Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Nobel mess

I've been thinking about the Nobel award winners for 2018 and 2019 quite a bit for the past few days. It's hard not to; pretty much every winner in the past few years has had some degree of controversy, not to mention the shameful scandal that led to the Nobel to push off the 2018 award to this year in the first place. But something about this year feels extra frustrating and disappointing, possibly because there are two winners and that only emphasizes all of the flaws inherent in the award.

Also, one of the winners is... not great. We'll get to that in a moment.

Like many readers, I used to have great admiration for the Nobel prize. When I was a teenager and starting out work on this blog, I wrote a full list of all of the Nobel winners in a notebook and marked which I wanted to read, at what priority, which work I most wanted to read... and I set myself the goal of reading through all of them. That project fizzled quickly, once I realized how mediocre a lot of writers were (particularly in the early 20th century) and once I started to feel how imbalanced the list was. Once I started working on expanding my definition of the canon, it felt even more outdated to focus on Nobel winners in particular - why bother with a list of European men?

My shift in opinion doesn't match reality, in as much as regular readers are still mostly influenced by the "big name" awards than they'll ever be by... smaller and more obscure literary movements. (*cough*) The Nobel award winners are published in almost every major news outlet in the world. Their books are typically translated widely and sell (reasonably) well. A Nobel carries weight in a way that no other international award does.

So let's talk about why this year's award is so disappointing.

In 2018, an alternate Nobel ("New Academy Prize in Literature") was given to the French-Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. The prize was seen as a bit of a filler, a "kiddie" award that was quickly dissolved. Condé was a noble choice - she is a remarkably good and diverse writer whose works absolutely deserve greater exposure and attention. Sidelined as the alternate Nobel may have been, it nonetheless gave some degree of attention to an author who, frankly, is more than worthy for the "real" award.

In the leadup to the double-awarding of 2019, the Nobel committee seemed eager to smooth things over with anxious readers. Just last week, the Guardian had a whole article devoted to the committee's desire to expand beyond male dominated and Eurocentric winners. It's hard not to stare at the sketches of the writers - both white Europeans - and feel cheated. Weren't we promised something different? But the disappointment feels even more tainted - I desperately want to support Olga Tokarczuk (a writer I think is also quite worthy of recognition, and one whose work Flights, for example, explicitly tackles questions of narrowmindedness and diversity) and recognize that it's still absurdly difficult for any woman writer in translation (even European!) to win a major award. Whatever else I may think of the fact that non-white European women still aren't getting any attention (and recall that there has yet to be a single women of color in translation who has won the Nobel in its entire history), I cannot be disappointed by Tokarczuk's individual win.

But, of course, it's not just that the Academy selected two white Europeans for its prize, there's also the matter of Peter Handke, the 2019 winner.

I've spent days mulling this over and wondering how to address the matter, or indeed whether or not I should. Ultimately, I've never read and Handke and have little desire to do so; I recall seeing a description of one of his books back when I began to read a lot more literature in translation (overwhelmingly by white, European, men authors...) and thinking to myself "meh, sounds stuffy and douchey". I was largely unaware of Handke's controversial - aka awful - support of ethnic cleansing and nationalism prior to his win. But as the news got out, I saw a trickle of criticism from book bloggers, translators, and publishers on my Twitter feed that eventually became a full-on onslaught of horror, finally culminating in a PEN America denunciation. (For the record: When I began writing this post, his Wikipedia page included a paragraph on his controversies and that paragraph no longer appears. I had planned to cite this as proof of Handke's status as a controversial writer; the omission frankly feels even more telling in its clumsy attempt to whitewash Handke's messy status.)

Handke's win feels dirty from a lot of different angles. First, there's the matter of his politics. In a time of rising nationalism (and violence inherently linked to nationalism), what does it mean to give a nationalist-sympathizing, genocide-denying guy a massive prize and an effective endorsement? Separating art from artist is a heavy question I still struggle to answer (further complicated by the fact that I'm Jewish and fun fact, a lot of people in the world and throughout history have desperately wanted me dead), but there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?

Second, there's the identity politics matter. For people who try to argue that the Nobel goes to the most worthy writers, the history of the Nobel is enough to dispute that claim. It is obvious that talented writers from around the world are constantly looked over, whether because of genre, country of origin, language of origin, race, or even popularity (in both directions...). Women in particular have long been looked over, and I can easily name several women writers from around the world who passed away in the past decade alone who deserved the prize far more than a solid third of the actual winners. When the Nobel committee makes the explicit claim to notice and care about the historic imbalance in their award and then continues to give it to white European men, they are trying to have it both ways. Yes, addressing the imbalance in the award is important! they admit. But we're not going to do anything about it if it means that we have to stop awarding the prize to white European men.

I'm left feeling bitter and disappointed. Tokarczuk deserved better than this and deserves praise without an asterisk next to her name, pointing to Handke's controversies (and why, why do women always have to bear the burden of unsavory men?). I also feel like we once again got cheated out of brilliant women writers from around the world who definitely deserve more attention. Marie NDiaye. Yoko Ogawa. Banana Yoshimoto. Han Kang. Maryse Condé. Scholastique Mukasonga. Can Xue. Ambai. Isabel Allende. Nawal El Saadawi. Goli Taraghi. Ece Temelkuran. Minae Mizumura. Yanick Lahens. Ananda Devi. Dương Thu Hương. I haven't read every work these writers have written (not least because... many have not been translated into languages I speak/read in), nor can I vouch that they have not said or done objectionable things in the past as well. But I look at them and know that they have all written excellent, powerful, and life-changing books. I know that each one has contributed to the literary landscape in some form or other. They represent a wide range of cultures, experiences, and stories. And they could all benefit from the attention, money, and respect that the Nobel committee could easily bestow upon them.

The Nobel prize will always anger someone. Sometimes it might be because a winner is too obscure and your favorite didn't win. Sometimes it will be because the writer is too popular and deemed not "literary" enough by some. There's always going to be something! But at the very least, the Nobel committee can stop angering people by picking poorly... and recently, it has been. Unfortunately, it continues to be the most relevant prize in literary consciousness, which means that we readers have to work extra hard to get the word out that it is not actually reflecting on the "best" authors the world has to offer. And we need to push for it to begin to reflect the realities of the world around us. Literature is not (nor has it ever been...) white European men with a handful of English-language writers and the occasional (rare) woman writer. It is time the Nobel prize understood that.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

WITMonth Day 31 | Another year past

This post may be a bit more... personal than most.

August 31st always seems to sneak up on me. Wasn't there so much more I wanted to do? Weren't there more posts and issues I promised to write about?

This year, there absolutely were. There were a lot of subjects I left dangling and promised to return to. And I will! But I also took a few days off from blogging these past few days after  the intense compilation of the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation (100 Best WIT), what has quickly become the most popular post on the blog of all time ( far...) and has comfortably passed the 5000 direct hits milestone. The project was extraordinarily rewarding and I am proud of the work I did to help compile the final list, but it was also very draining. I also won't pretend that it hasn't cast my own role in WITMonth in a new light - am I really that necessary as an individual?

I've promised a lot more blog posts and I will complete them. The analysis of the Hebrew-language publishing market is forthcoming, as are many more posts on the 100 Best WIT. There's so much I want to discuss, from the process of compiling the list, the ways in which its biases emerged early in the compilation, the contemporary tilt, and the degree to which I struggle with the inevitable imperfections of a crowd-sourced list. I also want to share the full list of nominations, but that will require a lot of work - I was not so organized while compiling the data and it's possible that there are errors or duplicates along the way, some which may even impact the top 100 themselves. Human error feels like an inevitable outcome here, and I will need to spend a lot of time/effort ensuring that the full list is accurate. (Not to mention, I didn't record a lot of metadata like country of origin, language of origin, or even proper spelling for most of the authors...)

There's a lot I plan to do on the blog, but I'm also going to begin to ease my foot off the gas. I adore this project and I am extremely proud of everything I've done since late 2013 and I have every intention of continuing to work on the @read_WIT Twitter and @readwit Instagram and posting and organizing and so on. But I'm not sure I'll be doing as much. I think the era of daily WITMonth posts is over, as is the urgent need to reblog/respond to all Twitter posts in the tag. The joy of having a project grow so much is that... I can't actually keep up with everything! And so I'm not going to. At the end of the day, I do this project on a purely voluntary basis, I do it with nothing in exchange (except the rare review copy, and I do mean rare), and I'm doing it alongside full time work/school. (Yay PhD life!) I want to be able to continue to enjoy this project without completely burning out. So things are going to have to change.

