Thursday, January 14, 2021

Decentering and centering | Thoughts

More musings: Anything I'm able to write up for my huge new project (#DailyWIT) is going to be biased because of what I'm able to access.

I wrote the other week about compiling this new list and some of the challenges involved. I know that the list will never be perfect and I am not aiming for perfection. I'm aiming for something that will contribute to raising the visibility of and awareness toward women writers in translation, even if only a little. I believe that any list would be able to achieve that, to be honest, which does mean that I have a few other ambitions tossed in. While I know it's impossible to really reflect the world in an exactly proportional way, I am also not very interested in doing so. Instead, I am trying to continue the legacy of my first ever big list of women in translation - the 2019 50 Day Countdown. Now, as then and certainly as in the 2020 50 Day Countdown, I want to make sure my list reaches corners of the world, cultures, backgrounds, and languages that maybe aren't always centered or heavily promoted. 

The problem is that I come with a bias that I cannot shake off - language.

Linguistic bias may seem like an obvious topic for a blog that has focused on international literature for the past eight or so years, but I'm not talking about bias from a place of which books I'm able to read. I'm talking about bias from a place of which authors I'm able to learn about. I am privileged enough to read (fluently) in two languages, passably in a third, and can understand the gist with the help of Google Translate in another few (across a few different alphabets). Which all together leaves me with what must surely be a wider range of resources than most, but certainly a smaller range of resources than I would like.

I cannot write about authors I cannot learn about.

This has been a problem in the past, but it feels even more obvious now that I'm trying to come up with 365 new women writers from around the world (after already having compiled a list of 100 in the past two years). 365 women writers from backgrounds, languages, and experiences that are already difficult to track. International literature is already so marginalized in English that finding anything can be difficult, but even more when seeking works by women writers and particularly women writers of different (i.e. non-European) backgrounds. I can stalk Wikipedia all I want (and I do! and I make incredible discoveries thanks to a pretty special talent for searching!), but when push comes to shove, I'm limited by whatever resources exist in English. And the more layers of marginalization an author faces, so to speak, the harder it is to find resources in languages I can access, if they even exist.

I often feel guilty for this. English-language bias and Anglo-centrism shape so many of my critiques at the core of this project, and yet they shape so much. (Hebrew, my other native language, unfortunately doesn't always have all that many more resources than English, though there are some and they often provide me with incredible insight that makes me wish I knew more languages!) The limitations of English end up defining most of the limitations of whatever projects I may want to embark on. It's inevitable, yes, but disappointing.

I dream of a day where that won't be the case. Where the women in translation project will truly exist across languages and borders and cultures. It already doesn't feel like so far-fetched a dream; WITMonth has been recognized in so many different countries and languages from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica, but I'll get those penguins or penguin scientists eventually!). But I still feel like I often need to remind people that just because I'm mostly framing myself and the project in English doesn't mean it is an English-language project - it's not. It cannot be. It must not be.  

My language barrier means that the #DailyWIT list will be biased, like almost all of my other work in this field. I'm one person (for now), there's no way around that fact. English will remain at the center of this blog and most of what I'm able to tweet about and share. But at the same time, I hope I can hold onto that decentering. I hope I can remind readers - bilingual or not! - that English should not be our only outlet for this conversation. And I hope, as ever, that I'm able to contribute something that will, somehow, manage to make up for whatever inevitable flaws come with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A product of its time, in unprecedented times

This is not a review. These are, in fact, extremely scattered thoughts following a rather disjointed and confused reading experience, that triggered within me a cascade of almost indescribable feelings. And yet I will try to explain them.

I finished reading The Emissary not three hours ago. I stopped trying to write critical reviews soon after completing a book years ago, realizing that I was never quite able to capture what the book meant to me and often ended up either overestimating how much a book would leave a mark on me or underestimating whatever undercurrent might constantly suck my thoughts back into a text weeks later. So suffice to say that writing a review mere hours after finishing the book is not something I'm really interested in doing. Again: This is not a review.

No, this is much more of a meditation of books as products of their time. It's a phrase I've used myself (quite often) to describe older texts that had literary value that seemed to expressly reside in the context of the time in which the book was published. Many stories do not translate well across generations and subsequent culture changes - a perfectly normal and acceptable phenomenon. But The Emissary is, of course, a fairly recent book. Yoko Tawada's slim dystopia was originally published in 2014 in Japanese, and translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018. I purchased it in 2019. Recent, recent, recent. So how could this book be a "product of its time" and why did that phrase continuously ring in my mind as I read it?

It starts in a public park, earlier this morning. The sun was shining, surprisingly warm for a winter day (sweater only), but of course it's been warm all week. I am sitting in a patch of sunshine and cracking open this novella, which I partially chose to take with me on my lockdown walk because it could fit in my coat pocket. And almost instantly, it strikes me that there is something absurd to the whole situation. Something that simply didn't work anymore.

