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

Friday, August 9, 2019

WITMonth Day 9 | Diving for Seahorses by Hilde Østby and Ylva Østby | Review

I am frequently surprised by how often people mistake me for a truly literary person. Bloggers and Twitter folk have often assumed I'm either a literature major or a translator; I've had people ask me what "genre" I'm researching for my PhD. But the truth is that I'm a scientist, a biochemist who just happens to adore books and writing about them. And though I typically read fiction, I also love reading nonfiction, particularly about scientific fields. As I've delved deeper into the women in translation project, this love has mostly been sidelined. After all, there just aren't that many science books by women writers that have been translated across languages.

Imagine my surprise as I browsed books at the Sydney airport bookstore, ahead of 35 hours of traveling. My hand hovered over the spine and I removed the book from the shelf. My usual search for translator name was actually quite long (unfortunately, NewSouth Publishing don't advertise the translator name anywhere obvious, instead relegating it to the small print of the publication information page), but once I found it, I was stunned. Diving for Seahorses by Norwegian sisters Hilde Østby and Ylva Østby, translated by Marianne Lindvall. Yes, this really was a nonfiction, scientific book written by non-Anglo women writers! Sisters, no less!

I had to read this.

Luckily, it turns out that Diving for Seahorses is more than just a combination of my personal niche delights, but a genuinely good book. As the publisher blurb points out, the sisters are uniquely qualified to write a good science book - Hilde is a writer, while Ylva is a neuroscientist. Their combined efforts creates a remarkably well-written (and translated!) popular science book that tracks multiple approaches to the study of human memory. This is not a dense, comprehensive scientific study, nor does it commit to giving any answers. In fact, Diving for Seahorses frequently points out that humans do not as of yet understand memory well enough to make any grand claims. Instead, the book charts different aspects of memory chapter by chapter, covering both anecdotes and scientific studies. It's a book that is on the one hand deeply scientific in its approach, but written smoothly and with a narrative cohesiveness that not all similarly structured science books have.

I enjoyed reading Diving for Seahorses from just about every perspective, whether in terms of learning about a scientific field that I'm not well versed in (confession: I have hated just about reference to neuroscience that I have ever had to study) or in terms of the reading process itself. While not especially comprehensive and occasionally reliant on anecdotes or studies that are tenuously defined (see previous confession), it's a fun, educational experience. Warmly recommended.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

WITMonth Day 8 | If you liked [X], read... women in translation!

Year after year, one of the biggest goals I have for WITMonth is to make it "big". As I've already mentioned, the vast majority of readers are not familiar with women in translation month (if that's you, hello! *waves*) and many English monolinguals admit that they haven't read more than a book or two by women writing in a language other than English. It's hard, when the market is dominated by English-language writers (overwhelmingly English or USian) and favors men writers.

But fret not! Even if you haven't had many opportunities to read books by women writers in translation until now, WITMonth is always your friend. Today, we're going to play a little game of "comparative recommendations". While this is definitely far from my favorite way to recommend books, the fact is that it can help guide us toward the sorts of books we might like!

So here we go. If you liked this other piece of art, maybe I can interest you in some women writers in translation?

Chernobyl ---- Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (tr. from Russian by Keith Gessen)


This should be a no-brainer - if you were entranced by a TV phenomenon that portrayed the horrors of the Chernobyl catastrophe, you will likely be as entranced - and horrified - by Voices from Chernobyl. Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories and this work is a pivotal (if brutal) account of Chernobyl and a must-read for anyone interested in the history.

The Tortall Books by Tamora Pierce ---- The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (tr. from Finland-Swedish by A. A. Prime)


Like your YA fantasy to be fantastically feminist? Don't mind if it gets a little gritty and real? If you grew up reading Tamora Pierce's fabulous Tortall books (beginning with Alanna: The First Adventure and continuing through to the Beka Cooper books and Tempests and Slaughter), the Red Abbey Chronicles is the series for you. An at-times dark but ultimately radically optimistic feminist series about an island sanctuary for women, Maresi starts things off with a bang and doesn't let up.

Planet Earth ---- Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (tr. from Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt)


If you love our planet (or Our Planet!) and love learning about the wild, weird, and wonderful creatures that inhabit it, Extraordinary Insects is the book for you. Full of fantastic facts, gorgeous sketches (even for people afraid of bugs!), and a clear love of the science, Extraordinary Insects is a joy to read and an excellent introduction to a world we too often ignore (and literally step on). 