I love seeing how WITMonth has grown. I love seeing how WITMonth is constantly changing. I love every single blogger, Instagrammer, Booktuber, critic, publisher, translator, or whatever who takes part in WITMonth, who creates new avenues for promoting women writers in translation, who takes steps to move our cause forward. I am grateful to all of you and all of the work you all do. Another year has passed us by, and as always, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.

Monday, August 26, 2019

WITMonth Day 26 | The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

For the past almost-two months, readers from around the world have been sending in their nominations and votes for this list: The 100 Best Books by Women in Translation. Inspired in part by Catherine Taylor's excellent review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, fellow bloggers (including Twitter user Antonomasia), and subsequent conversations on this blog, the idea was to create a new canon of sorts. Every reader could send up to 10 nominations of books written by women, trans, or nonbinary authors, originally written in any language other than English. Ultimately, almost 800 unique books were nominated. Most of the titles only ever had a single vote, but it speaks to the passion and love that readers have for women writers from around the world that we reached such a number. Many people sought to promote books that they felt didn't get enough attention, or books that they hoped might someday be translated, regardless whether they expected that book to make it to the top 100. The whole list - and specifically the one comprised of untranslated-into-English books - is also a worthy one, but I'll talk about it at a later time.

Let's focus on the top 100.

First and foremost, a disclaimer: This is obviously not really a list of the 100 best books by women in translation... because no such list could ever possibly exist! Every canon will be flawed in some form or other, as I'll be discussing more over the next few days and weeks. Our list is crowdsourced and borne of reader-love; it is a list that is strongly rooted in current reading trends (even if you might be surprised by some inclusions/omissions... I certainly was!). There's a lot of ink to be spilled over just about every title that ended up making it into the top 100 and much more over those that didn't make it, but here's the bottom line: Whether or not these are truly the 100 best books by women writers from around the world, whether or not this is a flawlessly representative list, and whether or not we'd get the same list if we tried again next week (I am confident we would not), this is a list of 100 books by women writers from around the world that people loved. That's worthy in and of itself.

But enough of my thoughts! I'll have plenty of time to talk about things I find interesting, surprising, or disappointing about this list at a later time (and I assure you, I will). Instead, I now present to you...

The 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

Title Author Translator(s) into English Language Country Vote tally Original publication
My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinItalianItaly262011
The VegetarianHan Kang Deborah SmithKoreanSouth Korea242007
Fever DreamSamanta Schweblin Megan McDowellSpanishArgentina222014
Human ActsHan Kang Deborah SmithKoreanSouth Korea192014
The DoorMagda Szabó Len RixHungarianHungary191987
FlightsOlga Tokarczuk Jennifer CroftPolishPoland192007
Convenience Store WomanSayaka Murata Ginny Tapley TakemoriJapaneseJapan192016
The Summer BookTove Jansson Thomas TealSwedishFinland171972
The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa Stephen SnyderJapaneseJapan132003
The YearsAnnie Ernaux Alison L. StrayerFrenchFrance122008
Things We Lost in the FireMariana Enríquez Megan McDowellSpanishArgentina122016
Death in SpringMercè Rodoreda Martha TennantCatalanSpain121986
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the DeadOlga Tokarczuk Antonia Lloyd-JonesPolishPoland122009
SphinxAnne Garréta Emma RamadanFrenchFrance111986
Die, My LoveAriana Harwicz Sarah Moss, Carolina OrloffSpanishArgentina112012
KitchenBanana Yoshimoto Megan BackusJapaneseJapan111987
PersepolisMarjane Satrapi Mattias Ripa, Blake Ferris, Anjali SinghFrenchIran / France112000
DisorientalNégar Djavadi Tina KoverFrenchIran / France112016
The Mussel FeastBirgit Vanderbeke Jamie BullochGermanGermany101990
The Notebook TrilogyÁgota Kristóf Alan SheridanFrenchHungary91991
InnocenceHeda Margolius Kovály Alex ZuckerCzechCzech Republic91985
The House of the SpiritsIsabel Allende Magda BoginSpanishChile91982
The End of DaysJenny Erpenbeck Susan BernofskyGermanGermany92013
A True NovelMinae Mizumura Juliet Winters CarpenterJapaneseJapan92002
The Unwomanly Face of War Svetlana Alexievich Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky Russian Belarus 9 1985
Eve Out of Her Ruins Ananda Devi Jeffrey Zuckerman French Mauritius 8 2006
Trieste Daša Drndić Ellen Elias-Bursać Croatian Croatia 8 2007
Bonjour Tristesse Françoise Sagan Irene Ash French France 8 1954
Love Hanne Ørstavik Martin Aitken Norwegian Norway 8 1997
Suite Française Irène Némirovsky Sandra Smith French France 8 1942
So Long a Letter Mariama Bâ Modupe Bode-Thomas French Senegal 8 1979
The Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu Various Japanese Japan 8 1008
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery Alison Anderson French France 8 2006
Tentacle Rita Indiana Achy Obejas Spanish Dominican Republic 8 2015
Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset Various Norwegian Norway 8 1922
Second Hand Time Svetlana Alexievich Bela Shayevich Russian Belarus 8 2013
Territory of Light Yūko Tsushima Geraldine Harcourt Japanese Japan 8 1979
The Hour of the Star Clarice Lispector Benjamin Moser Portuguese Brazil 7 1977
Woman at Point Zero Nawal El Saadawi Sherif Hetata Arabic Egypt 7 1975
Soviet Milk Nora Ikstena Margita Gailitis Latvian Latvia 7 2015
Notes of a Crocodile Qiu Miaojin Bonnie Huie Chinese Taiwan 7 1994
La Bastarda Trifonia Melibea Obono Lawrence Schimel Spanish Equatorial Guinea 7 2016
Vernon Subutex I Virginie Despentes Frank Wynne French France 7 2015
Revenge Yoko Ogawa Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 7 1998
Memoirs of a Polar Bear Yoko Tawada Susan Bernofsky German Germany 7 2014
Nada Carmen Laforet Edith Grossman Spanish Spain 6 1945
Near to the Wild Heart Clarice Lispector Alison Entrekin Portuguese Brazil 6 1943
Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase Hiromi Kawakami Allison Markin Powell Japanese Japan 6 2001
Go, Went, Gone Jenny Erpenbeck Susan Bernofsky German Germany 6 2015
Seeing Red Lina Meruane Megan McDowell Spanish Chile 6 2012
Fish Soup Margarita García Robayo Charlotte Coombe Spanish Colombia 6 2018
The Lover Marguerite Duras Barbara Bray French France 6 1984
Memoirs of Hadrian Marguerite Yourcenar Grace Frick French France 6 1951
The Wall Marlen Haushofer Shaun Whiteside German Austria 6 1963
Family Lexicon Natalia Ginzburg Various Italian Italy 6 1963
People in the Room Norah Lange Charlotte Whittle Spanish Argentina 6 1950
Mouthful of Birds Samanta Schweblin Megan McDowell Spanish Argentina 6 2008
Poems Sappho Various Ancient Greek Greece 6 -570
The Faculty of Dreams Sara Stridsberg Deborah Bragan-Turner Swedish Sweden 6 2006
Thus Were Their Faces Silvina Ocampo Daniel Balderston Spanish Argentina 6 1993
The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir Various French France 6 1949
The True Deceiver Tove Jansson Thomas Teal Swedish Finland 6 1982
Faces in the Crowd Valeria Luiselli Christina McSweeney Spanish Mexico 6 2011
A View with a Grain of Sand Wisława Szymborska Stanislaw Baranczak, Clare Cavanagh Polish Poland 6 1995
The Queue Basma Abdel Aziz Elisabeth Jaquette Arabic Egypt 5 2016
Fox Dubravka Ugrešić Ellen Elias-Bursać Croatian Croatia 5 2017
The Days of Abandonment Elena Ferrante Ann Goldstein Italian Italy 5 2002
History Elsa Morante William Weaver Italian Italy 5 1974
Arturo's Island Elsa Morante Various Italian Italy 5 1957
Confessions Kanae Minato Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 5 2008
The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût Hans Koning Dutch Indonesia / Netherlands 5 1955
My Heart Hemmed In Marie NDiaye Jordan Stump French France 5 2007
The Unit Ninni Holmqvist Marlaine Delargy Swedish Sweden 5 2006
The Bridge of Beyond Simone Schwarz-Bart Barbara Bray French Guadeloupe 5 1972
Purge Sofi Oksanen Lola Rogers Finnish Finland 5 2008
The Story of My Teeth Valeria Luiselli Christina MacSweeney Spanish Mexico 5 2013
Swallowing Mercury Wioletta Greg Eliza Marciniak Polish Poland 5 2014
Tokyo Ueno Station Yu Miri Morgan Giles Japanese Japan 5 2014
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe Adélaïde Bon Various French France 4 2018
Extracting the Stone of Madness Alejandra Pizarnik Yvette Siegert Spanish Argentina 4 1972
The Remainder Alia Trabucco Zerán Sophie Hughes Spanish Chile 4 2015
The Seventh Cross Anna Seghers Margo Bettauer Dembo German Germany 4 1942
The Naked Woman Armonía Somers Kit Maude Spanish Uruguay 4 1950
Waking Lions Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Sondra Silverston Hebrew Israel 4 2012
The Quest for Christa T. Christa Wolf Christopher Middleton German Germany 4 1968
A Winter's Promise Christelle Dabos Hildegarde Serle French France 4 2013
Mirror Shoulder Signal Dorthe Nors Misha Hoekstra Danish Denmark 4 2015
Sweet Days of Discipline Fleur Jaeggy Tim Parks Italian Switzerland 4 1989
Zuleikha Guzel Yakhina Lisa Hayden Russian Russia 4 2015
The Hunger Angel Herta Müller Philip Boehm German Romania / Germany 4 2009
Please Look After Mom Kyung-sook Shin Chi Young Korean South Korean 4 2008
Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel Thomas Christensen, Carol Christensen Spanish Mexico 4 1989
La Femme de Gilles Madeleine Bourdouxhe Faith Evans French Belgium 4 1937
The History of Bees Maja Lunde Diane Oatley Norwegian Norway 4 2015
The Weight of Things Marianne Fritz Adrian Nathan West German Austria 4 1979
Translation as Transhumance Mireille Gansel Ros Schwartz French France 4 2014
Out Natsuo Kirino Stephen Snyder Japanese Japan 4 1997
Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique Mukasonga Melanie L. Mauthner French Rwanda / France 4 2012
Subtly Worded Teffi Anne Marie Jackson, Robert Chandler Russian Russia 4 1990
The Letter for the King Tonke Dragt Laura Watkinson Dutch The Netherlands 4 1962

