Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WITMonth Day 20 - Underrated is subjective | Thoughts

For today's prompt, I encouraged readers to think about underrated titles/authors. This is a difficult subject to discuss, because it's extremely personal. One person's favorite author may be another's unknown, unheard of masterpiece. Ratings and accessibility are subjective, so everything I write in this post will obviously be wrong for many other readers. And yet.

For me, the term "underrated" carries with it significance regarding where I've seen reference to the book. For example, a book that's been reviewed by a major outlet (like the New York Times, or the LA Times, or Three Percent, etc.) is considered... fairly rated, in my mind. There are also other books that get this treatment - I look at a writer like Elena Ferrante who appears on almost every literature in translation blog, whose books appear even in chain bookstores, and whose writing has been profiled in several different review publications. While it's true that she's not a household name like other writers and may perhaps count as underrated in the larger picture, I think the acclaim she's received within certain circles excludes her from my personal definition.

So now... who do I think is truly underrated?

Of course my first answer has to be Angelica Gorodischer - sure, she's far from underrated on this blog, but I unfortunately do not see very many mentions of her name/writings beyond my own. She's been reviewed in Three Percent and on (the latter was my introduction to her, curiously enough), but not much beyond. She should be everywhere, and we deserve more of her books translated, pronto.

My next underrated title would probably have to be the woefully unknown The Budding Tree, by Aiko Kitahara. This book is lovely and fascinating and a wonderful read, yet I discovered it only through my extensive searches of the Dalkey Archive... archives. It seems that the book was not entirely ignored upon publication (several years ago), yet to me it seems like the sort of book that deserves more recognition and deserves a longer shelf life. If you've never heard of it or read it - do that now.

Finally we've got Inger Christensen. I've written about her a bunch, I know, but it's because she really is one of the best poets I've ever read. She deserves to be a household name, particularly among poetry lovers. Go read her works. Now. Shoo.

These are just three. And this list is so short largely because I don't feel I've had an opportunity to read many of the truly unknown women writers in translations. I get many of my recommendations from larger outlets, and many more from other readers. Yes, I read many well-rated books. But even among my stack of well-known and lesser-known titles, these are three writers who deserve more attention than what they get. They deserve to stand the test of time, and to have new readers still aware of them five, ten, fifteen years down the line.

And while you go check them out, I'm going to continue searching for those other underrated authors I don't know yet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

WITMonth Day 19 - Why I Killed My Best Friend | Review

I love this cover
Amanda Michalopoulou's Why I Killed My Best Friend (tr. Karen Emmerich) is another one of those books I sort of attacked, more than I technically read. While not an especially long book, somehow this long-titled novel managed to feel extremely packed - packed with humanity, with love, with hate, with friendship, with family, with politics and with history. To a certain degree, Why I Killed My Best Friend (henceforth referred to as WIKMBF) is a very old-fashioned, manly sort of novel. Except that in every case of the male friendship and male sexuality filling the story, you've got women.

The thing is, I feel like I've read a lot of books with the basic structural idea of WIKMBF. Once again, chapters alternate between the past and the present with little clumsiness in the switch. In Maria's past, we learn about how she and Anna (the referenced best friend) became friends, and how the two grew up. In the future, we see an Anna and Maria who have been apart for a few years, now becoming close again (or, as Maria often views it, falling into the trap again).

Maria's past-and-present view of her relationship with Anna is one of love and hatred. Their relationship is full of codependency and reliance, of jealousy and drama, of intimacy and isolation. These characteristics are also bound within Greece's political turmoil - the two girls are politically active, constantly spouting off different political beliefs. Truthfully, the two aren't particularly intelligent or consistent in their political/social views - whether this is an intentional reflection of Greece's constant state of quasi-democracy/occasional-anarchy or a mere indicator of their youthful idealism, I'm not sure. But it's there, and is certainly thought-provoking.

Michalopoulou also has a tendency to equate art with politics. While this is obviously true in many cases, she omits the option of art existing simply as art, or art that holds beliefs different from those radical views held by the main characters. For a novel that deals so much with art as a political statement, this seemed like a slight missed opportunity.

Michalopoulou also directly addresses female sexuality, showing not only Maria's personal experience (both in terms of sexual discovery and ultimately relationships), but also the context in which the two friends develop. Anna's dominance over Maria is shown more than once through the lens of the girls' sexual maturation, not least through "boyfriend stealing".

