Monday, August 31, 2020

WITMonth Day 31 | The end is, as always, just the beginning

For all my love for August 1st, I have to admit that some years I find myself looking forward to August 31st just a bit more. The beginning of WITMonth symbolizes so much hope for how the month will unfold, but the end demonstrates just how far we've come. The end of August is a full, beautiful display of all of the books and reviews and short stories and poems and photos and recommendations and engagement that WITMonth has borne. 

This year especially - a year that has been remarkably difficult in many ways - I find myself full of love as I contemplate the different ways in which readers took part in WITMonth. There are always new readers discovering the project, with responses ranging from righteous anger over the imbalances and biases to excitement over new books to committed fervor in continuing to read works by women writers in translation. There are countless book recommendations shared, literally too many to count. Readers span six continents (to the best of my knowledge, nobody on Antarctica has yet participated in WITMonth, but maybe someday!) and dozens of different native languages, reading works from backgrounds just as varied. Some works are as-of-yet unpublished (whether in translation to English or in another language!), while others are established, canonic classics. There are books and works and poems that cross genres and reader designations. 

WITMonth is, ultimately, one of the easiest reading or "challenge" months, since there's only one real requirement: Engage with the topic of women writers in translation. No matter your reading tastes, you are likely to find at least one book by a woman writer from around the world that will suit you (though finding two or more may be a bit trickier for some genres...).  Women in Translation Month - for all the misnomers - is meant to be there for everyone. And it shows, with passionate and diverse and fascinating engagement across the internet. Importantly, not all of this engagement is necessarily full of praise - readers also include their critiques of certain works or certain WIT-adjacent topics (though the latter is a genre that I think is mostly comprised of my own writing...). There are meaningful conversations about what WITMonth means to different readers, to translators, to publishers. There are conversations about what WITMonth should mean (beyond my own definitions), and these are all good and healthy things. There is just so much and it is wonderful.

So another year has passed, and as always I find myself wanting to remind readers that this is only the beginning. WITMonth may end with August, but the women in translation movement lives year-round. I always have specific goals that roll over from August to the rest of the year (even if it occasionally takes another full year before I manage to publish them...) and I don't think that the efforts we make should be limited to one month. On the contrary! Every reader who has laughed that their TBR has grown too much as a result of WITMonth? Excellent! You now have reading material for the whole year. Enjoy it

There is more work, as well. As I posted yesterday, there is so much room to expand the women in translation movement worldwide, where it was always meant to be. For this, we non-English speakers will need to ask ourselves how things look within our own native languages and try to figure out how to address unique imbalances we may find. We must continue fighting against cultural/linguistic biases in translation, as well as falling into limited patterns in the stories we choose to center. The women in translation movement must also become a normalized conversation within the larger feminist movement, rather than something on its outskirts. There remain publishers and gatekeepers who do not see value in setting aside space for women writers in translation, but we readers can do so much ourselves. We can stand up and make clear just how important women's voices are, whether as reflections of our own experiences, windows into new ones, or doorways that bring the two together. We can make a point to center writers - famous and untranslated - who represent different parts of the world. We can seek to rework the canon to reflect the broader world and find the joy in literature that exists worldwide. We can do all of this while addressing structural accessibility problems, as well as subsequent genre imbalances.

WITMonth, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, is an opportunity, not an obligation - an opportunity to discover new books, new writers, and new perspectives. It's also our opportunity to do a lot of this work, but it's not an exclusive setup. We can (and must!) continue this effort throughout the year, and I am certain there are so many more topics and issues that we have yet to fully explore. August ends as it always does, but the movement lives on.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

WITMonth Day 30 | WIT worldwide | Brief thoughts

This isn't the post where I'll talk about what women in translation and WITMonth specifically look like worldwide. While I posted my stats and analysis for Israeli publications in the context of WIT last week (in Hebrew), it will likely take a few more weeks before I'm able to publish an English-language summary of the data. While it may seem somewhat boring to non-Israelis, the fact is that there's quite a bit buried within that data that has implications worldwide. And that's what I want to touch on today.

WITMonth has been celebrated across different countries since its very inception and there have been multilingual (non-translator!) readers from the beginning. Year after year, more readers have joined from various countries, some predominantly reading in non-English languages, others reading in their non-native English. The conversation, however, has remained in English. As I've pointed out before, there is English-language bias/centering embedded in the fact that this blog is in English. The @read_WIT Twitter account is in English. The Women in Translation project, as a whole, is carried out in English. Yet I don't want it to be exclusively English. How does that work?

I look at this movement and I do want to see more work being done in other countries, in other languages. I make a point of sharing #WITMonth tweets that are relevant to WIT even when in languages I don't speak (often utilizing friends or Google Translate to help me out), and it's actually one of my very favorite parts of WITMonth. WIT shouldn't be English-only. It can't. It may end up meaning different things in different countries and different languages, but the core, I think, remains in acknowledging how little literary attention is given to women writers from backgrounds beyond the "accepted" US/UK Anglosphere, just as it is in our English-language conversation. If for some regions/cultures/languages this means that English-language women writers from Africa are highlighted, I think I can understand it, even if it goes against the original intent of the project. If for some languages it means promoting works by women within the language and not actually "in translation", I definitely understand it (I myself have been doing this since the beginning). 

WIT is in its nature a worldwide effort, despite its current perception suggesting an English-only focus. I wish I spoke a dozen more languages so I could make this point to a wider, multilingual audience - WIT is for all of us! - but I am also willing to see you, o fellow international readers, spreading that message instead. There's so much more to discuss in terms of what the Women in Translation movement looks like outside of English and outside of the Anglosphere, whether in terms of publication stats across the world or in terms of different literary cultures. 

I intend to begin these conversations more loudly, in both English and Hebrew, and I would love to see other multilingual readers doing the same worldwide.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

WITMonth Day 29 | Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano | Review

There's a lot of meta to unpack before I can write about Léonora Miano's Dark Heart of the Night, translated from French by Tamsin Black. Miano, after all, is credited with disliking the University of Nebraska Press edition of Dark Heart of the Night even on her own Wikipedia page, having publicly critiqued the book's foreword (which I assume has been removed from subsequent print runs, since my edition has none) and much of the book's paratext (cover and title). A little digging reveals that Miano had serious concerns about how the University of Nebraska Press ultimately framed the book, from the foreword that was "full of lies" to changing the book's original title to resemble Heart of Darkness (a comparison that is also mirrored in the back cover description). I thus came into Dark Heart of the Night knowing that Miano had critiques, but not quite remembering what they were, instead reading into it more after reading the book. And I have to say - her critiques are valid from all sorts of perspectives and also point to a pivotal reading of the novella itself.

I'll start with my conclusion: Dark Heart of the Night is a bit of a brutal, unpleasant read, but one that is uncompromising and fascinating. It's a book that batters its reader again and again from all sorts of perspectives and doesn't seem particularly concerned with expectations of how the story is supposed to advance or fall into place. Its pacing is steady, its plot scattered without a single fixed peak, and its emotional impact a sort of pulsing, constant effect. Miano packs an extensive critique of different forms of violence and community life in the short novel, with a sense that there is much more that she could say on either topic (as well as many others). Dark Heart of the Night does a lot, almost all of it efficiently and effectively, and the end result makes for a book that is hard to set aside but also... not entirely enjoyable.