Belle ---- Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet (tr. from French by Kaiama L. Glover)


Tired of historical dramas that portray history through a white-washed lens? While there are few plot similarities between Belle and Dance on the Volcano, the two stories often remind me of each other in their clear-eyed representation of life for mixed-race women in the late 18th century. In both stories, the main character seeks her independence, voice (literally in Dance on the Volcano's case!), and love... though this ends up unfolding very differently for the English Belle versus the Haitian Minette. 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ---- A True Novel by Minae Mizumura (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)


Another case of an indirect similarity, but one nonetheless: Here we have huge, at-times slow, complexly structured and deeply intricate historical narratives that hearken to older literary styles. Where The Luminaries is more of a purely historical work rooted in a specific period of New Zealand history, A True Novel sprawls over several decades and eras of Japanese history. And yet the two novels seem to ring with a similar tone. Both are remarkably written and structured; both are extraordinary literary works; both are intensely long books that do not remotely feel as such.

Fleabag ---- Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. from Spanish by Charlotte Coombe)


Fleabag's immense charm comes from the central character herself - at times abrasive, vaguely unappealing, vulnerable, ecstatic, and brutally open to the viewer. Fish Soup doesn't have quite the same individual hook (since it's a collection of several works), but the effect is similar. Many of the stories center on characters that are somewhat unlikable, yet appealing. The storytelling is largely straight-forward, yet striking. The writing is sharp and clever, with the overall effect that of a tightly controlled work... just like Fleabag is on the television screen.

That's all for now, folks! But of course, these are far from the only cases where you might compare a piece of popular culture (or literature!) to a lesser-known gem by a woman writer from around the world. What comparisons might you propose? Stay tuned (get it?) for more...!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

WITMonth Day 7 | The Court Dancer Kyung-sook Shin | Review

I don't know why I came into The Court Dancer with both high expectations the sense that I wouldn't like the book at all. True, I was mostly ambivalent about Shin's earlier novel Please Look After Mom (didn't love it, didn't really hate it like some other reviewers I admire; mostly forgot about its finer details), but that was almost five years ago. And honestly, I'd been craving historical fiction for months leading up to reading The Court Dancer. I was skeptical by the marketing (so many books have disappointed me this past year, after all...), but I was also excited. So there was that.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, that I did simply enjoy The Court Dancer - it swept me up in exactly that cliched book blurb way, it kept me hooked throughout, and it made me think. (I was not really expecting that last one.) In addition to its slice of Korean history (and specifically cultural history), I enjoyed the personal story and style. Here, I felt like Shin Kyung-sook's vaguely old-fashioned writing worked well for the story, ably translated by Anton Hur. I felt like the whole book was playing with perspective, but the quietly distant style through the eyes of a character who really doesn't speak/do much in-text ended up working for me in a surprising way.

This is a little bit of an unexpected novel: It's a book with a gentle, pastel veneer that has at its core deep, roaring issues like colonialism, racism, isolationism, and the blunt side of international affairs and politics. Its progression is at times bleak, refusing to whitewash Korean history. Indeed, I found the framing of the novel - an almost silent main character whose life follows rather than leads - quite fascinating in contrast to the way the book criticizes Western tendencies to romanticize Korea and Korean women in particular.

Jin - our titular court dancer - is perhaps often unheard, but she is far from a character with no agency. Quiet as she may be, much as the story at times feels like it happens around her rather than from her, Jin emerges as someone I felt I could understand. Her loyalty, her strength, her defeat - all these felt more tangible than her beauty or stated talents (regardless how often these were mentioned...). In fact, I disliked how perfect Jin's external image remained, even as we readers see her internal conflicts.

The book is at its strongest when it deal in politics and culture. The Court Dancer has quite a bit to say about Western involvement in East Asian countries, not shying away from critiquing Jin's lover Victor (the local French legate, who falls in love with Jin), nor her new home of France once she arrives there. Jin struggles with her status as Victor's exotic "wife" (though he does not actually legally marry her), as well as her identity as a Korean woman in France. These shape a lot of the conflict in the second half of the book. 

Shin also hones in on Korea's status as a pawn in the larger regional political games from the period, whether in referencing France's ambivalence about Korea itself (rather than its vested interest in China and Japan), Japan's military influences, or internal political machinations within the Korean court. If you (like me) did not have a solid understanding of late 19th century Korean history, you might find that there are many details and references in The Court Dancer that don't always make all that much plot sense, but seem part of a larger picture. The book gained multiple dimensions once I began reading more about this period of Korean history. This actually made me appreciate The Court Dancer and Shin's writing more, particularly in the way that Shin's references made me want to read and learn more. Rather than feeling disconnect, I emerged feeling newly enlightened.

The story's pacing is solid, the writing is (as I've already mentioned) suitably old-fashioned, and there is plenty to unpack beneath the surface. There are a few things that frustrated/angered me quite a bit, though: I deeply disliked the romance between Jin and Victor (which was not remotely romantic, and indeed at times seemed explicitly framed to make me dislike it?). Jin is also frequently objectified by those around her, which while understandable in the context of the story that The Court Dancer is trying to tell, felt a little too thickly laid for my taste. Her character occasionally came too close to simply being a passive prop, particularly when seen through Victor's eyes. These are not minor quibbles, either, as they end up taking up a good deal of the book. While the story ultimately does give a lot more volume to Jin herself, the constant shifts to Victor's perspective felt like it was undoing the rest of the novel's work. All in all, I enjoyed the book more than I expected to - it seemed to fit exactly where I needed it to at exactly the right time.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

WITMonth Day 6 | Stats (part 1) | Let's do things a little differently...

