Friday, August 14, 2020

WITMonth Day 14 | How to find books by women writers in translation

Last week, I wrote about accessibility and availability for books by women writers in translation. There, I mostly focused on the sorts of barriers that prevent works in translation - and especially works by women writers in translation - from getting into the hands of many readers. But one of the things that I didn't really address was the question of discovery. Of course the question of literal availability is huge in ensuring that books reach readers, but how are readers supposed to know about these books in the first place?

I've heard a lot about this over the past few years, especially as WITMonth has grown. Twitter, Instagram, and Booktube are full of readers who are exposed to the women in translation project through someone else's passionate involvement, and then begins their own journey of reading more books by women writers in translation. One of the most common first steps is trying to find that initial path in: What books even qualify? Who are the women writers in translation that are available? How do you find them?

It's not trivial. Like with almost every "minority" in literary publishing, the problem isn't that the books don't exist or can't exist, but that they're not given nearly the same space, attention, marketing, and fame as the straight, white, Anglo "default". Things like bookstore or library displays go a long way in exposing readers to new books. Things like Buzzfeed lists and viral recommendation threads also do a lot. 

But let's say you're new to this. You're not on Twitter, you're not on Instagram, and you mostly do your bookshopping at major chains or online outlets. Where, you may ask, are the women writers in translation? Here are some ways to find the very most popular women writers in translation:

  1. Look over the 100 Best WIT! Yes, some shameless self-promotion here, but this list was crowdfunded by a couple hundred folks from around the world and reflect some of the most popular contemporary titles in the world of literary translation.
  2. Check out some of the heavy-hitter publishers in terms of popular books by women in translation. Europa Editions, for example, has published some of the most best-selling WIT in recent history, including Elena Ferrante, Muriel Barbery, and Mieko Kawakami. While not all publishers of popular women writers in translation necessarily publish a lot, many do.
  3. Use Goodreads for groups and lists of books by women in translation! There are all sorts of different options which can help a newer reader find appropriate books.
  4. Follow sites like Book Riot and LitHub, which both occasionally feature works by women writers in translation and have some great lists on hand.
But what about readers who are already familiar with these, as well as other, more specific blogs, sites, and outlets? What about readers seeking books from outside of Europe's dominant literary influence? What about readers seeking books from different genres or backgrounds? Well, you too have several options!
  1. Always go back to the original international literature sources as well: Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Three Percent, and literary journals like Modern Poetry in Translation or Two Lines, as well as many others (of course).
  2. Peruse the annual WITMonth new releases list, which I try to compile from a lot of different sources and covering a lot of different genres and literary designations.
  3. Lovers of speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, and adjacent genres) are strongly advised to check out Rachel Cordasco's phenomenal SF in Translation site. While there's sadly too few WIT in speculative fiction, there are some great options on the site, as well as a really organized resource for finding reviews and such for any books you may be interested in.
  4. This may, again, seem like a bit of shameless self-promotion, but check out this and last year's 50 Day Countdown(s) to WITMonth. Between the two lists, you can find literally dozens of writers from across the world, some of whom are definitely big names and others who are decidedly not!
  5. And for the top-tier difficulty level, seek out the tiniest publishers of literature in translation! Academic presses, obscure poetry publishers, publishing houses from different countries (who may still publish works in your native language, whether English or otherwise!), online publishers, and so on! It can be arduous work to find women writers in translation, but there are some extraordinary gems to be found if you put that effort in.
Right now, the bottom line is this: Readers need to work to find books by women writers in translation. Despite the occasional outlier, the biggest publishing events of the year rarely promote works by women in translation and rarely give space to their voices. This is largely why WITMonth exists - August is our opportunity to loudly make this space and promote these books. At the end of the day as I've said before, the two greatest resources I can offer new readers wanting to find more women writers in translation is Twitter and Instagram. The #WITMonth tags on both sites (as well as #womenintranslation year-round!) are extraordinary resources for seeing which women writers in translation readers from all across the world are passionate about. 

And... well, there are also some projects in the works to make this whole process of finding books by women writers in translation a little easier. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Thursday, August 13, 2020

WITMonth Day 13 | The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni | Minireview

I first learned of Tanella Boni through A Rain of Words, which I finally reviewed earlier this month. Boni's poems jumped out at me enough that she was one of the authors I featured in last year's 50 Day Countdown, one of relatively few poets that I featured in the list. I don't quite remember when it was that someone (can't remember who, either, ack!) pointed out to me that a full length book of hers actually was published in English, but it immediately jumped to the top of my "must buy" list. And once I received my copy of The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn, it was pretty clearly bumped to the top of my reading list.

I read The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn in a single sitting. It's not a poetry collection, but a poetry book, that rare, single piece that fits together so very neatly and tightly that I'm not sure why there aren't more such works. (I imagine because they're so hard to pull off well?) Reading Boni's writing (translated by Todd Fredson) reminded me of reading Inger Christensen (tr. Susanna Nied), not because the styles are necessarily similar (though both have a certain thematic clarity that I think complement each other nicely), but because like Alphabet, The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn left me fairly breathless. It's the sort of breathlessness that comes from wanting to swallow the words whole, pausing, reflecting, but needing to keep reading, always needing to keep reading. Some lines biting so strongly you recoil, some lines so beautiful you can't find your next breath, all of it flowing in the best way.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I cannot review poetry. What can I say here? I loved The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn. It's one of the better single poetry books I've read in ages, ranking up there with my favorites. Not just the language, not just the structure, not just the use of breaks and pauses and recurring motifs, not just the flow, and not just the emotions. All of these things together. If I liked Boni beforehand from a sample of her poetry and knew I wanted to read more of her writing, I can now say that I want to read all of her works. I want to be able to bask in her poetry, whether individual, isolated poems or whole works like this. Whatever she's written, I want it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

WITMonth Day 12 | Regional and cultural disparities in a complicated world

There's been an interesting recurring question that's come up since I published my personal WITMonth plans, in which I announced my intention to read and discuss books from specific regions of the world during August. In comments and elsewhere, some readers have asked me why I prepared banners for certain author groups and not others. Where were Latin American women? Where were non-South Asian writers? It's a legitimate question and I think it's time to address it.

Last week, I posted the full list of this year's 50 Day Countdown. Like last year's list, every choice this year was deliberate and pointed. Last year, I sought to have a list that was thoroughly comprised of women of color, without a single white European woman writer. While it's true that not all European writers are made "equal" in terms of industry attention and care, the status of most women writers from outside of Europe is significantly worse off. This year, I wanted to focus on women of African descent specifically (partly inspired by Margaret Busby's New Daughters of Africa, a book I'll be discussing more in depth in the future), but soon realized that it's not just African or African-descent women writers in translation who are often underserved. Indigenous women writers - particularly those writing in indigenous languages - are also a rare sight in translation, even when coming from the closest possible literary traditions (see: Canadian First Nations French-language writers). South and Southeast Asian writers are similarly starkly undertranslated as compared with East Asian writers. And Middle Eastern and Caribbean writers are also often left in the wayside.

And so this year's WITMonth countdown and plan were born. 

It's hard for me to give a clear name for my focus. "Underrepresented in English" is incomplete, after all - many of the writers in the 50 Day Countdown and those I'm reading this month are currently living and working out of Europe. A decent proportion are mixed race writers who specifically write about racial and cultural identity. As I've already mentioned this month, French is the most-translated-into-English language and is a dominant language among African writers (thanks, colonialism?), yet African women writers are extraordinarily rare in translation. 

Similarly, my focus on writers from the Americas is blatantly skewed. To put it bluntly: I'm not particularly interested in white Latin American women writers this year. While recognizing that within a US-specific context some Latin American writers share a certain status and while continuing to recognize that like all women in translation, all Latin American WIT are underrepresented on a big-picture scale, there's no denying that Latin America has its own vast diversity which is rarely reflected in translation. Frankly, the most obvious example of this is the fact that Argentina is the Latin American country with the most translations into English, and Argentina is overwhelmingly a country of white European immigrants. Even among the most popular Mexican writers, a not-small proportion are writers of wholly white European background. The Americas have so many voices from so many different backgrounds, yet like with so many other examples, we're not truly given access to most.