One of my impressions while reading Dark Heart of the Night was the Miano sought to create a sort of generic form of violence in the face of war and chaos. Miano's descriptions of village life as a contrast to city life all felt a little purposely blurred, with fictional names designed to place her story across a wide range of regions. Nationalism does not feature in regards to this specific country, exactly, rather the story's core violence stems from a place of a flawed and despotic perception of African identity. Perhaps I should have, but I did not assign too much importance to this on a deeper level; can Miano not critique violence in the same way that any other novelist might write of in the world? 

The brutality of violence that Miano introduces feels like a contrast to the individual identity subplot that centers now-village-outsider Ayané who has returned to her home village following her mother's death, yet the two narratives intertwine in defining identity, community, and belonging. Dark Heart of the Night is not just its most violent moments, but also their aftermath, their effects, and the way these fit into larger political balances. It seems important to remember that the novel continues past what can be viewed as its darkest moments, with that unrelenting continued bluntness. 

It's hard to write about Dark Heart of the Night without getting into details, and I think that any details take away from the book's power. It is a powerful novel, in many of its different threads. It's true that they occasionally muddle and the writing style sometimes feel out of place for the different subplots, but the book on the whole is depressingly effective. 

It's also - to loop back to my introduction - a lot more nuanced and complex than its paratext would suggest. To begin with, the back cover description centers Ayané in a way that frankly seems to emphasize one of the novel's themes over others. While Ayané is very much the novel's main character, she is often counterbalanced within the story and her experience contrasted. These contrasts feel important in how Miano builds a larger narrative regarding that blurry African identity. Furthermore, the casting of the novel through the lens of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (a work that has roundly been criticized for its racist, generalizing portrayal of Africa, though I have not read it myself...) also seems to strip away some of the weight of Miano's vague placement of her story. I can't imagine how the original foreword also attempted to alter Miano's experiences and identity herself in order to fit a narrative regarding African literature. Why can Dark Heart of the Night not simply be allowed to stand on its own?

I'm not sure that my own review doesn't fall into similar, problematic patterns in terms of what I'm mistakenly focusing on. I feel as though I walked into the novel mostly unaware of the controversies and thankfully unaware of the actual plot. (For once, I can at least be grateful for the book's vague and vaguely inaccurate back cover for not creating false expectations.) I read the book with little external context and without feeling like I knew enough to place Dark Heart of the Night's plot in any one specific place. My ignorance, it seems, ultimately matches Miano's own intentions. But is my sense that Miano is deeply involved with questions of identity something that follows from the retrospective reading of her critiques of the original foreword? Am I misreading her response to it? Was there something else in reading this novella that I was supposed to take away? Knowing what I now know in terms of Miano's own sense of her work, I find myself wishing for a deeper, detailed analysis that views Miano's work as part of a larger whole. Individual debut work as it may be, Miano clearly has had more to say, having published several books over the past decade. Would we as readers not benefit from reading those works as well? (Yes, we would.)

I did not struggle with reading Dark Heart of the Night, though the book saddened, angered, and disheartened me in many ways, as I believe it intended. The writing is brisk and clean, and again, the pacing is remarkably steady for a book that contains several different gut-punch peaks. It is far from a pleasant book, but it is definitely a good one, perhaps even a great one. It is certainly a work worth reading. I also think there is some value in the questions it forces us to grapple with regarding how works by African writers in translation (and perhaps African women writers more specifically?) are packaged for English-speaking audiences. Miano's critiques may be presented as a surprising bit of anger from an author over how her writing is sold in translation ("drama"), but ultimately it's worth noting two things: 1. The original foreword no longer appears in print, and 2. Miano's critiques end up providing a much better context for what Dark Heart of the Night is trying to do than the book's remaining paratext itself. I suppose some good comes of bad as well...

Friday, August 28, 2020

WITMonth Day 28 | Joy | Brief thoughts

I've been thinking a lot about pain and joy lately. The world is going through a lot. We are going through a lot. And in these tough times, readers often find themselves seeking shelter in literature, whether as an educational experience or a comforting one. WITMonth has often been the former for me, but finding joy in world literature is surprisingly difficult. So few books are translated, after all, that there is often too little room left for books that fall into genres that are considered "less serious". Joyous books are a rarity among books written by women in translation.

Where is adventure? Where is love? Where is happiness? Where is joy?

I think about the books I've read lately. Many are truly wonderful books, but they delve into particularly heavy topics - war, violence, sexism, racism, tragedy. And even when the books themselves are full of love (like Island of Shattered Dreams), there is still a tragic core, or the books that are uplifting come from a place of sadness.

I find myself seeking more of that. Women - particularly women writers from underrepresented backgrounds in English translation - deserve to share stories that reflect all of life, not just the tragedies or difficulties or struggles. We are allowed to simply have women's love, happiness, adventure, and optimism without tragedy as its base. Along with all my hopes for more translations of works by women writers from around the world, I would like more joy.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

WITMonth Day 27 | Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen | Review

You know what's one of the most frustrating trends in the literary world? Different titles for the same book. This phenomenon is understandably more common with literature in translation than books in their original language, though those too will occasionally pop up with a new name in the weirdest way. Why do books need vastly different titles across different countries? The book had a title - translate it and leave it be!

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen (tr. into English, to my knowledge, from Korneliussen's translation into Danish, by Anna Halager) is another example of this extraordinarily annoying phenomenon. The UK edition is marketed as Crimson, and both editions are marketed very different from translations into other (European) languages. Go figure! Marketing is weird, right? But then there are folks like me who don't pay attention and do some of their bookshopping from UK stores and some from US and almost buy the same book twice. At least this time I didn't, but you know. Keep an eye out.

I actually read Last Night in Nuuk last year. Somehow, I forgot to add it to my reading list and it quickly felt like a book I had read long ago, not a recent read. A year later, I find myself with a similar overall impression. It feels like a book I've always known, somehow. It's a book that's always been in my memory, even though I can vividly recall reading it.

There is a decently high chance you will not like Last Night in Nuuk. The things about the book that make it good and interesting are not necessarily things that will appeal to all readers. For instance, I really liked just how quick the book is - Last Night in Nuuk moves at an extraordinarily brisk pace - but it's the sort of overly fast pacing that makes a book always feel like it's existed in the past. Many readers have not enjoyed that aspect as I did.

The writing is similarly divisive. The immediacy of the first-person present tense isn't for everyone. I often don't love it myself, but it made perfect sense for a book that's as contemporary as Last Night in Nuuk is supposed to feel. Everything about the book feels designed to capture an instant moment for a very specific group of young people (i.e. millennials, and specifically queer millennials) and it really only works within that context and understanding. Even the use of text messages embedded into the story is something that would probably ring false for some readers, but I felt fine with. To mix metaphors, the book seemed flow at just the right register.