The annual stats posts have become a WITMonth fixture. While I haven't written stats for every single year since 2014, stats are typically among the most popular of my August posts and the ones that people find most useful in understanding why we need a month dedicated to promoting women in translation. The truth is, though, I've started to feel that the stats as I've presented them until now have only given part of the picture. People have often - rightfully! - asked me how things were changing, and whether I'm pleased with the gradual yearly upticks. And it's true, the numbers are increasing! In some cases, the situation is even increasing at a surprising and thoroughly heartening rate, as you'll soon see. It seemed unnecessary to rehash the same things as last year.

I decided to do two things a little bit differently this year. First, this post uses a different methodology for data collection than previous years and has a much more limited scope. The next stats installations will also focus on a new language (not English!!!) for the first time, but we'll get there. For now, let's take a brief look at women in translation through a very specific lens: What happens when we include all of those books that until now have been excluded? What happens if we... do things a little differently?

Until now, the methodology for these stats posts has been fairly simple: I've worked using the marvelous Three Percent database (formerly at that website, now hosted by Publisher's Weekly) and worked within the confines of their database's definitions. That is, it looked at first-time translations of fiction and poetry. Wonderful as it is, I've long felt that there must be something missing in that extra data. What happens when you factor in children's literature? Is nonfiction still dominated by men writers? How do reissues feed into existing biases?

There were things I simply wouldn't be able to find out by working with an existing database, and so I decided to start building a list of my own and looking at catalogs directly. The purpose was never to have something truly encompassing or all-defining, rather to get a stronger feel for publisher catalogs and the status of women in translation across different publishers. It also meant that I was very loose about which publishers I selected, largely disregarding regional constraints (i.e., I looked at both US and UK publishers). For this reason, it's very important for me to note that this year's methodology is not scientific or necessarily the "full" picture in the same way as might have been in previous years. Publishers were chosen through my personal choice, as well as ease of data collection. These stats are meant to reflect, not to define.

So! Disclaimers aside, let's dive into what I found...

We'll start with the good news: Things are improving! I checked several publishers who had previously displayed poor rates of publishing women in translation and found some surprisingly positive stats. Take New Directions, for example. New Directions is a publishers that had a gently upward trending rate over five years of data, but they were one of few publishers who responded last year with surprise at their low rates and a pledge to do better. While this year's data obviously reflects books that were already in the pipeline, the leap is huge - from not-quite reaching the 30% rate in 2018, New Directions' 2019 catalog (best as I can tell) is perfectly balanced, with 10 books by men and 10 books by women (in translation, of course). These include, as I mentioned earlier, both nonfiction and reissued works. Even with categories that we may assume are more likely to favor men writers (and I'll elaborate on this at a later time), we see that New Directions actually landed on perfect parity.

Other "never-quite-there" publishers also managed to up their games. Open Letter, almost perpetually with one book more by men than by women, finally shifted their balance to publish more women than men in 2019. Europa Editions came as close as possible to their 2015 parity, with a one book difference between men and women in translation. And FSG, one of the big-name publishers that has long been solidly dominated by men-writers, came surprisingly close to 50% as well. I also tossed in some independent British publishers like Charco Press or Fitzcarraldo Editions, and found that they did fairly well in terms of their gender balance, with Charco over 50% and Fitzcarraldo just under. If we were to include AmazonCrossing, the heavyweight champion of women in translation, I'm certain the overall picture would look very rosy. In general, the fact that there have been shifts in specific, previously disappointing publishers is wonderful news and I do not want that lost in what I'm going to write next. So let me reiterate: Things are getting better!

And yet.

Part of the reason I opted for this new analysis methodology was to get a better sense of the nuances behind the data. Knowing that the average publication rate for women writers in translation is going up is brilliant, but it's also, still, only part of the picture. While certain publishers are improving, which aren't? Are there certain fields or genres that remain particularly hostile to women writers? How can we begin to fix those? Where do we need to be looking?

I started by looking at publishers that I feel sit on the bubble of disappointment - definitely not great, but also not as bad some others. (High praise, indeed.) Take Pushkin Press, for example. If we take its combined catalogs (children's imprint alongside adult), we have reasonable 39% translation rate. Not bad! But if we split the two catalogs (and indeed, that's how Pushkin themselves market the books), we see that the children's imprint (which includes both kidlit and YA) tilts the playing field, with the latter imprint at a 60% and the adult at 32%. It's worth noting that Pushkin Children has certain series that may be contributing that 60%, though of course this may be a recurring theme - I'll need to collect more data to be certain. Another note: one of the Pushkin Press catalogs I sampled (representing different seasons) had near balance and the other had a sharp 2:12 ratio, which seems to suggest that there is no targeted effort on the part of the publisher. Again, something worth tracking.  