It's a recurring pattern. Take Indian women writers, for example. Setting aside the fact that most of the highly-publicized-in-English Indian writers write in English, I've long known that I've read works by far too few Indian women writers. Except I soon realized that I didn't even know of Indian women writers from the vast majority of different Indian languages. India is a massive and massively diverse country (subcontinent!), with literally a dozen different languages with over 30 million native speakers! The fact that the only Indian language I had read full-length works from was Bengali was something that I was deeply unhappy about; I'm glad that I've had the chance to correct this somewhat of late (having read a work translated from Tamil and a collection from Odia), but this is nowhere near where I want to be. There actually are many works translated into English and published across India, but they're just often unavailable to different international audiences. (This is true of a surprising amount of countries where English is a common bridge language, and if anyone in the industry wants to do something about it... please?) 

Meanwhile, like with the imbalances within Latin America, can we really say that this is comparable to the amount of books by women writers translated from Korean and Japanese? Not to diminish from these works - again, there are huge cultural barriers that already place these works at a far greater disadvantage relative to works by white European writers! - but the skew feels large enough that I personally decided to wait a few more weeks with some of the Japanese and Korean women writers currently on my reading list. (And there are plenty.) 

So what have I been reading? Black women writers, mostly, and I've been trying to boost up my reading list even further. Indian women writers as well, trying to get my hands on different writers from different languages and backgrounds. (Instagram has been amazing for this, there are a bunch of wonderful Bookstagrammers promoting incredible-looking books by Indian women writers!) I've tried to spread out into regions I'm really unfamiliar with, like Tahiti (Chantal T. Spitz's Island of Shattered Dreams, which I hope to review soon) and Micronesia at large (albeit not exactly a work filled with women in translation, but still very much within the spirit of: Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia). I'm hoping to read more works from women writers from across the Arab world (taking much inspiration from ArabLit, as usual). And yes, I'd like to make sure that my reading remains varied among these groups, whether in terms of promoting queer women writers from around the world or just voices from all sorts of different backgrounds (religious, socio-economic, cultural, physical, etc.).

My goal isn’t to define or judge anyone else's reading choices. For a lot of readers Latin American and East Asian writers aren’t dominant voices in any meaningful way. White European women writers in translation are still absolutely underrepresented relative to the broader literary landscape. Every time we recognize that and recognize the biases within this conversation, we're taking steps in the right direction! But there's still more. This is just my little bit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

WITMonth Day 11 | "Resilience in Immigration" by Shelly Engdau‐Vanda

Last year, I wrote about a book called "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" by a Bedouin-Israeli writer Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail. That work of nonfiction grew out of the author's doctoral research and is a nonfiction, sociological book - very much not the sort that I typically read and review on the blog. But it sparked something in me, in terms of reading more nonfiction, and particularly reading more nonfiction by Israeli women of all sorts of different backgrounds. This quickly led me to Shelly Engdau-Vanda's "Resilience in Immigration: The Story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel", published under the same sociology series at the same publishing house. The two books are thus packaged similarly, and even something in their meta-storytelling matches - both works are by minority women in Israel, writing about communities to which they belong and experiences that broadly match their own (and sometimes very much don't).

And for me, the two books remain pillars in my understanding of different Israeli experiences and cultures. Written with the express purpose of "educating" (that is, conveying a certain sociological study), the two works are remarkably enlightening beyond just their author's demographic. Yet it is still worth mentioning that these are among the only works by Ethiopian- or Bedouin-Israeli women writers (if not the only). Not only do the books serve as a direct educational tool in their academic research, they also provide context for communities that are wholly underrepresented in Israeli literature specifically and world literature overall.

Resilience in Immigration is thus the first book by an Ethiopian-Israeli writer that I've ever read. In fact, very few works by Ethiopian-Israelis have been published in Hebrew, and few of those that have been published remain in print or are readily available. While this may seem like an offhand remark, it's actually fairly important in recognizing Resilience in Immigration's cultural context; while most Ethiopian-Israelis (and specifically those profiled in this book) have lived in Israel for over 25 years or indeed were born here, "integration" into the broader, homogeneous Israeli society has not come easy, and at times at all. Resilience in Immigration tracks the migration experience from Ethiopia through Israel, with several chapters dedicated to questions of "integration" or assimilation and associated struggles. The lack of Ethiopian-Israeli representation in broader Israeli media largely aligns with this, and the limited scope of Ethiopian-Israeli literature seems to echo this void.

The book's core is interviews with Ethiopian-Israeli adults who came to Israel as children, during Operation Moses during the 1980s. This saw thousands of Ethiopian Jewish refugees secretly airlifted to Israel through Sudan, due to persistent persecution and violence the Ethiopian Jewish community faced, as well the ongoing civil war there. Not all of Resilience in Immigration's interviewees remember this period in their life, but several could vividly recall the horrors of fleeing their homes, the Sudanese refugee camps, and the chaos surrounding the actual rescuing flights. Some had lost family. Some were separated from their families. Some experienced violence. It's not easy reading these accounts (particularly knowing that the latter part of the book goes into detail about the continuing struggles once in Israel), but it's also pivotal history that simply isn't taught in Israel. Like the best nonfiction, Resilience in Immigration made me want to read dozens more books on the subject. Unfortunately, there isn't much more out there.

In a sense, Engdau-Vanda's book is not merely the sociological study of a group of childhood survivors, but a short history of Operation Moses and its outcomes. She frequently centers the Ethiopian-Israeli community at large, alongside the individual experiences of those interviewed. This becomes important when detailing experiences with the arrival to Israel, the racial bias in how the new immigrants are treated or respected, the glaring inconsistencies in comparison with other immigration waves, and subsequent consequences. The book is organized by topic, but these naturally flow into each, starting from the harrowing journey to reach Israel through to arriving, integrating, facing racism, and the lasting effects of all of these.

My one struggle with Resilience in Immigration - like Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" before it - was keeping track of those interviewed. It may seem a minor point (and it is!), but it felt necessary at times to understand who had experienced what, and in what form. This says more about my reading of the book than anything else, and is obviously not the fault of the author; one does not need to spoonfeed a reader. Otherwise, the book is sharp, tight, and eye-opening. That racism exists within Israeli society is not something that surprised me, but the pervasiveness is something that I don't think enough Israelis (even well-meaning Israelis!) fully comprehend. Nor do I think Israelis discuss enough the degree to which racist bureaucratic decision-making influences communities for decades afterward. These aren't even the express focus of Resilience in Immigration, but they're there, and impossible to ignore. (They are, I should note, also fully relevant to other experiences within the Israeli context. These too don't get enough attention.)

Which brings me back to the beginning. Resilience in Immigration felt to me like the natural companion to Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin women not because there's anything in common in the texts themselves (the experiences are very different), but because both books felt like absolutely pivotal experiences. As I wrote last year, I can't see someone translating Resilience in Immigration, but my goodness, they should. Readers from around the world deserve to encounter the individual experiences of minority (and majority!) communities within different countries and cultures. I would love to read similar accounts about migration within India, or Arabian-Peninsula Bedouin life as affected by Saudi political upheavals, or or or ...

And so, ultimately, I recommend this Hebrew-language book to my international, mostly-English-speaking audience. I also encourage my Hebrew-speaking audience to reflect on the dearth of Ethiopian-Israeli representation in our literature and seek out what we can. Resilience in Immigration has helped build that spark I felt last year into a solid flame, wanting to read more nonfiction by women from around the world. But specifically for now: I would love to see this gain a wider readership. That's all.