So what's Last Night in Nuuk about? In short, it's about the muddled and messy lives of a group of young, queer Greenlanders just trying to figure it out. For some, it's about a sense of identity. For others, it's their actual relationships and the way these shape their lives. The characters cross narratives frequently, their stories and lives overlapping. This ultimately also contributes to the retrospective feeling that the book was always a memory in my mind, since I can't fully extricate the story of each character from the others (with one exception, where an especially sloppy bit of writing left its mark). It also feeds into the feeling that the book is vaguely timeless, despite its strong millennial root. The texting and style date the novel, but the overall story vibe feels disconnected from all of this.

I ended up liking Last Night in Nuuk a lot more than other readers, I think. I've thought about the book's unique style a lot over the past year and tried to understand what it was about the novel that worked for me when it didn't for other readers. It's a book that's tough to recommend (especially without knowing someone's reading tastes!), but I think readers who are willing to let their books get a little weird and rough around the edges, Last Night in Nuuk pays off by having well defined characters that dig their way into your mind and feel uniquely alive in a very particular moment. Whatever else, it's a fairly different book, and if you're open to that sort of difference (bearing in mind that the style really might not work for you!), I think it's worth reading.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

WITMonth Day 26 | The 100 Best WIT, one year later

On this day last year, I published the final list of the 100 Best WIT.

The idea behind the 100 Best WIT started, originally, as a response to the erasure of women writers in translation from the book The 100 Best Novels in Translation. While I would personally never claim to having enough experience, expertise, or understanding to write my own definitive top-100 list, I thought that a crowd-sourced list would be a great way to see what readers around the world feel are the worthiest books. As I wrote last year, it was never going to be the 100 "best" books, but the 100 most "popular", and even that assessment was heavily skewed by my audience and the folks who even engaged with the project.

There are a lot of things I would do differently today, if I were to repeat the project. To begin with, I would try to reach a much wider audience - the couple hundred or so readers who participated are without a doubt a remarkably diverse and widely-read bunch, but the overwhelming majority came from within the same online translated literature community. This, I think, contributed in part to the heavy contemporary tilt of the final list, since these were the books that were fresh in readers' minds, and many reflected recent literary trends within this particular community. 

I would want to better define the scope of the project and separate between translated-into-English versus untranslated works. Ultimately, while many readers did submit works that have not yet been translated into English, there was no real way these had a fighting chance to make it to the final list, given that the overwhelming majority of submissions were through the English-language lens. I would love to compile a truly international list that includes works that have never been translated into any other language (but deserve to!), but that would look very, very different and would require a completely different perspective. Maybe someday.

And ultimately I would probably want to have a stronger editorial influence. The biases that are entrenched in this complicated world of literary translations mean that the list itself reflects some of those biases, most notably a strong European slant. As difficult as it would be to crowd-source a list while also giving myself (or some sort of editorial team) unique powers, I think there is something to be said about limiting books from similar backgrounds or from the same authors. In terms of nominations, some authors had almost all of their books individually nominated in such a way that I feel shut out many other writers. 

Similarly, had the tallies been public, would readers have nominated the same books? On multiple occasions, readers told me that they wanted to nominate book "X", but decided that it must be in the top spot so instead they nominated "Y", and book "X" was nowhere on the list. Would people have chosen differently if they knew which books were leading? Which books had already been nominated? Which authors were already guaranteed a slot (or two) and didn't need more votes for their third-fourth-whatever book?

I'm still so extraordinarily proud of what we did with the 100 Best WIT. I think it's a list quite unlike any other out there in the world, and as I wrote earlier this month, I think there's what to learn from it in terms of how to build a future canon. And as a reading list, I've found it to be interesting and diverse (even with its flaws). One year later, I am happy to keep revisiting the list and think about what it meant... and what we can continue to learn from it for the future. Should we start planning a more streamlined version for WITMonth 2021...?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

נשים בתרגום

 (NOTE: An English summary of this data will be shared in a separate post.)

"חודש נשים בתרגום"

"נשים בתרגום" זה לא מושג מוכר בישראל, ואפשר להבין למה.

מה משמעות המושג הזה? למה הכוונה? האם מתייחס לנשים בתוכן הסיפור? סופרות? מתרגמות? ומה עם סופרות א-בינריות? 

"נשים בתרגום" מתאר ספרות מתורגמת שנכתבה במקור על ידי נשים. המושג מגיע מאנגלית, Women in Translation, בעקבות מחקרים שנעשו על תרגומים ספרותיים שהראו כי נשים מהוות רק כ-30% מכלל התרגומים החדשים לאנגלית של ספרות יפה ושירה. כשמוסיפים תרגומי ספרי עיון, קלאסיקות, וספרות ילדים/נוער, אחוז הסופרות יורד לכ-25%. אך המושג "נשים בתרגום" אינו משקף את כל הסיפור. 

קודם כל, בהמשך לטעות הנפוצה: ״נשים בתרגום״ מתייחס לסופרות, לא למתרגמות. עבודת התרגום היא אכן עבודה מאתגרת במיוחד, אך כוונת הפרויקט היא למשוך את תשומת הלב לקולן של הסופרות וסיפוריהן.

בנוסף, לא מדובר רק בנשים! "נשים בתרגום" גם מעודד ומפרסם ספרות מאת סופרים/ות א-בינאריים/ות או סופרים טרנסים שבוחרים להכלל. 

ולבסוף, כשאנחנו מדברים על ״נשים בתרגום״ בהקשר הישראלי, אנחנו לא באמת מדברים על תרגומים מכל השפות באופן שווה. כי בעצם - הכוונה היא דווקא לספרות שמתורגמת משפות שאינן אנגלית.

אז מהו בעצם חודש נשים בתרגום? כל שנה במהלך חודש אוגוסט אנחנו מכירים, מפרסמים וחוגגים את הספרות הנפלאה הזו.

(הערת אגב: אמנם אני יזמתי את הפרויקט בראשיתו, ואני כמובן דוברת עברית, אך המושג ״נשים בתרגום״ ראה אור לראשונה בעברית בבלוגים ספרותיים שהגיעו לפרויקט דרך קהילת הספרות דוברת האנגלית, לא דרכי!)

בשנה שעברה, התראיינתי אצל דפנה לוי במוסף הספרותי "המוסך". זו הייתה בעיניי אחת השיחות המעניינות ביותר בנושא נשים בתרגום שהשתתפתי בהן, ולא רק כי סוף סוף הייתה לי הזדמנות לדבר גם על נושאים הקשורים לישראל באופן ספציפי, אלא שהכתבה מהווה מבוא מקיף ומעמיק לכל פרויקט ״נשים בתרגום״ בשנים האחרונות.

עכשיו הגיע הזמן לדבר על המצב בישראל. 

אנשים בארץ בדרך כלל מצביעים על הצלחתן של מספר מצומצם של סופרות דוברות אנגלית כסימן לכך שפרויקט "נשים בתרגום" חסר משמעות. "תראי עד כמה ג'יי קיי רולינג מוצלחת! מה פתאום צריך חודש נשים בתרגום?" (וכן, זו תמיד הדוגמא...) אמירות כאלה מפספסות את מהות הפרויקט.