Another disappointment was a publisher I looked at for the first time: MacLehose Press. This is one of the more prominent and well-respected British literature-in-translation publishing houses, yet they sit at a not-great 26% women in translation rate. (It's telling, I think, that I call 26% "not-great"; after all, when the base rate has hovered between 28-31% for the past 5 years, that's a pretty reasonable stat, isn't it?) (No.)

One of the more personally frustrating stats came from NYRB. While it has an overall higher rate than MacLehose, for example (at almost 30%), it's disappointing given that they were positively receptive to the problem last year (again, see this post). My hope is that this is a delay bias (in terms of works already in the pipeline) and that we'll see higher numbers from NYRB in the near future. In the meantime, it's more of the same. Here at least, like with Pushkin, we see some benefit from the inclusion of a children's literature imprint... but not much of one. Graphic novels don't seem to shift things much in either direction, perhaps because there aren't many overall.

And then. Then things start to get infuriating. 

...to be continued. (Graphs to follow in the next post!)

Monday, August 5, 2019

WITMonth Day 5 | Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi | Review

Jokha Alharthi's Man Booker International winner Celestial Bodies (tr. Marilyn Booth) is an odd and special book, made odder by my own expectations of it. Not that these expectations came out of nowhere - this is another example of a book with a thoroughly misleading book cover blurb and marketing effort from almost all readers. From the marketing, the book casts itself as the story of three sisters whose love lives reflect societal changes in Oman over the 20th century. It's quite simple/standard, isn't it?

As interesting a summary as that may be, it sorely undersells the modernist, vaguely experimental, extremely nonlinear techniques that Celestial Bodies utilizes to tell its story. Little about this book is particularly standard, nor does it play to reader expectations all that much, despite how the marketing may spin it. (And what I've found fascinating is also how many other readers seem to have embraced this interpretation of the text, even though the book is... really not that.)

I've struggled to write my own summary of Celestial Bodies that doesn't feel similarly inaccurate. Is this truly a cultural history, or is it simply a story that encompasses within it 2-3 generations? Does describing societal changes really make it a book about society? Is it a family epic simply because it is largely focused on one family (and its offshoots)? None of the traditional phrases used to describe books feel entirely right. The best I could come up with was "a story told in a nonlinear style, tracking deep emotional divides of its characters". Ah yes, that's helpful! (Not.)

Part of the problem is that Celestial Bodies just doesn't follow the traditional, expected norms of "first woman writer from [insert country] to be translated into English"... which of course is not its fault at all. We've (wrongly) grown to assume that "firsts" serve as encompassing cultural introductions, plus the very concept of "first"s is fraught with issues. While Celestial Bodies can certainly teach quite a bit and sell itself on that front, that's just not what it's doing on a literary level. The story isn't straight-forward and designed to be easy reading; it switches narrators, perspective, and focus easily and quickly. Moreover, its nonlinear storytelling plays with memory and perspective in ways that constantly challenge the reader. The book feels thoroughly modernist in parts, with its contrast between the very structured narration of some characters versus the loose style of others. It's a novel that feels like it carries within it so much more than appears on the surface, even as it remains accessible to most readers. Thus it emerges an odd novel for its simultaneously standard story (...no, but really... is it, though?) and its very non-standard storytelling style.

From a plot/story perspective, Celestial Bodies doesn't have all that much. It's not the sort of book that will leave you feeling wholly satisfied upon its ending. The story feels more like layers peeling back than anything direct. It's also very imbalanced in terms of characters and narration; not all characters are equal in the novel. And to take it a step further, it turns out the story is less women-focused than its framing suggests. The stories are heavily reliant on each other and feed into each other in unique ways in terms of character interactions, but the most consistent narrator turns out to be Abdallah (the second narrator in the book, who even gets his own font in the Sandstone Press edition), with a loose, out-of-time story that seems to connect most of the other stories. So there's another point against the marketing.

On top of that, the three sisters touted as the main characters? We don't actually get to know all three to the same degree. We end up learning far more about the oldest, Mayya, than either Asma or Khawla; Khawla in particular is relegated to the margins of the story and never develops into her own whole character. Asma's story begins fairly strongly, but essentially gets cut off the moment she starts to have children, effectively finishing within the space of a few lines and never getting full closure. It was a startling decision - clever, perhaps from a storytelling perspective, but ultimately disconcerting.

