

WITMonth Day 9 | 4 WITty science books

Those of you who have followed this blog for many years know that I'm a scientist as well as being an avid book lover. So it should come as no surprise that one of my very favorite WITMonth activities is reading science nonfiction by women scientists from around the world! While I eagerly await new volumes and books to hit my shelves, here are four great (if rather geographically limited...) books by women scientists in translation!

Extraordinary Insects (aka Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects) was a rather astonishing discovery for me as a reader. I'm not particularly fond of insects (in fact, I'm rather notoriously terrified of one type...), but Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson's excellent treatise on them (translated from Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt) completely swept me away. It's heartfelt and detailed and passionate in the very best ways, without forgetting to be informative and interesting. It's one of those books I've been gushing about since the moment I read it, and suffice to say that I was extremely excited when I learned that a new followup was being released! (Tapestries of Life)

Diving For Seahorses (aka Adventures in Memory), meanwhile, seems to plead a slightly better "popular science" case for itself. Cowritten by writer and scientist sisters Hilde and Ylva Østby (respectively, translated from Norwegian by Marianne Lindvall), the book is a smooth, literary-feeling scientific exploration of the brain and memory. While more anecdotal than heavily research-based, something about Diving for Seahorses nonetheless manages to tickle that scientific urge... particularly to learn more!

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon is, interestingly, yet another Norwegian popular science book! (Goodness, what is it with Norwegian popular science and where can I get more?) (This translation is by Barbara Haveland.) Here, the rather weird and wondrous world of mushrooms is merged with a culture of mushrooming and a larger story of grief. The book does a lovely job in balancing these three threads, but never sacrificing any one; you come out with a feeling that yes, you did just learn an awful lot about the lives of mushrooms and their different species and their growth and their prevalence and their biology. You just also learned a lot about humans. Isn't that cool?

Finally, Finding Our Place in the Universe is the (non-Norwegian!) astrophysical response to the world of popular science literature. Hélène Courtois's book (translated from French by Nikki Kopelman) may be relatively slim, but it's no lightweight, giving a surprisingly detailed background to the universe in its short span. This is a book that gives you a taste of what astrophysics (or rather cosmology!) is really like, in discussing both the observational aspects alongside the modeling/computational parts that are extrapolated from those observations. If you (like me) are a tiny bit obsessed with cosmology, you are bound to adore what this book does, as well as how it does it. There are lovely personal touches to the book that make it a fascinating read overall.

These are just a taste, of course, and I continue to seek out more scientific WIT titles! I look forward to the day when my list might comprise of titles from more countries and regions of the world (...sorry Norway...), but continue to delight in the science I have been exposed to for now.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

WITMonth Day 8 | Night Birds and Other Stories by Khet Mar | Review

I sometimes grow nervous over the books I choose to read. In my desire to read writers from across the world, there is always the risk that I may forget that the works that I'm reading are, above all else, works of literature with artistic value and meaning beyond their meta-narratives, and often very good works of literature. After all, consider the hurdles writers of particularly marginalized/"underrepresented" backgrounds must face just to get translated, and what that typically means in terms of someone's very strong insistence that this particular work be published. By virtue of having been translated, it reflects an often-extraordinary effort to see the work make it across linguistic borders. But the fear lingers. 

I came into Night Birds and Other Stories (translated from Burmese by Maung Maung Myit) with threads of this concern. Night Birds is the first Burmese work I have ever read, having been introduced to Khet Mar while compiling the DailyWIT. The short collection piqued my interest and I purchased it not long afterward. I finished it yesterday; this review is far more fresh than my typical ones, in which I usually prefer having some space to process the text and my reaction to it. But somehow, that feels mildly unnecessary with Night Birds. Simply put: It is a solidly good book. Not an excellent one, but a good one.

The titular novella - Night Birds - reads almost like a young adult novel (even though its main characters are adults, full stop, despite the brief introductory paragraph which describes them as teenagers...), with a quiet emotional bond and a slowly unfolding understanding of the world. The novella is direct. Even without that odd introductory blurb expressly pointing to how the story is a metaphor for prison and oppression (thus explaining why it was banned by the government), the story reflects a tense claustrophobia and pervasive oppression. The story opens with violence and locked doors and isolation, slowly opening up as the two deeply lonely main characters share their stories with each other and the reader. It is, as I said, fairly direct. There's poeticism and beauty in the writing, in the integration of the musical theme, and in the hopes and dreams that these young people struggle to fulfill, there is subtlety in the choice of metaphors and even pacing, but generally speaking: The story unwinds clearly.

There's a deep melancholy to it, of course. It's impossible to read a story from an effectively imprisoned youth without feeling anguish and loneliness yourself. Khet Mar does a brilliant job of capturing how isolation and loneliness can feel for the different characters. One sings and smokes to herself, the other seeks conversation and company. Their lives intertwine and touch, without quite managing to breach each others' bubbles. The closeness and distance is sharply crafted, particularly by the story's end. It works. And it will also feel oddly familiar, given the events of the past year.

The problem was that I never felt fully emotionally involved. I was moved, yes, but from my own distance. Which is good for a story about isolation and oppression! It just wasn't quite what I wanted. Nor was the writing style always my favorite, occasionally irritating me with its pointed quality. It's not remotely bad writing, but it didn't always fit my own style.

These two flaws, however, disappear in the following two works housed in this English-language edition. Night Birds - published in 1993 - is clearly the main course in this "collection", but it's extremely well served by two additional nonfiction pieces. The first is "Life on Death Row", a slip of a story that I initially read as fiction because of its tight writing and economy. In less than 5 pages, Khet Mar manages to tell a surprisingly whole story of injustice, oppression, and imprisonment. Is it the actual whole story? Obviously not. But it does an excellent job as a "slice of life" story that also showcases so many casual horrors.

The second nonfiction story is "Night Flow", which sees Khet Mar writing about Iowa, Burmese kindness, crying, and environmental justice. The piece is a short personal essay, but it flows beautifully and seems to gently stir so many different topics and themes. The naturalistic tone is absolutely lovely and feels like it follows a wholly different style from the two works that preceded it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's interesting, maybe even a little jarring. More frustrating is the publisher's choice to bold the sentences and paragraphs that the Burmese government ultimately censored from the original piece. The political implications are stark (and fascinating!), but it's hard to read the essay with a clear head when it so loudly seems to tell me where it wants me to focus. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think, though of course it's hard to say what is the right way to address such a complex editorial choice...

All in all, Night Birds and Other Stories is a good, short collection. There is little to write against it and quite a bit to write in its favor. And from the meta-perspective of my fears as a reader, it strikes me as an excellent jumping off point for my own exploration of Burmese literature. I cannot view this as a single story that encompasses every narrative Myanmar has to offer, but I can still learn from it about a region of the world with which I am less familiar. I can still appreciate that through this (good) work of literature, I have a greater understanding of small nuances of Burmese life and culture (and music! Oh how I loved the musical touches) and a greater toolbox with which to keep learning. Pretending that I am not also learning from the literature I read is foolish in my mind; this need not be the reason for which Night Birds was written, nor even translated, but I can appreciate it nonetheless. I can find other avenues to explore and to learn. And I can go back to those scenes of isolation and linger on them in my own way...

Saturday, August 7, 2021

WITMonth Day 7 | Identities | Thoughts

I am precisely halfway through Nina Bouraoui's Tomboy (translated from French by Marjorie Attignol Salvodon and Jehanne-Marie Gavarini), not only practically in page count, but at the novella's shift in location. This seemingly semi+-autobiographical work (the main character is named Nina Bouraoui, and like the author is the daughter of an Algerian father and a French mother, first growing up in Algeria) opens in Algeria, and then moves to France; I have paused reading just at the onset of the "Rennes" section. The book is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of the most obvious is how it is making me contemplate identity and authorship.