Monday, August 10, 2020

WITMonth Day 10 | What the 100 Best WIT can teach us about shaping a future canon

Last year's big WITMonth project was the 100 Best WIT. Together, readers from around the world sent in their favorite books by women writers in translation and we built what I had hoped would be a new canon of sorts. The ultimate product is one I am both enormously proud of and somewhat disappointed by, as I've previously detailed. As wonderful a list as it is (and it really is wonderful!), the 100 Best WIT remains dominantly European in a way that emphasizes how limited the scope of literature by women writers in translation remains.

Yet despite this disappointment, I find myself wondering if there aren't lessons to be learned about forming a new canon even from this imperfect list. In a video that I posted a few days before the end of the submission period last year, I mentioned how very contemporary the list was; I mentioned this again when revealing the final list itself as well. A contemporary list may strike most readers as the opposite of canon - these works have yet to prove themselves! - though in my view this is precisely what makes the 100 Best WIT such a fascinating contra to standard lists. The canon is no less a selection of popular titles than any modern list, the only exception being that someone has decreed that these particular books have value, and that status is then perpetuated over time.

There is no question in my mind that the canon needs a full overhaul and reshaping. It's not enough to say that the canon includes outdated, racist, sexist, or even just bad books, we have to acknowledge the mistakes that go into crafting canons. It's not for nothing that the 100 Best WIT was partly born in response to Boyd Tonkin's* starkly imbalanced The 100 Best Novels in Translation. Tonkin made many choices - intentional or not - that took an existing problem in terms of women's representation in translation (to English) and exacerbated it, whether in beginning his canon in the 17th century (rather than the 11th, which marks the actual dawn of the novel era, as set by Murasaki Shikibu herself) or in de-emphasizing works written in the 20th century. I wrote about this in that original post, arguing that exclusion is a choice, particularly when determining a new canon.

A future canon would have to take a lot of different questions into account. Eternal fame, we're now reminded, is hardly the marker of true literary quality and often fails to take into account external factors regarding an author's personal behavior or at-times abhorrent views, which themselves necessitate reevaluation of the texts. Popularity is not fixed and often depends on so many other cultural and social factors. We should ask ourselves why a canon may look thin or limited in some ways - are we overemphasizing certain voices/perspectives at the expense of others? We would need to interrogate our own literary exposure and education - how do we rank a book that is clearly part of the canon in one country but an under-the-radar sales bust in another? 

The 100 Best WIT doesn't answer these questions as much as remind us of them. Even with its European bias, our list still fails to include literary giants like Selma Lagerlöf, George Sand, Christine de Pizan, Madame de La Fayette, Isabelle de Charrière, or Anna Akhmatova. Not to mention Sei Shōnagon or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and if we start to expand our 20th century greats: Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, Mahasweta Devi, Qurratulain Hyder, Maryse Condé, Can Xue... This is not to suggest that women writers in translation from the 21st century are not to be valued (quite the contrary!), but it's still an important reminder of how little space we're leaving these writers in our larger literary landscape. We give temporary - contemporary - space to new writers, without filling in the gaps of the past. And those writers absolutely exist and many of them are worthy of so much more attention and respect. The writers I just listed are only among those I've personally read (or am currently reading, in the case of Hyder). There are dozens, hundreds, likely thousands more women writers from around the world who simply need that space reallocated. Isn't that what the canon is supposed to do?

It's not just lessons from the mistakes, there are also lessons from the best parts of the 100 Best WIT. Despite its geographic limitations, the 100 Best WIT does make space for a lot of women writers from different backgrounds than those usually found in "Best of" lists. In addition to more than a tenth of the list coming from Japanese women writers alone, there are also several queer classics/modern classics, books from a wide range of genres, and multiple books that tackle huge political issues (whether as nonfiction or through fictional means). It can't be described as a homogeneous list by any stretch of the imagination, whether stylistically, in terms of genre, or writer background (even with the Eurocentrism - Europe is not homogeneous either!).

These are things we need to remember for the future. These are things we need to remember for any future canon we may build, WIT-specific or not. We may argue that the canon is dead, but that doesn't mean much for the concept of the canon or canonization as a literary process - those will exist no matter how many old, outdated, sexist, and racist lists we throw away. So one year after the 100 Best WIT, let's take a moment to appreciate the revolutionary nature of creating a new canon (including the flaws and failures in the system that highlight existing biases!) and what it means for the future.

And yes, let's remember some of these books for that future canon as well, shall we?


* It should be noted that Tonkin himself is someone who does support the women in translation movement through serving as a judge for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, even if I do not personally accept his arguments as to why 14/100 WIT is reasonable representation

Sunday, August 9, 2020

WITMonth Day 9 | The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail

In brief: Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard  (translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow) is a good book that was one of the more inconsistent works I read this past year. It's tough to say that, especially when I'm excited to read an author and fall in love with her words, but ultimately The War Works Hard felt very much like a collection, for good and for bad. There were some works here that I really loved, there were some works here that I didn't like very much, and there a few that I was thoroughly ambivalent about. Overall, I came away with a mostly positive view of the book, but I won't pretend that I loved it. Instead, I can say that I liked it.


I say this basically every time I need to review a poetry collection, but it's very hard for me to properly "judge" poetry. Poetry is and always will be about how it makes me feel. A good poetry book (or collection) is one that manages to wreck me, one way or the other. Maybe it's because I have to hold my breath to the rhythm of the words or maybe it's because the thoughts and descriptions are so resonant or maybe it's because there's something deeply personal about how emotions are conveyed... It doesn't really matter what the reason is. I'm not usually the sort of reader who lingers on specific phrases or quotes (in poetry or in fiction, for that matter), which really means that either the writing techniques/gimmicks have to be extraordinary to get my attention (see: Inger Christensen's crystal clear alphabet) or the text has to hum with an emotional understanding that lingers beyond the last page (see: Mary Oliver, Tanella Boni, Sulochana Manandhar).

The War Works Hard doesn't quite fulfill either fully, but it also doesn't really disregard it either. Part of the problem, I think, is that it collects poems from three different collections, but in backwards order (i.e. the first poems in the collection are the newest, the last are the oldest). The style and tone shifts in Mikhail's writing end up feeling like they degrade or fold in on themselves, rather than grow. And it's especially odd given the seismic political shifts that take place in the gaps between the original publications. "The War Works Hard" collection was originally written in 2004 (this translation overall was published in 2005), with the previous poems mostly written in the 1990s. Mikhail is an Iraqi writer whose writing is wholly rooted in Iraq's turbulent history between 1990 and 2004. War appears not only in the modern, US-influenced context of 2003, it also appears in her very oldest poems. It's not the only theme in this collection, but it's prevalent enough that the backwards order feels like it misses the point of how much of a constant this really is.

And relevantly, I'm left with my own confused questions. As always, I have to wonder about the politics of translation: Are Mikhail's political/war-related poems more likely to be translated because it fits a "Western" narrative of an Iraqi asylum-seeking poet, or is this her focus of choice? Am I unfairly reading a political context into poems that are actually just about childhood, or is this subtext that I'm supposed to understand? What biases are rooted into how the book is marketed and presented (rather than what the poems themselves offer) and how does this affect my interpretation of the text?

Mikhail's poetry draws circles around themes of death and life (sometimes literally!), with some of the best poems capturing a single instant in a sharp and memorable way. Mikhail's observations about children and old age are particularly nice, especially in shorter poems, though these also often lead back to conclusions about war or violence more explicitly. There is life, of course, and the way many poems end up reframing themselves to focus on children's voices is especially reminiscent of this, but I was still left with the feeling that the book overall focuses on the death side of the coin more than life. Is this my own projection?