Sunday, August 25, 2019

WITMonth Day 25 | Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar | Minireview

As always, I remain totally stumped when it comes to reviewing poetry. What can I say, other than "I liked this collection!"? The book - not even 70 pages including the translator's note/introduction - feels like a cool summer breeze that passed over me. It gave me immense pleasure as I encountered it and it left a soft memory on my skin. It made me feel something in a distinctly positive sense. But there's not much I can say or do once it's passed. It's passed! That's it!

I guess I can say: Read this, you might enjoy it. You might enjoy, like I did, the diversity in styles between the different poems. You might appreciate, like I did, the way certain poems seem to continue each other (sometimes intentionally and sometimes maybe less so). You might learn about new writers and literary traditions from the translator's note, like I did, and find yourself nodding in agreement with Blake Atwood's description of Roja Chamankar's poems as both "intimate" and "marked by disappointment and loss". You might just like the poems themselves, the translation, the language, and the way the poems feel like they're ready to jump off the page into a new dimension.

You might enjoy this collection. I certainly did.

Note: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Introducing a new project

One of the biggest lingering questions facing the women in translation movement has to do with... the world. Literature in translation is a nice catchphrase, but when we focus so much on English, it's easy to forget that the reason the literature is in translation is because it's originally written in other languages. Most literature does not get translated, not into English and not into other languages across the globe. Anywhere you go, you're likely to find a degree of marginalization in translation, simply because only select titles even get to breach that gap... and fewer still break out into the mainstream.

People have long asked what the source of the "women in translation" problem is. When we're talking about translations into English, it's obvious that there's a huge problem (see: literally every stats post prior to this one...), but there's a legitimate question to be had regarding source languages. If women writers are thoroughly underrepresented in their original countries/languages, doesn't it stand to reason that they'd be underrepresented in English (or other) translation as well?

I'll note that I don't actually buy this claim. Translation is a form of selection/curation, and as with all cases in which specific, select titles are chosen, there is absolutely no reason to adhere to "natural" forces and not choose with a sharper eye. As I've argued before, exclusion is a choice.

But let's get back to that question: How are women writers represented in other languages and countries? What can we learn about how women are then represented in translation, and specifically in translation into English?

As you can imagine, these aren't easy questions to answer or approach. For starters, it's hard to know what goes on in other languages when you don't speak those languages! Luckily, I do happen to speak one other language fluently and I do happen to have a degree of familiarity with another country's publishing industry, and so I decided to carry out a new project this year and see whether I could begin to answer the above questions.

I began by selecting a few major Israeli publishers and examining their catalogs over two years - 2017 or 2018. Simply put, I do not have the time or resources to compile a more comprehensive list, much as I'd love to. I wanted to look at a few different matters. First of all, I have long had the feeling that the translation rate out of Hebrew (just around 33% women writers) is not reflective of the actual Israeli market. Women writers are extremely popular here, often topping the bestseller charts. Could it possibly be that the rates in English are actually representative of a bias in Hebrew itself that I've simply never noticed? I wanted to compare overall publication of original titles by men and women, to see what that source of the problem in English really is.

Then there's the question of translations. Every time I walk into a bookstore or go bookhunting during Hebrew Book Week, I always have to explain to the booksellers that I'm explicitly not seeking books originally written in English, since I would much rather read those books in the original. Time after time, I have seen the booksellers' faces drop somewhat, and they begin to scramble to find alternatives. I have long felt that translations from English dominate the Israeli book market, not just in terms of all literature in translation, but even in comparison to original Hebrew-language literature. And this in turn led to my final question: What of those translations? Are women writers well represented in translation between different languages?

There's a lot to learn from what I found.

(To be continued...)

Friday, August 23, 2019

WITMonth Day 23 | The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi | Review

The Baghdad Clock's cover and marketing is both exactly what it seems like and not quite what it's sold as. With a blurb that seems to set the story predominantly during the Gulf War, the book surprises somewhat in how quickly it moves past that war and focuses on the remainder of life in the aftermath (...within scant pages, to be honest). Yet it also hints at the type of story this is - my hardcover edition comes with shiny gold print and dots circling the edges of the cover. These make The Baghdad Clock feel a little... ethereal.

It's hard for me to describe The Baghdad Clock, written by Shahad Al Rawi and translated from Arabic by Luke Leafgren. Generally speaking, I liked the novel. It's not the sort of book that necessarily excels at every technical beat, but it does a reasonable job at enough different things that the end result is a good book. The writing style is very straightforward, though sometimes a little old-fashioned in a combination that didn't always work for my taste. Pretty much everything about the book is solid, but that's also a little bit of what made me a little cooler toward it in the end; it didn't spark particularly strong emotions in me in one way or the other.

At its core, The Baghdad Clock is a coming-of-age story. This is the part that felt undersold in the marketing - it felt at times like The Baghdad Clock was being framed as more political/about war than it actually is. Which is not to say that the book isn't political (it covers some serious ground), rather that my initial reading of the blurb leaned more towards a "war story" than "girlhood" story. It ends up being a little bit of both. While there is little of the Gulf War in the book itself, its shock-waves clearly felt throughout the narrator's childhood. Moreover, the back half of the book settles into more recent Iraqi wars and turbulence. It's still not an explicit war story, but it lives in themes of war, sanctions, and uneasy peace.

Even so, the coming-of-age narrative remains dominant. Like many books of this sort, the book skips along through childhood relatively quickly, slowing down for the narrator's teenage years and early adulthood. It's important to note that while the narrator is unnamed, she is very much our guide within this story. Not only does she filter her best friend Nadia's stories through her own experiences, the narrator also tells of her neighborhood at large. As the story progresses, she humanizes her neighborhood more and more, almost as though it itself is a living character in her story. 