All of this history ultimately comes into contact with the present chapters, in which we're presented with a wholly different scenario: a Maria who has been isolated from Anna for several years. A Maria who views her friendship with Anna as something toxic. A Maria who sneers at Anna's new life and hypocrisy. A Maria who is changed, but ultimately exactly the same.

HIKMBF is well-written, and translated in a way that made me feel like it was being adjusted for an American audience. Indeed, in the translator's note, Emmerich implies that plot points may have been changed in translation (in accordance with Michalopoulou's wishes), something which I'm not capable of actually identifying just from the translation, but find quite interesting. It's a well-paced book that provides fascinating insight into Greece's recent history, and does a wonderful job of creating a realistic relationship between two young women coming into their own. One of my favorites by Open Letter so far.

Monday, August 18, 2014

WITMonth Day 18 - Sworn Virgin | Review

Important notice: Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (tr. Clarissa Botsford) is one of those books that once you stop reading you just can't put it down. Believe me, I tried. Several times. But the book is clearly written and flows brilliantly and is so very interesting that setting it aside for more than five minutes just wasn't an option.

Of all the books I've read for WITMonth so far, there's no doubt in my mind that Sworn Virgin is the most thought-provoking, and also the book that addresses sexism most overtly. Sworn Virgin is about Hana, who lived as Mark for fourteen years (and yes, there's a reason I'm presenting it like this). The premise is based on a legit (but uncommon) Albanian practice of gender swaps, essentially in order to cross gender role boundaries. Hana originally decides to "become a man" in response to oppressive gender dynamics in her culture that prevent her - as a woman - from being able to fulfill various roles.

And thus - even where it occasionally succumbs a bit too much to the idea of clearly defined gender boundaries - Sworn Virgin emerges as a wholly fascinating account of gender roles. Hana-as-Mark is unsure about her position at times, unsure about how her sexuality fits into Mark's life, and unsure of how her previous life as a woman can meld with her current one.

But Hana-as-formerly-Mark is even more confused. This is where the story begins - Hana has arrived in the US and is casting off the "shackles" of her gender swap. She's not gay, she explains to her cousin's young daughter, nor transgendered. But she also can't easily shake off various "masculine" traits, despite her cousin Lila's constant attempts. It's in this drive to "fix" Hana and bring her back to some sort of standardized femininity that Sworn Virgin becomes a bit problematic with its treatment of gender roles, but it also constantly shows these steps as being in accordance with Hana's own desires. Hana goes about things slowly, and we as the reader go with her.

The story is non-linear, with alternating chapters of Hana's past (pre-Mark and as Mark), and the post-Mark era. Through this, we gain a good understanding of what leads Hana to become Mark, and ultimately, what also leads Mark to go back to being Hana. Plus a healthy heap of family dynamics along the way, and relationships too. Unlike a lot of other stories with back-and-forth narratives, I actually had zero preference here - I enjoyed both aspects of the novel immensely. Each section tells an important story about gender, and about culture as well. It's all interesting, and it's all well-written, and it's all completely worth reading.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

WITMonth Day 17 - The other Europe

As we enter the second half of WITMonth, so too we turn towards new regions and new writers. This week, that means looking at the parts of Europe that generally receive less attention and translations - the Center, the Balkans and the full-blown East. My definition for Eastern Europe was entirely arbitrary and fairly vague - there's no line running through Europe that indicates who's West and who's East. Or rather, there isn't one any more. Like last time, readers are free to imagine their own definitions and read however they'd like.

The reason I feel the need to distinguish between these two halves of Europe has less to do with their former politics (I'll note that the Soviet Union did not really exist in my lifetime) and more to do with the fact that it's been a slow burn getting literature translated into English. Countries like Poland, Romania, Russia and others don't lack for women writers, but they're certainly underrepresented in translations. As always, the idea is to highlight the authors we are familiar with, and hope for more.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WITMonth Day 16 - What about the kids?

One of the things that's been really important for me in planning WITMonth is that we focus not only on very Serious Grown-Up Literature, but also take a moment to appreciate books in other genres or designations. There's not much children's literature translated from other languages, but of those few books that are translated, quite a few are actually written by women.

