Wednesday, August 12, 2020

WITMonth Day 12 | Regional and cultural disparities in a complicated world

There's been an interesting recurring question that's come up since I published my personal WITMonth plans, in which I announced my intention to read and discuss books from specific regions of the world during August. In comments and elsewhere, some readers have asked me why I prepared banners for certain author groups and not others. Where were Latin American women? Where were non-South Asian writers? It's a legitimate question and I think it's time to address it.

Last week, I posted the full list of this year's 50 Day Countdown. Like last year's list, every choice this year was deliberate and pointed. Last year, I sought to have a list that was thoroughly comprised of women of color, without a single white European woman writer. While it's true that not all European writers are made "equal" in terms of industry attention and care, the status of most women writers from outside of Europe is significantly worse off. This year, I wanted to focus on women of African descent specifically (partly inspired by Margaret Busby's New Daughters of Africa, a book I'll be discussing more in depth in the future), but soon realized that it's not just African or African-descent women writers in translation who are often underserved. Indigenous women writers - particularly those writing in indigenous languages - are also a rare sight in translation, even when coming from the closest possible literary traditions (see: Canadian First Nations French-language writers). South and Southeast Asian writers are similarly starkly undertranslated as compared with East Asian writers. And Middle Eastern and Caribbean writers are also often left in the wayside.

And so this year's WITMonth countdown and plan were born. 

It's hard for me to give a clear name for my focus. "Underrepresented in English" is incomplete, after all - many of the writers in the 50 Day Countdown and those I'm reading this month are currently living and working out of Europe. A decent proportion are mixed race writers who specifically write about racial and cultural identity. As I've already mentioned this month, French is the most-translated-into-English language and is a dominant language among African writers (thanks, colonialism?), yet African women writers are extraordinarily rare in translation. 

Similarly, my focus on writers from the Americas is blatantly skewed. To put it bluntly: I'm not particularly interested in white Latin American women writers this year. While recognizing that within a US-specific context some Latin American writers share a certain status and while continuing to recognize that like all women in translation, all Latin American WIT are underrepresented on a big-picture scale, there's no denying that Latin America has its own vast diversity which is rarely reflected in translation. Frankly, the most obvious example of this is the fact that Argentina is the Latin American country with the most translations into English, and Argentina is overwhelmingly a country of white European immigrants. Even among the most popular Mexican writers, a not-small proportion are writers of wholly white European background. The Americas have so many voices from so many different backgrounds, yet like with so many other examples, we're not truly given access to most.

It's a recurring pattern. Take Indian women writers, for example. Setting aside the fact that most of the highly-publicized-in-English Indian writers write in English, I've long known that I've read works by far too few Indian women writers. Except I soon realized that I didn't even know of Indian women writers from the vast majority of different Indian languages. India is a massive and massively diverse country (subcontinent!), with literally a dozen different languages with over 30 million native speakers! The fact that the only Indian language I had read full-length works from was Bengali was something that I was deeply unhappy about; I'm glad that I've had the chance to correct this somewhat of late (having read a work translated from Tamil and a collection from Odia), but this is nowhere near where I want to be. There actually are many works translated into English and published across India, but they're just often unavailable to different international audiences. (This is true of a surprising amount of countries where English is a common bridge language, and if anyone in the industry wants to do something about it... please?) 

Meanwhile, like with the imbalances within Latin America, can we really say that this is comparable to the amount of books by women writers translated from Korean and Japanese? Not to diminish from these works - again, there are huge cultural barriers that already place these works at a far greater disadvantage relative to works by white European writers! - but the skew feels large enough that I personally decided to wait a few more weeks with some of the Japanese and Korean women writers currently on my reading list. (And there are plenty.) 

So what have I been reading? Black women writers, mostly, and I've been trying to boost up my reading list even further. Indian women writers as well, trying to get my hands on different writers from different languages and backgrounds. (Instagram has been amazing for this, there are a bunch of wonderful Bookstagrammers promoting incredible-looking books by Indian women writers!) I've tried to spread out into regions I'm really unfamiliar with, like Tahiti (Chantal T. Spitz's Island of Shattered Dreams, which I hope to review soon) and Micronesia at large (albeit not exactly a work filled with women in translation, but still very much within the spirit of: Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia). I'm hoping to read more works from women writers from across the Arab world (taking much inspiration from ArabLit, as usual). And yes, I'd like to make sure that my reading remains varied among these groups, whether in terms of promoting queer women writers from around the world or just voices from all sorts of different backgrounds (religious, socio-economic, cultural, physical, etc.).

My goal isn’t to define or judge anyone else's reading choices. For a lot of readers Latin American and East Asian writers aren’t dominant voices in any meaningful way. White European women writers in translation are still absolutely underrepresented relative to the broader literary landscape. Every time we recognize that and recognize the biases within this conversation, we're taking steps in the right direction! But there's still more. This is just my little bit.


  1. I've probably said this before, but I continue to truly admire the thoughtful, careful way you approach your reading. It's an example to me of the kind of reader I want to be, and I'm forever grateful for you as a person of the book world. <3

  2. Yes, this is an area in which I have to admit I fail. Even in reading those few that are published - and that's partly because it's much harder to find them, or they are out of print or out of stock or published in only one territory and impossible to procure abroad etc. Still, I could be trying harder.

  3. Margaret Busby's first book Daughter's of Africa was a wonderful find for me, I particularly enjoy women writer's from Africa and from the Caribbean, whether in English or translated and I love that there's now an updated version as well. Your dedication and sharing of thoughts and finds are so great, as ever - thank you so much.


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