From the onset, Tomboy makes a point of discussing identity. It's an integral part of the book, one I imagine I will discuss in more depth once I actually review it. For now, the part that struck me was that this novella - half of which takes place in Algeria, written by an author who is clearly blurring the lines between her own experiences and that of her narrator, explicitly discussing the feeling of being neither here nor there (neither Algerian nor French) - was published in the US under a series titled "European Women Writers". While Bouraoui's author blurb makes a point of emphasizing her origins (see my above description of the author/Tomboy's narrator), there's something a little off-putting in how the book's meta-narrative places Bouraoui firmly in the French camp. She is a European author! Perhaps a European author who struggles with her identity, but still.

Author identity and origin is something that I personally find fascinating (maybe it's my own history that drives this...?), but it can often feel like a game in which we cherry-pick identities and definitions for our own means. Do immigrant writers represent countries and cultures left behind, or those new homes they have embraced? Refugee writers? Those who comes from multiple backgrounds all in one, who shuffled around during childhood, whose families have always fallen across borders? Can identities be mixed and contradictory and all-encompassing?

I began to think about other authors who similarly straddle different identities. I thought of Scholastique Mukasonga, whose Igifu I finished reading just before starting Tomboy. Mukasonga is framed as a French Rwandan writer, but of her four books translated into English so far (which you, dear reader, should absolutely read, immediately, right now), none are particularly French. France features in parts, yes, as do other countries, but her work strongly centers Rwanda and a Rwandan Tutsi identity. Yet Mukasonga lives in France and has done so for decades. Is there any identity I can choose as a reader that will not be an imposition of sorts?

It rarely matters, not in any way that means something to my life. But even something silly like the #WITMonth Bingo I came up with (which I increasingly find flaws with) seems to suggest clean-cut author/book identities. Am I able to check off the "North African" box by reading Tomboy, belonging as it does to the "European Women Writers" series? And of course this question of identity extends to other fields as well - how do I reconcile the gendered nature of WIT with my desire to include non-binary writers? Identities can also shape how I interpret a work as a reader, whether I want it to or not.

Identities are, of course, complicated things. This is something I've wrestled with many times over the years, in regards to different aspects of my own life. It's something I imagine I will continue to wrestle with, as my own contradictory self-identities continue to clash and change and grow. And regarding the authors that I read, I think that the simplest course of action is to acknowledge that there is no single answer. Women writers in translation are often defined in all sorts of ways that seem most likely to "succeed", simply by virtue of their general marginalization in the larger literary landscape. Herta Müller is German and Romanian by turns, depending who you ask. Scholastique Mukasonga is "French Rwandan". Nina Bouraoui can write an entire book about an identity somewhere between France and Algeria while being neither (fictional? autobiographical? neither?) and still be classified as a European writer. What are the identities of writers whose homelands no longer exist? Who are we to determine them? In a world that does have increasingly blurred borders and identities (whether nationalistic, linguistic, gendered, or otherwise), what does it mean to even define these concepts?

I doubt I'll have answers to these questions any time soon. I'm not sure I would even want to, to be honest. I suppose I just need to keep reading and thinking...

Friday, August 6, 2021

WITMonth Day 6 | No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin

No One Writes Back is one of the ultimate WITMonth books. Why? I purchased it during the first ever WITMonth - August 2014, way way back in the earliest days of the women in translation project. I recall purchasing it alongside another book from Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature (Lonesome You, a collection that left very little impression upon me), and it's languished on my shelves for years and years since I purchased it. Somehow, it became one of those books that simply blends into the background of the bookshelf. It was always there, and it gradually became one of those always there books that doesn't seem very attractive and readable. There was always going to be something newer and more appealing. Not to mention that it was never a particularly popular book to begin with, and as such was easy to ignore.

I don't know what brought it off my shelves a few weeks ago, but goodness. Goodness. I'm so glad I finally read it.

No One Writes Back (translated from Korean by Jung Yewon) surprised me from the start. Something about its tone is just so confident, so strong, and so clearly defined that I was a bit taken aback. This was the book I'd been avoiding for so long...? Okay then. The novel immediately sets its stage with the narrator informing us that he's left home, he's a traveler, and he's traveling with Wajo (his dog). Bit by bit, we learn more about who this man is, who his friends are, and what makes him tick. As he goes from city to city, motel to motel, he assigns numbers to the people he meets and then writes them letters. Letter-writing is something pivotal to this novel, reflective of an almost naïve adherence to a past that is quickly disappearing (and has disappeared even more since the novel's original publication in 2009). 

The narrator soon meets a woman on his journey, but she is not there as a love interest or narrative-altering presence. Rather, she is writer and curious mirror to the narrator. The two both travel, they both try to make peace with their home, and they both interact with their environment in a unique way that shapes (and is shaped by) their worldview. The writer seeks to keep traveling as long as she's still working on her latest work; the narrator seeks to keep traveling as long as he hasn't yet received any letters of response from his many correspondents. The two travel together for a while and their relationship is fascinating to watch, because it's always still very clearly about the narrator. He is the center of this story, someone who is lonely and yet not alone, alone at times and yet not lonely.

By the midway point of the novel, I was certain I was reading a good book, but something about it felt hollow. The writing is excellent, the character designs precise and clear, and the pacing extremely direct, but I couldn't for the life of me tell where the story was heading (or if, indeed, it was heading anywhere). I wasn't sure what was keeping me reading, but it didn't seem to be the sort of situation to quit. I resigned myself to the idea that No One Writes Back would have some sort of placid, dissatisfying ending, like so many other well-built novels.

But no, this is so much better than that. With a precision that made me feel like rereading the whole novel as soon as I'd finished it, the pieces fell together into one of the more beautiful, emotionally affecting endings to a book I've read in a long time. That sounds so cliched, but it's true - it wasn't about whether aspects of the ending were sad (and yes, aspects were), it was about the way everything fit together and completed each other. No One Writes Back not only did a brilliant job of justifying almost every one of its pages prior, it also did so in a truly uplifting, positive, and life-affirming way. I finished the book feeling like I'd just had something wonderful open up before me, and while I don't want to spoil what made the ending so beautiful for me, suffice to say that it inspired something pretty good in me.

By the end, I didn't just enjoy No One Writes Back, I loved it. I loved what it sparked in me. I loved how it made me think. I loved how it unfolded and grew. I loved how its technical pieces didn't mask or try to replace its emotional ones. I loved how it made me want to read (and write) so much more. I loved how much it made me feel.

I am also ultimately grateful for how long the book spent on my shelves. I usually bemoan books that I read at the wrong times and ask myself whether I might have liked the book better at a different stage of life (or even on a literal different day). No One Writes Back probably wouldn't have meant the same to me seven years ago, when I first purchased it. I might have liked it, no doubt, but I think that initial hollow feeling would have dominated. Now? The book fit in perfectly.

As to you, dear reader? I suggest you give it a try. I think there's a decent chance you will find it as beautiful as I did.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

WITMonth Day 5 | Voices on the outskirts

It occurred to me at some point in late 2020 - just around the same time that I was formulating the idea behind what would become the DailyWIT - that there were a lot of Hebrew-language women writers that I had never read. Of course that's an obvious statement; there will always be more writers to read than time to do so, and I will inevitably miss out on a lot of great art. But the thought/realization that I had was focused less on individual writers, as much as writers of different and wildly diverse backgrounds. It occurred to me that even without the biases that are set in place in translation to other languages, I was exposed to and reading writers (men and women, to be perfectly honest) of very specific, typically quite privileged backgrounds. And of course that this was the case with the books that I was reading in translation (whether to English or to Hebrew). 

One of the things I have tried to do with the DailyWIT is include writers from all sorts of different backgrounds. That might sound a bit trivial, but the truth is that translation as a field is not always the most... let's say "generous" toward those writers who aren't already part of the mainstream. There are understandable risks associated with any translation; there is often little motivation for publishers to try to translate and publish a work that doesn't have some sort of proven track record or high chance of success. So if you're starting out from a place of literary marginalization, you're going to face steep odds when it comes to translation.

This is part of what drives the women in translation project at large, of course, but it cuts across so many different types of backgrounds and experiences. At the beginning of the year, I asked folks for recommendations of authors they might like to see included in the DailyWIT, encouraging the inclusion of writers who maybe aren't translated at all. A friend messaged me with a list of Indonesian writers, specifically, and noted a disproportionate lack of Muslim Indonesian writers translated/published in English, despite Indonesia being a Muslim-majority country. Their observation is one I haven't necessarily delved into in much depth, but it did make me think about religious, linguistic, cultural, and ethnic biases across the world.

