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.

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