By the novel's end, we definitely feel that we've encountered the world through the eyes of a specific girl (our unnamed narrator), but also that we've met her friends and neighbors. She remains somewhat elusive, though. The narrator shares bits of her budding romance with a neighborhood boy, but we learn little about her family life or even much about her personal aspirations. This too may have influenced how I felt about the book overall; I felt like the narrator was someone I just spent hours with, without really knowing who she was. A huge part of reading for me lies within the personal connection. Here, The Baghdad Clock almost explicitly sought to keep some distance between reader and main character. It's something I imagine won't bother most readers as it did me, but it still affected how I read the book.

But like I said: Pretty much everything about the book is... solid. The pacing is good. The way Al Rawi builds and populates her neighborhood is good. The way the story sometimes feels entirely real and sometimes just a little bit otherworldly is good. (This was actually one of my favorite touches and I would have been happy to have some more almost-fantasy in the story.) The story is interesting, the characters are solid, and the writing is fine. It's the sort of book I'd passively recommend, if it comes up. It might not make my "favorites" list any time soon, but I think readers are largely in for a good read.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

WITMonth Day 22 | A vlog about the #100BestWIT!

A vlog! They happen, on occasion.

In which I ramble about the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation and some plans for the future list!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

WITMonth Day 21 | The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga | Minireview

Some of you might remember that I'm quite a fan of Scholastique Mukasonga's writing. In fact, I still cite Cockroaches as one of my absolute favorite books of the past few years. It's a powerful gut-punch of a memoir, beautiful and heartbreaking and essential all at once. While I certainly liked Our Lady of the Nile (Mukasonga's earlier-translated novel), it has not had the same sort of lasting effect that has turned Cockroaches into one of my favorite books. It was obvious to me that I'd have to read Mukasonga's newly released The Barefoot Woman, though I kept reminding myself that it would likely not hit me to the same degree.

And, indeed, it didn't, in exactly the way I expected. The Barefoot Woman is far from a bad book or mediocre memoir; on the contrary, it's quite good. Slim, concise, and achingly real, The Barefoot Woman recounts Mukasonga's memories of her mother Stefania and her childhood home. Through her mother, Mukasonga describes details of Rwandan - Tutsi - life. There's a cultural reckoning here, alongside deeply personal and traumatic memories. It's hard not to recognize The Barefoot Woman as that combination of powerful and beautiful.

It's important to come into the memoir knowing that The Barefoot Woman is not seeking to replicate Cockroaches. While touching on similar themes and addressing Mukasonga's own past, The Barefoot Woman feels like it's much less about the Tutsi genocide than it is about the Tutsi. Often, it is more specifically about Mukasonga's mother - focused, directed, and intimate. It's neither a sequel nor a prequel to Cockroaches; at best, this could be called a companion piece, but truthfully it felt like it deserves its own space. It's a very different sort of book, at once more mainstream in its humanity and yet unique in its internal conflicts. I can't say that this had the same effect on me as Cockroaches, but it remains a very good memoir, well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

WITMonth Day 20 | Stats (part 2) | Where do we still need work?

I left the previous post on a cliffhanger. The truth is, I wanted a full post that detailed the positive. A lot of good things are happening in the world of literature in translation, and for women in translation in particular! WITMonth is bigger than ever and the movement is starting to have a real impact on translation rates. We should definitely take a moment (or more...) to celebrate that.

The problem is that despite all of the good, we've still got a lot of bad. It's not just an individual publisher matter, either. There's a systemic problem when you start to look at publishers who define themselves in certain ways, those who engage with WITMonth, and those who distance themselves from it.

Take Archipelago Books. This is a publisher I've been tracking for years, with the knowledge that they're one of the yearly disappointments. And so I was not particularly surprised by what I got: Archipelago sits at an 18% publishing rate of women writers in 2019. Year after year, Archipelago has proven to be one of the least WIT-friendly publishers. Considering how many of my favorite works by women in translation have been put out by them, it's disheartening that they don't seem to be making any effort whatsoever to balance out their catalog.

But, I reassured myself, they also have a children's literature imprint! Archipelago: Elsewhere Editions is an imprint devoted to international, quality literature for children. We all know, of course, of the "industry bias" towards women in children's literature, right? (...right?) Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that all 4 books published by this imprint in 2019 were books by men. That puts women in translation at 13% between the combined catalogs. That is... honestly inexcusable. When I reached out for comment, the response was a friendly reassurance that the publishers are aware of the imbalance and seeking to correct it, alongside a list of recent and forthcoming releases. My policy has been, until now, to give publishers the benefit of the doubt when they express an interest in improving things. I hope that next year I'll be able to add Archipelago to the list of publishers on the rise.

Dalkey is another eternal disappointment. Despite not having a publicly available catalog, I collected publication data from Amazon (seriously, that's all I could think of...) and was distinctly unsurprised to count 2 books by women in translation (alongside one mixed anthology), compared to 10 by men. How sad is it that 23% is still fairly good for Dalkey? Let's move on...

It's the last category that I want to talk about the most, though. We've already discussed how things are getting better among literary publishers, and my hope is that they'll continue to do so. We've seen that there's consistent improvement among titles in the Translation Database, but as Chad Post has been reiterating the past few weeks, there are still issues. I explained in my last post that I decided on a different methodology this year, opting out of using the Translation Database in favor of reviewing select publisher catalogs myself. In this way, I hope to include a wider range of genres, categorizations, and books overall, specifically kidlit, nonfiction, and previously published titles. And so the best way to look at the latter two categories is to analyze what's going on in university presses.

University presses have long been bastions of fascinating, diverse, and important literature. They are often the first to "rediscover" lost masterpieces, they publish works by researchers from around the world (and in just about every imaginable field), they push boundaries, and they have published some of my favorite books from the past few years, personally. I find university presses to be remarkably important in the grand scheme of literature in translation. It is therefore doubly disappointing that they are among the worst offenders when it comes to publishing women writers in translation. I looked at four different university presses that had enough titles in translation to be able to conduct statistics (and also easily searchable catalogs) and found that university presses remain abysmal when it comes to publishing women writers in translation: The four published a combined total of 22 women writers (plus another 7 cases of books with multiple authors) to 117 men writers in translation. That means that men make up 80% of the books in translation published by university presses, with mixed groups responsible for 5% and women 15%.

Fifteen percent.

Academic presses are important for a lot of reasons, but it's important to remember why this stings a bit more than most of the other low-rated publishers: Academic presses carry with them a degree of prestige, canonization, and clout. Having so few works by women writers and even fewer works by women writers from around the world merely perpetuates our existing (flawed) assumptions about academia, women, and women's contributions to culture and science. Women have been contributing to the canon for literally the entire span of human history... why is this still erased? It's like another publisher - Penguin Classics - which published exactly zero works by women writers in translation this past year (versus four by men in translation). There are countless classic and modern works by women writers from around the world that deserve our attention and scholarship. We're still not there.

We have a long road ahead of us with many different problems to tackle. As the rates of women in translation steadily rise for fiction and poetry and as women in translation begin to receive the recognition they deserve in the English-language world (for example, the recent Man Booker International shortlist!), we can turn our attention to other matters. Why are there still so few children's stories in translation? Why is nonfiction in translation as dominated by men writers as it is? What's going on in other languages? Some of these are question we can't answer quite yet or still don't have solutions for.

But some of these questions we can begin to answer. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 19, 2019

WITMonth Day 19 | Awu's Story by Justine Mintsa | Review

For a book that's not even 100 pages long, Justine Mintsa's Awu's Story has a surprisingly long introduction. Clocking in at 24 pages (not including references), the University of Nebraska Press translation into English solidly leans into the idea that a short story can have a major impact. Unfortunately, like the introductions to many modern (and not-so-modern...) classics, translator Cheryl Toman's extensive (and fascinating) introduction also tackled some of the plot points in the book. Luckily, I've already learned to merely skim introductions for author-specific information and only read it fully after finishing the book itself. I advise other readers who prefer to go into the story with a clear mind to do the same.

