Saturday, August 30, 2014

WITMonth Day 30 - Historical fiction

I've been a bit sick the past couple days (hence missing two days in a row of posts...), so today's post will also be a little light on the meat. Instead, I'll just plop down a literal list of a couple WITty historical fiction:
  • The Budding Tree by Aiko Kitahara - I've already mentioned this one as one of my favorite underrated titles, so it shouldn't be so surprising to see it crop up on a list of my recommended historical fiction. The Budding Tree is a great historical account of women living in Edo, as well as a beautiful character piece.
  • Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall - I didn't get a chance to review this novella over WITMonth (even though I did actually read it this month!), but I think it comfortably falls under the category of historical with its sharply tuned eye for the Holocaust.
  • The Time in Between (or The Seamstress) by María Dueñas - This one doesn't get talked about much in the more "literary" circles (perhaps because of its marketing, perhaps because it really is much more of a straight-up historical fiction book) but it really is quite good. It's the sort of novel that you get sucked into pleasantly, and manages to surprise you nonetheless. I read it a couple years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit, gaining more appreciation for its styling over time.
These are only a couple that come to mind, while there are many others out there which I have not yet read. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WITMonth Day 27 - Untranslated masterpieces

For today, I'm going to cheat just a little and refer readers to Day 15, when I talked about Israeli women writers I feel deserve to be translated. But of course there are many untranslated masterpieces beyond what I discussed, and many more books that I'm simply incapable of knowing...

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

WITMonth Day 24 - America, America!

Welcome all to the final week of WITMonth! Now, having fully exhausted one half of the globe and its many literary treasures, we may turn towards the "New World", and the plethora of fine women in translation found there.

The Americas, of course, is not as limited in scope as we may think. Though the diversity of language is relatively slim (Spanish, Portuguese and French being the main three), there is huge diversity of country, culture, background, and style. Thus we have the magical realism largely associated with South America alongside the often coldly rich writing of Quebec. We have stories of magic, immigration, the future, and the past. We have histories of peoples who no longer exist, and tales of civilizations yet to rise.

This continent brings us mixed rewards - Quebec stands apart from all other parts of the world as the only region to host more women writers in translation than men, while Latin America distinguishes itself in especially poor representations of women writers. This week will see us pointing towards writers known (and less known), as we fit the final pieces of the WITMonth puzzle...

Hello, my name is...

Hello! My name is Meytal. It's nice to finally meet you all.

As some of you will know, I've been anonymous for a long time - since the advent of this blog, actually. I've gotten a lot of interesting theories over the years as to my "true identity", some fairly accurate and others wildly off-base. In recent months, I've started to open up a bit more about my age, and many of you have also guessed my gender as well (largely, I think, because it's still considered weird for men to directly address feminist causes?). And yet I've received some unpleasant comments for remaining anonymous, and it forced me to ask the tough questions: Why was I still anonymous? What was I afraid of?

Questions which are answered in my introductory video below. I'm going to be making more of these videos - about women in translation month, about books I read that I don't feel like reviewing in print, about random book-related issues that I think are particularly interesting - but will by no means be abandoning this blog. These videos are a supplement, and an easy way to start moving past my hesitance in sharing about myself online.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

WITMonth Day 23 - Brief thoughts on genre fiction

Some of the claims to counter the poor translation rates of women writers has to do with the myth that women write more "genre" fiction than men. I don't want to delve too deeply into that myth in this post (I'll do that another time, don't worry...), but let's give a couple examples of women writers in genre anyways, and a few good resources for readers interested in finding more genre women in translation. As always, please leave more recommendations in the comments! This post in particularly is a bit half-baked, so definite apologies for any glaring omissions...

First of all, anyone interested in sci-fi/fantasy should check out Cheryl Morgan's blog - she's been posting tons of wonderful WITMonth pieces and recommendations, particularly for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Lots to explore there... go check it out!

Next, there's my own obsession admiration of Angélica Gorodischer. I've written about her quite a bit, but really, if I haven't convinced you by now that you should read Kalpa Imperial... I'm just going to keep trying. Read it. It's phenomenal. I'm also going to refer once again to Cornelia Funke (last mentioned in my post about kids/YA books) - her fantasy writing may be geared towards children, but it's rich and rewarding as well.

