Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WITMonth 2020 | Preparations and my reading plan

August approaches, and while some things are the same, others are going to be different this year, for me at least. Since last year's "100 Best WIT" list, I've found myself thinking about the ethnic and racial disparities in WIT quite a bit. As I wrote in March, "Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be."

WITMonth has always been about inclusion. The first ever WITMonth in 2014 divided the month by regions or topics as an optional reader schedule. In retrospect, it was far from a perfect balance, lumping Asia, Africa, and Oceania together, but it was my first attempt at defining the women in translation movement as something that could not simply exist within the (white) borders of Europe. Over the years, I've tried to make a point to include or emphasize works by marginalized women writers of all sorts, whether it's in discussing country of origin, ethnic background, genre, etc. I've discussed the cultural/racial imbalances in translation more broadly, noting the strong Eurocentricity. I've tried to do my part, but that isn't always enough.

This year, I've decided to approach WITMonth a little differently than usual. While I recognize that I can't control how others view it, I can control what I do with it. I will continue to share other people's posts on works by all manner of women writers in translation, but I - for my part - will be focusing specifically on women writers from those countries, continents, subcontinents, and cultures that are too often brushed aside. The past few weeks have only strengthened this decision.

Coming from outside the Anglosphere myself, it is increasingly difficult to justify how and why certain books and writers are far more heavily promoted than others. As the #publishingpaidme has clearly demonstrated over the past few days, the English-language publishing industry is far from balanced even in English itself. While this will likely not be news to anyone, the fact is that Black writers are often paid significantly less than white writers, even when their works have proven themselves or they themselves show tremendous promise. The tag has led to spinoff discussions about racism within the publishing industry at large, ranging from conversations about racist assumptions regarding authors of color (e.g. that works need to be a certain way in order to fit the racial expectations) to flatly racist remarks by white publicists or sales teams to the racially biased power structures in publishing that effectively keep out many potential editors or publishers of color.

These conversations are pivotal, and they are pivotal within the context of translation as well. Here too there is a striking problem of racial imbalance, particularly among translators and publishers. Here too there are countless instances of bias against translators of color. Here too there are rampant assumptions about how works from certain countries or regions or cultures should be packaged for (predominantly white) "Western" audiences. It's an odd balance; I've often written about the difficulty in reading a book that doesn't feel geared to you as a reader, but it's also critical that we learn to read in these different cultural languages. It's just a matter of exposure and familiarity.

Reading is political, no matter what you may believe. Reading books by US-based women of color is as political a choice as only reading books by dead white European or English men. Every choice we make reflects politics in one form or other. Reading women in translation - reading women internationally - is a political choice.

For me, it's long meant an attempt to read as broadly as possible. "Reading the World" challenges don't feel to me like checklists I have to follow, rather they feel like doorways into new worlds. The more I read from other places, the more I'm able to learn without it being an explicit lesson or demanding anything of the writing as a foreign reader. I've learned to feel specific writing styles that are unique to certain literary cultures, and I hope to continue doing so in a way that respects these stories. This is also true for writers within "familiar" cultural contexts whose experiences shape their writing in unique and important ways (e.g. writers of color within dominantly white cultures, queer writers, etc.). Yes, it can often be viewed as "educational", but it's also a joy from the literary perspective. We should not hold up works by marginalized writers to a different standard than we would the so-called-and-very-much-not "default" straight white USian man...

WITMonth 2020 will begin in August as in previous years, and I intend to spend my time recognizing that good literature spans the entire globe. Recognizing that though they face extraordinary degrees of marginalization and dismissal, black women writers in translation have a lot to say from across several continents. So too Indigenous women writers in translation. Women in translation from across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. Women from all sorts of backgrounds. Here and there and everywhere.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The rewards of men (on the backs of women)?

The fallout from the most recent batch of Pulitzer Prize winners has been slow and painful to watch. No, I'm not talking about politics, rather the award given to editor, writer, and translator Benjamin Moser, for his biography of Susan Sontag.

As many of you probably already know, I don't belong to the world of publishing or translating or literature at all. This blog (and associated social media accounts) are all I have when it comes to "associating" with the literary world. I've never met Benjamin Moser and until I started writing this post, I had no idea what he looked like or his age (I assumed, incorrectly, that he was much older and more established than he is, which reveals quite a bit more about my assumptions than anything about Moser himself) or really much about him. My closest interaction with him, you might say, is that I read (and deeply did not enjoy) his translation of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star. I have also spent the past several years working my way through Lispector's Complete Stories (tr. Katrina Dodson), a book that Moser edited and for which he wrote the introduction.