These all added to the odd feeling that the book left me with. Nonlinear... sure. I liked that. But the fact that some characters get totally rushed conclusions (or have sidelined arcs to begin with) left me fairly cold. It's hard to feel for a character that just exists in the background. Unfortunately, Celestial Bodies occasionally feels like it wants to be more far-reaching than it is, as such forgetting the characters that it already has. It sprawls in a way that seems more suited to a book three times its size, on the one hand making me want more and technically appreciating the novel, and on the other hand... deeply frustrating me.

But there's a lot more to Celestial Bodies. Again, to counter some of the marketing, while it very much exists in the context of Oman's history and cultural shifts, it's not really about that. It's not written to exoticize or perform changes in Oman's society, they simply are. (Which is a nice change from many Western perspectives on "exotic"/unfamiliar countries and goodness do I dislike those sorts of stories...) This means that on the one hand, the book doesn't explain a lot of background/context (and shouldn't have to!), but on the other hand... it also feels like there are nuances I will never quite understand. Which is definitely neither a point against the book nor in favor of it, simply an observation.

Which leaves me with this review. I realize that until now, I have mostly focused on the things that bothered me. This review sounds like I didn't like the book, and that's really not the case - I enjoyed Celestial Bodies overall, found it interesting, and can easily recommend it to a lot of readers. That said. false advertising is obviously not the fault of the novel itself, but it's hard to shake off the effect that it had on my reading. I actually liked a lot about the book, whether the unique style, the way it challenged my expectations, its intelligence, and its clear-sighted approach to writing about cultural changes. I also liked many of the characters and the way that the story felt like it flowed between them. And yet I came away from the book feeling somewhat... cheated is maybe too strong a word, but I'm not sure what else works. Again, it's not the novel's fault, but I came into the story with certain expectations (from the publishers and marketing, specifically) that were not met. And within the novel itself, I felt like there just wasn't enough - at just under 250 pages, this isn't a particularly long book. It left me wanting more, both in terms of those underdeveloped characters and in terms of fully understanding how the stories that did exist fit together.

Wanting more isn't necessarily a bad thing. Here, it mostly washed for me: I was already somewhat dissatisfied by the framing, which meant that I was ready to be disappointed by something else. Ultimately, I wish I could read Celestial Bodies again with fresh eyes. I wish I could erase the perception that the misleading back cover blurb instilled in me and just enjoy the book for it is - a clever, intelligent story that does a lot of brilliant work within its pages. It doesn't have to be more than that. For most readers, the experience was just those positives and I totally understand that. I find myself maybe a little cooler on the book itself than some other readers, but also able to give a warm recommendation: This is very much a book worth reading. But it might help to know what you're (not) getting.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

WITMonth Day 4 | How do (and should) we argue about WITMonth's validity? | Thoughts

It's happened a few times in recent days: Someone will respond - snarkily, at times even cruelly - to a passionate, excited post that talks about why women in translation is important. The man (for it is, almost inevitably, a man) will proceed to declare the project useless. Perhaps the project is sexist? Or perhaps it is, simply, an annoying insistence on being PC. An obsession with feminism. An obsession with gender.

To be perfectly honest, it had been years since I'd last gotten snarky, trolling remarks. It's actually rather surprising, since there were quite a few in the early days of the women in translation movement. In those early days, I frequently found myself at the receiving end of angry denunciations by (again, inevitably) men who insisted that literature must be judged by pure merit alone and that a project such as mine would ruin literature forever. Or something. The claims have now become a little more complex, with the suggestion that I am somehow "demeaning to [...] women" (yes, that's a direct quote) by virtue of hosting WITMonth, or the man who snottily commented that he was tired of the "obsession with gender" and "nobody is trying to claim that women don't know how to write".

Here's what I find so fascinating about these two comments in particular:

1. Both attempt to reframe their criticism in a "feminist" light. One did so explicitly, suggesting that women in translation is, at its core, sexist and demeaning to women. (Again, those were... literally the words used.) We are supposed to sympathize, ultimately, with the person fighting for women's rights, and against those who would demean women, isolate them, or sequester them. It's a valid argument in a certain light, assuming you ignore all of history, our current cultural context, oh and also the literal facts by which women writers are still woefully underrepresented in translation. But you know. Feminism!

In the second example, the criticism assumes that the entire argument in favor of women writers (at all, ever!) is void. Nobody has ever, ever in the history of literature claimed that women aren't good writers! (I wrote this sentence intending to pull up all the quotes from, like, just Nobel winners alone, but the idea frankly exhausted me so I've decided not to include it. If anyone is reading this and doubts the veracity of my sarcasm, just Google it, I'm done doing all your work for you.) Here, I am effectively making up an issue. J. K. Rowling, he continues, is one of the best-selling writers of all time! Nobody doubts her. (Except... her publishers, who had her publish using initials rather than her full, clearly feminine name. Also, she herself, when the time came to write a second series under a fully masculine pen name.) "If the book is good," he writes, "we read it. What does it matter if a man or a woman wrote it?" Once again, the suggestion is that I - or other feminists - are creating a gendered divide where there originally was none. Thus: He is the true feminist!