And oh boy, do I advise readers get their hands on this book. Slim, yes, but Awu's Story packs major punch in such a brief space. The writing style is simple throughout, very direct and clear-eyed. Pieces of the story that feel unaddressed are almost all addressed more fully later. The book tackles huge subject matters, from ordinary village life, to family relationships, to love, to child pregnancy, to grief, to tradition... yet none of these feels out of place or dominant. With the exception of a single, somewhat rushed "payoff" scene near the end, the book largely feels like it earns its emotional beats.

To be honest? I kind of loved Awu's Story.

I mean, I guess I shouldn't sound so surprised or dismissive. There's nothing in Awu's Story's marketing or framing to suggest I shouldn't love it. On the other hand, there also isn't much to suggest it would hit me much beyond "oh this is a good book". Except Awu's Story really does end up feeling different, both in terms of my outsider view of Gabonese culture (of which, as you can imagine, I have limited exposure to) and just from a literary perspective. I have a mixed relationship with very simply written books, sometimes loving them and sometimes Awu's Story fell on the right side of that balance. The simplicity translated into straight-forward storytelling. The book progresses in a linear fashion; events happen one after the other and are cleanly described. The language is, by and large, direct. The one thing that bothered me a little bit was the dissonance between an older-style simplicity and occasionally very modern language (use of words like "hey" or "guy" in contexts that sometimes felt a little whiplash-y), but this too may have something to do with my expectations. It's also not really the point.

Awu's Story has a clear, progressing story, but it's hard to characterize this as a plot-based book. It is, as the English title implies, simply Awu's story, following life from early marriage through to middle age. It is, to a large extent, a feminist story with several characters breaking with traditional gender expectations within the story (Awu included). Its overarching themes and messages are definitely present and not particularly quiet, but they also still feel somewhat in the background. It's a book that feels natural in a lot of different ways. And I really did just love it. It's a short read that feels totally rewarding and enlightening and narratively satisfying. No, this is not a particular cheerful book in parts and I definitely cried a little bit by the end, but it's lovely and powerful and I hope that a lot more readers get the chance to read this. Awu's Story is far from one of the more popular, mainstream books you're likely to get a chance to read, but... you should. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

WITMonth Day 18 | Down with the Anglo-archy!

The 50 Day Countdown (part 3)

In my last post, I talked about how I felt the 50 Day Countdown list really showed the breadth of women writers in translation from around the world. But I hedged and hesitated, hovering around the topic that I really wanted to point out and that is... overall, the list is extraordinary wide-ranging with one major exception: Very intentionally, there is not one white European author on the list.

There have been plenty of lists in recent years focusing specifically on women of color or women from particular regions. In fact, it's become a movement in its own right and justifiably so - the same marginalization that keeps women writers outside of mainstream recognition in the literary world applies doubly so for women of color. And yet whatever the effort needed to get English-language women of color in the public view, it is almost exponentially more difficult for women in translation, and so on. If we were to imagine a Venn diagram of the intersectional struggle, we'd see that we're left with a tiny overlap.

That the 50 Day Countdown is entirely comprised of women of color is not by accident; it is carefully deliberate. (Note: The term "women of color" is often problematic in an international context, as I'll discuss a bit more below.) I kept a close eye on people who shared the list to see whether anyone commented on the fact that it is entirely comprised of women of color. With the exception of one reader who expressed delight at the list's diversity, no one made any explicit mention. And wouldn't people say that's such a good sign? Look, here's a list of 50 women writers in translation that just so happen to all be women of color! When on day 49, I invited readers to suggest women they might like to see on day 50, a few recommended white European authors - it seems that the list's quiet revolution was subtle enough that it didn't even occur to those readers that their recommendation might be out of place.

As most of you probably know, I have a longstanding frustration at the general attitude toward translation as something niche or secondary. Take this list of African women writers as an example - the overwhelming majority are English-language writers, for absolutely no reason rooted in the reality of the continent's native languages. Resources by English-language readers or scholars almost always include books by exclusively Anglo-American/English-language authors. The women in translation movement is still on the outskirts of feminism and indeed, it largely seems to reside within the translation movement, rather than the feminist movement! This is something I've complained about before in many different ways.

My frustration is a muddled mess of emotions. I recognize that it's a good thing that people can skim through the 50 Day Countdown list and not be too surprised by how many different backgrounds they're encountering. Many readers, in fact, have commented on how they felt that the list introduced them to writers from countries they didn't expect, or that the list itself was impressive, or whatever. It's a mark of how far we've come that the race/ethnicity/backgrounds of these writers is not the only important thing about it, rather that these are remarkable, talented, award-winning, different, and interesting women writers who just so happen to be from all over the world.

But it doesn't feel like a good thing that the list again went ignored by those (very loud) voices who claim to support "diversity" the most. Diversity is a word that divides many and for good reason - human beings, after all, are simply human beings, not diverse. The way that we have this conversation is already tainted. I always recall Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sharp observations in Americanah about what it means to be a non-American-black within a culture that automatically conflates blackness with certain cultural expectations (i.e. African-American culture). Similar to discussions in Americanah over immigrant identity in the US, my dissatisfaction with the phrase "women of color" in an international context comes into play. When your country is comprised of black people, you are not black as an identifying feature, nor are you a "woman of color". The phrase is one that is defined by white-dominant countries and cannot apply in the same way to non-white-dominant countries. Racial, religious, and cultural discussions are all entirely unique within the borders of different countries, and the fact that Anglo-American readers often gloss over these differences in the name of so-called progressive inclusiveness is to no one's benefit.

But just because diversity is a phrase that is context-dependent doesn't mean that it's not something we ought to discuss. From an Anglo-American perspective, it is important to point to writers of "diverse" origins, which is precisely what the 50 Day Countdown list did. When we discuss "literature in translation" we're already assuming an English-language bias and cultural context, which means that there is little excuse for Anglo-American-based diversity movements to continue to ignore women in translation.

So what is the purpose of this post? Am I just complaining about not getting the attention that I wanted? Well, yes, to a certain degree. Mostly, though, I find myself exhausted by the hypocrisy of a movement that doesn't pay any attention to something if it's not blatant. Would the list have gained more traction if I explicitly framed it as "50 WOC You Have to Read!"? Is there some magic trick that we need in order for most Anglo-American feminist readers to recognize their Anglo-centrism? I'm tired of having to fight for WITMonth to have a seat at the table. I'm tired of having to fight for mainstream feminist groups and movements and voices to notice. To use an example of a white woman whose intersectional feminism does include many women of varying backgrounds, Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club still has, by my count, only one book by a woman writer in translation (out of 27). The erasure happens everywhere, every day.

As I've argued a hundred times before, women in translation should not be niche. They should not be bonuses. They should not be the rarity that crops up one month a year, and even that's just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other books everyone is reading in August. The 50 Day Countdown shows that it's possible to make a list of 50 women writers from around the world, without country repeats; the 100 Best WIT nomination list shows that it's possible to read hundreds of books from around the world with strong endorsements for every single title. While the women in translation movement exists due to a relative imbalance, I will repeat what I've said since 2014: There is no lack of women writers in translation, but we do have to put in the work to find them. This is true for established readers of literature in translation and it's true for new readers of literature in translation and it's true for feminist readers who have never considered translation as an intersection worth exploring.

Let's get the word out in feminist circles: The era of English-only diversity is over.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

WITMonth Day 17 | Flights by Olga Tokarczuk | Review

I waited a long time to read Flights. Despite having had multiple translations of her books into English prior to Flights, this was the book that brought Olga Tokarczuk to my sphere of awareness. Everyone seemed to be reading Flights last year; it was a WITMonth hit, people were praising Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft from all directions, and ultimately the book went on to win the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (and was shortlisted for both the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the National Book Award for Translated Literature). Flights has been... everywhere.

I waited a long time to read Flights. Not because I thought I wouldn't like it (though I won't pretend there wasn't some of my usual concern that I'd end up disappointed by a book that everyone else seems to have loved!). Not because I didn't want to read it (I very much did). And not because I couldn't get my hands on it (I lovingly passed my fingers over its cover when I was in London this past November). No, I waited a long time because the moment I saw this bright yellow hardcover for the US edition, I knew I wanted this version. I wanted a spine that would crackle under my fingers. I wanted a bright, bold cover. Forgive me, but the UK Fitzcarraldo blue just really does not do it for me.