נחזור רגע להגדרת נשים בתרגום בהקשר של ספרות מתורגמת לאנגלית. אצל קוראים דוברי אנגלית ישנה נטייה לקרוא מעט מאוד ספרות מתורגמת, והמעט שיוצא לאור אינו זוכה לקהל רחב. אבל בהקשר העברי, ערבי, לטבי, סיני, אינדונזי, מלאיאלאם, לא-משנה-באיזה-שפה-מדברים-חוץ-מאנגלית, יש פער עצום כשבוחנים את שפת המקור של הספרות המתורגמת. נכון, בעברית יש מלא תרגומים... אך כמעט כולם מאנגלית. 

בהחלט צריך להתייחס לפערים מגדריים ותרבותיים בספרות שמתורגמת מאנגלית. לא סתם קיימים באנגלית ארגונים שלמים לקידום סופרות (למשל, VIDA או ReadWomen) וכמובן שיש גם פערים אחרים, למשל בקידום סופרים/ות שחורים/ות, ספרות מהגרים, ספרות עמים ילידים, ספרות מעמד פועלים, ספרות קווירית וכו'. ובכל זאת.

כמה ספרות מתורגמת באמת קיימת בעברית?

בשנה שעברה, אספתי מידע לגבי כל הפרסומים של מספר הוצאות לאור בישראל: עם עובד, הספרייה החדשה, תשע נשמות, אחוזת בית, עליית גג, בבל, ו-כנרת, זמורה-ביתן, דביר.

פרסומים לפי שפה, 2018

הדבר הראשון שבולט לעין: לא חסרים תרגומים מאנגלית. להפך - תרגומים מאנגלית שולטים בשוק הישראלי. סך הכל, 41% מהספרים שיצאו לאור ב-2018 בהוצאות אלו נכתבו במקור בעברית, 41% נכתבו במקור באנגלית, ו-18% מכל שאר שפות העולם (כאשר ספר אחד - שנכתב במקור בקוריאנית - בעצם תורגם מהתרגום לאנגלית, לא מקוריאנית באופן ישיר). אם נתייחס לספרות מתורגמת כקבוצה עצמאית, אנגלית מייצגת 69% מכלל הספרות המתורגמת לעברית.

חשוב לציין כי במידה מסוימת בחרתי במוציאים לאור האלה כי ידעתי שהם מפרסמים "יותר" ספרות בינ"ל ולא רק תרגומים מאנגלית. בהוצאה הגדולה ביותר שבדקתי, שגם מאוד מייצגת את ה"מיינסטרים" הישראלי (כנרת, זמורה-ביתן, דביר), האחוזים דווקא נטו עוד יותר לכיוון תרגומים מאנגלית, כאשר 48% מכלל הספרים שיצאו לאור ב-2018 היו תרגומים מאנגלית, 44% ספרות מקור מעברית, ו-8% משאר שפות העולם.

הדומיננטיות של אנגלית בהקשר של תרגומים לעברית לא מפתיעה אך כן מאכזבת. ספרות אמורה לחשוף אותנו להשקפות עולם שונות, למצבים שונים, לסיפורים שונים. איך אנחנו אמורים להבין את העולם אם אנחנו כל הזמן נחשפים רק לארה"ב ואנגליה?

מה ההבדלים המגדריים?

נתחיל מהשאלה: כמה ספרים מאת נשים או גברים יוצאים לאור בישראל בכל שנה? מתוך מבחר המו"לים שבדקתי, ב-2018 מדובר בפער מפתיע: כ-57% מכל הספרים שיצאו לאור נכתבו על ידי גברים, 41% על ידי נשים, ו-2% ספרים שנכתבו על ידי גברים ונשים ביחד ("משולב"). לא ציפיתי להבדל כזה גדול - בעבר התרשמתי שהמצב בישראל מאוד שוויוני בין סופרות לסופרים. מאיפה הפער מגיע?

בחרתי לחלק את הנתונים לקבוצות. קודם כל, הסתכלתי אך ורק על ספרים שנכתבו במקור בעברית - שם הפער קטן יותר, כאשר 54% סופרים, 44% סופרות, ו-2% משולב. אחוזי התרגומים מאנגלית הם לפי אותה עקומה - 56% סופרים, 41% סופרות, 3% משולב. תרגומים מכל שאר השפות שאינן אנגלית נראו לגמרי אחרת. כאן, רק שליש (33%) מהספרים נכתבו על ידי נשים, כאשר 65% נכתבו על ידי גברים ו-2% משולב.


ספרות מקור + מתורגמת

ספרות מתורגמת (כולל אנגלית)

ספרות מתורגמת (ללא אנגלית)

פערים קיימים גם בחתכים אחרים, כמו ז'אנר. הגדרתי כמה ז'אנרים כלליים כדי לנסות להבין אם יש פערים בין נושאים מסוימים... ואכן יש. ז'אנרים כמו ספרות ילדים, ספרות נוער, וסיפורת/ספרות יפה לרוב כללו אחוז גבוה יותר של סופרות (לדוגמא, נוער) או אחוזים מאוד דומים של סופרים וסופרות (ילדים וסיפורת), לפחות בעברית. כלומר מכיוון שרוב הספרים שיוצאים לאור בישראל שייכים לז'אנר ספרות יפה/סיפורת, לא מפתיע שתמיד חשתי שהמצב בעברית די שוויוני - 51% מסיפורת מקור נכתבה על ידי נשים.

אחוז סופרות מתוך פרסומים בעברית (מקור)

אבל כן חשוב לשים לב לז'אנרים החריגים מבחינת פערים מגדריים, ספציפית עיון ושירה. שני הז'אנרים האלה מהווים עולם ומלואו בספרות מקור וספרות מתורגמת. בשירה למשל, רק 17% מהפרסומים הם מאת נשים (פירושו של דבר - ספר בודד); איך ייתכן כי ב-2018 נתון כזה מייצג את כל ספרי השירה מאת נשים ממבחר מו"לים מובילים בישראל? בעיון - הז'אנר השני בגודלו בישראל - רק 27% מהספרים נכתבו על ידי נשים. האמנם נשים באמת לא כותבות בז'אנרים האלה? או שאולי סתם פספסתי משהו? אלו שאלות להמשך.

אותה מגמה נראית גם בתרגומים מאנגלית, שם שוב קיים פער עצום בעיון (רק 16% סופרות, מתוך 25 ספרים סה״כ). בהתחשב במעמד של ספרי עיון (ביוגרפיה, היסטוריה, מדע פופולרי, ועוד), יש חשיבות חברתית מקיפה לפער המגדרי. המשמעות של צמצום פרסום סופרות היא שקוראים ישראלים אינם נחשפים להשקפות עולם שונות (שלא נדבר על זה שכמעט כל הספרים נכתבו על ידי גברים לבנים ולא משקפים את העולם דובר האנגלית בשום פנים ואופן).  

מעודד לראות שלמרות המחסומים העומדים בפני סופרות דוברות אנגלית, הן דווקא מתורגמות לעברית במידה שוויונית. בהחלט דבר שצריך להתגאות בו. בנוסף, מעניין אך לא מפתיע לראות כי מעט ספרי הרומנטיקה שפורסמו נכתבו על ידי נשים. מצד שני, לא ברור למה כולם נכתבו במקור באנגלית.