First up is Cornelia Funke, who is quite well known as a young adult/middle grade fantasy writer. Inkheart came out just near the end of my fantasy phase in middle school, but I remember really enjoying it at the time. Somehow I managed to never finish the series, but there's no denying that she's one of the premier women in translation of the kid-lit world.

Next is Janne Teller's Nothing, a book I found as frustrating as it was interesting. It's not a perfect book by any means and its weird mix of extremely simple writing with lots of pseudo-philosophizing made me want to throw the book at the wall several times while reading it, yet it remains the only book in translation (that I'm aware of) to have won a Printz Honor. In a younger field, we also have writers like Tove Jansson, best known in literary circles for books like The Summer Book or The True Deceiver, yet known worldwide for her Moomins series.

Breaking away from Central Europe, we also have one of my personal favorites: Daniella Carmi, whose Samir and Yonatan remains the only book translated from Hebrew that I've ever read in English and not in the original (accidentally! I did not realize at the age of nine that this was a translation, and was extremely embarrassed once I identified the original in our family's bookcase). I used to reread Samir and Yonatan a lot when I was a kid - it's a powerful book that always gave me hope.

What are your favorite kids/young adult books by women in translation?

Friday, August 15, 2014

WITMonth Day 15 - Translate these books

It would be strange of me to go through a whole month discussing women writers in translation without also talking about those women writers I don't actually read in translation, but don't read in English either. To be honest, I haven't actually read very many books by Israeli women, a curiosity which I've been trying to understand and explore over the past few months.

I've started to fix that recently, and though this list won't be particularly long (because I have not had the opportunity to truly dig deep), I thought I'd highlight a couple interesting and or particularly translation-worthy books.

The first is the inaugural (and thus far only) title in the "translate this book" tag - Bella Shaier's Children's Mate. This collection of three stories is absolutely brilliantly written, and casts such a fascinating light on different aspects of Israeli and immigrant societies. Feel free to check out my full recommendation for more.

The second is a book I'm not sure I'd define as having liked, but it was very interesting, particularly in the portrait it painted of a younger, less traditional Israel - Kinneret Rosenbloom's Loves' Story (I've seen references to other possible English titles, so please take this with a grain of salt). It's a novel unlike most translated into English - it's not a post-modern musing, nor is it a political piece. This is the sort of book I could easily see translating well, not least because much of its approach and style is very Anglo, while its attitude is purely Israeli (and purely Tel Aviv Israeli at that). I had several issues with it as a novel (and with certain stylistic and thematic choices I could not for the life of me understand the need to include), but it was the sort of book that clung to me and kept me hooked throughout.

Next up is a recent release - Inverted Cry, by Celine Assayag. Inverted Cry is the latest in a long line of Israeli child-of-immigrant stories, always emerging just as that generation is coming into its own adulthood. In this case, we have Assayag's presentation of the poverty of Bat Yam (a city near Tel Aviv) in the 1970s (when she herself would have grown up). The story is loose and messy at times, with certain scenes and incidents happening in ways that don't always make sense, and small inconsistencies that I simply couldn't figure out. But its core is very, very good. There's a lot of sharp social commentary, and an important presentation of underrepresented portions of Israeli society. Assayag doesn't shy away from discussing the actual impact of immigration either, with constant references to the previous life in Egypt, and parallel family in France.

Finally, I'd like to address a few authors whose books I personally did not enjoy very much, but who have achieved great acclaim in Israel without getting translated into English. These include women like Lea Aini, whose novel Lebanon Rose was a little drawn-out for my taste, but was quickly lauded in Israel by almost all critics, or Ronit Matalon's The Sound of our Steps (which deals with themes very similar to those in Inverted Cry, yet predates it by several years) which was recognized as one of the best Israeli books of the decade. We also have authors I have enjoyed (like Gail Hareven), who had one book translated into English (to great acclaim, I should add) and none of her other brilliant works touched.

And then there are hundreds of other Israeli women writers I simply haven't gotten around to. Yes, Hebrew is generally overrepresented in translations relative to the population, but if we're already going to be translating so much out of it, I would love to see more of our brilliant women writers getting the stage as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WITMonth Day 14 - There a Petal Silently Falls | Review

I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.

Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.

The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.

The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.

It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.