I'm not a huge thriller/mystery fan myself, but there's no denying there's quite a bit of different eligible books here: I've heard quite a few recommendations for Juli Zeh, for example, and have encountered Camilla Läckberg quite a bit as well. Here, I encourage checking out blogs like Reading Matters, which doesn't specialize in either genre fiction or literature in translation, yet covers quite a bit of both. I know I'm missing a lot here (being largely unfamiliar with the field...) - feel free to share your favorites below!

Finally, a quick list: Sun-mi Hwang's fantasy-fable The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, fantasy elements in Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, and Isabel Allende's magical realism - all different forms of "genre", each literary and unique in their own ways.

Those are my quick jots... who have I missed?

Friday, August 22, 2014

WITMonth Day 22 - Anthologies? More like manthologies

One of the ideas that's cropped up in the comments here for finding new authors has been exploring different anthologies to find new and perhaps more obscure women writers in translation. While this idea at first seemed a little minor to me, I quickly realized that it's actually brilliant - a lot of authors have their short stories translated long before their full-length works are.

I was so very excited. I really, really shouldn't have been.

You see, anthologies largely reflect the literary culture around them. Yes, you can occasionally find a book like Cubana (which I recently stumbled across and picked up at a used bookstore) that is dedicated to women writers in particular, but most anthologies give a broader spread. And most are so, so male.

Here's a quick rundown of the four anthologies I checked out from the library this week:

  1. Contemporary Georgian Fiction - 4 out of 20 stories are by women. 20%, less than the overall translation average
  2. Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories - 9 out of 52 stories are by women. 17%, less than the overall translation average
  3. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - 9 out of 35 stories are by women. 26%, just around the average
  4. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China - 5 out of 20. 25%, just below the overall average
I won't pretend that I'm not discovering some old-new writers in these collections, or that because some focus on older literature it may justify the relatively low ratios. I won't pretend that they aren't doing good work for literature overall. I also won't dismiss them entirely, considering the higher male-to-female ratio in other anthologies (though when I say "higher", I mean around 33%...).

However. This is something we need to bear in mind. When we look at translations, we also need to look at short stories and at anthologies and at collections. Until now, I had sort of hoped that these collections would reflect better on translation rates than the current landscape. But it turns out that these collections - including more recently published ones, such as the Georgian collection (from 2012) - mirror the problems found elsewhere, and indeed often give us worse results.

I will continue to use collections and anthologies as a resource, for all writers. But once again we see the problem that led to the very initiation of WITMonth - where are the women writers? We keep searching, and we keep discussing. This is the only solution.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

WITMonth Day 21 - Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas | Guest post

Today's post marks a special occasion on the blog - the first ever guest/cross-post! Many thanks to Lisa of the excellent Lizok's Bookshelf for writing the post, originally published here (reblogged with permission).


When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova's novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

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 Tor.com (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 transgender. 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.

Thoughts?

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.

Hmm.

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?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

WITMonth Day 5 - A Very Easy Death | Review

How much does Simone de Beauvoir's memoir-like account of her mother's death truly belong in a month devoted to literature by women in translation? Is A Very Easy Death fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between? Whatever it may be, A Very Easy Death is a woefully underrated little book that does a fantastic job of blurring the fact-fiction line and ultimately telling a story that is both powerful and utterly engaging.

"Utterly engaging" is one of those reviewer cliches - what does it mean for a book like this? To be perfectly frank, it means what it sounds like - A Very Easy Death is not a passive book, which once read no longer impacts the reader. Rather, this short text plunges the reader straight into the heart of death and family. It forces the reader to contemplate, to struggle, to ache and ultimately to feel. For a book that is so inherently personal, somehow A Very Easy Death manages to be extremely relevant to just about every possible reader.

Over the course of about 100 pages, Beauvoir lays out her mother's final days. There's a touch of fiction to the whole story, a sort of glossing-over that makes both prose and story feel like they've been sharpened somewhat (hence my hesitation to call it outright nonfiction). Regardless, in these few pages is a universal truth that will likely reach every reader. Beauvoir looks at old age, illness and ultimately death with a sort of clarity I don't think I've ever encountered in literature. In asking questions about end of life - touching on issues like whether to prolong days of illness, or have a quick death - she is probing matters that apply to every single person in the world.

