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...)

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