I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.

Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

WITMonth Day 13 - Queer lit (or lack thereof) | Thoughts

Today's prompt was supposed to be simple: write about queer women writers. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected it to be.

The first reason for this is that queer literature is... fairly marginalized. In general, not just in translation. I know of a lot of young adult books that deal with coming out, for example, but I haven't read or encountered much for adults (for the record, I know that there is a lot out there and some of it even mainstream, but I personally haven't had much experience with it). So when I come and look at the intersection between these two extremely narrowed fields, it somehow becomes less surprising that I can't find much. Where are the queer women writers in translation? I don't know. Here I open the floor.

It's a curious question. When I went through the 2014 stats for literature in translation, I didn't attempt to read through every single biography, but I skimmed quite a few. I'm honestly not sure how many of the women whose pictures and bios I looked at were queer. It's an interesting indicator of the bigger issues of representation - we're not just looking at translations, we're not just looking at Western women, we're not just looking at straight writers...

Instead of the post I had originally planned, I offer instead two examples I could come up with that do look at issues of gender and have queer relevance.

The first is Yona Wallach's poem "Hebrew", which deals fairly explicitly with gender. Wallach is a rare Israeli poet to be translated into English, and an even rarer case of a bisexual woman to have been translated. Her poems are sometimes considered coarse and even vulgar (sparking controversy in Israel in regards to including her in the curriculum, which is distinctly woman-light), yet "Hebrew" is a powerful statement about gender balances, and can certainly be viewed as a sharp rebuke of the clearly drawn boundaries of binary gendered pronouns (and society).

The second is Elvira Dones's Sworn Virgin (which I plan to review next week). Sworn Virgin also tackles gender issues fairly head-on, mostly through its constant questioning of these definitions. The premise of the novel is deeply rooted in questions of gender definitions - Hana is a woman who has lived as a man. She explicitly explains that she is not gay or transgendered, yet she also struggles with other basic definitions. It's true that much of the book revolves around her trying to come to terms with more "gender-appropriate" behavior (in what might seem as a firm reinforcement of traditional gender roles, though I'm not convinced), but I think that Dones does a good job of showing the complexities of gender, identification, society and culture. It's also a book that deals heavily with gender roles and sexism, but we'll get to that in the actual review next week.

This isn't much. I know this isn't much. And we can talk extensively about why it's not much... in fact, we probably should talk about it at some point. These are questions that are worth asking, and I would love to hear thoughts from anyone who thinks they have some answers.

WITMonth Day 12 - Are we all reading the same thing? | Thoughts

An interesting idea arose today on Twitter - that many WITMonth participants are actually visiting the same writers again and again. Tony Messenger suggested that this may be as a result of lack of availability, echoing the narrow field from which we can pick and choose our women writers. This is undoubtedly a factor, however I find myself wondering if it's really the main reason. And so: post.

I've discussed in the past the fact that availability will shape what you read and how. Previously, I wrote about how if there's only a certain amount of books published in a field, it's not unreasonable that your reading rate will follow that ratio. This explains why so many readers report 25% women in translation reading rates - it falls very much in line with the general publication stats.

I think the question raised here is of a different sort, however. Given the stats that we have - given a limited number of books by women writers in translation - many readers are finding themselves tackling the same books, often "entirely independently" (that is, not as a result of direct recommendations). I don't think this is entirely due to availability, and I think it tells us a bit more about the state of literature in translation today.

First of all, let's not forget that many of the books we read are as a result of recommendations, direct or otherwise. Certainly I just read Ch'oe Yun because of a positive review, and yes, I bought Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment because I had seen dozens of gushing reviews of her writing (and because of a well-timed bookseller recommendation). Word of mouth is particularly powerful in smaller communities like literature in translation, and it's often hard to escape awareness of specific titles.

But I think there's more. Certain books are pushed more by publishers - these are the books that get sent out to reviewers and ultimately create buzz. Buzz breeds more buzz. Usually. Hopefully. Most of the books that keep cropping up are those ones: well-publicized, respectable buzz, good marketing, etc. And the vast, vast majority of them are recently published.