The attitude towards an ailing parent, meanwhile, is likely equally relevant to most readers today. Even younger readers such as myself (who are hopefully not yet remotely near imaging their parents in such a position...) can relate, whether in regards to grandparents or their own future. Throughout most of the book, I found myself thinking about my grandmother's last months - her fight to prolong her life as much as possible, and whatever further pain that may have caused her. I thought about my living grandparents, and what they might go through in the years to come. It's these sorts of thoughts that lead me to label A Very Easy Death as "engaging" - it engaged me to apply its ideas to my own world, and to think... differently.

A Very Easy Death is more than a simple story about dying. It's also - more broadly - about family. Beauvoir describes a relationship with her mother that is, like most relationships, complicated. In one particularly moving scene, Beauvoir contemplates her different reactions to her mother's body over time: openness as a child, revulsion as a teenager, and now a sort of uncomfortable openness late in life. Her discomfort at staying in the hospital, her fears of leaving her mother, her fears of staying by her mother... these help paint a strikingly clear portrait of family ties. Beauvoir discusses her mother's response to her father's death as well: a woman who essentially reinvented herself later in life. And though neither relationship is itself given the primary focus of the book, Beauvoir's relationship with her sister also provides structure to the main-stage story.

But death - the process - really is the point here. What is the dignity of dying? Or of old age at all? How should the dying elderly be treated - coddled and protected, or told the truth every step of the way? What of the physicality of it all? Beauvoir doesn't offer answers to all these questions. I don't believe there are any. What she offers, however, is better - a perspective. And it's certainly a worthwhile one at that.

----
* I read this book in the Hebrew translation and was unable to track down the name of the translator into English.

Monday, August 4, 2014

WITMonth Day 4 - The Days of Abandonment | Review

It's hard to be a reader of literature in translation in recent months without having heard of Elena Ferrante. Praise has simply overflowed for Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels (published in English by Europa Editions, all translated by Ann Goldstein), with a fair share of notice for Ferrante's earlier The Days of Abandonment as well. I kept seeing such rave reviews, I knew I'd have to read one of Ferrante's novels for WITMonth. Then, at Hebrew Book Week, a bookseller began to wax lyrical about The Days of Abandonment after I asked him for recommendations. I bought the book, went home, and read it a couple weeks later.

And goodness if it isn't a fantastic book.

The Days of Abandonment starts where a lot of stories get to - a woman's husband leaves her. Olga and Mario have been together for years - they've built a home together and have two children together. But now Mario, in what at first seems to Olga utterly out-of-character, announces after dinner that he simply cannot stay anymore, that it's too much for him. And he walks out the door, and Olga's story may begin.

This abandonment is the trigger for the journey on which Olga now embarks. The Days of Abandonment tracks Olga through her initial shock - and outright denial - straight through to her realization of what sort of marriage she had had and who her husband was. This is a painful, raw journey, often so realistic and terrifying in its presentation of life on the edge that just the act of reading it felt like letting some demon into my soul.

Ferrante is an unforgiving writer. She takes no shortcuts in the narrative, nor does she gloss over the difficulty of suddenly being thrown into a new reality. There is no coy foreshadowing here, no attempts at clever plot twists. In this sense, The Days of Abandonment thus ends up feeling somewhat subversive - this shocking novel turns into something believable and unexpected because of how normal it feels. Olga's steady loss of control and gradual disappearance into the madness that is abandonment felt like a painful, preventable slide. I found myself so quickly drawn into the story that I just wanted desperately to shake Olga.

Two sides?
Suffice to say, these qualities make The Days of Abandonment a far from pleasant read. The frankness with which Ferrante shows us two different sides of Olga (and Mario, and their two children as well) can be quite uncomfortable at times, with a sort of vivid realism that settles in deep. This is curiously reflected by Olga's children as well, who respond and mimic their mother's struggles knowingly and subconsciously. In the most painful and nerve-wracking part of the book, this reflection becomes a literal one, as Olga is forced to face her problems head on.