It's an odd and interesting shift from the blunt "maybe women just don't write as well as men" arguments I got in 2014. (Wait, I thought nobody had ever made those arguments...?) It's something worth thinking about...

2. Neither men were willing to engage in calm discourse. In the first case, the man who called my work "demeaning to women" was, in fact, explicitly tagging me in a post I otherwise would not have had any reason to notice. He deliberately called my attention to his remark. And this could have been fine, if not for the fact that just one week earlier, this same person tweeted at me that my work was useless and I should turn my efforts to... unpublished books. (No, I still don't understand what he wanted from me, since I'm not sure how I'm supposed to assess the status of works that... haven't... been... published...) At the time, I responded (politely, if a bit curtly) that I did not find my work useless, would not be able to do whatever it was he was suggesting, and would be happy to explain why I felt that my work is useful. If he was interested.

There was no response, until the aforementioned tag a week later.

In the second case, I also bit my tongue. The post on which he was commenting was a link to an interview I had given, in which I had explicitly answered the "why do we need this" question in great detail. He had, quite obviously, not clicked the link and not read the interview. More than that, the quote in question was literally in the post itself, as the person who shared it had decided to use that as a hook for readers. I again - politely - explained why we deal with this (refusing to use his "obsessive" phrasing), linked to some of my statistics, and offered to answer any more questions if he had them.

There was no response.

And here's where I get to the point of this long, rambling blog post. Relatively speaking, I have been blessed with fairly few interactions with trolls, sexist or otherwise. But when someone does come along with these sorts of critiques, my first instinct is always to respond. I responded plenty in WITMonth's early, more troll-filled days and I found that some readers truly changed and grew. Some simply decided that this wasn't for them... and that's fine! If you don't want to take part in WITMonth, literally nobody is forcing you to. This is the thing that surprises me most: Today, they no longer respond back. People comment sharply, angrily at times, often rudely... and that's it. They've said their part. It doesn't matter if I carefully craft my response, defending my work or suggesting that we have a deeper conversation. They're out. Oh, yes, they might tag me again a week later to say how terrible I am, but there's no room for a discussion.

That is a problem.

So here we are, after all this preamble. How do we fix the fact that there are those who simply aren't interested in having this discussion? I don't just mean random men on the internet, either. (Sorry, menfolk, for how poorly this blog post paints you! I know you're not all bad.) I also mean publishers. How does one have an open discussion with a publishing house that consistently publishes abysmal rates of women in translation, but then refuse to respond to messages, emails, or tweets that address this? How do we engage in calm discourse with those who repeatedly insist that our work is useless, sexist, or harmful? And more importantly - do we need to have that discussion with those who have made it abundantly clear that they don't want to? Why force it?

I'll be perfectly honest: I loathe the modern-internet thing of one-directional insults. I won't pretend that I haven't on occasion also taken part in it, but it's something I quite regret doing and have tried to reign in. I firmly believe that humanity needs to be able to have these discussions, to learn from each other and to understand the others' view. With each of these critiques, there are grains of truth that I don't necessarily disagree with. It shouldn't matter what an author's gender is, man woman or otherwise! We shouldn't have to define "women in translation" and single them out for WITMonth! But we unfortunately do not yet live in a world where I feel we can make those claims, and I believe I am capable of convincingly explaining that, if I were given the chance.

I want to be able to have those conversations, but I also feel that there is little point in chasing after those who have no desire to actually discuss. Then again, I also feel that we must have these conversations - if some of the most prominent publishers of literature in translation are still at ~20% rates of women in translation, isn't it about time we sat down and had a talk? What other option do we have?

What do you think?

Saturday, August 3, 2019

WITMonth Day 3 | Disoriental by Négar Djavadi | Review

I won't pretend that I didn't warm to Disoriental more slowly than I was expecting. Négar Djavadi's novel (translated from French by Tina Kovar) was hyped up for me to such an intense degree that I was extremely hesitant to begin reading it. How does one go about reading a novel that everyone has loved, knowing that you always end up with opposing opinions? This time, I can safely say that I did not emerge with a contrary opinion. While it took me about 100 pages to really get into the rhythm of Disoriental, once I did it was hard for me to get out. The book builds slowly, but it builds, pulsing through until a thoroughly satisfying ending.
Reading Disoriental at a rainbowed Grand Canyon

Disoriental tells multiple stories at once, but I'm not sure it's quite the story that the publisher blurb advertises. In fact, I again find myself wondering who wrote the blurb and to what end. The suggestion that this book is a sort of wide-reaching epic, told from Kimiâ's perspective ends up feeling off. Not that Disoriental isn't a wide-reaching story, but Kimiâ - unnamed for a significant portion of the story - hardly features in its first half. As we alternate between Kimiâ's stories of her family history and her own vague, at-present presence in a fertility clinic (why? how old is Kimiâ? where is her partner?), we get a fairly deep exploration of Iran's history and culture.