But of course, those biases are not fixed in and of themselves. One region's dominant culture is another's minority. The question of which voices are published and translated is one that cannot be homogenized across the globe; every country and region will have its own nuances and complexities. In some countries, "immigrants" may be the most prosperous class. There are states that are ruled by regional ethnic minorities. The extraordinary range of experiences and existences across the world make it utterly impossible to set clear definitions for what the literary outskirts may be for any region.

Which is why, as always, my solution is quite simply... more. Let's make sure that there is space for all of these different backgrounds and voices. Let's make sure that we're not just letting those voices from the very top continue to filter through, but that we also recognize that there are always going to be relative outskirts and writers working there. That translation can't exist in the context of narrow definitions, but must broach more borders than linguistic alone (and also there - recognize literature from under-translated languages!!!). As ever: more.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

WITMonth Day 4 | When poetry works | The Things We Don't Discuss by Shlomit Naim Naor

My poetry reviews always contain the same disclaimer: I am not qualified to review poetry. I'm not, truly! When I read poetry, the thing that remains - more than an appreciation for the language, for the craft, or for any sense of originality - is how the work made me feel. Did it manage to make me cry? Did it manage to make me sigh? Did it manage to make me feel?

If the answers to those questions are "yes", then it's good poetry and very possibly one of my favorite books of the year, it's as simple as that. If the answer is "no", I can start to unpack the technicalities about the writing, about the framing, about the shaping of the poems themselves. But those are wholly secondary to me when it comes to how poems make me feel.

Which means that on the rare occasions that I come across a poetry book that manages to hit me right in the feels (shh, I'm a millennial, it's how we speak), I am left feeling almost speechless. How can I review a book that ends up feeling so personal? Because that's where The Things We Don't Discuss (הדברים שאנחנו לא מדברות עליהם) by Shlomit Naim Naor has left me. It's a book that punched me straight in the face with its first poem and didn't let up. It's a book that - for the first time in my life - has me itching to translate a poem from Hebrew into English. It's a book that feels like it understands me, even though very little of it is actually parallel to my life. But somehow, Naim Naor gets it. Gets me. Nothing else really matters, does it?

But because this is a review (of sorts), I'll try to explain why. First, there's a technical matter - Naim Naor's writing style is diverse and varied within this single slip of a collection by itself. While she revists certain themes more than others, the poems don't bleed into each other. Several even manage to stand out, bluntly unique in both style and tone, though they do not clash with the rest of the works. The collection isn't one of those smooth poetry books I'm so often gushing about, it certainly feels like a collection of smaller sub-collections, but it straddles the line between having its poems stand out and also not having them discordant with each other. 

Naim Naor also does an admirable job of playing with different ways of writing in poetry; a frequent criticism of Israeli poetry is that all one has to do to write a "poem" is slap the vowel symbols on a few staggered lines. This criticism is really just a critique of pretentiousness that markets itself as poetry, but there is a universal truth behind it when it comes to bad poetic styles suffocating potentially good poem ideas. And simply using a common poetic style is not enough to turn a string of words or sentences into a good poem. Naim Naor easily side-steps this criticism by not limiting herself to a single, standard poetry style. I don't mean that she's particularly experimental (she is not), but more that she is willing to have poems that have very different rhythms and flows set alongside each other. It's a mix of different standards, in a way, and I actually rather liked it. Her poems do feel a little more natural for this mix, and a little less... performative.

The truth is, though, that I loved The Things We Don't Discuss because of its poetic topics. Naim Naor is one of the only observant Israeli women writers I have had the pleasure of reading, and her writing is clearly steeped in that experience. That first poem - the one that punched me in the face - kicks things off without a moment of hesitation, describing the loneliness of being a single religious woman on Shabbat, asking "And what will I do with all the Shabbat leftovers from my singlehood?" The poem references traditions and experiences that will be instantly recognizable to any observant Jewish-Israeli woman, but more than that it includes the struggles behind a lot of normalized dating traditions surrounding Shabbat meals. In one particularly gut-punch-y line, Naim Naor writes "There is no room for who I want to be" - I started crying. And that was only the beginning. (The second poem is the one that absolutely consumes me and I would love to translate, if only because I wish I could feel it even more deeply. Does that make sense?)

Naim Naor is true to the promise of her collection's title (which, I should note, is female-gendered in Hebrew - that is, the things that we women don't discuss), raising topic after topic after topic that are too rarely discussed. She writes of her struggles with her past singlehood, with motherhood, with grief at the loss of a parent, with giving birth... These are poems that seem determined to be straight-forward in precisely those topics that often get glossed over, particularly among religious women. It's this, I think, that made The Things We Don't Discuss such a unique collection for me. The concept of taboo-breaking poetry is hardly new, and there are many who would likely read these poems and scratch their heads at the supposed taboos Naim Naor is breaking. Because that's not what she's doing. It's not about being loud and deliberate, it's not about making some sort of point in writing about unknowable subjects. It's just about being able to get out those small, painful pieces. And for me, at least, seeing enough of myself in those small pieces and feeling understood was revelatory. 

So yes, The Things We Don't Discuss hit me emotionally. It worked technically, with good pacing and technical flow and diversity of tone (but not too diverse). It worked thematically, broaching different topics without being overly defined by one (even if certain themes hit closer to home for me personally). And it worked on a whole other dimension as well - I want to share these works, while at the same time keep them to myself. I want to share them in Hebrew and I want to share them in English, wanting to dive into the heart of the poems and find myself on the other end. I loved this collection with every drop of my existence and I loved the reading experience too (including the crying and the parts that I read on the beach that were interrupted by the very noisy guys who decided to sit very close to me, sigh). I don't know that this review will even mean anything (my review of Hebrew-language books very rarely do...), but nonetheless: This was easily my favorite book of the past several months.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

WITMonth Day 3 | Filling the gap

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine in the lab gaped a little when I told her about this project and WITMonth. It's something that usually catches my labmates off guard; I am a passionate about my love of the sciences and I suspect that for many it seems like an extremely odd balance of interests. But the true surprise isn't in my love of literature - that surprise fades away relatively quickly - but the feminist nature of this project I manage. The questions started immediately. They were nothing I haven't heard before, but that doesn't make them less exasperating; why do you do this isn't this sexist but what about all these authors don't you think you're making up a problem where there isn't one. All sentences that reflect a profound lack of awareness regarding A) the problem itself, and B) the fact that I'm a person who's been working on this for coming on eight years now. But let's set aside B and focus on A, because the truth is that outside of a small slice of the internet, the vast majority of people still are not aware of the Women in Translation project, its offshoots, its impact, or its importance.

It's easy to forget, but most folks in the world do not necessarily engage with art and media the same way that the most hardcore fans might. I run a book blog specifically because I am deeply passionate about books and wanted an outlet to write about them (erm... was encouraged to do so by an insistent sister who was tired of hearing me ramble to her). The folks who read my book blog are, for the most part, also folks who are deeply passionate about books and as such read book blogs. The same is true for BookTwitter, Booktube, Bookstagram, BookTikTok or whatever other social media platform you may use. It's not even that this is the exclusive place for readers; I'm in a non-book-specific Facebook group that has some extraordinarily avid readers, none of whom engage with what I would call the express "book community". Not to mention that there are multitudes of different literary communities in this shared online space. Readers who love James Joyce don't necessarily overlap with readers of Leigh Bardugo (though you never know!), and readers of WWII historical texts aren't necessarily the same folks who are going to gush about the latest Inspector Harry Hole thriller (but again... you never know!). Readers are not a monolith. Nor are feminist readers and nor are activist readers.