This is what I mean by The War Works Hard as inconsistent. Poetry collections are almost always inconsistent in terms of liking some poems more than others, that part is fine, but the problem here was that the whole flow of the book felt a little weird. Like I said at the beginning - this is a good book overall. It's definitely made me want to read more of Mikhail's writing (though probably in a more strictly structured context, if I'm being honest). But I also didn't like the book as a whole in the way I expected to and I'm curious to know how each original poetry book holds up relative to this collection mashup.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

WITMonth Day 8 | Accessibility and women in translation

A topic I've found myself thinking about a lot over the past year is accessibility. Accessibility can mean a lot of different things, from a disability context to an international one to simply a financial question. These all intersect pretty seriously with the question of women in translation becoming "mainstream" (as I often describe it) and honestly needed to have been properly addressed until now.

It's no secret that a large chunk of books by women writers that are translated into English are published by small independent presses. These presses - wonderful, gorgeous, labor-of-love indie presses - are often non-profits, cash-strapped, or of limited operations on the whole; there are all sorts of stories about indie presses getting caught off guard by the success of a certain book (WITty or otherwise) and having to rush reprints, or else somewhat sadder stories of indie presses "losing" an author they built up to fame and award-recognition getting snatched for a lot more money at a larger press. Another major force in publishing literature in translation (albeit far, far fewer women writers) is academic publishing, which is similarly somewhat more limited in the reach of their books.

Two things are important to remember about these presses: The first is that their books are, on average, slightly more expensive than those of larger publishing houses. Even the slimmest novellas can cost almost as much as a mainstream full-length novel from the big names. The second is that their books do not typically have the same reach as those by mainstream publications.

Together, these two issues combine to mean something fairly disappointing about indie/academic presses - their books are rarely available to the wide public and are almost always unavailable to readers with disabilities or impairments who mostly read audio- or eBooks. Though eBooks have become a lot more prevalent among indie presses in the past few years, the lack of audiobooks means that a lot of readers who would otherwise be happy to read works by women writers from around the world simply don't have the option. While thankfully some of the biggest name authors have been released in audiobook format, a shocking amount have not. And the usual biases we find in translated literature overall are reflected in audiobook recordings as well. Not everyone can be Elena Ferrante... Literally as I was writing this post, my sister forwarded to me two separate audiobook requests by different friends. When I went to look for some of my favorite women in translation from the past few years, I found that they were nowhere to be found. Too many readers are losing out.

The issue extends further. Not having audiobooks or eBooks also affects readers who primarily use digital libraries in order to read. I know many young people in particular who rely on digital libraries such as Overdrive/Libby for their reading, and many more who have leaned on those services even more since coronavirus closed their local libraries. Many international readers also utilize these digital libraries, coordinating access with local readers who don't mind sharing their details. (Yes, this is a thing.)

And it's not just a matter of audio- or eBooks. Smaller print runs mean that indie and academic publications are virtually nonexistent in smaller libraries or even in many bookstores. Almost every time I mention the women in translation project to someone new in the English-language context - even to avid readers! - there's the moment when they realize that they've at most read one or two books by women writers from non-English languages, usually something like Diary of Anne Frank or Pippi Longstocking and that's it. The process of finding the right books is often a challenge, with readers frequently telling me that they struggle to read WIT because they can't access it. It's not at their library, it's not at their local big-name bookstore (at least in the US), and it's rarely if ever promoted or easily found on Amazon through browsing. (Bookshop.org so far actually does promote a decent amount of WIT on their front page, so that's exciting!) Those who still wish to purchase the books are then met with the uncomfortable roadblock that is the higher price tag (particularly when purchasing from independent bookstores as well) - what should the reader do now?

Finally, accessibility and availability is also a problem that crosses borders. I don't talk about this on the blog very often, but I've occasionally tweeted about how very difficult it is for me to acquire books. I don't live in an English-speaking country. I rely on bookstores/websites with international shipping in order to read books published in English. If a book isn't available through one of 2-3 major sites that are available to me, the book simply isn't available to me. And for the record - for all sorts of reasons, I don't get many review copies (just the rare book, and usually shipped to a US address that I collect months after the fact). Like many other readers from around the world, I am at the mercy of international rights and availability, which are often... not helpful.

Each one of these issues can feel disconnected from women in translation specifically because they just as easily apply to men writers in translation, but there is an important intersection here: If we want people to read more of a thing, they need to be able to access it. That might mean that the books need to be reasonably priced, that might mean that the books need to be conveniently sold, that might mean that the books need to be in the appropriate formats, etc etc. The major problem that the women in translation movement faces (in English) is a lack of global awareness and acknowledgement. But how can readers address a problem that they don't see? How can they read books that aren't available to them? It's the exact same problem that lies at the core of the translation imbalance itself - readers rely on books to be available to them in order to read them!

I don't know what can be done, honestly. These questions all seem to me like something that needs to be handled within the industry. But the questions do feel like they need to be addressed, and soon - readers deserve better.

Friday, August 7, 2020

WITMonth Day 7 | Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scega

I'll admit, I was somewhat surprised and disappointed by Beyond Babylon. Igiaba Scego's book (tr. from Italian by Aaron Robertson) caught me off guard from its first pages, which are filled with the sort of crude language that struck me as at odds with the quiet cover photo. And that was fine, for a start; I quickly recognized that the book had its own rhythm going and I was happier for it. The problems began once I realized how the book was progressing, or rather how it wasn't. Publisher-created expectations strike yet again.

I'm learning that I simply need to stop reading book summaries. Beyond Babylon markets itself as a reunion between half-sisters, but this is... emphatically not what the book is about. Narrated by wildly different voices - the aforementioned half-sisters (whose connection we discover fairly late in the book, and it is... honestly pretty subtle), their respective mothers, and their shared father - it's also a book that doesn't feel the need to stick to one narrative style too strictly. This is Beyond Babylon's greatest strength, with the book rarely feeling like any one dull progression. The storytelling is muddled and messy in the best possible way, with each narrator sharing a story across time and space and emotions and internal confusion. The daughters both have very present narrations, sharing about their recent lives in a sharp way that emphasizes both strengths. The mothers loop in their storytelling, with stories about their respective childhoods and thematic hints about what this teaches us about modern life. And then the father hovers in the background, the most distant of the protagonists, and not really much of one himself, preferring to tell .

The downside to this sort of storytelling approach (with a fixed order for each of the characters) is that it doesn't always work as a whole book. In the case of Beyond Babylon, I explicitly think it hurts the novel as a whole. Rather than feeling expansive and epic, each subplot feels perpetually truncated. The rhythm constantly felt just off, especially once three of the characters begin to narrate around similar events. There's an unsettling quality that feels intentional and well-placed, but the overall effect is still one of a story that isn't quite grounded enough in what it's trying to say.

This is another of my major criticisms of Beyond Babylon. The book touches on a lot of different themes, not least because its characters are all so thoroughly different from each other that they each have their own unique contribution to the story. And so we have stories about Somalia, about Italy, about toxic relationships, about sexual abuse and its after-effects, about Argentina's Dirty War, about the diaspora, about the concept of self, about bodies, about family, about identity... The themes end up largely overwhelming any semblance of story that lurks within each individual narrative, and certainly whatever overall message Scego wanted to convey. The individual pieces are there, but they don't really fit together.

It means that the novel as a whole just doesn't really flow well. Each character has such a strong voice that the transitions are jarring rather than identifying, which is such a shame given how well Scego gives them life. And the messages and themes that Scego explores end up feeling thin rather than part of a greater whole. Without getting into specifics, the novel's ending only emphasized the book's flaws, with a truncation that didn't actually wrap the story. At times, it felt like Beyond Babylon was little more than a vessel for conveying certain ideas. which is definitely a legitimate writing choice, but not one that works very well when the story is both so expansive and... padded.