I emphasize this last point because I think we often forget it. There is a whole huge backlog of women writers in translation that many of us are unfamiliar with - books that have fallen out of fashion, or are out of print, or are in that in-between zone of not-new but not-yet-a-classic. There are hundreds of books like these, and to be honest it's going to be extremely difficult to find them. It's much easier to look in the newspaper (or on blogs), see what they've reviewed recently, and check out the books that look interesting. In this case, I find myself inclined to believe that literal availability isn't actually what's guiding us, rather it's bigger market forces that generally decide how we pick our books.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WITMonth Day 11 - The Last Quarter of the Moon | Review

The first and most important thing to note in this review of Chi Zijian's The Last Quarter of the Moon (translated by Bruce Humes) is that before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about the Evenki (or Evenks), the ethnic group around which the novel is centered. This means that while I can comment on literary style, writing, characterization and indeed my own interest in the history at play, I have practically no knowledge regarding the authenticity of this story, and whether it stands as an accurate representation of the Evenki.

This is relevant because the cultural aspects were one of the things I enjoyed most about The Last Quarter of the Moon. Not necessarily the specific insights (though those were obviously interesting, particularly in comparison to other northern ethnic groups I've read about), rather the themes they represented. The book - which spans most of the 20th century - looks quite a bit at the clash between tradition and outside progress. At the novel's start, the Evenki are fairly isolated, yet as history marches on (and the Japanese invade...), familiar conflicts begin to arise. These are themes I find particularly evident in my own life, where the tug of war between modern culture and religious tradition can often have a significant real-world impact. Chi presents this issues without really answering them - truthfully, I don't think there are any clear answers, and I rather liked the more thoughtful ending she decided to go with.

From a story perspective, I viewed The Last Quarter of the Moon a bit like I viewed the children's classic Julie of the Wolves back in the day - it's a fascinating piece about a world I know nothing about, and now want to know more about. Chi does a wonderful job of showing different aspects of Evenki culture - art, writing (or lack thereof), family dynamics, social structure, religious order, and more all come into play throughout the novel. As per the disclaimer at the beginning of this review, I cannot make any claims on the authenticity of the book (or whether aspects of it are inaccurate), but I certainly found nothing to be outwardly offensive (to my untrained eye). The Evenki are neither overly glamorized nor garishly drawn, a nice change from the all-too-common "exotic" trope. It's unfamiliar and new, but it also flows fairly naturally (with a couple reindeer exceptions).

From a more technical perspective, The Last Quarter of the Moon holds up just a little less. It's a well enough written book, no awkwardly translated bits, and generally the flow is good. But for such a huge epic to be contained to relatively so few pages (~300 pages) means that the pacing is always going to be a bit off, plus there's a slight problem with character development. The cast of characters here is quite large, some with the same name and others with similar-enough names (Russian sounding names that start with a V...). It gets... confusing. I constantly had to refer myself to the family tree at the novel's start, which unfortunately only included family members and not other tribe members (which often made it more confusing).

As for the characterizations themselves, this was probably my biggest issue with the book. We spend some ninety years with our nameless narrator, yet truthfully I felt like she was simply a placeholder for most of the book. She is the lens through which we can learn about the Evenki, but as a character with her own motivations and personality, she was fairly lacking. Most of the other characters were similarly one dimensional, missing out on an opportunity for a greater emotional investment. Most had some sort of story-based relevance (one character's arc in particular was a brilliant bit of storytelling about "the greater good", but a disappointment in emotional resonance), but I felt like Chi could and should have fleshed them all out some more.

On the whole, I think this is definitely a novel worth recommending. The Last Quarter of the Moon is not a flawless piece of literature, but it's got quite a bit to it: history, culture, art, meditations on tradition, on violence, and even occasionally on gender roles. As a novel it's somewhat lacking (particularly in the characterization department...), but overall as a book I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, August 11, 2014

WITMonth Day 10 - The wider world

We started WITMonth with the most prolific countries - France, Germany, Sweden, Spain... We continue now with an exponentially larger chunk of land, but one that is undeniably far less represented in literature, particularly for women writers.

The most commonly translated languages are consistently French, Spanish and German. We can all think of many French writers, but how many of us can name more than a handful of Chinese writers? How well do we know African literature? What have we read from southeast Asia? How many Arab writers are we familiar with? Without even looking at the division between men and women yet, I think it's fair to say that most of us haven't had as much experience with these regions as compared to Western/Northern Europe, simply because significantly less is available.