I've written before about the awareness gap in WIT, on multiple occasions. I'm not naive to how highly specific this project seems and how broadly unimportant. That reaction from my coworker is one that I've heard countless times from people who simply cannot fathom why I spend my time doing all this work to promote women writers (voluntarily!), and moreover women writers from all these "random" backgrounds that nobody has ever heard of. I often voice my belief that readers cannot be expected to read that which is not available to them, but the same is true of folks outside of these especially focused literary communities. People cannot be expected to care for a problem they neither see nor understand.

This is a huge part of why I've tried to build a Women in Translation website for the past two years. My hope has always been to be able to provide resources for those who are aware and engaged, but also an open door for exactly those who ask the standard question: Why? Huh? Why? There's a lot of work left in order to fully fill the awareness gap, yes, but it's a process. More and more readers are aware of WITMonth and its source. More and more readers are becoming aware of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. More and more readers are being exposed to bookstore and library displays that showcase women writers in translation, and not just the same six authors. We are in the eighth year of this process, but it's moving. Maybe, hopefully, someday my coworkers will not gape at me, but instead give me a piercing glare and ask, "Shouldn't you be doing more to ensure equitable translations of women writers?" Touché.

Monday, August 2, 2021

WITMonth Day 2 | Explaining myself | Thoughts

This will be a musing sort of blog post.

One of my great struggles over the years has been explaining to people what the women in translation movement is. I have tried - and often failed - to convey what exactly we're trying to achieve here with this work. The truth is that most people who are not avid readers have never quite been able to understand what WIT is. Tomorrow's post will delve into this in a bit more depth; today I simply want to explore what it even means to explain myself. Because it often feels like that's all I do.

I explain that WIT isn't necessarily about translations into English, but it's not about translations from English. I explain that WIT is about women writers, not translators. I explain that WIT is about having fun, not a burden or expectation on readers. I explain the origins, I explain the credits, I explain my role. My explanations never quite feel like enough.

Part of the problem is, of course, that I embedded far too many ambiguities in the original project title. "Women in Translation" is contextually snappy and accurate, but it gets extremely confusing when, well, translated. More than that, the original meaning behind the project seems to get lost and watered down. I have had extremely lovely readers reach out to me (in private and in public) asking as to the "rules" of WITMonth. One likened it to a readathon, asking whether it was okay to read books from regions or genres not mentioned in the bingo card I recently uploaded. I found myself in the rather odd position of explaining that WITMonth carries absolutely no obligations with it and that the ultimate purpose is awareness and enjoyment. I suppose it's inevitable that the project origins will get a little muddled as it moves further and further away from me (which remains a good thing! even if it occasionally leave me melancholic), but that doesn't mean there is no hope, right?

I will continue to explain myself. Tomorrow, the day after, and every day to come. With the new website and here and everywhere else. But I hope that I can find the right words.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

WITMonth Day 1 | A new home

After years of trying to get this off the ground, the Women in Translation - - is now live. This has been an extraordinary effort, and rather like this blog, would not exist without the concrete support of my sister (who in this case literally built the website). 

This brand-new WIT site is still very much a work in progress. It has only a few of the projects that I hope it will someday have, as well as resources, links, and information. But it is a start. If you're looking for a single place with all of the WITMonth resources (buttons, bingo cards, miscellanea), this is your site. If you're looking for the annual book lists, this is your site. If you're new to the project and just looking to understand what the heck I've been rambling about for years, this is your site.

Today is the first day of August. For the past several years, I have tried to have daily posts throughout August; this year, I am not certain that I will make the same effort that I usually do. But I do so with the sense of satisfaction and relief that readers will not lack for WITMonth resources and information. With time, will grow to include many of the topics I have covered on this blog, and I am grateful for the chance to simply enjoy WITMonth as intended. I plan on spending this month contemplating the matter of women in translation, discussing it, reading books by women writers in translation, review books by women writers in translation, and most importantly... as always... just having fun.

Happy WITMonth, everyone!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

#WITMonth 2021!

For those of the us in the northern hemisphere, June brings with it not only warm winds, but the promise of a hot summer. And the promise of a hot summer always turns my thoughts toward August. And, of course, August is Women in Translation Month. WITMonth, the greatest, WITtiest month of the year!

And we are now 50 days away.

WITMonth 2021 button

As with every year, there are a lot of ongoing efforts leading up to August. First and foremost, there's the annual (and still in progress!) New Releases list - this is a list of books by women writers translated into English that have been released since September of the following year and are due to be released by August of the current year. As with every year, the list is constantly being updated and amended; in fact, these lists are so flexible that they are often updated years after the fact. Which is why you should probably also check out the last few lists: WITMonth 2020, WITMonth 2019, and WITMonth 2018! Each list has gotten a new title (or ten) since originally "finalized". Among these lists, you can find books of almost every imaginable genre, style, and perspective, spanning dozens of languages and countries. If you're looking for where to start searching for WITMonth books, this is a good first stop.

As with previous years, I also turn to industry professionals, translators, authors, editors, and anyone in the know-how for help expanding the list! This is a constant work-in-progress and omissions are reflective of my own ignorance, not of any deliberate attempt to actively ignore relevant titles. Please feel free to email me or message me via Twitter (either the @Read_WIT or Biblibio accounts are fine!) and I'll try to add the missing titles as soon as possible.

A new WITMonth also brings with it new questions and challenges. For me, the #DailyWIT has proven to be an extraordinary year-long challenge that makes some of my previous efforts a little redundant. There is little point, it seems, to do a 50-day countdown when the entire year is dedicated to sharing precisely those style blurbs. Nor in chronicling titles I'm curious to read. But I am looking forward to writing a bit more about different genres, about different perceptions of classic women in translation. Who knows, maybe that'll even translate into some sort of organized event! (Pun intended.) There's still quite a bit in the works right now, so we'll see what happens. And anyways, I definitely still owe everyone leftover posts from last year (oops), so maybe I should hold off on the promises...

And on that cheery note I turn the stage over to the real WITMonth stars - all of you! Every single reader who is ready to think about women writers from around the world during the month of August. What are you looking forward to?

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Decentering and centering | Thoughts

More musings: Anything I'm able to write up for my huge new project (#DailyWIT) is going to be biased because of what I'm able to access.

I wrote the other week about compiling this new list and some of the challenges involved. I know that the list will never be perfect and I am not aiming for perfection. I'm aiming for something that will contribute to raising the visibility of and awareness toward women writers in translation, even if only a little. I believe that any list would be able to achieve that, to be honest, which does mean that I have a few other ambitions tossed in. While I know it's impossible to really reflect the world in an exactly proportional way, I am also not very interested in doing so. Instead, I am trying to continue the legacy of my first ever big list of women in translation - the 2019 50 Day Countdown. Now, as then and certainly as in the 2020 50 Day Countdown, I want to make sure my list reaches corners of the world, cultures, backgrounds, and languages that maybe aren't always centered or heavily promoted. 

The problem is that I come with a bias that I cannot shake off - language.

Linguistic bias may seem like an obvious topic for a blog that has focused on international literature for the past eight or so years, but I'm not talking about bias from a place of which books I'm able to read. I'm talking about bias from a place of which authors I'm able to learn about. I am privileged enough to read (fluently) in two languages, passably in a third, and can understand the gist with the help of Google Translate in another few (across a few different alphabets). Which all together leaves me with what must surely be a wider range of resources than most, but certainly a smaller range of resources than I would like.

I cannot write about authors I cannot learn about.

This has been a problem in the past, but it feels even more obvious now that I'm trying to come up with 365 new women writers from around the world (after already having compiled a list of 100 in the past two years). 365 women writers from backgrounds, languages, and experiences that are already difficult to track. International literature is already so marginalized in English that finding anything can be difficult, but even more when seeking works by women writers and particularly women writers of different (i.e. non-European) backgrounds. I can stalk Wikipedia all I want (and I do! and I make incredible discoveries thanks to a pretty special talent for searching!), but when push comes to shove, I'm limited by whatever resources exist in English. And the more layers of marginalization an author faces, so to speak, the harder it is to find resources in languages I can access, if they even exist.