There's a lot I liked in Beyond Babylon. Scego's writing often sizzles and it really is remarkable how well she managed to differentiate between her different characters (in many different ways). Scego also has a wonderful eye for cast-off comments that linger for pages afterward, whether in small observations or world-building remarks. There's so much excellent work going into play here that it ends up more disappointing that the book as a whole doesn't fully work. I'm not disappointed to have read it, but I'm also not sure I can recommend it to most readers. Beyond Babylon inspires admiration and recognition at best, not adoration. As a reader who lives and breathes emotional responses, that's just not enough for me.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

WITMonth Day 6 | 50 women writers I've (almost) never read | Thoughts

It was not easy compiling this year's 50 Day Countdown. Last year, I set myself what seemed like an impossible challenge: I wanted to highlight 50 women writers in translation from 50 different countries, languages, ethnic backgrounds, or cultures. I further made a specific, concentrated effort to promote women writers from various non-European backgrounds, as my own little way of fighting back against Eurocentrism. I ended up managing to build that list, but it was hard, involving seemingly endless Wikipedia searches and digging within databases. I couldn't imagine doing something like that ever again.

So naturally, as WITMonth approached this year, I decided to set myself a similar-and-yet-totally-different challenge. After noticing last year how relatively easy it was to find women writers in translation from certain countries or cultures (e.g. Japan, Korea, China, Mexico, Argentina) versus others (basically the entirety of Africa), I knew I mostly wanted to focus on African, African-diaspora, and Caribbean women writers (as well as whatever South/Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern writers I happened upon). And after last year's struggle in finding well-publicized women writers from these countries (as well as other underrepresented regions), I knew that I didn't want to limit myself to books that had already been translated into English.

This means that the final list of 50 women writers from around the world is one that's largely comprised of authors unfamiliar to me. Many were originally written in French (a language I very much do not speak or know how to read, though I can muddle my way through a Wiki entry), a small percentage have been translated into English though I haven't read the books yet, and I've read full works by exactly two of the authors featured (one in the untranslated original and other in translation to English; since publishing the list and writing this post, I've also read another). I can't really call this a list of recommendations.


But it is a wishlist. It's a list of what I would like the literary landscape to look more like. Why shouldn't there be several Afro-Caribbean women writers in our public consciousness? Why shouldn't we revel in the African diaspora of Europe, or African writers from across the continent, some writing in colonial languages and some not? Why shouldn't we read Middle Eastern writers as a norm? Why shouldn't we be able to name-drop Burmese, Tahitian, Innu, Zoque, or Indonesian writers? Why shouldn't we be spoilt for choice with books by Indian writers across more than a dozen different languages?

Why shouldn't we truly have access to the world?

The 50 women writers featured in this year's WITMonth Countdown were almost all new to me. I spent hours tracking down their works, trying to find out whether they were still in print in translation (if indeed they'd ever been...), or to understand just how many prizes they'd won over their careers. Many have been featured in translation in poetry collections or magazines, but these are snippets, tiny samples of mountains of literature. As I already mentioned, many of these writers write in French, the most translated-from language into English. So why are so many of these writers in particular unavailable (or functionally unavailable) in translation?

I want to emphasize one of those points again: One of the things I looked for while compiling this list was award-winning writers. I actively sought writers who had been recognized for their works in some form (not simply through translation), often finding writers with decades of accolades and acclaim to their names who hadn't been translated into any language that I could track down. (I would often search for the author's name in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew language sites, as these are languages I can mostly navigate sites through.)

One of the longstanding "arguments" against the women in translation project is that of "quality", that there are both fewer women writers in languages other than English (often a false claim itself, though highly-language dependent...) and that they are often less acclaimed than men (often a false claim as well, and one that ignores the fact that just because bias exists across borders doesn't mean it should actively cross borders). The prevalence of award-winning writers refutes both claims, because even if we were to assume that those were valid arguments for bias in English (which I absolutely do not), it's obvious that many award-winning women writers are not translated. Are some award-winning men also not translated? Without a doubt, and many of the biases in place against women in translation from underrepresented backgrounds also exist against men in translation. This is important to remember.

My hope is that lists like this year's 50 Day Countdown become the norm in two ways. The first is in that wishlist of truly seeing the world in our literature in all its different shapes and perspectives. The second is that lists span languages and translation status as a means of promoting works for translation. A few readers have commented on this year's list with their own hope that it will somehow convince publishers that there's an interest in these specific books and that this list would be the catalyst to getting them translated. This is certainly my hope as well. As I said earlier, I can't vouch for the quality of almost all of the listed authors (even many of those who have been translated), but I can unequivocally state that I'm interested.

So let's go back to the beginning: This list was not merely "not easy" to compile, it was hard. It took effort and searching and confirming and mining and research. There are dozens more authors I ultimately excluded from the list for all sorts of reasons (lack of confirmed photo, recently passed away, not enough information about their books, texts in their native languages were also functionally unavailable...), but still - I was able to find these writers as nothing more than a book blogger hanging out on her couch on the weekend. (I'll be talking about this topic more in depth in the future...) Imagine if these were the norm, if our literary conversations could cross languages (and still include women writers!!). It's here, it's an option.


2020 #WITMonth 50 Day Countdown

Léonora Miano - Cameroon / France - French
Emmelie Prophète - Haiti - French
Bessora - Belgium / Switzerland - French
Thi Mar Win - Burma/Myanmar - Burmese
Maria Celestina Fernandes - Angola - Portuguese
Igiaba Scego - Italy / Somalia - Italian
Chantal Spitz - Tahiti / French Polynesia - French
Lucie Julia - Guadeloupe - Antillean Creole / French
Fadhila Bechar - Algeria - Tamazight/Berber
Ribka Sibhatu - Eritrea / Italy - Tigrinya / Italian
Irma Pineda - Mexico - Zapotec / Spanish
Conceição Lima - São Tomé Island - Portuguese
Béatrice Lalinon Gbado - Benin - French
Aminata Sow Fall - Senegal - French
Marie-Andrée Gill - Canada - French
Agnès Agboton - Benin / Catalonia - Spanish / Gun
Salma Khalil Alio - Chad - French
Monique Ilboudo - Burkina Faso - French
Shaïda Zarumey (Fatoumata Agnès Diaroumèye) - Niger - French
Shelly Engdau-Vanda - Ethiopia / Israel - Hebrew
Najlaa Osman Eltom - Sudan - Arabic
Samudra Neelima - India - Malayalam
Simone Atangana Bekono - Netherlands - Dutch
Koumanthio Zeinab Diallo - Guinea - French / Fula/Peul
Mikeas Sánchez - Mexico - Zoque / Spanish
Ngāreta Gabel - New Zealand - Māori
Germaine Kouméalo Anaté - Togo - French
Najwa Bin Shatwan - Libya - Arabic
Charline Effah - Gabon / France - French
Misrak Terefe - Ethiopia - Amharic
Michèle Rakotoson - Madagascar / France - French
Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro - Puerto Rico - Spanish
Nadia Al-Kokabany - Yemen - Arabic
Hirondina Joshua - Mozambique - Portuguese
Amal Aden - Somalia / Norway - Norwegian
Marie-Célie Agnant - Haiti / Canada - French
Conceição Evaristo - Brazil - Portuguese
Karin Amatmoekrim - Suriname / Netherlands - Dutch
Aisha al-Saifi - Oman - Arabic
Nilam/Neelam Karki Niharika - Nepal - Nepali
Marie-Léontine Tsibinda - Republic of Congo - French
Najat El Hachmi - Morocco / Spain - Catalan
Coralie Frei - Comoros / Switzerland - French / German
Paramita Satpathy - India - Odia
Olinda Beja - São Tomé and Príncipe / Portugal - Portuguese
Véronique Tadjo - Côte d'Ivoire / France - French
Calixthe Beyala - Cameroon / France - French
Joséphine Bacon - Canada - Innu-aimun / French
Intan Paramaditha - Indonesia - Indonesian
Clémentine Nzuji - Democratic Republic of Congo - French

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

WITMonth Day 5 | A Rain of Words edited by Irène Assiba d'Almeida

I was surprised to realize I never reviewed this collection. I was certain - certain! - that I must have reviewed it last year. Did I simply discuss it? Did I mention it in so many other contexts that I forgot to discuss it here? Either way, A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women's Poetry in Francophone Africa (edited by Irène Assiba d'Almeida and translated by Janis A. Mayes) is a remarkable collection that deserves that much more attention and recognition.