אחוז סופרות מתוך תרגומים מאנגלית

המצב נהיה מעט הזוי כשמנתחים את הנתונים של שאר שפות העולם. למרות שקיימים ספרים מתורגמים בסוגי ז'אנרים שונים (כמו מתח, עיון, ושירה), ייצוג סופרות בז'אנרים אלה פשוט לא קיים. כפי שניתן לראות בטבלה בהמשך, יש מעט ספרים מתורגמים בסך הכל, אבל בכל זאת מדובר בפערים בולטים ובלתי נתפסים. והפער בז'אנר המוביל בתרגומים בינ"ל הוא לא פחות מרגיז - רק 35% מסיפורת מתורגמת מכלל שפות העולם שאינן אנגלית, נכתבו על ידי נשים. 

אחוז סופרות מתוך תרגומים (ללא אנגלית)

פירוט מגדרי של כלל התרגומים משפות שאינן אנגלית

הנתונים אולי שונים מעט בקרב מו"לים אחרים או בשנה האחרונה. אבל לאור העובדה שהנתונים שאספתי דומים מאוד לאלה משנת 2017 (שלא פרסמתי כאן), סביר להניח שהמגמות שציינתי לעיל מייצגות די טוב את עולם הספרות הישראלי ככלל.

אני מאוד מקווה שנוכל ללמוד מהממצאים הנ"ל לגבי הפערים - גם מבחינת תרגומים משפות שונות וגם מבחינת מגדר - במטרה להרחיב את מגוון הספרים שיוצאים לאור בישראל מדי שנה. בסופו של דבר, נרצה שהנוף הספרותי שלנו ישקף את העולם שבו אנו חיים. יש כל כך הרבה ספרים מכל העולם, ובוודאי שגם המון, המון סופרות מוכשרות, מעניינות ומרגשות. העולם עצום ומדהים - למה שלא נחשף לכולו גם בעברית?

Monday, August 24, 2020

WITMonth Day 24 | Where are the nonfiction women in translation? | Brief thoughts

I've written before about the astonishing gaps among academic publishers in publishing women writers in translation. My first exposure to the problem was through the original Three Percent database analysis, among fiction titles, but once I began to compile my own data, I realized that academic presses have massive gaps in publishing women in translation

I've touched on this topic a few times throughout the month, directly and indirectly, mostly when discussing accessibility. Academic publishers are notoriously expensive and their books are often harder to find in public libraries, eLibraries, or local bookstores. Their topics are typically also deemed less "accessible", due to crossing different nonfiction subgenres and topics. Academic presses excel in nonfiction, and for this reason I have recently had to add an asterisk to the typically cited "women writers represent 30% of translations into English" - the original statistics I compiled from the Three Percent database do not take these into account. And sadly, academic presses publish masses of nonfiction in translation that is overwhelmingly (75-85%) by men writers. This is a data gap we must not forget.

Nonfiction is often left on the wayside when we talk about literature in translation, but it shouldn't be, and certainly not in the context of women in translation. Beyond a sort of cultural prestige that nonfiction can carry (in my mind, at least), nonfiction often shapes our understanding of the world by defining it. Nonfiction is where philosophical, political, scientific, historical, and literary debate and discourse is carried out, which itself plays a role in cementing certain views or perspectives. If these are consistently the views or interpretations of men (with the exception of the rare memoir or feminist text), we are limiting ourselves in our perspectives. Similarly, if these are all Western European writers, there are likely countless histories, lessons, and conclusions that we are simply not exposed to. Isn't academia supposed to cross borders and open our eyes as much as possible? Why aren't English-language academic presses representing the true scope and diversity of academic research across the world? And why are women so lacking in these?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

WITMonth Day 23 | Night by Sulochana Manandhar | Minireview

When Tilted Axis Press announced their first Translating Feminisms series during WITMonth back in 2018, it was obvious that I needed to back it, for all the reasons. This set of four poetry chapbooks is no longer fully available, with two out of print, and it has had a curiously quiet impact on the literary community despite its successful campaign. Interestingly, the two chapbooks that are out of print were also the two that I preferred less; as a whole, I found the collections to be somewhat uneven. But let's focus on my favorite of the four, a book I genuinely fell in love with: Sulochana Manandhar's Night, translated from Nepali by Muna Gurung.

I can't claim to have read much Nepali literature. Or, frankly, any, prior to Night. This tiny, 38-page chapbook sums up the whole of my literary travels to Nepal, and a decent chunk of the book is the introduction and translator notes (which were very insightful!). And though I didn't review it at the time, Night was actually one of the more memorable books I read in 2019 and it's one that continued to hum in my mind in the past year since I read it.

All of the ways I have to describe Night revolve around music, somehow. It sings, it hums, its tone is resonant. Lyricism is a word that is overused in literary review and oddly doesn't apply here - Night isn't especially lyrical because it isn't especially verbose. Every poem feels gorgeously clear and calm and just the length it needs to be. The theme of night - sleep and dreams and darkness - is woven throughout each of the poems, threading each individual piece together into this (still-tiny) whole. Everything about the collection feels... just right. Rereading individual poems from it again stirs that feeling that Night is a perfect piece of music.

I don't know if Tilted Axis Press intend to reprint the whole of the first Translating Feminisms series, especially now that they are crowdfunding Translating Feminisms 2 (which will feature women and nonbinary writers from Indonesia, the Philippines, and hopefully Tibet; the campaign is currently ongoing), but I at least hope that Night will remain in print for a long time. That it will sell out soon and lead to a full-length translation of the original book (since the current chapbook is only a selection of the original "Night" poems, a little less than half). I would really, really love to be able to read much more of Sulochana Manandhar's poetry and writing. I hope I get the chance soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

WITMonth Day 22 | Mirrors, windows, and doors

I'm not sure when I first learned about the concept of mirrors versus windows in literature or from who, but it's somehow become central to my reading in recent years. At its core, "mirrors versus windows" suggests that there are two types of stories, culturally: Mirrors reflect your experiences and provide insight through resemblance to something familiar to you, while windows provide insight into other experiences and cultures which are different from your own.

I've thought about this dichotomy a lot recently. What is the women in translation project, after all, if not a persistent plea for more windows into new worlds? Yet at the same time, isn't part of my argument that any window will inevitably also reflect aspects of your experiences? Glass is maybe not the best mirror, but it can definitely serve as one. And what about stories that aren't designed for certain readers? What about stories that demand work in crossing a clear cultural threshold?

I've spent much of this past month dancing around this question from multiple angles, if not expressly. My initial goal for WITMonth this year was to broaden my own reading to countries, continents, and cultures with which I was less familiar, and I have thus far found myself exposed to so many different worlds and experiences than I was expecting. Some experiences have been wholly positive, but I inevitably also often find myself confused or ambivalent about certain books. Take my main criticism of Ambai's A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, that the book does not provide enough context for an uneducated English-language audience - am I not simply complaining that I don't know enough about Tamil/Indian culture to be able to appreciate the book? Am I not revealing my own shortcomings, rather than that of the book itself? Does my appreciation of the breadth of history Chantal T. Spitz introduces in Island of Shattered Dreams not give too much weight to her work by virtue of it attempting to tell Tahiti's story to a foreign audience? Does this make me a literary tourist? Are these bad things?