I often feel guilty for this. English-language bias and Anglo-centrism shape so many of my critiques at the core of this project, and yet they shape so much. (Hebrew, my other native language, unfortunately doesn't always have all that many more resources than English, though there are some and they often provide me with incredible insight that makes me wish I knew more languages!) The limitations of English end up defining most of the limitations of whatever projects I may want to embark on. It's inevitable, yes, but disappointing.

I dream of a day where that won't be the case. Where the women in translation project will truly exist across languages and borders and cultures. It already doesn't feel like so far-fetched a dream; WITMonth has been recognized in so many different countries and languages from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica, but I'll get those penguins or penguin scientists eventually!). But I still feel like I often need to remind people that just because I'm mostly framing myself and the project in English doesn't mean it is an English-language project - it's not. It cannot be. It must not be.  

My language barrier means that the #DailyWIT list will be biased, like almost all of my other work in this field. I'm one person (for now), there's no way around that fact. English will remain at the center of this blog and most of what I'm able to tweet about and share. But at the same time, I hope I can hold onto that decentering. I hope I can remind readers - bilingual or not! - that English should not be our only outlet for this conversation. And I hope, as ever, that I'm able to contribute something that will, somehow, manage to make up for whatever inevitable flaws come with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A product of its time, in unprecedented times

This is not a review. These are, in fact, extremely scattered thoughts following a rather disjointed and confused reading experience, that triggered within me a cascade of almost indescribable feelings. And yet I will try to explain them.

I finished reading The Emissary not three hours ago. I stopped trying to write critical reviews soon after completing a book years ago, realizing that I was never quite able to capture what the book meant to me and often ended up either overestimating how much a book would leave a mark on me or underestimating whatever undercurrent might constantly suck my thoughts back into a text weeks later. So suffice to say that writing a review mere hours after finishing the book is not something I'm really interested in doing. Again: This is not a review.

No, this is much more of a meditation of books as products of their time. It's a phrase I've used myself (quite often) to describe older texts that had literary value that seemed to expressly reside in the context of the time in which the book was published. Many stories do not translate well across generations and subsequent culture changes - a perfectly normal and acceptable phenomenon. But The Emissary is, of course, a fairly recent book. Yoko Tawada's slim dystopia was originally published in 2014 in Japanese, and translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018. I purchased it in 2019. Recent, recent, recent. So how could this book be a "product of its time" and why did that phrase continuously ring in my mind as I read it?

It starts in a public park, earlier this morning. The sun was shining, surprisingly warm for a winter day (sweater only), but of course it's been warm all week. I am sitting in a patch of sunshine and cracking open this novella, which I partially chose to take with me on my lockdown walk because it could fit in my coat pocket. And almost instantly, it strikes me that there is something absurd to the whole situation. Something that simply didn't work anymore.

The Emissary is a dystopia; it spends a good portion of its pages detailing the ways in which the world has fallen apart or changed. Its premise - like that of most dystopias - relies on hovering in the in-between space of being just slightly believable enough that it could become real, but still thoroughly unbelievable enough that it's not just fiction. Speculative fiction of this category has to walk a very fine line. 

When The Emissary was written (and translated into English), the idea of a country becoming wholly isolated from its surroundings fit in that in-between zone. When it was written, an environmental catastrophe that shapes and shrinks and wholly reshapes its main characters' world was speculative fiction. It could happen, but it hasn't. Except here I was on this too-warm Saturday morning in January (less than 1km from my home, per lockdown orders), reading this novel with a mask covering my nose and mouth, desperately trying to find a deserted patch of sunshine from which to read apart from the various families, couples, and individuals who had come out to enjoy the sunshine as I had. The dystopia I lived in seemed to mock the dystopia that Tawada had so carefully crafted. No, The Emissary does not remotely imagine a world like our current one, but to the contrary - the differences meant that her world no longer felt believable. Too many little references and ideas and world-building threads suddenly felt... dated. The book felt like something that had clearly been written in Before-times.

This is an exaggeration, of a sort. Tawada's work is, again, so distant from our current lives that it doesn't really change in response to whatever changes our world is going through. Rather, it was that I had changed. As a reader, I found myself approaching The Emissary with a jaded sadness that I'm sure I would not have had two years ago. Unlike straight-fiction which I've largely been able to read as before, the dystopian nature of The Emissary made me feel like its subtle misses and too-on-the-nose predictions placed it just out of reach, somehow. (Emotionally, that is.) I couldn't view this is an "irrepressibly funny, playfully joyous novel", as the back cover promises. At all. At all. The book seemed to drain me of all feeling and joy. It was interesting, yes, and there's a lot I appreciated about its writing, and if I ever write a real review there's a lot I can also discuss about its worldbuilding strengths, but I could not view it through an enjoyable lens. 

I imagine I will encounter more books like this in the future, that are reshaped by the experiences of this past year (these unprecedented times) and possibly by future events I cannot yet fathom (hopefully positive ones). It is inevitable that as the world barrels onward and history is made on an almost-daily basis, my relationship with fiction - its limits, its plausibility, its impact - will change accordingly. Perhaps I should have expected this sort of response to The Emissary and waited to read it, but I find myself rather grateful for the experience and the thought process it triggered. I am a changed reader after the past year - it's good to know that.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Lists, or, embarking on new projects

I occasionally like making lists. Not necessarily the hard work behind it, but the way a list looks when it's done. I like the way lists can organize thoughts or approaches. There's beauty to it, at the end of the day.

I'd been toying with the idea of daily tweets on my "Women in Translation" account for a while. It's not an original idea, of course, and I've made similar big threads in the past. But I wanted to try to stretch my boundaries a little this year. I want to make it impossible for readers to miss the incredible range of women writers from around the world. 2021 is going to be the year that I simply do not let up. I refuse to.

So here's what I'm doing: I'm making a list. A very long list, to be perfectly honest. For every day of 2021 (not necessarily posted every day, because, well, that won't be possible due to all sorts of factors...), I will be sharing a brief tidbit about one woman writer from around the world writing in a language other than English, living or dead, near or far, translated or not. I know that the list will be imperfect in a lot of ways, whether in terms of giving space to authors it will emerge I do not like (since I am not filtering author inclusion on whether I've read their works or not, at least not at this stage), or in terms of mistakes that may fall along the way in my assumptions or awareness of their works. I expect that the list will end up including authors that will frustrate some readers. Maybe that should even be part of the point, I'm not sure.

I decided to compile this list because I'm tired of the omissions. I'm tired of the fact that time and again, readers come away with the perception that women writers exist in English, and only in English. This simply isn't true. Yes, there are certain biases in place that seem to drive women to write in English over native languages, but more than that, there is a persistent unwillingness to create space for those women who do write in languages other than English. A brief run-through of sites like Words Without Borders and Asymptote Journal reveal that women are often wholly missing from "underrepresented" languages. And to be perfectly frank, these aren't actually languages with few speakers; Punjabi, for example, has over 100 million native speakers, and no translations of works by women... But this is just one example, and while I'm sure some languages have imbalances galore, I'm not convinced that there are simply no women writers.

So just as I've done in the past with the 50 Day Countdowns, I want to set the record straight. There are going to be all sorts of challenges involved in compiling this list, yes, especially since I refuse for it to be an overwhelmingly white, European list either and don't want to repeat authors previously included in the countdowns. There are challenges galore. But you know what? It'll be worth it, if I manage. It'll be worth it to come and say, flatly, "No. Women writers exist across the whole world, across all these languages, cultures, regions, and experiences." Women cannot be the afterthought when it comes to literary engagement or awareness. This new project is just my latest way to try to reset the record, even if only a little bit.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The shifting goalposts of disappointment

Longtime readers of this blog will know that disappointment is not a rare feeling around these parts. I am frequently disappointed by popular books, am disappointed by certain publishers who fail to live up to their own hype, am disappointed by awards and narratives and stories about stories... and yet when I found myself contemplating my recent reads, I realized that disappointment meant something different for me this past year. Ultimately, almost all of the "disappointing" books I read weren't even all that bad. The goalposts had shifted.