I have often described my inability to review poetry books, and this feeling is exponentially higher when it comes to poetry anthologies. How can I really review a book that encompasses so much, that showcases so many voices, that alternates styles and perspectives and approaches? Some writers are given little more than a handful of lines to get their words across while others leap across multiple poems and pages. Some write succinctly, some write sprawlingly, some use intimate imagery, some use direct references, some bathe in lyricism, some laugh in modernisms, some are angry, some are happy, some are beautiful, some are not to my taste... The usual problems I have in addressing how poetry makes me feel are fully exacerbated by the nature of anthologies. So is this really a review? Who knows.

Suffice to say that I enjoyed A Rain of Words on just about every possible level. Did I love all of the poems? Of course not. I disliked some, was ambivalent about several, enjoyed many, and adored just a few. Each writer brings her own style and flair to this collection, making it less an individual song and more a cacophonous choir that doesn't always know what it's trying to do. Yes, there are moments when it sounds a little awful, but it's mostly glorious just to have the opportunity to experience it.

And in a WITMonth when I'm trying to focus on African women in translation in particular, it seems necessary to remind people that books like this exist. Some of the poems here address topics that can be viewed as uniquely "African", whether in addressing politics within their own or neighboring countries, or in raising specific cultural or religious touchstones. Some are from uniquely feminine perspectives, like poems that deal with motherhood or sexism. But many of the poems simply are, without adhering to any cultural assumptions or expectations, sometimes telling a specific story about a specific place and a specific experience and sometimes not. Poems about family, love, nature, peace, war, politics, life. Each one of these poems has value for the same reason that any poem does, and simply from the perspective of experiencing new poetry, I'm grateful to the CARAF Books series for putting out this collection. The collection sent me hunting for more works by these writers, and though I'm disappointed to see that too few of their full-length books have been translated into English, I am grateful for the exposure to those that have, whether poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. This book was indispensable for me while compiling this year's 50 Day Countdown (see tomorrow's post as well) and has been a great jumping off point in terms of finding other works.

For you, O poetry lover, I simply say this: In the same way that we seek out collections by writers from all sorts of different backgrounds, so do I recommend A Rain of Words. I think you'll enjoy it as I did.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

WITMonth Day 4 | From translation to feminist spaces

When I first started hosting WITMonth back in 2014 - before the @read_WIT Twitter account, before the @readWIT Instagram account, before publisher deals and library involvement and bookstore displays - I had a fairly clear image in mind of my target audience. WITMonth was meant to convince readers of literature in translation that women in translation were worthy of their time. In those days, it seemed like the obvious and necessary approach, since the debates (often well-meaning!) I was having and the trolling I faced were all within the "translated literature community", so to speak. My impression was that I needed to convince folks who already read translations that they needed to broaden their horizons to include more women writers in the mix. My entire approach that first year was rooted in targeting those readers, and not really anybody else.

I've written before about the way that my attention has shifted pretty seriously over the past few years. I no longer find myself particularly nervous about general readers of literature in translation accepting women writers in translation; even as the translation rates only barely creep up and even as many leading publishers continue to ignore the matter and even as most readers default to men writers in translation, "women in translation" as a topic and WITMonth as a specific event have become fairly deeply rooted within the community. I no longer feel I have to be the single driving force for WITMonth to take place, which is pretty awesome.

The problem, as I've previously laid out many times, is my increasing awareness of how literary feminism itself seems determined to shut out women writers in translation. My 2014-justifications for WITMonth were borne of feminist rants and manifestos, but these seem superfluous in the face of the "actual" feminist movement. I shouldn't have to explain why reading internationally is an inherent part of intesectionality, right? I shouldn't have to explain the value in reading words that women write in their native languages (or sometimes different, non-English colonialist languages), to a homegrown audience, right? I shouldn't have to explain the importance in learning about the world through the eyes of other women, right? Right?

If it sounds like I'm repeating myself, it's because I am! I wrote this all last year, and there too I noted how I've written this all before. Repeating myself is frustrating, but it's also, apparently, necessary, because this keeps getting ignored. It's not even that feminist spaces reject women in translation in some clear and concentrated effort, no, it's much worse than that. Women in translation simply aren't on the radar for the vast majority of English-language feminists. You may see a book or two creep into the conversation, sometimes a book go mainstream like My Brilliant Friend or The Vegetarian or Convenience Store Woman, but the conversation itself remains firmly rooted in highly specific cultural contexts. Note too how women who shift from writing in their native languages to writing in English or being marketed as writing in English suddenly get a massive boost in profile and attention (Valeria Luiselli for the former, Elif Shafak for the latter). Framing the conversation around English and around an English-speaking audience is one part of the story, absolutely, but it is only one part.

Feminist spaces have spent years acknowledging their struggles in integrating different perspectives. There's a reason these have spent the past few months talking about antiracism and focusing on women of color. There's a reason there's a constant conversation about space for queer, disabled, or otherwise marginalized voices in feminist spaces. These are all important. Yet they largely fail to take into account the complexities of different cultures or contexts. It's important to remember that an immigrant voice writing a "foreign" story for an unfamiliar audience will be wildly different than a book written within a certain culture's borders. The story that someone tells as a diaspora writer isn't the same as the story someone shares within their culture and community. It's not that the former is bad - on the contrary, it's pivotal that we center these experiences as well! - but it shouldn't come at the expense of the latter. Giving space to Black, Latinx, South Asian, Middle Eastern, or Indigenous writers within English shouldn't replace listening to those same voices writing in their own contexts.

This is where I feel that feminist spaces really need to step up, and this is the point I've been making for years now. To take the most pressing recent example, the US and UK book-sale lists the past few weeks have seen a notable jump in sales of books by Black writers. These are often books that tackle race and racism explicitly in the US/UK cultural context, since it is ostensibly this culture that is being challenged, whether in the form of slavery's legacy or through modern oppressive tactics. But it's worth remembering that these problems exist well outside of English as well. French writers - many belonging to the African diaspora - have been writing about police violence, social inequality, and structural racism for years, as have others throughout Europe. Caribbean writers - whether French-language, Spanish, or Creole - have been writing about the legacies of slavery and colonialism for generations. Indigenous Latin American writers have been tackling stories about racist minority oppression since the 19th century (at least), and many modern writers even make a point of writing in Indigenous languages. Brazilian writers have been having parallel social (and indeed feminist!) conversations about every one of these issues for decades, yet these works are overwhelmingly unavailable to outside audiences (even as English-language books about racial bias and oppression are readily translated into Brazilian Portuguese). And frankly? The only reason I know any of this is because I've made it a point to learn and seek out the authors of these works (which are overwhelmingly unavailable in translation, to English or other languages).

This is just one example. Almost any important topic you can think about exists and is discussed in literature across the world, and deserves that space in translation (and again, not just into English!) as well. Feminist spaces have to open their doors to international writing; you can't claim intersectionality without space for existing international voices. Women in translation must be a part of this mainstream effort.

I don't expect this particular post to move any needles, not more than the previous. I can only hope that as WITMonth grows from year to year, more and more readers who have long embraced English-dominant feminist reading lists will also recognize just how much those lists would benefit from international voices. We all benefit from the normalization of women in translation. We must do more.

Monday, August 3, 2020

WITMonth Day 3 | Don't Whisper Too Much / Portrait of a Young Artiste from Bona Mbella by Frieda Ekotto

It wouldn't surprise me if you missed the publication of Frieda Ekotto's Don't Whisper Too Much / Portrait of a Young Artiste from Bona Mbella (translated from French by Corine Tachtiris). Published in 2019 by Bucknell University Press and distributed by Rutgers University Press, this isn't exactly a major publishing event. There's a part of me that also feels that it shouldn't be a major publishing event, because queer African literature in translation should simply be a natural part of our literary landscape. And yet... we're nowhere near that reality.

