Monday, August 10, 2020

WITMonth Day 10 | What the 100 Best WIT can teach us about shaping a future canon

Last year's big WITMonth project was the 100 Best WIT. Together, readers from around the world sent in their favorite books by women writers in translation and we built what I had hoped would be a new canon of sorts. The ultimate product is one I am both enormously proud of and somewhat disappointed by, as I've previously detailed. As wonderful a list as it is (and it really is wonderful!), the 100 Best WIT remains dominantly European in a way that emphasizes how limited the scope of literature by women writers in translation remains.

Yet despite this disappointment, I find myself wondering if there aren't lessons to be learned about forming a new canon even from this imperfect list. In a video that I posted a few days before the end of the submission period last year, I mentioned how very contemporary the list was; I mentioned this again when revealing the final list itself as well. A contemporary list may strike most readers as the opposite of canon - these works have yet to prove themselves! - though in my view this is precisely what makes the 100 Best WIT such a fascinating contra to standard lists. The canon is no less a selection of popular titles than any modern list, the only exception being that someone has decreed that these particular books have value, and that status is then perpetuated over time.

There is no question in my mind that the canon needs a full overhaul and reshaping. It's not enough to say that the canon includes outdated, racist, sexist, or even just bad books, we have to acknowledge the mistakes that go into crafting canons. It's not for nothing that the 100 Best WIT was partly born in response to Boyd Tonkin's* starkly imbalanced The 100 Best Novels in Translation. Tonkin made many choices - intentional or not - that took an existing problem in terms of women's representation in translation (to English) and exacerbated it, whether in beginning his canon in the 17th century (rather than the 11th, which marks the actual dawn of the novel era, as set by Murasaki Shikibu herself) or in de-emphasizing works written in the 20th century. I wrote about this in that original post, arguing that exclusion is a choice, particularly when determining a new canon.

A future canon would have to take a lot of different questions into account. Eternal fame, we're now reminded, is hardly the marker of true literary quality and often fails to take into account external factors regarding an author's personal behavior or at-times abhorrent views, which themselves necessitate reevaluation of the texts. Popularity is not fixed and often depends on so many other cultural and social factors. We should ask ourselves why a canon may look thin or limited in some ways - are we overemphasizing certain voices/perspectives at the expense of others? We would need to interrogate our own literary exposure and education - how do we rank a book that is clearly part of the canon in one country but an under-the-radar sales bust in another? 

The 100 Best WIT doesn't answer these questions as much as remind us of them. Even with its European bias, our list still fails to include literary giants like Selma Lagerlöf, George Sand, Christine de Pizan, Madame de La Fayette, Isabelle de Charrière, or Anna Akhmatova. Not to mention Sei Shōnagon or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and if we start to expand our 20th century greats: Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, Mahasweta Devi, Qurratulain Hyder, Maryse Condé, Can Xue... This is not to suggest that women writers in translation from the 21st century are not to be valued (quite the contrary!), but it's still an important reminder of how little space we're leaving these writers in our larger literary landscape. We give temporary - contemporary - space to new writers, without filling in the gaps of the past. And those writers absolutely exist and many of them are worthy of so much more attention and respect. The writers I just listed are only among those I've personally read (or am currently reading, in the case of Hyder). There are dozens, hundreds, likely thousands more women writers from around the world who simply need that space reallocated. Isn't that what the canon is supposed to do?

It's not just lessons from the mistakes, there are also lessons from the best parts of the 100 Best WIT. Despite its geographic limitations, the 100 Best WIT does make space for a lot of women writers from different backgrounds than those usually found in "Best of" lists. In addition to more than a tenth of the list coming from Japanese women writers alone, there are also several queer classics/modern classics, books from a wide range of genres, and multiple books that tackle huge political issues (whether as nonfiction or through fictional means). It can't be described as a homogeneous list by any stretch of the imagination, whether stylistically, in terms of genre, or writer background (even with the Eurocentrism - Europe is not homogeneous either!).

These are things we need to remember for the future. These are things we need to remember for any future canon we may build, WIT-specific or not. We may argue that the canon is dead, but that doesn't mean much for the concept of the canon or canonization as a literary process - those will exist no matter how many old, outdated, sexist, and racist lists we throw away. So one year after the 100 Best WIT, let's take a moment to appreciate the revolutionary nature of creating a new canon (including the flaws and failures in the system that highlight existing biases!) and what it means for the future.

And yes, let's remember some of these books for that future canon as well, shall we?

* It should be noted that Tonkin himself is someone who does support the women in translation movement through serving as a judge for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, even if I do not personally accept his arguments as to why 14/100 WIT is reasonable representation

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