The imbalance in the narrative is probably what threw me off at first. Last year, I read an Israeli novel מטבעות הזהב של סנובר חנום (roughly translated as Sanober Khanum's Gold Coins), which is a multi-generational story of a Jewish-Iranian family, spanning their origins in northern Iran to their migration to Tehran, and then their relocation to the US, the UK, and Israel. I liked the book a lot and the synopsis of Disoriental definitely reminded me of that novel. Disoriental's opening - mostly historical, distant, written in a deeply reflective style - made me feel like the book was just a little too similar. The writing was good, but it didn't quite mesh. The mysterious initial narration (who is Kimiâ?) made me feel like the book was missing something, not that it was building to something.

But Djavadi proves to be a far more capable writer than that. Indeed, Disoriental achieves that rare feat of growing so precisely that it neither feels like the shift came out of the blue, nor that it never actually lifted off. What's fascinating is that Disoriental is not a thriller by any means, it is simply... thrilling. While Djavadi leaves certain things unspoken until much later in the book (and I use that word deliberately, since it soon emerges that these are not exactly mysteries...), the revelations don't end up feeling like too much of a statement or a process. Kimiâ tells her story differently in different parts, which at first feels like a writing flaw, but soon emerges as one of the more effective means of storytelling at Djavadi's disposal.

Disoriental does a lot. Alongside its family epic (of a sort), it is still a mildly political novel, even as it also... isn't. Of course any novel that writes about Iranian exiles is inherently political, and yet that is never the focus of Djavadi's story. As the narrative jumps backwards and forwards through time, through loops and Kimiâ's meandering thoughts, a small piece of Iran's history does emerge. Sort of. At times. In pieces. (This is something that Kimiâ herself muses about, the nature of political stories and what makes a certain story inherently political. It's a topic that I tried to write about during WITMonth a few years back and I found myself practically punching the book in excitement as I read it in-text.

If the first part of Disoriental is very heavy on Kimiâ's family history, part two insists on making sure we know who exactly we're dealing with. Here, we learn about Kimiâ's own personal history, her childhood, her relationship with her parents and sisters, and her outlook on life. We learn about why she is in the fertility clinic (I prefer to leave this part vague, because I was actually unaware of the reason and quite enjoyed the gentle build until this question was answered). We also learn about the Event that Kimiâ's references throughout part one, the massive, life-changing event that reshaped her life and that of her family. And while it's sort of easy to guess what the Event might be and feeling like it'll just end up being another event that vaguely disappoints (as many of those earth-shaking central mysteries in novels often do), Djavadi surprises by not leaving the mystery ongoing for too long, nor by treating it as something it isn't. Its effect, after all, is focused on Kimiâ herself, creating a far more intimate effect than I expected.

This is how the book builds, and build it does. Even with two clearly defined parts (Kimiâ gently mocks the B-side, which details her story), it never feels like the story shifts in a dramatic way. Kimiâ's narration in particular keeps the story well-grounded and I grew to love her voice. By the time we actually get to know her properly, I felt deeply invested in her life and emotional state. As the second half gently shifts gears, I almost didn't notice how much I cared. It's at the novel's end that it suddenly hit me that I was all in. Which is a fairly effective way to tell a story, if we're going to be honest about it.

That's how all of Disoriental feels - effective. It's not a particularly long book, but it achieves so much, whether in terms of its storytelling technique or its character building or its use of omission and tension. The books works on so many levels by its end, I genuinely felt like I wanted to share it with a dozen more readers. And so I finish this review on that note: This is a wonderful book, well worth your time. Even if you start off a little rocky, like I did. Trust me: It's absolutely worth the journey.

Friday, August 2, 2019

WITMonth Day 2 | Here we go again...

One of the first things I remember thinking when people starting asking about a second year for WITMonth was, "Wow, I hope that someday we won't need this". When I first started this project, I kept feeling like it would all be fixed within a year or two. Publishers would immediately notice their bias, everyone would get up in arms, and that's it, no more problem!

So here we are. August 2019. WITMonth year 6.

It's hard to deny that this project has grown from year to year. I have a variation on this exact post for pretty much every one of the past few years, because... it's surprised me every time! A few more translators, a few more writers, a bunch more blogger, and a whole lot more readers. We grow from year to year in the most wonderful way, with publishers taking part and bookstores organizing events and readers hosting readathons and so on. These are all excellent signs that we're moving in the right direction when it comes to giving women in translation the proper space they deserve in our literary consciousness.

And yet. And yet...