The Days of Abandonment is not a flawless, perfect book. Its pacing is occasionally off and there were characters I constantly hoped for more from, yet all in all there's no denying the power behind Ferrante's words. This reclusive writer (who some have theorized is actually a man despite interviews showing that she has described herself as a mother, so this seems unlikely...) captures life so sharply, so cleanly, that I am honestly in awe. Are there subplots I would have omitted from the story? Most definitely. Are there scenes that were so painful that I had to set the book aside? Yes. But is this a powerful, brilliantly written account of one woman's struggles? Absolutely. I am without a doubt going to read the remainder of Ferrante's books - if you're looking for excellent books by women writers in translation, I think it's fair to say that Ferrante will make a fantastic first stop.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

WITMonth Day 3 - A short introduction to Western and Northern Europe

Here's an interesting takeaway from Three Percent's translations database: half of the books published by women writers in translation stem from distinctly Western or Northern European countries. To be fair, I am essentially omitting the notion of a Central Europe for this definition (so Germany and Austria get sent west, while the Czech Republic by my extremely arbitrary measure get shifted east, as does the entire Balkan region), but this is a calculated choice. The overwhelming majority of literature in translation stems from this very Western region. It's an important metric, because as happy as I am to have more French and German novels, truthfully we cannot claim diversity by simply expanding our comfort zone only one or two countries over.

And so I must admit that starting WITMonth off with these countries was distinctly intentional. It's easy to read books by French writers - it's not even so hard to read books by French women writers. It's not hard to find Scandinavian women writers, or German heavy-hitters (indeed, let us recall that German and Swedish had the best ratios of women writers), but it's a bit harder to find Latin American women writers in translation, or Chinese, or Iraqi, or Algerian, or Russian women. They're there... but it's harder to see them.

But that's coming. Right now, it's time to talk about France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Sicily and Portugal, as well as other countries I am shamelessly forgetting! This ought to keep us occupied for the next week, no?

These are the countries from which some of the greatest women in translation success stories stem from: Muriel Barbery, Elena Ferrante, Simone de Beauvoir, Herta Müller (arguably Eastern Europe, but she won her Nobel as a German writer and writes in German, so I'll count her here), and a host of crime/thriller writers (Nele Neuhaus, Camilla Läckberg and several others I'm less familiar with). There are also lesser known writers, and some who are practically unknown. The goal over the next week is to taste from all different corners of this sprawling landmass and to showcase some of the splendid literature that has emerged from it (as well as some that is, perhaps, a little less splendid), spanning genres, designations, tastes and styles. There's a huge diversity here, ready to be explored and discussed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

WITMonth Day 2 - Favorite women writers in translation

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Women in Translation month! Happy August! Hopefully wherever you are in the world, the weather is ripe for some reading and/or long a
nd detailed discussions about books.

We'll ease into WITMonth with an easy topic - who are your favorite women in translation? We may not have enough women getting translated at this time, but there are still quite a few of them out there, and some of them are quite excellent.

So let's start with the author who has written one of my absolute favorite books from the past few years: Angélica Gorodischer. You'll see Gorodischer's name cropping up in a lot of different posts over the next month, but truthfully - she deserves it. Kalpa Imperial is one of the best books I've ever read, Trafalgar is a great book on its own, and I eagerly await the translation of the rest of her body of work (please please please?).

We've got a few other authors who quickly and comfortably leapt to the top of my list: Inger Christensen, whose Alphabet is a simply stunning poetry book that immediately made me rush out to buy her other books, Gail Hareven, who is a fantastically original Israeli writer whose wide, untranslated backlog I'm eagerly exploring, Yoko Ogawa, who has reached both broad appeal and critical acclaim for her nearly-flawless writing, and Mercè Rodoreda, one of the first lit-in-translation authors I ever encountered whose body of literature continues to intrigue me.

We see here a nice spread of authors - some genre, some niche, some very popular, some sadly altogether obscure. But what keeps these women comfortably on one list is that each is a fantastic writer. These writers hold their own against the established "canon", even as some perhaps fail to garner quite the recognition they deserve.

Next up: A trip to Western Europe.

Friday, August 1, 2014

WITMonth Day 1 - It begins...

Happy August, everyone!

The "official" completely optional not-really-important prompt for today was a general introduction, and a riff on why we find the issue of women in translation interesting/important. Since I've spent the past few months discussing little else, I'll keep this post brief. Readers seeking a general introduction are invited to read through the "women in translation" tag.

Instead of another long post, I'd like to welcome all readers who want to participate in the Women in Translation month - whether on blogs, on Youtube, on Twitter, on Tumblr, at home in a private notebook, on Facebook, and anywhere else - to feel free to discuss their thoughts on the matter (especially if you disagree with some of the conclusions I may have reached in my earlier posts - the point is to have a discussion!). I'll be collecting links and reviews, but I might miss something - contact me and I'll happily add you. In the meantime, here's to an interesting and enlightening month for us all!

Next up: I discuss some of my personal favorite women writers in translation...