This week's region - all of Asia, Africa, and whatever bits of Oceania may qualify - is huge, with incredible diversity across its region. Nothing binds these different continents together, other than their lower translation rates. But this giant region encompasses so very much: it's got my own home country, the two most populated countries in the world, countries that represent some of the oldest stories in the world, countries that have largely been ignored from a literary perspective, and countries that many of us simply know little about. One week will never be enough to scratch the surface of this entire region, but it's enough to give us a taste and show that there is plenty of literature - and literature by women - coming out of "unexpected" places. Literature is not simply a European affair, and it's not limited to a privileged elite. It's everywhere, in every form, and it's worth taking a moment to finding these new voices.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

WITMonth Day 9 - In which I refer you to Ingrid Christensen

I had plans to knock back a few more poetry collections by women writers in translation before today, but alas that didn't happen. Instead, I'm going to refer you all to my review of Ingrid Christensen's phenomenal alphabet - a poetry book unlike any other I've ever read. Happy reading!

Friday, August 8, 2014

WITMonth Day 8 - Discourse and quotas | Scattered thoughts

Some of you - whether because of direct messages or in light of my slight Twitter baffle-storm - will already know that last week I received a fairly not-positive comment on my essay about women in literature. One of my policies on this blog is to approve any comment that is not outright spam. This means that sometimes hurtful (or indeed hateful) comments may make their way through. Luckily, the book blogging community is a generally positive one and I have rarely if ever been left comments that were offensive in any way. Until last week.

The problem with Matthew Lane's comment is not that he (I'm assuming he?) disagrees with me. I've been having an enlightening, ongoing discussion with Richard about various aspects of that post (and others on my definition of the canon), where we tend to disagree on a lot. But our "arguments" are of the kind where we make our claims, try to back them up, and learn from each other. It's exactly the sort of discussion I had hoped to foster on the blog. The problem with Lane's comment isn't even that he's rude (which he most definitely is). I'm not going to lie - I was hurt by some of the remarks about my writing, particularly regarding a piece I worked very hard on. But I'm also not going to pretend like it's the main problem with an extremely problematic comment. No, the problem with Lane's comment is how very, very wrong he is.

There is no "perceived lack of women writers", there is a distinct lack of women writers (I encourage Lane to read my previous posts in the Women in Translation series). Furthermore, the conclusion from the articles Lane himself quotes is the exact opposite of what he claims: Julie Crisp writes explicitly that the conclusion from the bad submission rates by women should be that something needs to be done about women's submission rates. To say that "fewer women are interested in writing" is hilariously backwards, and simply wrong.

But I want to focus on one particularly point that Lane insists on, which is so, so oblivious that it actually deserves its own half-post rant.

And that is, most firmly: I do not believe in quotas. I say it explicitly in the piece, and then I get told: "let's be honest here, that's EXACTLY what you're pushing for". No, it's not. If anyone wants to hear what it's like to push for quotas, check out the London Book Fair panel on Women in Translation. Actually, check it out regardless - it's brilliant.

But I, writer of this blog Biblibio, do not support quotas as a solution to the problem of women in translation. Here's why:

  1. Quotas create the impression that something undeserving is getting attention, over a more superior work. This is the exact opposite of what we're trying to prove. Narratives are important.
  2. It incites people like Matthew Lane who think that there is legitimacy to the argument that men are being oppressed by feminism. Which is of course ridiculous, but goodness, why would we make our lives more difficult?
  3. The most important first step is to increase awareness of the problem, not to isolate it.
So far, increased awareness of the problem has led to Women in Translation month - it's a self-imposed awareness, more than a quota (one that is, I believe, working quite well). And this is what frustrates me. Readers being aware of their reading is not the same as imposing quotas. Readers coming at their options and saying, "I want more of this" is not the same as saying, "I HAVE to have only this". I think the same is generally true of publishers. The response so far from everyone participating in WITMonth has been absolutely phenomenal in my opinion - we are showcasing many brilliant women writers, some famous and others significantly less so. No matter your position on how else to fix the problem of women in translation, I think we can all agree that what's happening here is a good thing.

You can call this increased awareness "quotas", but it really isn't. It's a request for readers to recognize their various personal biases, and try to overcome them. Try to move beyond bad marketing. Participate in this dialogue. Think about what you read, think about what you don't read, and try to understand external forces in play.