Allow me to linger on this latter work for a moment, both because I like it so much more than The Hour of the Star and because it leads to the point of this post. One of the first things I noticed when I perused Complete Stories was that quote by Gregory Rabassa in the author description: "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf". I remember the quote viscerally, because it thoroughly disturbed me. What sort of quote is that? And why was it included alongside other praise of Lispector as the greatest Brazilian writer of all times or a splendid writer or whatever? Setting aside the sexism of Rabassa's individual statement (though it is hard not to pause and reflect on how the statement is offensive from multiple perspectives), there is an important question to be asked in terms of perpetuating this sexism. Did this otherwise slick New Directions hardcover really need that quote? The answer is a clear no. There was absolutely no need to include a sexist quote in this edition. Shouldn't a series editor catch that sort of thing...? Later, it even began to bother me that the cover image simply focuses on Lispector's face. On the front, we have piercing eyes, on the spine, her mouth, on the back cover her hand resting under her neck. It's all extraordinarily striking, but I can hardly imagine Julio Cortázar, for example, having a cover like that. Sexist? Questionable. Unsettling? Definitely.

The truth is, I thought little of the editorial decisions for Complete Stories or the Lispector literary universe (LLU, naturally) until reading Magdalena Edwards' essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. The essay spent quite a bit of time making the rounds in the translated literature community, with many translators taking Edwards' side and others raising (both privately and publicly) their own issues with Moser. In the essay, Edwards lays out her troubled experience translating Lispector's The Chandelier under Moser's editorial pen. Beyond what seems to be numerous cases of miscommunication between editor and translator, Edwards was eventually downgraded to co-translator (with her name appearing after Moser's) and left bemused by Moser's involvement in the project overall. As she writes: "The truth is that Moser tried to get me fired, arguing that my completed manuscript was not up to snuff, that my level of Portuguese was insufficient, and that he would have to rewrite every line of my translation. What happened?" The remainder of the essay tries to argue that there was a lot more than simply a quality argument between Moser and Edwards (and it is worth noting that Edwards doesn't mention anything about how the final translation looked compared to her original work), rather that Moser has a persistent - indeed, pervasive - aloof and possessive attitude towards women writers, scholars, and translators.

I cannot - and will not - make any claims to knowing the truth in Edwards and Moser's interactions, though it does leave me with many questions. But Edwards raises several points in her essay that made me revisit my initial discomfort in Complete Stories. More than the inclusion of Rabassa's sexist quote, I found myself flipping through the introduction of Complete Stories yet again and marveling at quiet, almost invisible sexist threads. For instance, Moser writes: "Traditionally "female" subjects - marriage and motherhood, kids and clothes - had, of course, been treated before. They are all here. But alongside them the little dramas of women's lives gain expression, sometimes for the first time[...]" Moser then goes on to list some of these "little dramas", including the shock value of reading stories about older women (and particularly, older women's sexuality).

While I don't disagree with the latter point, I struggle to swallow the condescension in the first. Moser is writing about women's lives as a uniform, minor experience, with any exceptions counting as "women's lives gain[ing] expression". Even use of the term "little dramas" sets my teeth on edge. Motherhood and marriage are little dramas? Only certain women can rescue these subjects? It's a literary trope that I simply loathe, the idea that women's writing only gains value through certain works and styles. (This is also the second half of what bothers me about Rabassa's quote, for the record, because I don't think it's a coincidence that he compares Lispector to Woolf, another rare woman writer who has graciously been allowed to belong to the men's club as a non-traditional woman writer and therefore one worth reading. A topic for a separate post...)

This sort of reframing of Lispector's writing and repositioning of her work as a woman writer isn't just frustrating as a feminist reader and champion of women in translation. It's also reflective of a pattern. Part of it is the trope I just mentioned, but the other has to do with Moser himself. Edwards' essay is precisely about this pattern of behavior, ranging from accusations of conceptually leaning heavily on Lispector's Portuguese-language biographer Nádia Gotlib's book (leading, as a commenter on the LARB blog notes, to her work effectively being "redundant" in translation due to Moser's heavy and barely-credited reliance on her work, and thus unmarketable) to his public negative review of Kate Brigg's book This Little Art which includes oddly gendered barbs against Briggs to his recently published biography of Susan Sontag.

(Finally, 1000 words in, she gets to the point!)

