Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons | Review

I'm honestly surprised that I'd never heard of Goli Taraghi's The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (tr. Sara Khalili) before reading it. It's not that I think I know of every new book that's published, but as a longtime book blogger, there's always a bit of awareness of new titles. Particularly titles from more mainstream publishers. The irony of it is that I'm often more aware of literature in translation from smaller publishers than I am from the heavy-hitters, where they seem almost passive in their attitudes despite more newspaper coverage. The fact is that I can't recall having seen any reviews of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. Fairly undeserved.

It's been a bit over a month since I read this short story collection, so I won't pretend that all the facts and figures are perfectly aligned in my head. But truthfully, that's less relevant for a book of this sort. Like many short story collections, the plot is not really the point. More important is the clear-headed assessment of a culture, and a culture of emigration.

The fact that most of the stories in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons either revolve around emigration (or return), or some form of outside cultural influence, says quite a bit about the collection as a whole and about the state of Iranian culture. This is not particularly surprising given Taraghi's current status as an expat herself, but there's power to the fact that she continues to write in Farsi. There's meaning to the fact that these stories have such strong themes of coming and going, forming a core that does not dismiss offhand cultural differences between Europe/America and Iran, but also does not entirely embrace them.

One of the nice things about this collection is in its rather excellent balance of pace and story. These are short stories that know how to breathe - nothing is rushed, but no story feels unnecessarily bloated either. One story tells of a dinner party broken up by a raid. There's anxiety running throughout the story, the narrator's tense apprehensions and unease with further complications that result from her arrest. Taraghi's writing conveys this tension without resorting to blunt measures. Everything flows gracefully and smoothly, straight through to the story's end. This makes for a nice change from most novels, and certainly from flash fiction which often ends up missing important story elements.

Though certain themes crop up again, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons nonetheless relatively succeeds in staying fresh. This is not a collection bogged down by the same story again and again with slight variations; even the most similar stories feel distinct in their characters and settings. Some also sharply deviate from the standard mold, making for an overall bolder, more diverse collection. There's a lot here about human nature, quite a bit about passion and force of will, and sprinkles of love, often in the most roundabout way.

I liked The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons when I really didn't think I would. The stories grow on a reader, and though the writing was a little awkward at times (a fault whose source I'm not sure of - writer or translator...), generally speaking I found myself delving quite deeply into each story. Nothing bombastic happens in any of these stories, nor are they unique for their sparseness. Instead, Taraghi looks at characters (primarily women) in different situations, calmly building the broader world around these characters and ending on just the right note. All in all, a good, balanced collection, deserving of more attention.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Women in Translation | Awards

Previous posts in Women in Translation series:
In my previous post in the Women in Translation series, I looked at the general issue of availability and bias. Today, I want to narrow that focus just a bit and take a look at various translation awards in relation to international women writers.

Let's start with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which just released its 2014 longlist. The IFFP has long had an issue with recognizing women writers, to the point where I kept hearing this year that they were making an explicit effort to find more women writers in translation. Before we look at 2014, let's have a brief recap: the prize was launched in 1990, with a grand total of zero women taking home the prize until today. According to Wikipedia (which only includes complete shortlists from 2003 and on), less than 20% of shortlisted books from 2003-2013 were written by women. This amounts on average to one book a year by a woman.

The longlists paint a darker picture, if that's even possible. Looked at one way, you can point to a slightly greater number of women writers in some years as a sign that the award is not so skewed... yet these women are somehow consistently shut out of the next stage of deliberations, snubbed of the opportunity to actually win the prize. Meanwhile, a glance at 2012 and 2013 shows that only 2 women were even longlisted, which is, quite frankly, an embarrassment that I'm glad even the IFFP recognized. This year - 2014 - the situation is definitely brighter. A grand total of 5 women (out of 15) have been honored, a number that is comfortably above the average publishing statistics. And having read two of those books, I can easily say that both are brilliant without a doubt deserve their place on the list (more, I think, than the male-written book I've read from the longlist).

Now over to the US, we look at the Best Translated Book Award (fiction). This younger award turns out much better numbers overall, with a surprising 50% win-ratio by women authors. However, despite women writers' oddly skewed propensity to win, it turns out that the proportions of women nominated are actually much worse than the overall publishing trends, with something like 15% representation.

