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? 

1 comment:

  1. This is a really great way of thinking about reading books in translation!


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam. Sorry!