And seriously, if you're going to criticize me about the topic, at least give your criticism some foundation...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

WITMonth Day 7 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Review

Most of you have, by now, heard of The Elegance of the Hedgehog (henceforth referred to as TEOTH) by Muriel Barbery (translation: Alison Anderson). It's hard not to - it was the surprise hit-in-translation of 2013. In fact, it's one of the only translated-lit success stories that's written by a woman. Hard to pass up the opportunity to discuss, no?

What's more is that TEOTH can inspire some massive debate. Just by myself, I was able to spend hours arguing points back and forth - whether the novel is simplistic or subversive, whether the focus on Japanese culture is meant comparatively or whether it's just a bizarre oversimplification, whether the pretensions of the main characters are meant to echo those of the side characters they mock or are just a marker of bad writing, etc. You'll see a lot of reviews that praise TEOTH for its focus on Art, its charm, and its warmth. You'll also see a lot of reviews that bash its pseudo-intellectualism and banality. So, you know, it can go either way.

I tend to lean more towards the pseudo-intellectualism side, but with a little less vitriol, because though I had serious issues with the book, there were parts of it that I nonetheless enjoyed.

My biggest problem with TEOTH is the ideal that occupies its entire first half (which is basically its premise). We have two narrators: Renée (a 54 year-old concierge) and Paloma (12 year-old resident of the building). Renée's narrative occupies most of the story, while Paloma's thoughts usually fill in the blanks for us. The two tones are meant, I suppose, to balance each other out - Paloma's youth versus Renée's experience. Both woman and girl are remarkably similar in their assessment of the building's wealthy residents: dismissal.

Renée is an autodidact, a point she takes great pride in yet insists upon hiding from everyone in the building. She is Cultured, quoting Tolstoy, reading Philosophy tomes, musing about Art, and name-dropping composers. All, of course, in her head. To the building's residents, she is a simple, stupid, uncultured, lazy TV addict.

There are a lot of issues with the characterizations in the book, but I have to admit that this one is probably the most harmful. Though Barbery is clearly attempting to show that bright minds can also reside in unexpected places, she is simultaneously demonizing lower classes who aren't autodidacts like Renée. Sure, there's the moment that Renée tries to make the point that she is more open than her employers (because she also watches popular films), but her whole world-view is utterly skewed towards a judgmental, pretentious belief that culture can be easily defined.

Truthfully, this pretension is not uncommon, and it's hard to tell whether Barbery is attempting to deconstruct it (poorly), or is utterly oblivious to its implications. Renée is a character who spends most of the book utterly degrading her employers for their airs, but herself puts them on. She also judges them for seeing her as the character she has built. There's a clear hypocrisy in the story - Paloma's mother is mocked for her "Socialism", but the fact that Renée reads Marx to build her mind is somehow meant to be noble.

Both Paloma and Renée are much less clever than they think. Paloma - like many "precocious" young characters - is at least redeemed by the fact that she does occasionally act and sound like a child her age. For the most part, however, both characters walk around with a self-assurance in their abilities that is never backed up by their behavior. Renée may read and may glean pleasure from Art, but we see her dismissing any academic study of it, and she never really shows us a deeper understanding (which, quite frankly, would have been more obnoxious than her existing pretension, but would have at least justified her cockiness).

This has been a long introduction to basically say: Renée and Paloma are full of themselves.

There's a bit of the "special snowflake" effect to the whole book. Our three main characters (Renée, Paloma, and the late-introduced Kakuro Ozu) all ascribe to the idea of hidden brilliance. Mr Ozu is admired by the other residents for his wealth, but Renée and Paloma clearly see beneath that to his artistic side. Renée of course is hiding all of her unique abilities and her special knowledge, and Paloma is a self-proclaimed genius.


For lack of a better term, TEOTH is kind of a douchey book. It's got "charm" (rather, swagger), it's got cleverness (or is it?), and it's got a heap-load of hypocrisy.

So what words of praise could I possibly have for it? Turns out, quite a few.