The Emissary is a dystopia; it spends a good portion of its pages detailing the ways in which the world has fallen apart or changed. Its premise - like that of most dystopias - relies on hovering in the in-between space of being just slightly believable enough that it could become real, but still thoroughly unbelievable enough that it's not just fiction. Speculative fiction of this category has to walk a very fine line. 

When The Emissary was written (and translated into English), the idea of a country becoming wholly isolated from its surroundings fit in that in-between zone. When it was written, an environmental catastrophe that shapes and shrinks and wholly reshapes its main characters' world was speculative fiction. It could happen, but it hasn't. Except here I was on this too-warm Saturday morning in January (less than 1km from my home, per lockdown orders), reading this novel with a mask covering my nose and mouth, desperately trying to find a deserted patch of sunshine from which to read apart from the various families, couples, and individuals who had come out to enjoy the sunshine as I had. The dystopia I lived in seemed to mock the dystopia that Tawada had so carefully crafted. No, The Emissary does not remotely imagine a world like our current one, but to the contrary - the differences meant that her world no longer felt believable. Too many little references and ideas and world-building threads suddenly felt... dated. The book felt like something that had clearly been written in Before-times.

This is an exaggeration, of a sort. Tawada's work is, again, so distant from our current lives that it doesn't really change in response to whatever changes our world is going through. Rather, it was that I had changed. As a reader, I found myself approaching The Emissary with a jaded sadness that I'm sure I would not have had two years ago. Unlike straight-fiction which I've largely been able to read as before, the dystopian nature of The Emissary made me feel like its subtle misses and too-on-the-nose predictions placed it just out of reach, somehow. (Emotionally, that is.) I couldn't view this is an "irrepressibly funny, playfully joyous novel", as the back cover promises. At all. At all. The book seemed to drain me of all feeling and joy. It was interesting, yes, and there's a lot I appreciated about its writing, and if I ever write a real review there's a lot I can also discuss about its worldbuilding strengths, but I could not view it through an enjoyable lens. 

I imagine I will encounter more books like this in the future, that are reshaped by the experiences of this past year (these unprecedented times) and possibly by future events I cannot yet fathom (hopefully positive ones). It is inevitable that as the world barrels onward and history is made on an almost-daily basis, my relationship with fiction - its limits, its plausibility, its impact - will change accordingly. Perhaps I should have expected this sort of response to The Emissary and waited to read it, but I find myself rather grateful for the experience and the thought process it triggered. I am a changed reader after the past year - it's good to know that.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Lists, or, embarking on new projects

I occasionally like making lists. Not necessarily the hard work behind it, but the way a list looks when it's done. I like the way lists can organize thoughts or approaches. There's beauty to it, at the end of the day.

I'd been toying with the idea of daily tweets on my "Women in Translation" account for a while. It's not an original idea, of course, and I've made similar big threads in the past. But I wanted to try to stretch my boundaries a little this year. I want to make it impossible for readers to miss the incredible range of women writers from around the world. 2021 is going to be the year that I simply do not let up. I refuse to.

So here's what I'm doing: I'm making a list. A very long list, to be perfectly honest. For every day of 2021 (not necessarily posted every day, because, well, that won't be possible due to all sorts of factors...), I will be sharing a brief tidbit about one woman writer from around the world writing in a language other than English, living or dead, near or far, translated or not. I know that the list will be imperfect in a lot of ways, whether in terms of giving space to authors it will emerge I do not like (since I am not filtering author inclusion on whether I've read their works or not, at least not at this stage), or in terms of mistakes that may fall along the way in my assumptions or awareness of their works. I expect that the list will end up including authors that will frustrate some readers. Maybe that should even be part of the point, I'm not sure.

I decided to compile this list because I'm tired of the omissions. I'm tired of the fact that time and again, readers come away with the perception that women writers exist in English, and only in English. This simply isn't true. Yes, there are certain biases in place that seem to drive women to write in English over native languages, but more than that, there is a persistent unwillingness to create space for those women who do write in languages other than English. A brief run-through of sites like Words Without Borders and Asymptote Journal reveal that women are often wholly missing from "underrepresented" languages. And to be perfectly frank, these aren't actually languages with few speakers; Punjabi, for example, has over 100 million native speakers, and no translations of works by women... But this is just one example, and while I'm sure some languages have imbalances galore, I'm not convinced that there are simply no women writers.

So just as I've done in the past with the 50 Day Countdowns, I want to set the record straight. There are going to be all sorts of challenges involved in compiling this list, yes, especially since I refuse for it to be an overwhelmingly white, European list either and don't want to repeat authors previously included in the countdowns. There are challenges galore. But you know what? It'll be worth it, if I manage. It'll be worth it to come and say, flatly, "No. Women writers exist across the whole world, across all these languages, cultures, regions, and experiences." Women cannot be the afterthought when it comes to literary engagement or awareness. This new project is just my latest way to try to reset the record, even if only a little bit.