I haven't read Moser's work on Sontag. To be perfectly honest, I've never even read Sontag herself; she has always struck me as another of those writers (like Lispector, like Woolf) who are othered in the way they are spoken of in literary circles, particularly by the men who adore them. It is undoubtedly unfair of me to doubt these women writers on the basis of their fans (and indeed, see my new appreciation for Lispector on the basis of her short stories!), but there it is. And so I am forced - again - to rely on other people's perspectives of Moser's biography. Edwards' mentions Moser's approach to Sontag several times in her piece, noting that there is a pattern to Moser's rewriting of Sontag's history and interpretation of her work that seems to leap beyond the expected (referring to his additions to Lispector's biography). But hers is not the only essay to take a less-than-glowing approach to Moser's perspective.

Alongside many positive reviews, a few took issue with some of Moser's editorial interjections. In The Atlantic, Merve Emre writes "Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation." Johanna Hedva writes in The White Review: "None of the sentences in SONTAG sing, which makes for a wobbly read. From time to time we get some creative vocabulary – ‘it can only be called memoir in the baggiest sense of the word’ – and Moser is at his best when throwing shade. [...] I started to make notes in the margins whenever Moser’s authorial voice gracelessly intruded on the subject, but again, without an accounting of his own position. I noted, ‘BM being a touch nationalistic,’ ‘BM trying to explain racism lol.’ There are also sweeping generalisations that feel thin and unsatisfying." These two reviews left me wondering how much the praise of a certain biography is really about the biography itself, or the subject. Moser was selected to write Sontag's authorized biography... could another writer have done similar work? There is no doubt that Moser dedicated a lot of time and effort into writing this biography, nor do I doubt that it is meticulously and richly researched. By many accounts, it makes for a remarkably interesting reading experience. But I wonder...

This all became relevant the other day, when Moser's Sontag biography won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for a biographical work. Edwards' essay began to make the rounds again and many translators shared those critical reviews, often expressing their disgust and disappointment in Moser's win. Some - overwhelmingly women - went on to emphasize their own interactions with Moser. Susan Bernofsky tweeted angrily, noting Moser's history of "Bullying Women (for example, me)", with author and translator Idra Novey (another Lispector translator under Moser's editorial influence) tweeting "Can a misogynist who cultivates influential female friends and only undermines women who have no clout go on to win the Pulitzer in the 21st century? Yes, he can."

And so I find myself in a similar position as in October, when I wrote about the Nobel mess in awarding the literary world's biggest and highest-profile prize to Peter Handke, a man who has written in support of ethnic cleansers and troubling nationalism. At the time, I noted that: "there's a huge difference between separating art from artist in the sense of "okay let's publish a controversial artist for his art while acknowledging and interrogating his problems" and the question of "should we give the dude lots and lots of money, attention, fame, and a platform from which to promote hateful ideas"?" While Moser is accused of very different types of damage, the larger question remains: Does good writing by a damaging person deserve to be rewarded? What does it say about both our literary culture and our willingness to support the victims of this damage?

Moser's win is mostly troubling not for literary merit, but for personal. The literary community has spent years grappling with cases of lit-world "misconduct", to the point where many complain that authors (or critics or whatever) are "cancelled" for unjust reasons. Certainly I have felt that some cases of widespread dismissals and anger have stemmed from stiff reading of complex situations. And as with many other similar movements, sometimes it's hard to pinpoint where the line is drawn. Other times it's very easy. Moser's case strikes me as having been pushed into the murkier realm. Edwards' essay is being shared as a definitive piece, but what strikes me is less her single account as the combination of so many similar experiences. What strikes me is that several of Moser's collaborators on the Lispector project have come out against him (in some form or other). What strikes me - as ever - is the pattern.

Now let's look at the other pattern. By the other pattern, a man is rewarded time and again, in a situation where it is unclear why it must be him. Sontag's biographer would likely always have written an interesting book, because people are interested in Sontag herself. Moser was apparently approached to write the biography (that is, he was offered this reward on a platter), perhaps on the basis of the buzz surrounded his Lispector biography (which we now know is somewhat suspect). Moser is now rewarded again for the outcome of this work, but to suggest that it something unique to him when presumably any writer with access to Sontag's private writing cache could have done the same is... angering? Bewildering? Ultimately, it is reflective of another pattern that exists all too much in the literary world - insularity. That too is a topic for another post, but here we have such a clear example of someone being rewarded for something that... he was explicitly given. Of course his will be the definitive Sontag biography, if he's the only allowed access. It was never actually about his writing!