On each level, Ekotto reflects the ways in which bias pervades our literary consciousness. In her introduction, Lindsey Green-Simms tracks the difficulty Ekotto had in initially publishing Don't Whisper Too Much in French, writing: "Ekotto persisted for ten years until the novel was eventually picked up in 2001 by Editions A3, a small publishing house in France, and then reprinted in 2005 by L'Harmattan, who also published Portrait in 2010. Thus, even the publication history bears the traces of confinement and the difficulty of breaking through power structures." That it would take almost two more decades to publish Don't Whisper Too Much in an English translation doesn't even surprise much. The WIT publishing gap is especially wide when it comes to African women writers in translation (particularly black African women writers, it should be noted), and it's not as though the English-language market is particularly eager to embrace queer stories from outside a handful of highly specific (and often fetishized) narratives. 

And yet Ekotto's work is, surprisingly (and pleasantly) enough, not the only queer book by an African women writer to be translated into English in recent years. While there is absolutely no similarity between these books in either writing style, storytelling approach, subgenre, or even broader socio-political context, my immediate association is with Trifonia Melibea Obono's La Bastarda (translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel). It's an unfair association for both works, largely borne only because both books deal with African love between women, but I think it's also reflective of why we need more stories like this - each represents a wholly different experience and perspective on queer African women. That's exactly the point of why we should all be trying to read more widely, in that eternal effort to avoid Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's single story and experience the world through different voices.

It further helps, I think, that this book comes in a bundle. Don't Whisper Too Much and Portrait are two very different works, both in terms of style, narrative voice, and "messaging". There's a lot to learn from both works individually. From a purely literary perspective, however, I wasn't able to read the two fully back-to-back (I paused for a few hours between the two halves), and I think that the stylistic differences of each work would have been better served by a cleaner separation. Oh well.

Don't Whisper Too Much is the first of the two works, and the more... I suppose the word "lyrical" or even just "stylistic" is the closest way to describe it. It's a story that feels somewhat removed from time, hovering at the outskirts of village life and shifting narration and era in a way that feels consistently fluid. I also felt this fluidity in the central, encompassing "love story" that forms one of the pillars of the novella, something in the way Ada seems to move between childhood and adolescence in the context of her growing love for Siliki. This style isn't always my favorite, and I have to admit that it didn't always work for me here either. Parts of the story felt like they connected all too loosely, and I found myself somewhat at a loss when the story ended. This is partly intentional with several stories explicitly untold by the novella's end, but it didn't make me feel any less... unsettled. Perhaps that was the point.

Other aspects, however, struck me hard. The storytelling theme translates much more specifically into the promised whispering from the title. Ekotto frequently returns to this theme of women's voices and women's intimate stories, whether in Siliki's stories of her mother, the lessons Ada learns from Siliki, or Ada's own storytelling around Siliki's daughter Affi. Early in the story, Ada "[...] decides to give her own version of the story of the old legless witch. No matter what, she must tell her own story, which includes the stories of all women without voices, condemned to muteness." This follows her passionate interest in Siliki, even before "gain[ing] admittance to her refuge". Ada draws parallels between her own status as a cast-aside daughter and Siliki, the legless hermit. Later, Siliki's voice literally rings out: "The force of Siliki's voice awakens [Ada's] entire realm, not because she speaks loudly but because her voice overflows with a strength that envelops every creature's soul in immense joy." Yet in the very next passage, Siliki is whispering. Later still, deep into their relationship, Ada reflects on the lessons she has learned from Siliki: "Siliki once told her how important it is to sculp violent words onto her skin. The hollow of the text always loses its strength, but a woman's text - a text that inscribes her pain - is powerful. A woman's written story is not at all saturated; on the contrary, this writing is animated by the sign of survival, the symbolics of life where language is traced." In a novella where women's texts outlive them and carry their stories onward in direct and plot-relevant ways, it's hard not to feel that this theme of words, stories, and women's voices (particularly in the context of queer love) is the most important pillar on which the novella stands.

There are other themes as well, alongside subplots and side stories that are effective to varying degrees. In one thread near the novella's end, Ekotto introduces an American couple that, while moving the story forward in a relatively minor way, seem mostly to present a social commentary on many "Western" attitudes toward African villagers. "'We want to observe the marriage ritual of the Fulani culture. These poor women are victims, oppressed, bullied by their traditions. It has to be exposed!'" This proclamation triggers a fierce response from a new of Ada's, Nafi, who criticizes the "anthropological" approach of Westerners coming to Africa and ultimately describes (albeit not in these exact words) the ways in which different cultures may define things differently, and particularly what that means for women. This section of the novella also comes with a slightly tighter, more traditional writing type; it's a fairly jarring shift, and despite appreciating many of the cool observations Nafi and additional friend Sula whip out in the face of American obtuseness, I'm not entirely sure that the story flowed well around it. The tonal shift along with my general preference for tighter stories meant that I came away from Don't Whisper Too Much feeling somewhat disappointed.

Portrait of a Young Artiste from Bona Mbella, in contrast, feels like a much more "standard", straight-forward narrative. A short story collection that alternates narration and storytelling style and is deeply rooted in modern city life, it ends up feeling wholly distinct from Don't Whisper Too Much. I also, accordingly, ended up enjoying it a whole lot more. There's something a lot more casual about Portrait, whether in its quiet, sly self-references linking the stories together, or its portrayal of life in Bona Mbella, or the way love between women simply seems like a natural part of the world. The more structured nature of the short stories also meant that I felt like I was better able to follow what was happening within each vignette. I thoroughly enjoyed the short collection, and though I liked both Ada and Portait's primary narrator Chantou in relatively equal measures, I felt like the mysteries and vagueries of Chantou's life were more justified within the context of her (short) passage through time. Portrait felt like a series of crisp, detailed snapshots, filled with characters who felt real even without much explanation or exploration. 

Together, these two works form an odd whole, but it's very much a whole worth seeking out. Not all of Ekotto's different writing styles worked for me in the same way, but all were still remarkably effective in getting their story across. Even at the moments that I felt most disconnected from the text, I still had the pressing need to keep reading, to keep listening, to keep seeking out those stories that Ekotto was bringing forward. Later, in Portrait, there was also a sort of comfortable rhythm keeping the stories moving from scene to scene. The stories all work in different ways, but that too can be seen as part of the appeal; the way different voices leap out of the page across the various stories and sub-stories is another bonus. Not everything will work for every reader, but you're likely to find that one theme or perspective that will work for you, and it'll be totally worth it.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

WITMonth Day 2 | An updated FAQ

Hello everyone! It's August and so it's that wonderful time of year I start talking a whole lot about WITMonth. But what exactly is WITMonth? Here's an updated FAQ (you can read similar answers from the last one, circa 2016):

What is #WITMonth?

#WITMonth (or, you know, WITMonth) is "Women in Translation Month", taking place every August since 2014!

Here's this year's main banner, with the others available at this link:


Okay, but what does "Women in Translation" actually mean?

Women in Translation is the name of the project I've been taking part in on this blog and elsewhere on the internet since late 2013. The purpose of this project is to promote women writers from around the world writing in languages other than English (whether they have been translated into English specifically or not), as well as works by similarly underrepresented trans and nonbinary writers (assuming they do not otherwise ask to not fall under a gendered effort).

Does that mean you focus on women translators too?

No, not necessarily. While translator voices and experiences also bring a lot to the table and are hugely important as a separate conversation, the main issue at hand is that women writers are strongly underrepresented in translations to English (and other languages as well). WITMonth's original intent and continued directive is to focus on women writers. If you'd like to focus on women who predominantly translate women writers, though, I certainly won't stop you!

Why do we even need this?

