Thursday, January 29, 2015

January in Japan: The River Ki | Review

There's no doubt about it - The River Ki (by Sawako Ariyoshi, translated by Mildred Tahara) is a book largely marred by an old-fashioned, clumsy and entirely outdated translation. Which is a shame, because the book is largely fascinating in every other regard.

I'll be honest in saying that I chose to read The River Ki for January in Japan largely because it was one of the only Japanese books I could find on my shelves (in fact, it was the only one I had in print, any other books would have had to be borrowed or borrowed digitally from the library and for some odd reason that appealed to me a little less...). My reason for owning The River Ki is somehow even sketchier - I bought the book during my summer book-buying extravaganza for very cheap at a book warehouse, and almost exclusively because it was one of the only "women in translation" appropriate titles I could find (and from a series entirely devoted to Japanese women writers!).

All this setup to say that within the first page, realizing how utterly dead the writing was going to sound, I could have - should have - abandoned the book by recognizing it as a dud.

Which of course it wasn't. Because despite the at-times-painful writing/translation, The River Ki is a deeply emotionally resonant book. And you all know me: I'm a big fan of emotional resonance. If a book manages to get me caring for its characters, or feeling something for them (it doesn't have to be positive), I'll most likely stick around. And boy did The River Ki get me to care.

The story begins with Hana, a largely passive young woman who leaves her home at the age of twenty to marry Keisaku, a well regarded young man who Hana largely inspires to greatness. Keisaku's political career becomes a curious side-plot in the novel, as Hana subtly guides him and motivates him. This is as strong a characterization as you'll find - Hana is quietly old-fashioned and submissive, but she also uses her talents wisely, if quietly. She recognizes immediately Keisaku's political potential, similarly recognizing the problems that Keisaku's younger brother will have (particularly in his antagonistic love of Hana). When she gives birth to her first son, and afterwards her first daughter (Fumio, who will star in the second section), she also recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of her children - that SeiichirĊ will not be as ambitious as his father might wish (and ill-suited to politics), and that Fumio has all the headstrong qualities that SeiichirĊ lacks.

Hana's section was interesting to me in large part because of how it framed the story - she defers to tradition (whether in terms of her grandmother's superstitions and old-fashioned beliefs, or in terms of her position as the "good wife" and "good daughter-in-law") and remains steadfastly in the old era. The River Ki begins just before the new century (the 20th, of course...), and tracks the stories of these "modern" women through just after the war (the novel was ultimately published in 1959; the story ends about a decade earlier). There's the constant question of modernity and where women fit in. Hana is supposedly the image of the submissive, old-fashioned wife, yet her grandmother had ignored tradition in sending the girl to be well-educated (for the time).

Fumio is obviously more overtly progressive, even feminist. She fights to be allowed to study (and not simply study the "female arts", rejecting almost every traditional form of study offhand), and later insists on marrying a man with whom she lives a "modern" life. At first. Because one of the things The River Ki shows quite strongly is that there is room for both tradition and modernity - Fumio gives birth to her children in hospitals, but after losing one child also joins Hana in setting out traditional breast charms. Later, Fumio's daughter Hanako is shown to be fascinated by Hana's stories of the old city and the old traditions. The symmetry of generations, of things moving forward but also always being interested in the past, is one I've always appreciated in good epic novels. The River Ki has the added advantage of being significantly shorter than most.

But now it's time to point to what dragged this novel down so significantly: the writing and translation.

I know: it would be much easier and much more courteous to pretend that the translation was clear and brilliant and serviceable. But... it's not. Translator Mildred Tahara gives The River Ki such a stilted feeling that it's really quite hard to appreciate at times. Things that should be in footnotes are integrated into the story (I'm sorry, but an explanation about a Japanese play on words will never belong in the body of the text! This is what footnotes were invented for), things that may require translation are never bothered with, and places where some historical or cultural context may have helped are altogether passed over. It's a bizarre mix of assuming the reader knows nothing (hence the constantly in-text explanations of things that most definitely belong elsewhere) and assuming the reader knows everything (there were references here I know for certain other readers would have appreciated having some background on).

And then there's the writing itself. Or rather, the framing itself. Sawako's storytelling is less focused on the "pretty writing" aspect, more on telling the story of modern womanhood. And I loved that story, I found it truly fascinating. But there's a clumsiness to the passage of time, and an awkwardness to how the characters are built. I cared about Hana and Fumio (Hanako a little less so, largely because we spent significantly less time with her), but there's something coolly distant about their characters nonetheless. It's rather interesting that I got so emotionally invested, actually (I place the blame firmly at the feet of Toyono, Hana's fierce and protective grandmother who I sort of fell in love with from the first page).

Is it worth reading The River Ki? I... don't know. I sort of wish a more modern translation existed, because I found the content very interesting in terms of showing the culture clash between modern feminism and traditionalism, while rejecting neither. It's content worth reading and thinking about and discussing, but it's also not exactly the most comfortable or enjoyable reading experience (in the literal sense). I guess I'd say that readers who are more capable of looking past an old-fashioned translation should take a whack at it, but those who think a poor translation can break a book should pass it over (no point in even trying). I'm glad to have read The River Ki, but I find it difficult to recommend, especially when there are so many other better books out there (and for a Japanese book about women's experience, I'd opt for The Budding Tree, which only gives a traditional perspective, yes, but a more cleanly defined one and it's significantly more artfully crafted).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Revisiting Speak

Contains mild spoilers for Speak which everyone probably already knows by now or doesn't care about in the first place...