As a child, the concept of DNFing ("Did Not Finish") a book seemed unthinkable. And maybe at the time it really was, because books were that much shorter and that much easier to finish off even if I didn't particularly like them. I read a lot of books that I managed to thoroughly loathe up through my teenage years, and I do mean loathe. Books that I really, really could not stand. For years, I was certain that I couldn't just set aside a book that I didn't like. For a long time, I didn't; I kept the books hanging around for years and years, certain that eventually I would return to read them. Sometimes I did. Increasingly, I don't.

My reading has changed drastically over the past decade. To begin with, my life is now a lot busier than it ever was; this is the decade in which I became an independent adult, studying and working and managing my own life. It's much harder to find time to read through dull books when there's so much less time for reading, especially when reading is something that I wholly do for fun. As I've mentioned many times in the past, I don't like my reading to feel like an obligation. This has, thankfully, gradually extended to include my actual reading choices and behavior. I am now perfectly happy to give up reading books that bore or anger me. 

But... interestingly enough, this practically didn't happen this year.

It's not that there weren't books that I started and then set aside, there were. I started César Aira's The Hare a few months back and just haven't managed to sink my teeth in it, but I don't feel like I'm really ready to abandon it wholly. There have been a few others along those lines. There have also been books that I realized I didn't want to read anymore. That's all fine. But I haven't had those sorts of books that truly feel like torture or anger me in their disappointment. Last year, I had one major DNF - Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a book that I just could not enjoy no matter whatever else I thought about its technical prowess. (To be clear: I don't think it's actually very good on a technical level, I think it's written in a style that is meant to be difficult and those are very different things and I will maybe elaborate on this more in a separate post someday.) I also had a few thoroughly disappointing titles, like The Belly of Paris which was easily my least favorite Zola so far (bah!) or the whitewashed Last Train to Istanbul or the cringe-ness of The Nakano Thrift Shop (yeah, I said it!). There were similar patterns in years past.

Not so this year. This year, my most disappointing titles were books that were... fine. Not bad or terrible or even painfully boring, just... mediocre. And in some cases, good!-just-not-great-or-amazing. The Eighth Life ended up being one of the most "disappointing" titles I read this past year not because it's a bad book (it is not!), but because I expected to TOTALLY LOVE IT and instead just thought it was good. So too did N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became end up "disappointing" me by virtue of not quite being what I wanted/needed, nor being as stupendously mind-blowingly good as The Broken Earth trilogy. Or maybe a book really wasn't amazing, but it was fine - some good parts, some bad parts - like Inger Christensen's The Condition of Secrecy, which like It before it, I probably would have loved had I not completely shaped my view of Christensen's writing based on the astonishing alphabet.

Which leads me to wonder: Does disappointment inherently follow hype? Almost all of the books that disappointed me this year are those that came with the highest expectations and hype or followed previously beloved books by the same author: The Eighth Life, The City We Became, Beyond Babylon, Accommodations, The Condition of Secrecy... None of these are bad books by any stretch of the imagination, some of them are even good books, and all of them come with pretty significant merits on which I could easily recommend them to many readers, yet they managed to specifically evade something I wanted from them. Were those expectations unfair? Am I moving the goalposts too far?

I'm not sure I'll ever find an answer for this. I think there's something to be said for my goalposts changing once I'm filtering out a lot more books that I just don't like; I'm wasting a lot less time on authors or books that I don't expect will do it for me. Those books, inevitably, can't disappoint me. That leaves a lot more room to be disappointed by books that I still manage to like, possibly with greater space to also explore what disappointed me and why. That's a situation I can happily live with. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Just a reader

When I told the audience at the inaugural "Translating Women" conference in London last year that I am "just a reader", a chuckle went through the room and it became a bit of a joke. There was a sense that framing myself as a reader was a bit of self-dismissal or diminishing my status as WITMonth founder and WIT activist. It was nothing of the sort and in the year+ that's followed, I've found myself thinking a lot about this dissonance. I am just a reader, and I take a certain degree of pride in this. So where does the friction come from? Why does this come off as a joke?

I'm reminded of another incident, in 2015. I attended my first-ever literary conference in the form of ALTA, taking part in a panel discussion on the topic of "Women in Translation". I was honored to join that conversation and it was a remarkable experience for me, learning about a world that I had never before been a part of. In between one of the sessions, I found myself speaking with a group of translators. I honestly no longer remember who it was who said it, but someone turned to me and asked me what I had studied. I explained that I was finishing a degree in biophysics, that I actually wasn't coming from the field of literature at all. This translator snorted somewhat and said something along the lines of "Then why do you think you can come in and comment on translation?" It stung and the comment has lingered with me since.

It's true that I now have more confidence when it comes to the topic of women in translation. In 2015, the topic was still new and fresh; my own expertise was still new and fresh. Today, I will firmly and perhaps arrogantly count myself among the world experts in this field. I may be a biophysicist-now-biochemist, but I have spent seven years of my life devoted to understanding the imbalances women writers in translation face in English and other languages. I have - along with many, many others! - helped build a movement to promote works by women writers from around the world. I have sought to examine the topic from many different angles. I write reviews on occasion and I do promotional work on the side.

I am not an academic (in literature, at least). I am not in the publishing industry. I am not a translator. I am not uniquely trained or talented. I don't speak 17 different languages. I'm nothing more than a person sitting on her couch and looking up publicly available information off the internet, mostly through Wikipedia. I don't have access to research, studies, or perspectives that exist within the pages of literary academia and wouldn't know where to begin searching even if I did. I don't have any idea about the politics behind which books are chosen for translation by which publishers, beyond publicly shared information. I have no insights into how books are pitched by translators. I am, quite simply, a person who loves reading and is passionate about this project. I am just a reader.

But that phrase has a flip side to it too. I am just a reader as a sense of pride, but also occasional anger. Because let's be very clear about something: If I am able to do all of this work by myself with absolutely no background in the field or training, what could the publishing industry or academia be doing? How does it come to be that a PhD student in biochemistry from outside of the Anglosphere is a leading voice in the fight for women writers in translation? Why are more publishers not taking a stand in actually changing things? Why does the literary world continue to turn its back on this fight? Why do I - "just a reader" - "need" to be the one doing these things?

I don't mean for this to suggest that I don't want to continue my work, I do. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't care about it deeply. And frankly, I think that there's some value in coming from outside of the literary world, because I feel absolutely no shame in pointing out flaws at every level. I don't owe anyone anything. My life and career will continue just fine even if I do somehow anger everyone in the industry. I can come and point to publishers who are bad-faith supporters of WITMonth, I can come and point to editors with problematic views, I can come and point to breaks in a system on which so many others rely.

There is further power in readership. At the end of the day, my guiding principle when it comes to reading is not marketing or what books I receive from publicists (since I basically receive none... hooray to living in the international shipping dead zone?), but my own desire to read. This means that I'm able to visit books from across a wide range of genres and basically whenever/however I like. I read because reading gives me pleasure. I recommend books because it gives me pleasure. And I am also critical of books because it gives me... well, maybe not pleasure, but a certain degree of intellectual satisfaction. Being a reader has power in my freedom and my independence. For all my wish to belong in literary circles, to receive those same free books that everyone else gets, to have that sense of equal understanding and having read all the "right" books, I also like when I get to be the one randomly talking about some book that nobody's read, or going back twelve years into the archive to wade into a long-dormant debate.

I am just a reader. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

End of the year lists, revisited

My frustration with "Best of Books of [x]" lists is not new. In fact, it's one of few topics from my early days of blogging that I still generally agree with. I still think that there's value in waiting to see how books actually impact readers (and the market!) before determining whether they're really the most influential or "best". I still think there's messiness in how individual readers might look back on reading years or decades (and goodness, I've been blogging long enough that I've seen two decade summaries go by, eep) especially in, say, a pandemic year, and I still very much feel that reading eras are typically separate from official years. And all of these fail to mention other observations I've made over the years: The power of individual publishers (whether large or simply very media-savvy indies) can make a huge impact in terms of the perceived "best" books simply because those are the ones the reviewers are offered and subsequently read, genre limitations and definitions often box out titles that don't quite fit in, and that at the end of the day these lists create a sort of driving force for marketing more than anything else.