Taking another step back and looking at broader international awards like the Nobel, we can see further examples of women writers from around the world getting somewhat sidestepped. Over half of the prizes the Nobel has handed out to women over the past 25 years (still a clear minority overall, remember) have gone to women writing in English, from English-speaking countries. Not particularly representative either, it turns out.

The number one goal of these posts is to raise awareness - I want people to think about women's place in international literature. Awards are pivotal in getting readers excited about a certain genre or field, and are often instrumental in guiding readers to many new books they never would have read otherwise. If awards are consistently failing to recognize women writers, readers are again losing out on brilliant books by brilliant authors. Which is a shame, knowing how many other wonderful books are out there. Luckily, the trends overall seem to be improving - here's to hoping for more and more balanced lists as the years progress, and lots of new and excellent books for us to read.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Range of Ghosts | Review

I saw a lot of glowing reviews for Range of Ghosts long before I was ever interested in picking it up. After a while, though, the idea of the book sort of sunk in, and I placed it on hold. A few hours later, it was directly recommended to me on Twitter in the context of fantasy novels that acknowledge diverse cultures and languages. Doubly intrigued, I made a point to read it as soon as it arrived from the library.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was looking so hard for an utterly new fantasy novel that I missed the other indicators. Maybe my tastes have changed. The fact is that ultimately Range of Ghosts disappointed somewhat. Not because it's a bad book. It really, really isn't. I enjoyed most of it. Rather, Range of Ghosts simply felt... familiar. And familiarity in a fantasy novel of this kind can signal a death knell.

Let's begin by acknowledging the diversity of the book. Or rather, the idea of diversity. Range of Ghosts is clearly heavily influenced by Mongolian-Chinese-Arab culture. Elizabeth Bear explicitly points to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian steppes as influencing her world. Names like Khagan instead of Khan, or Uthman for Ottoman do very little to mask the real-world influences. It was here that my skepticism brow rose, mostly because it didn't feel like anything new was added. Sure, the entire religious concepts were adjusted to fit the newly magical world, but at times I felt like Bear was taking far too few risks in her worldbuilding, as though she felt that the mere fact of a non-European influenced world would already break too far from fantasy standards. And so maybe that's why she stuck so close to our real-world.

With language too, I felt like perhaps I'd simply misunderstood the innovation of the novel. Range of Ghosts has references to multiple languages and multiple cultures, and does a nice job of showing people in awkward linguistic situations where they technically have no language in common. This in itself is a nice change from books that label a certain local language as "Common" (or something else self-centric along those lines), or altogether lump each racial group into one cultural identity. The only issue is that Bear introduces the struggles without entirely developing them, so there's conveniently always someone who's bi- or tri-lingual and somehow everyone picks up languages super fast, so the problem quickly disappears. It happened a couple of times, and each time I felt like it was a clear and weak cop-out from an otherwise realistically portrayed universal barrier.

Bear's writing is solid, but again not entirely fresh. It was enough to keep me clearly engaged in the story, but not quite enough to make me lose myself in it. The best fantasies (for me) are ones that overwhelm me and blur out the rest of the world. Range of Ghosts entertained me and kept me hooked, but failed that first test. At the end of the day, the writing is like the rest of the book - definitely good, but nothing particularly new.

Ultimately, I found the strength of the book to be in the story. Though I didn't form the tightest attachments to either of the main characters, both Temur and Samarkar seemed perfectly in place within the context of the broader plot. Bear managed to make even the more outlandish coincidences feel natural, and the overall flow was surprisingly good. The use of romance, however, frustrated me multiple times throughout the book - Temur's lover Edene felt very loosely sketched and much more of a cardboard cutout MPDG lover than an actual character, and scenes later in the book showcased a romance that had shown little-to-zero chemistry beforehand.

A lot of these flaws are not individual to Range of Ghosts, of course. Many of these issues stem from certain genre expectations or time-honored requirements (e.g. the romance). What makes Range of Ghosts nonetheless enjoyable - and perhaps even unique - is its ability to move past many of these smaller flaws and attempt to shake off the shackles of those expectations. Though I was moderately disappointed in Bear's worldbuilding in terms of its clear influences, the truth is that the scope Bear employs when discussing religion and the breadth of the world regardless is quite impressive. This was a world I could easily imagine, one that I saw quite vividly.

Here's the important test: Will I read the sequels to Range of Ghosts? And the answer is probably. Despite its flaws, Bear has created a world that I'm now curious about, and the last pages of Range of Ghosts left me especially intrigued and eager to know what happens next. Now I suppose I can only hope that the character development improves in the next books...