I increasingly find myself thinking in terms of three categories of cultural reading, rather than two: Mirrors, windows, and doors.

  1. Mirrors: These can be direct or indirect. I might read a book that is directly reflective of experiences I have had and is utterly familiar, but I also might find mirrors in stories that are otherwise distant. A family epic, for instance, may have its own cultural touchstones, but little things that can bind together different cultures in a way that will make a totally "window"ed story feel familiar and reflective.
  2. Windows: These are stories that provide a glimpse into another world, openly and intentionally. They acknowledge that they are distant and separated by a wall, while still playing out in full view of that distant reader. Windows can serve as introductions to new cultures and experiences, often in a clearly defined way.
  3. Doors: A door is a fixed object. You typically cannot immediately see beyond it. But you can open it and cross a threshold into someone else's home and experience. The invitation for you to enter is there, but the story is still written to happen beyond four, closed walls, without necessarily assuming that you will enter entirely or that you will engage once inside. Doors give you insight into the world as someone else lives it, no changes made.
The women in translation project is always going to be about crossing cultures; works written in one language are always going to be different than what they may have been had they been written in another. To focus for a moment on the concept of translation at large, every single book we read in translation (from any language into any language, even including translations from English) is going to provide some bridge across different cultures, even if these are similar. And the things we write for one audience is never going to be the same as what we may write for another. As I wrote earlier in the month, different languages have different power and influence. Every work that crosses a border inherently has to address that cultural gap, whether expressly (windows) or in its distance (doors). 

The mirror/window/door theory is maybe only one fraction of literature (after all, not everything has to be about culture or personal experiences!), but when we talk so much about the unique value of women writers in translation, it feels like an important reminder. To take an example from one of the last books I read, I may not be half-Angolan half-Portuguese like Djamilia Pereira de Almeida's main character Mila or have the same relationship with my hair as that protagonist in That Hair (a book that I imagine will be much more of a mirror for Black women in culturally white countries, while for me it serves as a window), but I can see myself in her questions about identity across different borders and between different aspects of one's self. A book like A Kitchen in the Corner of the House may be a slightly confusing door for me, but it still leaves me with the option of exploring the "house" as a whole and learning more about Ambai and the culture from which she wrote. And Island of Shattered Dreams serves as a reminder that windows still come attached to houses with doors, making me want to "enter" and learn so much more about Tahitian culture. 

I am lucky to be able to access these stories and books. I am lucky to be able to learn as I do. Truthfully, I realized a long time ago that I will never be able to travel everywhere on Earth, nor speak to people from all sorts of different backgrounds. All I can do is try to listen where I can, which is a huge part of why I value literature in translation so much and literature by women writers in translation especially, particularly when the stories are doors more than they are windows (even if it's more difficult for me as a reader!). As my reading takes me ever further from my own culture and background, I am inevitably going to hit some walls in terms of what I know and understand. But isn't that the point of doors, to help me make it through? 

Friday, August 21, 2020

WITMonth Day 21 | Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz | Review

I first heard of Chantal T. Spitz at the wonderful, inaugural Translating Women conference last year. Spitz's English-language translator Jean Anderson presented a paper about cross-cultural literature, representing Pacific literature in a way that I had never before heard. I'm not in the literary field, after all, and the Translating Women conference was my first experience attending a literary academic-style conference; I've attended other literary events and plenty of scientific conferences, but nothing like this. For me, Anderson's presentation was one of the most fascinating and memorable of the conference as a whole. In the course of the talk, she discussed Spitz (as well as other, untranslated writers), and I jotted down in my notes "French is 'not her language', but the language she writes in due to school and education". Moreover, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring Tahitian and Pacific literature, since these are regions of the world I know very little about. I ultimately ordered Island of Shattered Dreams a few months later and read it just at the onset of August.

It would be unfair to say that I devoured Island of Shattered Dreams in one rapturous swell, though I did. It would also be unfair to say that I've been thinking about the short novel extensively since finishing reading it, though I have. These both feel unfair because they don't do enough to emphasize just how strongly Island of Shattered Dreams made me feel, nor how strongly I feel that more readers should be seeking this translation out. From a technical standpoint, Island of Shattered Dreams manages to do so much in so few pages (157), and with an extraordinary balance. Poetry, lyricism, history, politics, and romance all intertwine to form a tiny epic that never feels incomplete. Simply saying "oh, this book is wonderful!" or "I couldn't put it down!" seems like underselling.

The novel - which carries with it a unique meta-context that becomes more apparent and important by the story's end, which I won't get into because I quite enjoyed how it unfolded - follows an Indigenous Tahitian family, initially focused on Tematua and his great love Emere (whose mother is Indigenous and father a white Englishman), later shifting focus to their children: Terii, Eritapeta, and Tetiare. The fluid passage of time is beautifully framed by Tematua: "As Tematua foresaw in his heart, time is rushing out of control", precisely at the cusp of the novel's focus change. Island of Shattered Dreams covers a significant portion of the 20th century without it feeling like an overly drawn out narrative, and the tight family saga means that the novel's overall flow is never impeded. 

Yet this very sentence I just quoted also defines a second, critical theme in Island of Shattered Dreams, since the quote does not end where I stopped it. The full quote is actually "As Tematua foresaw in his heart, time is rushing out of control, troubling people's minds and surreptitiously filling their hearts with shame for the Mā’ohi world and admiration for the pale reflections of the foreigners' world." Ultimately, Island of Shattered Dreams must also be read as a novel about Tahiti/French Polynesia at large: its cultural shifts, its status as an island outpost for a massive colonial power, and various racial/cultural complexities that come attached with both. 

Emere's story is particularly central in this, as she is the not only the product of a mixed-race relationship, she is also caught between cultures and the love both of her parents have for her in that context. Her mother Toofa "hadn't prepared her daughter for the difficulties of life on the outlying islands. She had wanted an easy, modern lifestyle for her, hoping that the man who married her would provide her with a housekeeper and every comfort." Toofa remains rooted to joining the white, Western world (which goes on to influence her grandchildren too), yet accepts Emere's choice leave this society behind and marry Tematua. It's a balance that ripples throughout the remainder of the novel, a reminder of the family's complex history and one that shapes the drama in the book's final chapters.

It's impossible for me to ignore how much I learned from Island of Shattered Dreams. Learning from literature is obviously wonderful and part of the point, but I can't help but feel disheartened by how much I end up relying on fiction to teach me things that I probably should have known earlier. I knew absolutely nothing about French Polynesia or Tahiti prior to reading Island of Shattered Dreams; it's just about exactly on the opposite side of the world from my own home and with no shared language, so this isn't particularly surprising. Still, I left Island of Shattered Dreams wanting to learn more about France's colonial history in the region and its power today. Much like the anthology Indigenous Literatures of Micronesia left me hungry to learn and read other books, so too does Island of Shattered Dreams make me wonder about the island today (Island of Shattered Dreams was published in 1991, which makes it as old as I am, aka not exactly young anymore...). What does Tahitian literature look like today? Will any more of it get translated into English? Spitz's other works are themselves still unavailable in English translation - are these also to remain out of grasp for English-language readers?