I have a large-scale discomfort with these lists. Major media outlets almost always showcase the same books and cite the same reasons for highlighting these books, some of which seem understandable and some of which less. Diverse as the individual selections may be (and sometimes they are!), there is a homogeneity in terms of which books are even allowed this coveted spotlight. International literature (and literature in translation more specifically) is almost always absent from these sorts of lists, which reside in comfortably Anglo-centric worlds. Industry favorites dominate, with only the rare independently-published work getting due. Academic publishing is equally rare. Non-genre-specific lists will almost always be dominated by fiction works. The lists will usually end up mostly unsurprising to anyone who has followed literary news. Perhaps this is where I'm being unfair. Perhaps these lists aren't meant for me. But if they're meant for readers who are less in-tune with the literary landscape, these flaws are all the more damning. Readers deserve more, no?

But the truth is, I have grown exhausted with the idea that we constantly need to be reading new books. We don't.

If I were to compile a "Best Books of 2020" list, it would overwhelmingly be comprised of books not originally published in 2020. Many are from 2019, it's true, but that delay is important in terms of why I ultimately chose the read the books and when (or, in one case, how long it took me). Meanwhile, many of the others are just... older. Because I only discovered the book this year. Because it took a long time for the book to be translated into a language I read in. For whatever reason, there was a delay. And to be clear: I too am increasingly becoming more contemporary in my reading due in part to pervasive public pressure! I'm reading fewer and fewer of my backlog titles and not buying nearly as many when compared to shiny new books. But I feel like this makes me a poorer reader.

In general, I've never been one for pressure in reading. I don't read on a schedule and I'm notoriously terrible at reviewing books at the "expected" timeframe (which is one reason I avoid requesting books for review). Not having the space to process books matters, especially given how much we shape each other's impressions and guide each other's reading. That question of time feels so present in properly assessing my favorite/"best" reads of any given year or era. I often feel as though looking back on older lists showcases how many of them flared brightly at a given moment and then faded from the public view. Does that mean they're not worthy books? Hardly! But some have not stood the test of time. Others may be recontextualized by a changing culture. And some may have simply been good books that were the products of effective marketing, but not much more... Ultimately, I am not a professional reviewer whose job it is to promote newly released books. I'm a reader! I'm someone who's trying to find books that are new and interesting to me. There is a lot to learn from older texts, whether as classics or just books that I missed the first time around. And there's a lot to learn in reading books without external pressure to interpret them a certain way. Maybe this is why I'm constantly finding myself at odds with most reviewers?

2020 is almost over. It was (for many of us...) a remarkably difficult and painful year. I cannot claim it to have been especially conducive for reading, in large part because I frequently found myself outside the right headspace for certain works. Trying to summarize such a year feels like it would miss out on so much, so I'm not going to. And I hope to spend 2021 taking a step back from immediacy and away from all the "best of" or "most anticipated" lists. While there are quite a few new releases I'm looking forward to reading, I want to take the time to explore writers I've left on the wayside for too long and take that step back. Reading isn't a competition or a performance; I'd like to simply read

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On the value and faults of adaptations

While it may be an odd statement to make on a dedicated book blog and as a person whose personality is often associated with books, I have to admit: I like stories. I like movies, I like television, I like theater (particularly musical theater, let's be real), I like graphic novels, I like campfire tales. I love the human capacity for storytelling and imaginative interpretations of different stories. After all, how many times have we reworked and played with the Hero's Journey? How many times have we played out romances and tragedies and sports victories and so on? It's a wondrous thing.

All of which is to say that I've long been a fan of the concept of adaptations. I find great value in the way that stories can be reworked in new contexts or using new mediums. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that film inherently elevates a text, but I think that any adaptation has the potential to add to the original, by casting it in a new light. And so a novelization of a movie might elevate that by having the space to fill in details or background that would have felt clunky in film. A film version of a comic book might manage to change the stakes and scope of the text by physically expanding them. And of course adaptations can also happen within the same medium - modernizations of classics are a particular favorite of mine, where the adaptation plays around with the actual story details to set them in a wholly different setting. Similarly, it can be argued that Shakespearean theater (and any theater that takes some liberties in direction and styling) is another form of endless reinterpretation and adaptation. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, whether in 16th century garb or in modern clothing and style (which is, perhaps, why Shakespeare remains so continually enjoyable to modern viewers!).

Yet for all my love of adaptations as a concept, I often struggle with the execution. I don't think these are unrelated, though, and in fact it was through my disappointment in various adaptations in recent months* that I've realized so much of what it is that makes a good adaptation good. 

It began with Wolf Hall, which I read (and loved) several years back. When a BBC adaptation of that work was announced, I was excited. How could I not be, with an adaptation in the works of some of my favorite books? So when the time came, I watched the first episode with excitement... and stopped. While meticulously crafted and staged, the show felt... dim. Lifeless. I forgot about it for several years, only coming back to it when I read The Mirror and the Light earlier this year. And so I watched the next two episodes (all that time later), and was again struck by a sort of blankness to the adaptation. Coming off of Mantel's writing, it felt even more apparent. Where were the film equivalents of Mantel's writerly quirks ("he, Cromwell")? Where was the depth and weight of Mantel's raw focus? "Wolf Hall" the miniseries was praised for being a faithful adaptation, but it seems to primarily adapt the story, not the work itself. Henry VIII's story is not unfamiliar, nor is Cromwell's by association. The value that Wolf Hall brought in "adapting" Cromwell's life was in how Mantel carried out her work, how she delved into Cromwell's character, and how she built the historical record into and around it. It's the life she introduced into an established historical story. In failing to capture some of Mantel's literary quirks and snarky eye, the "Wolf Hall" miniseries ends up feeling like a neat set-piece historical drama, not a particularly good adaptation.

A similar feeling has continued with the recent BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, another of my all-time favorite series. While generally more enjoyable and admirable in its attempts to flesh out the politics of Lyra's world (which are largely left vague in The Golden Compass, somewhat expanded upon in later books) and some bold (and welcome!) storytelling decisions in the overall series pacing, there is still something somewhat missing from the adaptation. Fantasy and sci-fi works are often difficult to translate to the screen, lest something of the actual imagination gets lost. "His Dark Materials" tries to play to its strengths (excellent acting), but it can't quite capture the magic of Pullman's world, mostly failing to really convey the otherness-yet-normalcy of daemons. Season 2 is improving on this a bit, but there's still the feeling that "His Dark Materials" just doesn't quite manage to build on the original. Its an adaptation that is enjoyable (and, again, improving in its expanded world-building, which is great), but not yet all there.

It's partly disappointing because I do think there are plenty of book-to-TV examples that manage to do a good job as adaptations and as stories in their own right, which I'm realizing is part of what I find so important (and engaging) with adaptations. The Babysitter's Club was never really high-quality literature, but its transition to the small screen is not only delightful as a tween-friendly series, it also manages to capture exactly what made the original Babysitter's Club books so successful - its leads and the sense of familiarity in the stories. Modernizing these 90s classics gives space to updating the tropes that each character represents, whether in portraying a character with a chronic illness in a wholly human way, integrating history into characters' backstories with a heavy dose of modern morality, or simply giving voice to underrepresented characters or character types. And it's obviously not alone. From Lord of the Rings to The Princess Bride to Clueless, I think that there are many cases of films exceeding the source material across many different metrics, ultimately carving out their own space as stories (not merely as adaptations) and also remaining true to the spirit of the original in at least some form.

Stories have value, and I am increasingly convinced that adaptations have value of their own and in their own right. An adaptation that merely follows the letter of the text can often come off as stilted and bland, as can those that fail to understand textual innovations (like with Wolf Hall). Sometimes this is only felt by those who have engaged with the original, but sometimes it bleeds into a general sense of a story that has nothing new to say. But it can also be about how you relate to a work, wrapped in how you value that medium. I, for instance, like sparseness in film much more than I do in books. This is how I ended up loving the film adaptation of Brooklyn (a book I otherwise did not particularly enjoy), finding myself enamored with its pacing and visual storytelling. (This is also part of why I loved the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, despite any other flaws it might have. I seriously loved the use of coloring as a frame device.) Meanwhile, I'm probably not going to be very interested in a horror-themed adaptation of a beloved story (sorry Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!). Like with all art, that doesn't mean that there isn't value in the work of art itself, nor does it mean that different people won't find value in different aspects. After all, "Wolf Hall" earned high praise as a miniseries, despite my own disappointment so far; I suppose I will always be contrary.