And so I waited. I waited to begin my travels. I waited as I traveled through Fitzcarraldo-friendly lands. I waited as I arrived in the US and was exiled to the bookstore-deprived suburbs of Central New Jersey. (I mean... "was happily spending time with my family". *cough*) I waited as I placed online orders for several other books. I waited until I walked into a bookstore that had Flights on full display, and then I hugged the gorgeous hardcover to my chest. Flights boarded my flight home, carefully tucked into my backpack between my laptop and extra scarf. (And six other books. Let's not get into it...)

I began reading Flights on my last flight home. Three months of flying all across the world (16 flights in total...), traveling to new countries and continents, seeing new sights, meeting new people, exploring new experiences. At first, the book felt like it would be a slow burn - the shifts in style, narration, and literal stories kept throwing me off. How much of Flights was a novel? How much was short stories? How much was autobiography? The book seemed to progress with its own unique rhythm, sometimes working for me, sometimes less. I read slowly, steadily - first on my flight, then through my jetlag, and then bits and pieces every night before bed.

And then I began to read voraciously. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I felt something shift inside me; I suddenly felt like the book was pulsing with life, vibrating in my hands. I began to feel how the stories fit together. It suddenly clicked.

One story lingers, that of the (implied) New Zealand scientist who heads back to Poland to visit a dying friend. I kept feeling that the story was written for me, having just come back from my own travels throughout New Zealand and contemplating all sorts of bigger life questions (though obviously not as big as those in the story, for those who have read it). The story was one that suddenly had an additional dimension by virtue of the fact that I had waited - could the story have meant nearly as much to me before having traveled throughout New Zealand? (No.) Pieces of it seemed to fit perfectly into the tapestry of my jumbled emotional puzzle.

I ultimately loved Flights. I loved how the experimental, "weird" side ultimately ends up paying off. I loved how the book feels like it's growing as you're reading it. I loved the clarity of the writing (and translation!). I loved its unique voice, at once intimate and technical. I loved how it was quite unlike any of the other books I had read recently. I loved how it managed to be exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

I waited just long enough to read Flights.

Friday, August 16, 2019

WITMonth Day 16 | #100BestWIT deadline approaching!

This is just a reminder that the #100BestWIT submission deadline - AUGUST 25TH - is fast approaching! Don't forget to send in up to 10 nominations of books by women writers from around the world (writing in any language other than English, whether or not it's been translated into other languages). Send your nominations via Twitter (@read_WIT), Instagram (@readwit), comment here, or email (biblibio [at] gmail)! As of right now, there are almost 1000 individual votes, but we can definitely get more and have a more decisive canon. So spread the word - on social media, among your friends, online and offline - and send your nominations in!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

WITMonth Day 15 | "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" by Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail | Review

You know how I often say that I feel "unqualified" to write reviews of certain books? Sometimes that's because a book just isn't to my taste and I don't feel that I can adequately speak for readers to whom the book is geared. Sometimes it's because the book involves literary references that I'll never be able to place. Sometimes it's because the book is on a topic that is far beyond my scope of experiences/knowledge, and I just have to trust the writer.

This review falls into this latter category.

The book I'm reviewing is not actually called "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women"; for starters, it was written in Hebrew and this is simply the translation of the subtitle, and also not quite. In Hebrew, the full title translates to When the Shadow is Big, It's a Sign that the Sun is Going Down: The Lives of Bedouin Women through the Lens of Change (כשהצל גדול סימן שהשמש שוקעת: חייהן של נשים בדואיות בראי השינויים). But what it really is, at its core, is the lives of three generations of Bedouin women, a sociological case study looking at grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, each of whom reflects a generation in flux and a changing culture. For convenience's sake, I'll be referring to the book from here on out as Lives.

I picked this up entirely randomly. I almost never read nonfiction in Hebrew, and even the nonfiction I read in English is rarely sociological or academic in nature. (At least... academic in fields beyond my own scientific ones.) But somehow I did spot this on the shelf, and somehow I did decide to read the back cover, and as I did, I realized that I have never read anything by any Bedouin writer. Given that my familiarity with Bedouin culture is fairly limited and mostly secondhand, I decided I needed to read this book. I began it that evening and finished reading it the following day.

Lives is very much an academic work. In it, Dr. Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail tracks various pieces of Bedouin culture changes through interviews of 10 Bedouin women, per generation. She selected 10 sets of grandmothers, mothers, and granddaughters who were willing to sit for extensive interviews. Most issues, she notes, were unguided - Allassad-Alhuzail frequently points to topics that each generation of women raised themselves. The study is fascinating from a lot of perspectives, giving voice to a community that is practically invisible in Israeli culture. Allassad-Alhuzail covers issues from polygamy, women's education, women's freedom, domestic violence, and more. She further places Bedouin societal changes within the context of greater social changes in the Western, Israeli, and Arab worlds overall. One of the more fascinating observations she includes in the book is the degree to which the shift from nomadic tents to fixed buildings frequently stripped women of long-held freedom; women-only spaces often entirely disappeared from Bedouin settlements. Thus, her research seems to suggest that the "mothers" generation faced greater struggles in terms of gender dynamics than their more traditional mothers had.

There's a lot I find fascinating about Lives. The book is written in Hebrew and is thus geared primarily for an Israeli audience, which obviously frames a lot of how it's written and meant to be interpreted. But while Allassad-Alhuzail certainly gives her readers a basic primer on Bedouin culture, she still focuses on very specifically Bedouin matters. She discusses the cultural shock that Bedouin culture has gone through, since effectively being forced into government-approved settlements. She discusses changes to religious traditions, that have shifted and changed over time. She discusses sexism through a variety of lenses, and this in particular is fascinating as a feminist reader, being reminded yet again that feminism can mean very different things in different cultural contexts.

For example, Allassad-Alhuzail points to an increase in young Bedouin women wearing more religious/covered clothing, but that this does not appear to reflect a greater religious fervor among these women. Instead, Allassad-Alhuzail notes that this clothing (which is tellingly not traditional Bedouin dress, but Muslim Palestinian-Arab) reflects a sort of armor. A young woman who is deemed conservative, well-covered, and modest will be allowed to leave the house and continue her studies. This observation struck me for a lot of reasons, but it also put a lot of personal interactions into a specific context that I had never really thought of before.

In one field, however, Allassad-Alhuzail frequently frustrated me. She spends quite a bit of time discussing Bedouin's status as indigenous peoples and comparing the fight for Bedouin rights to those of other indigenous peoples around the world, which was obviously enlightening, interesting, and very important. Yet she then attempts to draw parallels to European colonialism that simply don't apply, while also pointing to that sort of Palestinian-ification of Bedouin culture... without addressing how much Palestinian culture itself has changed in the same time period. Or that Palestinian culture itself is no longer quite as homogenous as she presents. Or the way pan-Arabism imposes certain cultural norms in a distinctly colonial fashion as well. (At no point does she acknowledge the plethora of Christian Palestinians mostly found in the north of Israel; Palestinian refers to Muslim Palestinian and glosses over modern, significant cultural distinctions between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza with a casual broadness that is simply not reflective of reality.) Nor does Allassad-Alhuzail much address Bedouin status in other countries. It comes up in the discussion of the Bedouin indigenous status with some references to Egypt, but goes entirely ignored when specifically addressing government policy as regards Bedouins. It seemed like an odd omission in a book that is... all about changes in Bedouin society.

Yet even this frustration only emphasized how interesting I found Lives and how important I think it is. This is a book that does exactly what I often seek from the women in translation project - it introduced me to a thoroughly unfamiliar cultural context, demanded I truly involve myself in it, and then challenged me. The fact that the book is nonfiction only made it more enjoyable, in this case; I can (and will!) argue about how Allassad-Alhuzail attempts to frame pieces of her work in a broader cultural climate (hey, neither of us are experts on that!), but I have no interest or right whatsoever to argue with her about the facts of Bedouin culture. And these, Allassad-Alhuzail conveys clearly, cleanly, and intelligently. The book is informative and interesting, explanatory and engaging.