Based on research I've done here on this blog including use of the brilliant Three Percent database (and other research elsewhere), women writers account for just around 30% of new releases of fiction and poetry titles in translation in the US per year. Factoring in classics re-releases and an extreme bias in academic non-fiction translations into English, the actual rate of women in translation is even lower. Given how few books are translated into English in the first place, this leaves English-language readers out in the cold when it comes to an extraordinary wealth of women writers from around the world.

I don't look at an author's gender when I choose a book, nor what language it was written in or the author's race. Why does it even matter?

Our backgrounds, experiences, and cultural contexts shape art in tremendous ways. Even things like the choices we make in terms of writing a story for an audience within a certain culture or for one outside of it fundamentally changes what that story is. Writers from different backgrounds and experiences from our own (and our own are all very different!) are ultimately both windows and mirrors, not necessarily "teaching" lessons but still enabling us to experience the world through someone else's eyes. There's so much to gain through that.

Is WITMonth trans-inclusive?

Yup, so long as specific authors are okay with it. 

Wait, the books don't actually have to be translated?

Correct! While this blog and the associated social media accounts are specifically geared for an English-language audience, WITMonth and the Women in Translation project more broadly are both wholly international efforts (and indeed grew out bilingual reading). The purpose is to promote women writing in languages other than English. This can mean you can talk about a book by a woman writing in your native Lithuanian or Igbo or Nepali, or any translation from a French writer into one of those languages, and so on.

But what about books translated from English into other languages?

These aren't part of the WIT movement. English-language writers - men, but also women - dominate the international literary conversation, particularly for smaller countries/languages (data to come) while women writers from other languages are all but invisible. Translations from English don't really need that extra help or attention beyond general and wonderful movements like Read Women. WITMonth specifically remains focused on all other languages.

What do I need to do to get involved in WITMonth?

You're already involved! The #1 Most Important Thing you can do when it comes to WITMonth and the Women in Translation project is become aware of it. You can read the stats, read a newly released (or a bit more backlog!) book by a woman writer in translation, encourage your local library or favorite bookstore to host a WITMonth event or prepare a WITMonth display, take part in a WITMonth book club or discussion, or even just think about your own reading. There are no expectations - if you want to take part in WITMonth, you already are.

Where else can I find information about WITMonth?

Most of my WITMonth activity is on Twitter, under the @read_WIT handle (and some under @biblibio). Photos and such are all on Instagram under @readWIT. I also occasionally post videos on Youtube. But you can (and should!) also check out the #WITMonth tags on both Twitter and Instagram, both for book recommendations and brilliant discussions and posts about the Women in Translation project overall, from all across the world.

And if I have any other questions...?

You can always email, tweet, or message me! I can't promise I'll respond immediately, but I will definitely try

Happy WITMonth!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

WITMonth Day 1 | Year seven, let's go!

Happy August, happy WITMonth!!! As always, it's such a joy to kick off the month seeing everyone's book posts and excitement and love, there's really nothing like it. Folks have already spent the past week or so posting their WITMonth TBRs or stacks of potential reads and it's just so wonderful to see so many readers from across the world joining in this collective effort.

For my part, I plan on spending August continuing this years-long crusade and rambling on about many of the same issues as usual, as well as some new ones. I've got a few new ideas for this month, we'll see if things work out. As I laid out in my last post, I plan to spend my WITMonth focusing on women writers in translation from particularly underrepresented backgrounds. For me, this will mostly mean focusing on African women in translation (including diaspora, Afro-Latinx, and Afro-Caribbean writers), as well as Indigenous, South Asian, and Middle Eastern writers. This is not to suggest that other underrepresented WIT are not worthy of greater attention in the English-speaking literary world, rather it's my own small way of addressing the ever prevalent gap in having these works adequately translated and promoted in English. For a better understanding of this on a global scale, check out this year's 50 Day Countdown to WITMonth, which highlighted authors from precisely these underrepresented backgrounds, including many who despite widespread acclaim in their native languages have never been translated into English. I'll be writing about the list much more in depth later this month, but suffice to say that compiling it was a fairly wonderful experience for me.

There's so much I hope to see happen this August, and so much I know is going to happen - publisher discounts, gorgeous photos, amazing vlogs, insightful book reviews, brilliant booklists, and so much more - that I'm almost no longer worried about my own role in this all. I have my own plans, but WITMonth marches on with or without me, and that too is nothing less than a pure joy.

Year seven, let's go.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WITMonth 2020 | Preparations and my reading plan


August approaches, and while some things are the same, others are going to be different this year, for me at least. Since last year's "100 Best WIT" list, I've found myself thinking about the ethnic and racial disparities in WIT quite a bit. As I wrote in March, "Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be."

WITMonth has always been about inclusion. The first ever WITMonth in 2014 divided the month by regions or topics as an optional reader schedule. In retrospect, it was far from a perfect balance, lumping Asia, Africa, and Oceania together, but it was my first attempt at defining the women in translation movement as something that could not simply exist within the (white) borders of Europe. Over the years, I've tried to make a point to include or emphasize works by marginalized women writers of all sorts, whether it's in discussing country of origin, ethnic background, genre, etc. I've discussed the cultural/racial imbalances in translation more broadly, noting the strong Eurocentricity. I've tried to do my part, but that isn't always enough.



This year, I've decided to approach WITMonth a little differently than usual. While I recognize that I can't control how others view it, I can control what I do with it. I will continue to share other people's posts on works by all manner of women writers in translation, but I - for my part - will be focusing specifically on women writers from those countries, continents, subcontinents, and cultures that are too often brushed aside. The past few weeks have only strengthened this decision.




Coming from outside the Anglosphere myself, it is increasingly difficult to justify how and why certain books and writers are far more heavily promoted than others. As the #publishingpaidme has clearly demonstrated over the past few days, the English-language publishing industry is far from balanced even in English itself. While this will likely not be news to anyone, the fact is that Black writers are often paid significantly less than white writers, even when their works have proven themselves or they themselves show tremendous promise. The tag has led to spinoff discussions about racism within the publishing industry at large, ranging from conversations about racist assumptions regarding authors of color (e.g. that works need to be a certain way in order to fit the racial expectations) to flatly racist remarks by white publicists or sales teams to the racially biased power structures in publishing that effectively keep out many potential editors or publishers of color.




These conversations are pivotal, and they are pivotal within the context of translation as well. Here too there is a striking problem of racial imbalance, particularly among translators and publishers. Here too there are countless instances of bias against translators of color. Here too there are rampant assumptions about how works from certain countries or regions or cultures should be packaged for (predominantly white) "Western" audiences. It's an odd balance; I've often written about the difficulty in reading a book that doesn't feel geared to you as a reader, but it's also critical that we learn to read in these different cultural languages. It's just a matter of exposure and familiarity.




Reading is political, no matter what you may believe. Reading books by US-based women of color is as political a choice as only reading books by dead white European or English men. Every choice we make reflects politics in one form or other. Reading women in translation - reading women internationally - is a political choice.




For me, it's long meant an attempt to read as broadly as possible. "Reading the World" challenges don't feel to me like checklists I have to follow, rather they feel like doorways into new worlds. The more I read from other places, the more I'm able to learn without it being an explicit lesson or demanding anything of the writing as a foreign reader. I've learned to feel specific writing styles that are unique to certain literary cultures, and I hope to continue doing so in a way that respects these stories. This is also true for writers within "familiar" cultural contexts whose experiences shape their writing in unique and important ways (e.g. writers of color within dominantly white cultures, queer writers, etc.). Yes, it can often be viewed as "educational", but it's also a joy from the literary perspective. We should not hold up works by marginalized writers to a different standard than we would the so-called-and-very-much-not "default" straight white USian man...




WITMonth 2020 will begin in August as in previous years, and I intend to spend my time recognizing that good literature spans the entire globe. Recognizing that though they face extraordinary degrees of marginalization and dismissal, black women writers in translation have a lot to say from across several continents. So too Indigenous women writers in translation. Women in translation from across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. Women from all sorts of backgrounds. Here and there and everywhere.