First of all, though I don't think Barbery necessarily intended for this level of thought, but the hypocrisy displayed by Renée and Paloma actually goes a long way further in emphasizing modern class distinctions than the actual explicit references. The fact that Renée should only be judged intelligent by a very narrow definition of culture is exactly the opposite of everything she espouses. Meanwhile, Paloma bemoans the banality of her older sister's life, while engaging in equally cliched behavior herself. Whether intentionally or not, Barbery does inspire quite a bit of thought on matters of class, social standing, culture and self-importance.

Even the problematic matter of Barbery's gushing descriptions of Japanese culture - as non-French readers, we can certainly learn from this our own tendency to grossly glamorize other cultures. The irony that so many reviews have referred to TEOTH as so very French is only strengthened. Again, it doesn't seem like this was a directed effort on Barbery's part, but the unintended side-effect is actually quite interesting.

Finally, a confession: I liked the last part of the book. I liked the fairly silly role Mr. Ozu played in the story, and the more I think about it, the more I liked the awfully frustrating ending (which I believe was meant to be subversive, so there's a legitimately earned point for Barbery...). It's not brilliant, but it's a pleasant read and I found myself reading the second half of the book quite energetically (certainly more than the first half, which was a bit of a slog).

Is this a bad book? No. But it's a deeply problematic one. I can think of many readers who will find the class discussions interesting as is, and others who will appreciate both Renée and Paloma as characters. There's a reason the book has been so popular in so many places around the world, but reasons for the harsh backlash as well. Basically, literature proves complex. Once again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

WITMonth Day 6 - Women write classics

Classic literature is a fairly odd genre - it doesn't just mean anything old (hardly anyone would call the early 20th century pulp pieces that Somerset Maugham disparages in Of Human Bondage classic simply because it's old), nor does it necessarily mean the very best. The classics serve as a constant reminder of what the Powers That Be have determined is Important for Literature. And sadly, these lists are often very short on women, and for Anglo-American lists almost always completely lacking in women writers in translation.

But our point this month is not to bemoan, rather to champion. So here are a few truly classic books by women writers in translation (according to both meanings of the word), some of which I have read and some of which I have yet to:
  1. The Tale of Genji! If a list of classics fails to include this - the first novel - you can probably rest assured that the remainder will be unimaginative and stilted in its perception of quality literature. While I have yet to actually read this doorstopper, there is no doubt that as a concept, The Tale of Genji is critical in a broader understanding of literature. It furthermore provides modern readers and historians with unequaled insight to the lives of 11th century Japanese gentry, as well as simply being a novel. The Tale of Genji is without a doubt classic literature, and if the rumors are to be believed, fairly good classic literature at that. Written not in English (which hardly factored as a language at the time), nor by a man, Murasaki Shikubi deserves her place in literary history, no question about it. 
  2. The Heptameron - Marguerite de Navarre is perhaps better known as a princess (not a sentence I ever thought I'd write on this blog, but there you go!), but by all accounts (again one I haven't yet read myself, though I did just buy it) The Heptameron is an important piece of literary history, as well as in interesting aspect of feminist literature. These short stories cover different manners of female sexuality, as well as simply serving as a conversation between a group of women telling each other stories (which as a concept remains woefully underused today, while similar stories with all men are prevalent just about everywhere).
  3. Mercè Rodoreda's In the Time of the Doves - well-written, intelligent, painful and ultimately sharply on-point regarding war, love and peace, this novel deserves a spot on any modern classics list.
  4. Isabel Allende is a writer of several books that have legitimately made their way to the canon - namely The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna (as well as City of the Beasts, which holds a curious status in young adult literature). Allende's books overall defy neat genre definitions (she has literally written a book about Zorro. Which I read many years ago. Because it's literally a book about Zorro.) and she is rarely marketed as a "serious" literary writer, yet there is no denying that she is one of the most prolific, influential and ultimately classic women writers in the world today. 
These are just a few samples - obviously. There are many, many other women writers whose books I have not read, many writers who truly deserve to be on any list of classic literature (Tove Jansson, anyone? Juana Inés de la Cruz? Sigrid Undset?). Pretending like these writers do not exist - like non-Anglo women writers only sprouted up in the 20th century, and even then - is just an outright rewriting of history. These are just a handful of women I've been introduced to (many, I should note, through this project rather than an independent literary exposure!). Who are your favorite classic women writers in translation? Who do you think deserves a spot in our coveted Western canon?