This is the sort of book I genuinely can't imagine ever getting translated, but it should (even if, again, I think that Allassad-Alhuzail takes some liberty in expanding her thesis to other fields). It's a cultural study from within that culture. It's an honest examination of good and bad; Allassad-Alhuzail writes of her own struggles as being the oh-so-rare-almost-unheard-of woman Bedouin PhD candidate. She explores her own status within the community, both as an academic and a social worker, and also how this shaped her study. She notes places in which her own experience aligns with those described by the other women of her generation; she frequently reminds the reader that she is writing from within, though the presentation is pointedly for without. I would love to see this reach more readers, whether in Hebrew, Arabic (the original interview language, albeit not of the book itself), or any other language.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

WITMonth Day 14 | The 50 Day Countdown (part 2)

When I posted my WITMonth 50 Day Countdown list the other day, I originally intended to write a little bit more about it. There's so much I can write about: how I picked the authors, why I made certain decisions, why it makes so absurdly happy... But there's one topic which I want to begin with, and that has to do with what I feel the list truly showcases.

The list, as you'll probably have noticed, is fairly diverse. Some of the writers already have modern classics to their names, while others have only recently published their debuts. There are novelists, poets, journalists, scholars, and genre writers on the list. Many of the authors have double lives - a couple are musicians or artists, many are active journalists, some are doctors or scientists. There are young writers and very old writers. Living writers and dead writers. Writers from within conservative literary traditions and queer writers breaking all the rules. There are writers from almost every part of the Earth. From a wide range of religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.

If you've followed this project for a while, you'll know that diversity of origin is something that I find extremely important. I struggle to see the purpose in reading, if I'm only ever reading from the same perspectives and about the same sorts of people. In the first WITMonth, I covered a different continent every week. Since then, I've also sought to include women from around the world at every turn and of varying ethnic backgrounds. The world is wide and full of wonders... why limit ourselves?

The first few authors weren't so difficult to select, but I quickly realized that I was settling into familiar patterns. It was easy enough to come up with a few Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, or even Egyptian writers. I could probably fill 25 days just with women writers from those first two countries. But doesn't that mean I'm simply falling into the same trap we've always fallen into? Isn't the point to go for something different?

And so I began challenging myself. Could I make a 50-day list without major repeats? Could I make a list that did justice to different religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds? Could I make a list that included indigenous writers, and indigenous languages as well? Could I make a list that spanned the world in this way... with fifty unique backgrounds?

It wasn't easy and to be perfectly honest, the list required extensive research. More than that, the honest truth is that I've read books by only half of the writers on the list. Many of the authors mentioned are far from mainstream names, some are difficult to track down, and others still are barely in print (if at all), and I cannot truly vouch for the quality of each writer. Some of the ones I have read are also not necessarily to my personal taste or liking. But does that matter?

It is, at the end of the day, a list that spans the world. In the few cases where two writers originate from the same country or write in the same language, there is something that distinguishes them - for example, Yoko(s) Tawada and Ogawa both write in Japanese, but Tawada lives in Germany and also writes in German while Ogawa is a more "classically" Japanese writer. Similarly, Yu Miri is a Japanese writer, but belongs to an ethnic minority of Koreans in Japan. I also sought to highlight underrepresented languages and groups where possible. Niviaq Korneliussen writes in Greenlandic, even as her works are translated into English through Danish. Natalia Toledo writes in both Spanish and Zapotec. Naomi Fontaine writes about Innu life. Indigenous American voices are rarely given the stage they deserve and here, briefly, I was able to spotlight just a few writers I've been lucky enough to be exposed to.

It went further. What about a more diverse range of Latin American literature, including Caribbean and Afro-Latin American writers? What about Africa, long forgotten by most the world's literary movements but never silent? What about India, the astonishingly diverse subcontinent with an incredibly rich literary tradition that even when translated into English simply does not make its way into the hands of US- or UK-based readers? What about Southeast Asia, often discarded in conversations of "Asian"ness, but no less worthy of our artistic attentions? What about Central Asia, a sprawling mass of cultures that are virtually unknown to most English-language readers? What about the Middle East, too often presented through twisted political framing?

What about all of the rest?

I can't claim that the list is perfect or encompassing in the ways I wanted. I struggled to find Central and Southeast Asian writers. I mostly opted for classic Indian writers because I'm not familiar enough with modern Indian literature. There are countries and languages I desperately wanted to include but simply couldn't find the right representative voice. That, more than anything, is my great disappointment - it's still not possible to really read the entire world through the eyes of women writers. There are still languages, cultures, and backgrounds that are represented only by men (or outsiders, peering in). There are still too many cases of "first"s.

I have a lot more I can write about this, about the flaws in the list or the gaps I wish I could have filled or cases in which I struggled with certain choices. But I'm going to pause here, just before I reach the true crux of what I want to discuss: What is it about this list that makes it different from almost every other booklist you've probably seen in your life?

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

WITMonth Day 13 | This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets | Minireview

I can neither say that I liked or disliked Milena Busquets This Too Shall Pass (translated from Spanish into Hebrew by Yaarit Tauber). It was a book that I had actually been looking forward to a for a long time, mostly because it's part of a literary series that I really like that sadly almost never puts out works by women in translation. I was ready to enjoy myself, and then I... didn't. I wasn't quite disappointed, either, but the book managed to exasperate me and intrigue me to equal measures. It ends up being a wash.

To be fair, my biggest problem with This Too Shall Pass is that I really struggled to connect with the main character. While the book has literary depth and merit beyond its narrator, Blanca, there's an intimacy in her voice that made me feel like Blanca's character defined the main core of the book. Given that it's all about her grief, not really connecting with Blanca made it much harder to fully take in her exploration of her own feelings.

This Too Shall Pass isn't a long book and it isn't a very plotty book. There's a lot about Blanca's relationships (particularly her relationships with her ex-husbands and potential lovers, but not just), a bit about her thoughts on parenthood and responsibility, and an interesting amount about her mother. I say "interesting", because for a book that's ostensibly about Blanca's grief over her mother's passing, that actually isn't the main narrative thread. It's present, certainly, but the book feels more about Blanca finding her own balance. I do typically like these sorts of stories, but here I felt too off-put by Blanca herself (and all of her friends/lovers, each of whom was just a little more insufferable and awful than the next) - I can easily see other readers enjoying the cool style and approach to grief. It just didn't end up being my cup of tea...

Monday, August 12, 2019

WITMonth Day 12 | The 50 Day Countdown (part 1)

Exactly two months ago on June 12th 2019, I launched a new project ahead of WITMonth - the 50-Day Countdown. The list is one of my favorite things that I've ever done in the context of this project, promoting a single woman writer from around the world every day for fifty straight days. Each tweet included a photo of the writer (usually from Wikipedia or Goodreads, or credited from another source), her country of origin, occasionally her language of origin (if relevant), and a brief line about her work. Sometimes I referenced recently released books, sometimes I tagged publishers, sometimes I simply mentioned what the author is best known for.

It's a list I'm extraordinarily proud of. I haven't read all of the authors on it (in fact, I've only read half!), but I learned a lot in preparing it and I can't wait to read more from every single author on it. And so, this time counting up, the #WITMonth 50 Day Countdown:
  1. Trifonia Melibea Obono - Equatorial Guinea
  2. Rania Mamoun - Sudan
  3. Natalia Toledo - Mexico
  4. Eileen Chang - China
  5. Gabriela Alemán - Ecuador
  6. Leila Abouzeid - Morocco
  7. Rita Indiana - Dominican Republic
  8. Qiu Miajoin - Taiwan
  9. Gabriella Ghermandi - Ethiopia/Italy
  10. Nawal El Saadawi - Egypt
  11. Yoko Ogawa - Japan
  12. Okky Madasari - Indonesia
  13. Marie NDiaye - France
  14. Goli Taraghi - Iran
  15. Niviaq Korneliussen - Greenland
  16. Excilia Saldaña - Cuba
  17. Naomi Fontaine - Canada
  18. Yoko Tawada - Japan/Germany
  19. Claribel Alegría - El Salvador/Nicaragua
  20. Yu Miri - Japan
  21. Yanick Lahens - Haiti
  22. Paulina Chiziane - Mozambique
  23. Qurratulain Hyder - India
  24. Nu Nu Yi - Myanmar
  25. Mariama Bâ - Senegal
  26. Margarita García Robayo - Colombia
  27. Mahasweta Devi - India
  28. Scholastique Mukasonga - Rwanda/France
  29. Ece Temelkuran - Turkey
  30. C. S. Lakshmi (Ambai) - India
  31. Négar Djavadi - Iran/France
  32. Frieda Ekotto - Cameroon/Switzerland
  33. Cynthia McLeod - Suriname
  34. Jokha Alharthi - Oman
  35. Tanella Boni - Côte d'Ivoire
  36. Nathacha Appanah - Mauritius/France
  37. Dương Thu Hương - Vietnam
  38. Mayra Montero - Puerto Rico
  39. Dunya Mikhail - Iraq/US
  40. Khadija Mastoor (Mastur) - Pakistan
  41. Simone Schwarz-Bart - Guadeloupe/France
  42. Ghada al-Samman - Syria
  43. Justine Mintsa - Gabon
  44. Duanwad Pimwana - Thailand
  45. Hoada Barakat - Lebanon
  46. Ronit Matalon - Israel
  47. Raja (Raja'a) Alem - Saudi Arabia
  48. Sulochana Manandhar - Nepal
  49. Assia Djebar - Algeria
  50. Aigerim Tazhi - Kazakhstan
I loved compiling this list for a lot of reasons... but it's also an experience that has left me with a lot more to say.