And I'm left with more questions, hearkening back to Spitz's remark about writing in French. There are several Mā’ohi words and phrases throughout the novel and Spitz even opens her novel in Mā’ohi. Spitz has already made her words "more accessible" to Western readers by writing them in the colonial French, a language that is bountifully translated from across the world. Yet Island of Shattered Dreams does not appear to have been translated between most languages. It is certainly not available in my native Hebrew, nor, to the best of my Googling, does it appear to have been translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Japanese. Why not? The supposed language barrier (had Spitz written her work entirely in Mā’ohi)  has been "helpfully" removed by the author herself. What more is needed?

I've written all these words without getting to the heart of my response to Island of Shattered Dreams which is, quite simply, that I loved it. I loved the writing. I loved the fluidity. I loved the poetry. I loved the warmth with which Spitz describes her world and life, new-to-me yet so far from being new (and it never feels like an introduction, it feels like... life). Most importantly, I loved the love that is central to so very much of the novel. To use what Anderson explains in her translator note as a Mā’ohi cultural touchstone which I was obviously unfamiliar with until reading the book, I felt Island of Shattered Dreams deep within my belly, that place from which emotions truly do rise (even if this is not how it's usually described in either of my languages). I could not set this book aside for a moment, sitting outside to read under a perfect summer sky, drinking in the book from when the morning air was still cool until the hot noonday sun reached my reading nook. Alongside all of the rest that makes it a valuable work, Island of Shattered Dreams is a beautiful story brimming with all sorts of different forms of love and a love of storytelling (once oral, now put to print) at its very core. How could I not fall in love myself?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

WITMonth Day 20 | Opportunity, not obligation | Video

I've seen some posts lately that have made me want to remind everyone that WITMonth is an opportunity to boost and support women writers in translation, not any sort of obligation as a reader, blogger, reviewer, etc. And this opportunity isn't just limited to August, either!


Hey everyone! So we're 2/3s of the way through August and I wanted to check in on a very specific topic and talk about opportunity, not obligation. So basically, as WITMonth has grown from year to year, there are more and more people getting involved which is amazing and wonderful and so exciting to see, but one of the things that happens is that I'll see more people sort of getting nervous about the fact that they can't take part in WITMonth or won't be able to finish a book or review a book or post or whatever it may be. 

And I just want to remind readers that the point of WITMonth is really the engagement and it's thinking about the issue, it's thinking about the topic, it's thinking "how many books by women writers from around the world have I really read and how many of those are reflective of different languages and different cultures and different backgrounds? What can I do with my own reading?"

And that obviously involves reading books (and I really recommend reading books by women writers in translation, obviously!), but it doesn't have to mean any one specific thing, and of course, you know, #WITForever, it doesn't have to just be in August, so if you're feeling like you didn't really take part in WITMonth this year because you weren't able to read a book or write a review or take part in a readathon or whatever it may be, rest assured! You have definitely taken part. Just by watching this video, YOU are taking part in WITMonth.

I hope everyone's having an amazing time reading wonderful (and maybe less wonderful?) books and thinking about what it means to really read the world... and have a great rest of the month!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

#WITMonth Day 19 | The Restless by Gerty Dambury | Review

I was not expecting The Restless to be what it was. Gerty Dambury's novel (translated from French by Judith G. Miller) somehow struck me as the sort of book I'd need to slog through, something that would be experimental in a frustrating-but-understandably-important way. I have no idea where that idea even came from or why I was initially so put off from the book. Maybe (as always...) the fault is in my own perceptions of the meta-framing - the Feminist Press cover shows a brown-shaded old-fashioned classroom, rows of empty seats. The back cover blurb leads with a little girl's concern over her teacher's disappearance. Somehow - bafflingly - I created some sort of story in mind of what The Restless would be and concluded that I would struggle to read the book. Oh, how wrong I was.

I positively devoured The Restless

At 237 pages, The Restless is neither a short nor particularly long book, but it's somehow massive and brisk at the same time. The best word I can think to describe it is "crackling". And okay, maybe part of my association with that word is because I accidentally got the book wet a year back when I bought it and it dried in such a way that the spine crackles whenever you flip the pages, but goodness if it doesn't apply to the inside as well. The Restless is indeed experimental in a lot of senses, using an honestly pretty strange quadrille framing technique, with alternating narration and constant perspective shifts. That most of the narrators are dead is definitely another weird factor, but my goodness it works. There's so much about this novel that could go wrong, and yet it all works so well.

At the center of The Restless is Émilienne, the young girl "struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher and father", per the cover description. Émilienne defines the novel through her insistence on sitting outside of her house, waiting for her father to return home. Her older siblings look on with worry and fear, narrating the dance that outlines the novel as a whole. Émilienne tells her story in bits, but is also in the process of an abstract conversation with dead neighbors and semi-strangers, characters whose lives intertwine or at times barely brush each other. The dead constantly jostle each for their stage, arguing in little asides and scenes. Together, this mish-mash of different characters tells the story of several pivotal days in Guadeloupe's history, starting from a worker's strike and leading into widespread rioting and violence in May 1967. Thus alongside the story of Émilienne's family history and personal narrative arc (and oh, I do so love a good childhood arc!), Dambury paints a striking portrait of Guadeloupe as a complex whole.

These different threads frequently tug at each other, but the balance is shockingly good. Dambury has the rare ability to pack her story with dozens of characters and plot pieces and keep things tight. The Restless never feels like it's unsure of where it's going or what the point of the novel is. There's always that crackle, something tense and fully confident, both in the writing and the plotting itself. The writing never lets you forget that this book is telling a wide story that is at the same time fully focused on Émilienne. It's relentless. It's excellent.

The Restless has, unfortunately, not gotten very much attention in English, nor has its author. As of publishing this review, Gerty Dambury does not have a Wikipedia page in English and The Restless appears to be her only work translated into English. Dambury, it turns out, is predominantly a playwright, and it occurs me now that this may explain The Restless's pacing, tension, and excellent storytelling balance. I would absolutely love to read/experience more of Dambury's writing, but in the meantime I'd be satisfied to see her gain a wider audience in English through The Restless. A wonderful, special book that I'm so glad I ended up reading.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

WITMonth Day 18 | New Daughters of Africa and WITMonth | Thoughts

I've been working my way through the absolutely phenomenal New Daughters of Africa for the past several months now. I'm 2/3 of the way through, reading in bursts and am repeatedly in awe of everything the book does. Truly. But I'm also frequently reminded of the one thing the book does fairly poorly: women in translation.

This brilliant, inclusive, expansive, international, and wholly diverse collection does so much so well, and yet women writers in translation are almost entirely invisible from the account. To the best of my assessment, there are exactly 7 women writers in translation featured in the collection (one of whom is credited with her co-author, but the translator is oddly ignored). By my count, there are an additional 4 writers who also write/publish in other languages with no translator credit for the included pieces. This is a grand total of 11 writers out of 211 authors (that I counted). In other words: 5%.