I'm left feeling frustrated and disappointed. I don't know Moser; it feels odd to write a whole post basically angry at the reward he has been given, but I am also witnessing many translators and writers I do know (at least through the internet...) practically bursting with rage. The publicly available information seems to paint its own portrait. It is entirely possible that Moser never intended to hijack women's words and works as his own, and this was all rooted in a sad misunderstanding, but there still remains the matter of Moser's existing words: the casual sexism in his Lispector introduction, the casual sexism in his review of This Little Art. As several people have already pointed out, rewarding a writer who has been known to bully those around him (particularly those in positions that rely on his power, and usually women) means giving him an even more established platform from which to work. Moser is now in an even greater position of power and influence; who else is likely to suffer from it?

I want to end on this one final observation. Edwards' LARB piece was published in August 2019. It was widely shared within the translated literature community in particular, yet I expect reasonably widely read elsewhere. It was thoroughly discussed. It also, seemingly, left no impact. It is now May 2020 and Moser's Wikipedia page shows no hint of controversy (nor, it seems, did anyone ever try to edit it accordingly), somewhat reminiscent of the erasure of Handke's literary controversy in the immediate aftermath of his Nobel win (I should note that a controversy section has returned to his Wikipedia page). Well-known women - who I will leave unnamed - have not been so lucky, instead having a controversy section emphasizing their faults (justified or not). Despite everything, Moser's public image remains untarnished, his reputation seemingly unblemished. Where do we go from here?

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The European problem | 100 Best WIT

When deciding to craft a "new canon" and creating the list of "100 Best Women in Translation", my initial hope was truly to reshape our existing impressions of literature. How tiring to read the same sorts of "Best of" lists, time and again. Whether it's things like the top books of the year as published by the NYT or "official" canons promoted by various literary organizations or special "classics" series by different well-regarded publishers, the limited mindset of these lists honestly exhausted me at some point. And of course, this extends beyond just literature. Is Hollywood truly the creator of all good films in the world? Does the only quality television emerge from the US or UK? Etc etc.

I always knew that crowdsourcing a list of 100 books by women in translation would be imperfect. I knew that it would not truly be the 100 "best", but the 100 "most popular", and as such would be tilted by all sorts of factors. Changes in the list's winning titles during its nominations period showcased some of these flaws, with the earliest batch of nominations coming from die-hard fans of literature in translation (and a lot of translators!) and reflecting fairly obscure titles, while many of the more "popular" titles fell on the wayside until much later in the nominations process. People also frequently referenced their assumptions about biases when nominating their favorite choices, which led to truly bizarre omissions or results, simply because several readers said things like "well, I bet everyone has nominated [book], so I'll go for [other books] instead" and nobody ended up actually nominating that book until very late in the game! (True story.)

I might discuss some of those biases someday, but the truly biggest and most apparent bias is one that I realized right away was going to happen, and the one that disappointed me most by the end of the nominations process - the 100 Best WIT is a highly Eurocentric list.

Let's be clear: Literature translated into English on the whole is overwhelming Eurocentric. European titles accounted for 64% of new fiction and poetry translations into English from the years 2013 through 2017, based on the Three Percent Database. There are few differences between the global rates and those for women in translation specifically. When breaking it down into smaller (approximate) regional definitions (recognizing that there are cultural biases within European translations as well), it's clear that translations into English have a "close-to-home" bias - 27% come from Western Europe, 15% from Central Europe, and 12% from Nordic countries. Only 7% and 2% of translated literature comes from Eastern or Southeastern European countries.

This, as you might imagine, has little correlation with actual population distributions across the world. Asia - both the world's largest and most populous continent - provided only 18% of translations into English in that 2013-2017 timeframe. Think about it. China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines... countries with literally hundreds of millions and billions of people, the vast majority of whom read and write in languages other than English, are represented by a handful of titles for all. South Korea and Japan are slightly better represented, but we're still talking about significantly fewer titles per capita as compared with France, for instance (South Korea has 68 translations for a country of 51.7 million people, while France has 372 for a country of approximately 67 million). Translations are biased in a lot of ways, and country of origin is absolutely one of them. And all of this without taking into account the truly abysmal representation for African literature in translation.