I read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak in the summer before 9th grade. I had long seen it on recommended lists for high school students, recommended lists for teenagers, on Amazon (which at the time had a slightly normal recommendation algorithm), and finally it was personally recommended to me. And so I read it.

Speak has become by now a classic of young adult literature. Regardless what I might have thought upon rereading it, there is no doubt that it deserves that status. Reading it as a teenager was enlightening - this was the first book I had ever read that had included an explicit rape scene, and had then, firmly, sharply, pointedly called it a rape. Reading it was like opening a door to an ugly new reality of adulthood - bad things happen. They happen because you make small mistakes, or even without you making any mistakes, they happen violently, they happen quietly, but they happen. And they leave their marks. At the time, Speak was a hugely powerful book, one that shook me to my core. At the time, I didn't care what adults thought of the book on a critical level (this was just a bit before I became fully immersed in the literary/critical world), but it was clear to me - from my reaction and those of other young adults around me - that the book deserved its praise and classic status.

And rereading it as an adult, I stand by my judgement.

I can't disconnect my first experience from this one. I remembered the story and I remembered the important plot points; nothing could really surprise or shock me the way it did the first time. Yet as I dove in (from the middle, then quickly rushing back to start again from the beginning, then jumping back to the point I had left off near the end), I realized how much I had forgotten about the book. I'd forgotten how much more Speak is about Melinda's struggle than it is about her growth. How little of the book takes place after her revelation and her confession. How much the book focuses on the minor (and major) hells of high school.

Speak will always be "the rape book", because ultimately that's what it's about. That's its core, that's the issue that haunts Melinda and haunts the reader as well. But bigger picture, Speak is also just an outstanding example of how young adult literature gets it right. Anderson doesn't talk down to teens, rather writes a book that feels like it's really coming from their level. Melinda's voice is pure and powerful and affecting, no matter your age.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Women in Translation | Year in review

A lot has happened this year for women in translation. If last year was the year that many readers and reviewers and translators discovered (independently!) the problems in the translation rates for women writers, this was the year in which we all (again, largely independently) worked to fix it.

For me, an obvious highlight was the Women in Translation Month held in August. I won't rehash all the conclusions from it, but suffice to say that the incredible participation from different readers, reviewers, booksellers and publishers made it a fascinating project. I think we did a brilliant job of addressing a lot of common issues, and also of raising awareness for many books that might otherwise have been ignored.

WITMonth also sparked two further interests for me: the first was the general interest in identifying and raising awareness of older titles by women writers in translation (something which a great deal of passionate readers have helped me with), and the second was a hope to improve the rather pathetic women in translation database. The latter is a serious project I have unfortunately stalled on somewhat in the past month or so, but my hope is that it will be completed before WITMonth 2015, and will serve as a good introductory guideline for readers seeking older and more obscure titles.

More dramatically, 2014 saw the brilliant panel at the London Book Fair titled "Where are the women in translation?" as a sort of response piece to Alison Anderson's initial article from 2013. I cannot overstate how important this panel is to understanding many of the concerns surrounding women in translation, nor its importance in terms of highlighting possible solutions. I again encourage every reader who is interested in literature in translation (or in feminism...) to watch this panel. I do not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions reached (as I have said in the past, I personally do not believe quotas will serve as a good solution to the current problems), however I think that they did an excellent job of explaining the problem and offering solutions.

We also had a record number of women writers shortlisted for the IFFP this year, with judges making clear for the first time that they saw a problem with the fact that no woman writer has ever won the award beforehand. This led to half of the shortlist comprising of women writers, and though the prize ultimately went to a man, the judges did choose to give a special recognition of Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast. This is as close as a woman writer has come to winning the award, and though it's a fairly small comfort, it is progress nonetheless.

More broadly, there has been increased awareness of international literature this year. Every year, more and more readers are introduced to a wider variety of books. My feeling is that as this general exposure for translated literature grows, so too will exposure for women writers in the field, eventually leading to something closer to parity. This exposure will hopefully begin to spill over to more mainstream literary outlets - this year was Elena Ferrante's year, and I think we'll soon start to see more women writers getting that prestigious spotlight which until now has been reserved almost exclusively for men.

But there have also been struggles this year. As much as I would love to end on a purely positive note, the fact is that once again women in translation are being shut out of major awards (IMPAC), once again women writers are profiled significantly less frequently than men (pretty much every news outlet in my observation, though this is purely anecdotal and I haven't run any official statistics), once again reviewers note a significantly lower rate of women in translation titles as sent to them by publishers (I should note that this too is anecdotal, and furthermore as told to me by other reviewers who receive significantly more books for review than I do), and once again we see publishers who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the true problem. There are still issues ahead of us which we will need to face.

Yet as I look back at 2014 - at the involvement surrounding WITMonth, at the increased awareness, and at the somewhat improving awards statistics - I see something vaguely resembling hope. We will need to see how the final 2014 translation database (courtesy of Three Percent, as always) turns out, but it will likely show a somewhat more positive outlook than the midyear update. And my hope is that 2015 will show a clear trend towards the positive.

We continue to discuss, we continue to improve.