We're here because we still need to be. Literature in translation remains shockingly niche in the English-speaking world. Most English-language readers are still hard-pressed to name more than one or two books they've read by women writers in translation, and readers from around the world are similarly stumped when they try to find many non-Anglo women writers. And honestly, it's okay if you haven't had the chance to read many books by women writers in translation, it's not trivial, they're too often not part of the canon (though of course, we'll be getting to that a bit more in depth later in the month), and they're rarely the ones given center stage in either the major literary reviews or on the shiny "new releases" table at your local bookstore. (Not to mention certain online retailers...)

That's part of why we still have WITMonth, to be honest. It's still a struggle to explain to my real-world friends what this project is, and there is still a major awareness gap between those who spend a lot of time in these literary circles and those who are, perhaps, more "casual" readers. This is a gap I'd like to see bridged and I think that as the years go by, it becomes smaller. More and more readers are finding WITMonth through different platforms and means. It's truly wonderful.

But there's another part, the one that I'm always a little uncomfortable pointing out. And that's that the main reason we still have WITMonth is because progress has been crushingly slow in certain regards. No matter how much I hope that this will be the year that publisher [fill in the blank] will take part or message back or acknowledge their bias, it never is. More than that, the bias still exists. As you'll see a little later in the month, I did something a little bit differently with the women in translation statistics this year, trying to widen the lens a little bit (while also narrowing the scope somewhat). I won't get into too many details now (spoilers!), but there's a lot to be hopeful for in the data, and a lot that disappoints.

The truth is that we do still need to give this extra space to women writers in translation, because the default remains (dishearteningly) masculine. More than that, we need to give space to the discussion. We need to be able to talk about why it is that certain biases exist, how it is that certain things are changing for the better (and they absolutely are!), and where it is we want to ultimately end up. WITMonth, more than anything, is our chance to try to understand what it means to support women in translation. What it means to take part in this project in the first place.

Here we go again...

Thursday, August 1, 2019

WITMonth Day 1 | Year six!!!


It's the first of August and that means... WITMonth! WITMonth has arrived!

Every year brings with it something new and miraculous and 2019 will be no different. This year sees new readers joining the party on a multitude of different platforms: We've got friends on Twitter (*waves*), Instagram, Youtube, hopefully some discussions on Goodreads, Facebook, and more. And it's not just the internet, either. As there have been in the past few years, there are plenty of lovely bookstore or library displays going up in various countries around the world. Many magazines are featuring women writers in translation this month (sidebar: if you can read Hebrew, feel free to check out this interview with me!) and also discussing the matter. Publishers have discounts and giveaways on their websites and social media. Translators are promoting their works, readers are sharing their TBRs, and the #WITMonth tag is getting busy.

But wait, there's more!

This year, I'm organizing the "100 Best Women in Translation". The project (as mentioned in my last post) seeks to create a new canon. Rather than sticking with the tired, repetitive, and frankly not-that-great canon of straight, white, Anglo men, this is our chance - and I use the term "our" very deliberately! - to craft something a little different. Of course this list cannot be a definitive women-in-translation canon, but it can come close! Readers have been sharing their top 10 picks for the past month. The list is now just over 500 titles long, with almost 900 votes. Readers are encouraged to vote for their top 10 and share with as many other readers as possible, so that we get the most inclusive list possible! More than that, the list also eschews the "in translation" part of our challenge, but not the internationalism; any book written by a woman (or trans or nonbinary or intersex) writer in a language other than English (whether or not it has been translated into English or other languages!) is eligible. The final 100-strong list will be published shortly after the August 25th deadline, but all nominated titles will eventually be published as well, and I'll be discussing some aspects of the project throughout the month. (But no spoilers! The idea is for readers to come up with their favorites, with as little bias as possible.) See the official details below, or this video.


There's also the annual new releases database, which can be a useful resource for anyone looking for new books to read this month or throughout the year. Last year's list can be found here. I'll also be posting all sorts of recommendation lists and so on throughout the month, so keep an eye out, but in the meantime you can check out the various genre-specific lists I prepared last year.

This year will also seem some new projects. Rather than the standard statistics as published in years past, I've been working on compiling data from a wider range of publishers this year including all works in translation, regardless genre. As you all probably know, I respect the Three Percent database like nothing else (formerly here, now here), but its focus on first-time translations and fiction/poetry only does limit the degree to which we can fully assess the status of women in translation in English. This year's data will hopefully clarify some of the longstanding questions about how prevalent the women in translation problem really is.

I'm also expanding the statistics to something very new and different. Later this month, I hope to publish the first Hebrew-language author gender breakdown. While this analysis is also limited in as much as it covers only one language/country (and select publishers within it), I've found some pretty interesting things in the data and am looking forward to sharing it with you all.

I've got a few more ideas for WITMonth, but I'll hold off on them for now... don't want to ruin all the surprises. For now... sit back, relax, and... WITMonth!