Breakdown of country of origin for new fiction/poetry translations into English published between 2013 and 2017 (data from the Three Percent database)

So let's go back to the 100 Best WIT. I expressed my disappointment at how Eurocentric the list is, due to the fact that 56 of the top 100 were of European origin. It can be argued that this is actually a somewhat positive value - after all, it's a bit less than the industry-wide 64%. And not all of the European writers are necessarily white European writers, introducing an additional degree of diversity for which country alone does not account. And yet wonderful as it is to have a list of the 100 Best WIT, it frustrates me to see the continued hurdles women writers from around the world face. Why doesn't our list have more African women writers? More Indian women writers? More Arab women writers? More Southeast Asian writers? Why do we tear down certain barriers, only to reveal additional ones?

There is an answer to these question, and the answer lies in that chart above. The fact is that translations are not made equal. The translated literary landscape remains thoroughly rooted in European stories, whether classic or modern. The 100 Best WIT list is tilted extraordinarily modern (note how many classic [European] women in translation didn't make it!), yet it still cannot overcome the simple availability bias. How can we expect English-language readers to nominate books they haven't read? (And while I wanted the 100 Best WIT to truly be international and not just about translations into English, there too lies a bias - the list was largely compiled by English-language readers, and of those overwhelmingly American or British readers.) So it really boils down to... how can we expect readers to love books they haven't read?

Allow me to emphasize this last point: Readers cannot be expected to love books they haven't read.

This leads back to that original WIT question in the first place. After all, the reason I care about WIT is because I care about actually getting a chance to read books from all the world, by all sorts of writers. Women writers obviously exist and always have, but their availability has been limited as compared to men writers in translation. The struggle has been to carve out that cultural space for their existing works, while also making sure we give room to more works overall. Giving space to more European women writers can be a step forward in very, very specific contexts - for European-focused publishers, when talking about European classics, when looking at very specific cultures or cultural expectations - but it really isn't when looking at the big picture. This project has always been about recognizing a cultural bias and seeking to rectify it. Replacing one bias with another is not where I want the Women in Translation movement to be.

I won't pretend I'm surprised that the 100 Best WIT list is Eurocentric. I won't pretend that I'm not still proud of the work that we did. I also won't pretend that I don't desperately want to revisit this project someday in the future, and create a wider, more inclusive version of the 100 Best WIT once we've worked on improving the publishing stats. (But, like, someday far in the future, because this was actually a bit exhausting in how much work it ended up being...)

Things are changing. We're slowly seeing a greater awareness for the lack of diversity in the translated literature world. Of the publishing world overall. The numbers for women in translation are slowly going up, though they are somewhat hampered by wide gaps in nonfiction and among certain publishers. Outside of the world of literature in translation, we're also seeing more and more readers becoming aware of cultural biases against writers from around the world (or even just different backgrounds within certain cultural contexts, e.g. "We Need Diverse Books" or the recent discussion of Latinx writers in the publishing industry). And while women - particularly women of marginalized backgrounds - face almost insurmountable hurdles in advancements across a lot of fields (politics is sharply on my mind today, but science, as ever, remains my home territory and most frustrating lived experience), there are pockets of improvement and good around the world.

The 100 Best WIT is a pocket of good when looked at from one angle, in the fact that thousands of readers have now read the list and begun to engage with the women in translation project for the first time. As I already said, I remain extraordinarily proud of the work we (and I) did. Of what we created. It remains unique and revolutionary in a lot of ways. But the list also reflects the gulfs we have yet to cross. It's something that will absolutely be shaping my own reading in the coming months and years; again, I will not eliminate one bias just to introduce another. May this be a lesson for us all, and an opportunity to begin to create that next canon with a better understanding of the next battles.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The 100 Best Women in Translation - The rest?

It's been several months since I posted the top 100 nominated titles from the 100 Best Women in Translation list. At the time, I promised to quickly released the full list, once I'd clean it up and sort through it to make sure I didn't have any errors or redundancies. Unfortunately, life caught up with me. WITMonth this year proved significantly more difficult for me than I'd anticipated, and by the time I was feeling somewhat recovered from the stress and burnout from compiling the list in the first place, I found myself in the midst of one of the more difficult periods of my life due to some health matters. As I'm finally emerging back to life, I realize that I'm not going to find the energy and motivation the fully organize the almost-800-title list (in which there are probably errors and redundancies), and will instead simply... upload it as is. This is the list as I compiled it, not as I ultimately tallied. It's entirely possible that I mess things I'm - I'm just a person! - but that's how the world goes. Besides, what popularity contest doesn't have some sort of error in it, hmmm?

Anyways, enjoy!

The complete, raw, unedited 100 Best WIT nominations list