In short, I remain a fan of adaptations as a concept, and frequently also in execution. Adaptations don't need to supplant an original story, rather to add to it. And as a fan of stories and over-analyzing stories, it's hard not to love the extra depth the mere act of adaptation introduces.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Classics versus YA" is a false debate

Over the past two days, numerous Twitter accounts, authors, academics, and educators have joined a fairly wide-reaching debate as to the merits of the so-called literary canon (which I will simplify as "classics"). To call this a "debate" is already a bit of a stretch - having read many different perspectives from all sorts of sides, it often feels as though there are two completely different conversations happening, with extraordinary animosity from different directions (even when some of the anger is fairly understandable). Troubling, however, is the prevalence of an especially vicious dismissiveness of young adult (YA) authors, particularly YA authors of color. Twitter being Twitter, it's increasingly difficult to track all of the different conversations happening in parallel, but one thing is sufficiently clear: There are pervasive, frankly snobbish views entrenched in the literary world, and there are pervasive problems with how these translate into pedagogy and there are pervasive problems with how people then turn these into opportunities to yell. I won't get into the individual arguments because a) I don't think I'm necessarily the best person to talk about it (being pretty far removed...), and b) I've mostly found myself thinking about that core misunderstanding and false debate over classics versus YA.

I started blogging in December of 2008, at the shy age of 17. I had been writing reviews for a few years by that point, and blogging was meant to be an opportunity to stretch my (likely falsely perceived) intellectual wings a little. I was just settling into a new reading era for myself, after having blitzed through a classics period at ages 13-15, followed by a YA renaissance at 15-16. Though I didn't know it at the time, at 17 I would begin to shift my focus to international literature on a far greater scale, and this would eventually lead me to the women in translation project. Classics were my first foray into reading like a "grown-up", and there was a time when I thought this meant that I needed to cut back my reading of YA. Once I started blogging, I also discovered that a lot of bloggers I interpreted as more "mature" (that is - not YA- or kidlit-specific) held deeply dismissive views of young adult literature as a concept, and that often spilled over into a dismissal of young adult readers. Suffice to say, I felt out of place from all directions, as a young reader who wanted to also have space to grow into the world of "adult" literature, but also still loved being able to read and engage with stories that seemed to be much more at "eye-level" for me. 

Why am I writing this? Because as this latest round of "classics versus YA" sprung up again, I felt as though I was rewatching something I've seen dozens of times over the past few years. There's not much new in the conversation (except, perhaps, the miscommunication, rage, and hurt that come with a social media platform like Twitter), which really all loops back to the fact that it's a problematic argument in the first place. Just as I didn't need to have to choose between my own reading, neither do young readers today.

To begin with: The "debate" was sparked by a few different threads that criticized different aspects of teaching classics in schools. This is a wholly legitimate concern. One YA author decided to thread classics she felt were bad or harmful in a K-12 school environment (often using somewhat dramatized modern tongue-in-cheek stylings), leading to a swift backlash. Except... it's legitimate to come and say "I don't think we should be forcing kids to read books that are boring or racist or sexist". And that does cover a lot of the classics taught in schools, at least in the US. Classics are often cultural touchstones, but their influence is also pretty context-dependent; books gain classics status by our elevation of them. So why elevate certain books simply because that's what's always been done?

Then there's the question of educational value. Is there educational value in controversial classics? In this, I find myself agreeing with all sides: Yes, but not on a universal scale, and not necessarily in every classroom. Literature serves different purposes at different ages and for different kids. There is certainly the question of teaching critical thinking, textual analysis, and literary interpretation, but those don't actually require "difficult" or controversial books. When most kids aren't reading in the first place, there is value in promoting works that are written with modern children in mind, and these works still leave space for exploring larger questions. Not to mention that modern YA is also infinitely more relevant to important cultural shifts happening now, whether in terms of conversations about race, whether in representing a wider range of sexual and gender identities, or whether just in terms of navigating a world that is constantly changing. To dismiss these works wholesale is to miss out on the extraordinary work being done within the field.

But I also find myself agreeing that there is still value in some of the traditional "classic"/canon-y titles, just not necessarily for the reasons that some have argued. I personally love many different older titles, some of which are firmly in the canon and others which are not necessarily, some of which are clearly problematic products of their times and others which transition reasonably well to a modern setting. I think young readers could learn a lot from Sei Shōnagon, for example, as an opportunity to contrast early diary writing with modern texting lingo, or Frederick Douglass, another "classic" author with immense value in the classroom that reaches beyond a single subject. Middlemarch, in my mind, is also a book that absolutely deserves a place in a classroom. And I even contemplate some of the more controversial, established titles: John Steinbeck absolutely has his issues and as an adult I'm able to parse through a lot more than I was as a child, but I still learned a lot from Of Mice and Men that's stayed with me for years. It's just that I don't think that these titles necessarily deserve space in place of titles that younger readers can relate with. We need to be able to separate two different goals of encouraging reading/a love of books versus challenging readers. Personally, I struggle with the idea that children - even teenagers - must be challenged with "difficult" books. I think that some will want it and seek that out, but it's much more important that kids learn critical thinking in a way that will make sense to them. 

For me, the problem with the whole debate hinges in part on this misunderstanding. On the one hand, you have educators focusing on getting kids to love reading. On the other hand, you have authors focusing on the challenging aspects of literature. But these aren't actually contradictory, nor must they be mutually exclusive. To take an example of a book that came out when I was a kid and is already reaching classics status, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a modern(ish) YA classic and one of the more innovative, powerful, and memorable books I've ever read. It's a book that forces the reader to contemplate numerous coexisting realities and an unreliable narrator, challenges expectations, and addresses pretty heavy topics, all through a brilliant script format that turns the story into a meta-commentary on narratives. And there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other kidlit/YA books that achieve those two goals as well, many of which actually are recent and geared toward the kids of today. Why not elevate these books?

The canon is not actually real or objective. It's eternally in flux, eternally changing, and endlessly relevant and irrelevant simultaneously. There is nothing set in stone that says one book deserves to belong to the canon while another is forgotten to history, there's just our choice to elevate one book over another. And it's okay to recognize that these things change. Writing changes and our culture changes and our perception of the canon changes with it. Clinging to the books of your past isn't actually about ensuring that modern kids have access to the classics - they do and they will. Nobody told me to read Tolstoy or Zola or the Brontës at 14, I chose to because I was already a passionate, devoted reader and I wanted to explore a new-to-me world. I was able to read through these outdated texts and try to see them in their own, shifted light. I'd like to believe that I learned from those beloved-by-me classics, just like I did from those classics I loathed (hello, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby!). I read these all for "pleasure", not in any classroom setting. There was a time when I was certain that I had lost something important for it, that I had fundamentally misunderstood the texts and that must be why I hated so many of them. But today I realize that... no. I simply didn't like them, and that's okay. And I simply loved others, and that's okay too. And there are some books that today I realize had additional layers and meta-contexts that I didn't understand as a child (Gone With the Wind is perhaps the starkest example...), and I'm okay with that as well.

I know that this argument will come back in a few years, or a few months. It inevitably always does. Its return is always heralded by the same dividing lines, where there are those speaking for modern texts (usually also reflecting the growing diversity of YA literature, which is very much not disconnected from the backlash the field faces, nor the dismissive attitudes and violent rage that these authors inspire.......) and there are those defending "the classics". I myself used to defend older texts as uniquely elevated, but no more; I just don't see any intrinsic value in classics as classics, nor in defending the canon as a fixed construct. Readers - and young readers in particular - deserve better than to be eternally fed this false dichotomy of enjoyable versus valuable, of "lower" works versus elevated classics. It simply isn't true and it does us all a disservice.