I don't want to fault Margaret Busby for mostly focusing on British authors or somehow fault English-language writers for getting a stage. Black women writers are sidelined enough without that and it is absolutely not my intention to suggest that the featured writers don't deserve their spotlight. Once again, I want to emphasize how astoundingly wonderful this collection is - after all, not everything has to be all WIT all the time for it to be of value, even during WITMonth! And there is such value in Busby's collection.

Orange flags represent the seven writers in translation, the blue flags the four additional women writers known to write in languages other than English.

And yet it's a perfect reflection of so much of what I've been talking about here lately. New Daughters of Africa is such a good collection of African and African-descended women writers from across the continent that its Anglo-centrism is baffling. The lack of Afro-Brazilian voices was something that struck me while reading, during one of the rare Afro-Caribbean stories. Afro-Latinx writers generally felt missing from the book in a very real way, not just as an abstract meta-assessment; I literally found myself flipping through to see if the writers happened to be clumped elsewhere in the book (alas, no). Perhaps it's explicitly because New Daughters of Africa does such a good job in offering so many different voices, stories, perspectives, and narratives that it becomes all the more obvious which are missing or underrepresented.

Then there's the last gap, which is almost invisible and which I'm somewhat hesitant to raise. Despite featuring many writers still working out of the African continent, there is not a single work or writer featured or mentioned as writing in a non-colonial language (and again, almost all are specifically English-language writers). Nothing from Igbo, Amharic, Malagasy, Swahili, honestly this list can go on and on with languages of varying literary traditions and scope, where none were even mentioned (to the best of my reading, at least). To reiterate what I wrote the other day: Authors are at liberty to write in whatever language they choose, but it does have an impact on the way stories are conveyed. And as readers, constantly being exposed to stories that have been written with a very specific frame or audience in mind also shapes our perceptions. Writing in other languages and translations have value for all sorts of reasons. For good and for bad, New Daughters of Africa highlights so much of what I've been writing about this past week: It's not only the power dynamics between different languages, but regional/cultural publishing disparities and even the tremendous difficulty in simply finding books by women writers in translation, when even a wonderful resource such as this can't quite bridge the gap. 

I'm loving New Daughters of Africa. I wholeheartedly recommend it to every single WITMonth reader who is looking for something vast and extraordinary to read, even if only 5% of the book is in translation. The book - like Indigenous Literatures of Micronesia - doesn't have to be a full work of/by women in translation in order to represent everything the project stands for. But I also think it's the perfect encapsulation of how women in translation is not a struggle that is separate from other literary movements or efforts. Black women writers in translation deserve more and while I would absolutely love to see a Daughters of Africa in Translation collection someday to balance this, I would have much rather just seen the original collection reflecting writing by all of Africa's daughters, not just those writing in English. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

WITMonth Day 17 | A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai | Review

 It's an odd thing to retroactively compare a book to another that you read later, and yet this is what happened to me with Ambai's A Kitchen in the Corner of the House (tr. from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström). Not long after reading this collection of short stories, I read the multi-author collection Spark of Light: Short Stories by Women Writers of Odisha. In essence, there is very little that connects these two books other than the fact that they are both short story collections by Indian women writers, except of course we need to remember that Tamil and Odia are two completely different languages representing completely different parts of India (which, you know, is huge), they don't even belong to the same language family. Perhaps I would have had the same feeling had I read a short story collection from China or Senegal or Haiti as well. Either way, reading Spark of Light seemed to cement some of my struggles with A Kitchen in the Corner of the House. And I did ultimately struggle with this one quite a bit, even as I recognized a lot of good in it as well.

I'll start with the positives: I loved some of the stories in this collection. I loved the cool writing style. I loved many of the journey stories. I loved how Ambai centered her stories around women's experiences in many different ways. There are some fiercely feminist stories in this collection, as well as stories that reflect changing cultures and societies. As one of the back-cover blurbs note, Ambai does a brilliant job of conveying women's anger in the face of injustice. There's a lot to appreciate here.

The problems begin when judging the book as a whole. First, like many collections, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House doesn't find a very good balance between stories sounding individual enough to stand out and stories flowing together. Short story collections are so often frustrating for this reason, with stories either sounding too similar or too apart. At first, I thought that Kitchen... did a pretty decent job of this balance, but the stories and characters began to blur as I got deeper into the book. This was one of the early points of contrast I found with Spark of Light; that collection is comprised of short stories by different authors and their individual voices carried the book admirably. Kitchen... started to lose me around halfway through, with stories that felt narratively repetitive (if not actually on a plot level). 

The next problem was another retroactive contrast with Spark of Light: the story topics themselves. There are several parallels in terms of stories conveying women's domestic/personal struggles in both collections, but Ambai's oddly seemed less consequential. Ambai's stories are often experimental or slightly shifted in terms of their narrative frame, which leads some to end abruptly or never quite reach their point. I can understand the literary value behind this, but it ends up creating a collection that's much less satisfying than it could be. Many of the stories hover around certain themes without fully landing on them, and this too led me to feel like Kitchen... was somewhat incomplete. The clean lines and conclusions of Spark of Light - which also includes some more experimental stories, yes? - felt like a sharp contrast.

But the biggest problem I had with Kitchen... was ultimately in its lack of context. I have long argued and will continue to argue that readers do not need to be spoonfed when it comes to books from cultures or backgrounds that are different from their own. Moreover, who's to decide whether something is new or unfamiliar to a certain reader, right? I may be unfamiliar with Indian literary traditions, history, religion, or myths, but that doesn't mean that every reader is. Except... except that in translation, the point is often that a book is being brought across different cultures where the reader can't be expected to understand everything. 

And so A Kitchen in the Corner of the House has basically no context beyond the literal text. There is no introduction, there is no afterword, there are no translator notes, there are no footnotes, and even the author biography is not exactly extensive. For a book that includes so many regional, linguistic, and cultural references, this felt like a huge oversight. I tried to supplement what I could through Wikipedia, but this felt like a classic example where a well-written introduction regarding Ambai's writing style, feminism, and academic approach would have hugely benefited the book as a whole. Even just a brief afterword may have tied the collection together a bit better, giving some degree of context to the stories. Worst of all, rather than wanting to read/learn more, I felt like Kitchen... existed in some sort of isolated dimension that didn't invite greater interest. Something critical was missing. 

I came away from the book feeling a little baffled and unhappy. As I already noted, some of the stories were great - memorable, strong writing, powerful in their perspective - but others seemed to float in and out of my consciousness. I ended up skimming quite a few that just weren't doing it for me. And no matter how much I wanted to understand the collection, I felt like I wasn't fully able to, and that kept me from fully appreciating it too. Is it possible that other, more clever readers will understand A Kitchen in the Corner of the House without any sort of extensive introduction or spoonfeeding? Sure, it's possible. But it still feels like a missed opportunity and something that should be an option for the book, even as an external supplement. It still feels like the book - as a whole - just wasn't complete in a lot of ways, not in its context, not in its flow between stories, and not in its own overarching message. I ultimately liked A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, I can rank it as a decently good read and recommend it to some readers. But it's not an easy recommendation. And even with the positives, I find myself somewhat disappointed.