(To be continued)

Sunday, August 11, 2019

WITMonth Day 11 | The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers | Review

Confession: I did not like Anna Segher's Transit very much. I didn't loathe it, I just... didn't connect to it. I felt like I didn't understand it the way that I was supposed to. So when NYRB very kindly sent me The Seventh Cross, I was somewhat hesitant. Would I again be disappointed? How would I respond to this long, gloomy-seeming novel?

It turns out that while I didn't quite love it, I did actually like it quite a bit.

The Seventh Cross (translated, as Transit was, by Margot Bettauer Dembo) feels like a very different book from Transit. Where that one progressed in a deliberately slow, almost lazy style, The Seventh Cross takes place over a compressed timescale and has a remarkable tension throughout. The novel isn't exactly brisk - it has its fair share of side characters who get surprisingly whole arcs and there are plenty of slowly meandering portions - but it never stops feeling like it's pushing. It pushes towards its ultimate goal.

This is a tense, exciting novel.

Seven prisoners have escaped a Nazi camp. They are political prisoners, Germans, and this is still prior to the great horrors of the Holocaust. Written while the war was still at its earlier stages, just as the Final Solution was being set into motion, The Seventh Cross is less about the war itself and more about the culture that bred it. As we follow escapee George desperately trying to stay alive, we're exposed to people and places and contexts that help and hinder his attempts. We witness his escape not only from his perspective (his initial rush, his realization that others have been captured and killed, his constant search for safety), but from that of the guards and camp commandant who desperately need to capture him, his (mostly)ex-wife and her family as they are placed under strict surveillance, his old friend who begins to put two and two together, casual passersby, people caught in the crossfire, and strangers who only want to help.

While the core of the story remains George and George's escape, the narration is hardly consistent. This, in fact, was my greatest frustration with the novel - I often felt as though I couldn't keep track of which side characters were whom and what they were contributing to the narrative. While most of the stories felt like they did make some degree of sense by the end of the book, I wasn't sure that I liked all of the sidetracking. It was a little draining. The style, however, remains consistent across the characters, which only made things more complicated.

But pretty much other than that, I really liked The Seventh Cross. Once I got into it (and it did take a full chapter, basically), I was in it. The tension throughout (will George survive? will George make it?) works so well and the relatively slow pacing alongside a sharply anticipatory story makes for wonderful reading. It's the sort of pacing that I wish more books could have, with no question that the story is moving forward yet plenty of time to linger on smaller moments too. The writing is solid, well-suited for the story, and I appreciated the way Seghers gave each of her characters distinct personalities and traits, even when their voices blurred together and they didn't necessarily get a lot of focus themselves.

The politics are also important, and not to be ignored. The Seventh Cross is focused not on the plight of Jewish camps, but on political prisoners who have been too vocal in their objection to the Nazi regime. This is still in the 1930s, before the worst. And yet it is still horror that we need to remember and be aware of. The story reveals the degree to which these camps swallowed up people's lives, regardless how political they themselves might be. Like almost all stories that detail life under fascist rule, it's an important reminder of how quickly things may change. There's a lot to take in here from a meta perspective as well, remembering that Seghers wrote and published this before the death camps became the massive murder machines they would become. There were moments that hint at what is to come, but that's far from the point of the book. Which, frankly, only makes it more interesting to a certain degree.

I can't promise that you'll like The Seventh Cross. There is something unsettling about it and the beginning feels a little out of time, not quite fitting the pacing of the rest of the book. But it's a powerful piece of fiction that works on almost every other level. Even if you, like me, didn't like Transit all that much, give The Seventh Cross a try. It's a pretty great book.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

WITMonth Day 10 | Creating a new canon

The literary canon is dying.

It's hard not to feel that there is no longer reason to have a fixed literary canon. In an era in which readers may freely find books that suit their tastes, are exposed to a far wider range of books than ever before, and have endless "best of" lists every year in just about every genre imaginable from which to choose their next read, the idea of a single canon seems almost... quaint. What does the canon give us? Why do we even need it?

Yet of course, the canon remains the foundation of our literary approach. Like it or not (and I feel that most readers today fall into the latter category, for a variety of reasons), canons provide a framework for how we approach and discuss literature in a shared way. No, we don't necessarily agree that Catcher in the Rye is a good book, but the vast majority of US-based readers have read the book for school and can frame an argument around it. The canon defines experiences we deem to be universal, important, or indeed essential. By virtue of including a book in the canon, we also immortalize it in a particularly unique way.

The problem is that the canon in its current shape is flawed to a shocking degree. If we look at "100 Best..." lists from even just the past decade, we find gaping holes and shocking omissions. I don't even mean this on a personal taste level, I mean... entire continents are often missing. Women are grossly underrepresented. The canon is inevitably heavily tilted toward the language in which it's presented and blatantly Anglo/Euro-centric even when it claims to be international. It is depressingly white. And straight. And... and... and...

This even extends to lists that claim to break free of the canon's constraints. You'll recall my criticism of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, where my ultimate conclusion was that "exclusion is a choice". As I wrote at the time, "But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?" It was in that post that I first mused aloud over the idea that would eventually develop to become the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation. It was in response that particular canon, and that particular imbalance.

The literary canon is dead.

The 100 Best WIT (to use the shortened name) is not going to be a perfect encapsulation of all literature by women in translation. Though I'm hesitant to reveal too much before the final, dramatic release, I feel comfortable in pointing out that the current list as it stands is strongly tilted toward contemporary titles... and indeed titles published within the last year or two. It is obvious that availability and accessibility are often guiding readers in their picks - after all, how can readers vote on books that they've never been exposed to? A crowd-sourced list will inevitably be more of a popularity contest than anything else. Which is... honestly okay. The official canon itself has long been a popularity contest of sorts, except the books included are those that remain popular years after their publication. And when you're talking about a group that has been so marginalized for so long, it is unsurprising that the list ends up being tilted more modern/contemporary since only in recent years has awareness spread enough for readers to become exposed to more books by women in translation.

But here's what else I can say about this new list: It spans the world in a way that, to the best of my knowledge, few other lists ever has. The top two titles on the list so far (and competition is close, so this may yet change!) are books by non-European women writers. Many books are by queer writers and about queer characters. There are books from almost every continent on Earth (Oceania is, I believe, currently the only human-populated region with no representation). There's sci-fi, nonfiction, children's literature, picture books, YA, mysteries, and more. Some of the books have been massive bestsellers, some have flown under the radar. Some are books that have only recently been published in their original languages, some are ancient classics that transcend literary definition.

This is what I want the new canon to look like. Because whatever flaws the final list will have (and I'm certain every reader will find something to critique, because there's no way to create a "Best of" list that doesn't anger basically everyone!), it does, at the very least, showcase the world in a way that the "official" literary canon never has. This list too will not encompass everything - there are countless English-language writers who doubtlessly deserve a spot in a full-scale canon, and I suppose* some men writers have also proven themselves adequate enough. This new canon is simply an alternative - what happens if we assume for a moment that the default is something else? What happens if we throw away our notions of what defines the "literary canon" and start over, with clear eyes and a fresh mind?

The literary canon is dead. Long live the literary canon!

* This is a (hopefully obvious) joke