Wednesday, August 18, 2021

WITMonth Day 18 | Assessing Archipelago

This post is a long time coming. It is also an extremely difficult one to write, but here we are.

I have long prided my independence as a book blogger. This is something I've written about separately, here and there, but the truth is that I've always wanted to remain strongly independent as a blogger, because I do not want to feel beholden to anyone in the publishing industry. Much as I respect and admire many voices within that framework (publishers, writers, translators), I cannot view myself as one of its ranks. And because of this, I also feel comfortable ostensibly burning bridges where necessary. This is why I felt comfortable pushing back against Dalkey Archive's absurd argument that they had said enough on the matter of women in translation, back in 2015. (Note that the link to the original thread is now dead, but Dalkey's responses remain up.) When push comes to shove, my duty is to truth and reality, not to any one publisher or voice in the publishing industry.

I have, however, largely avoided challenging publishers publicly and directly. For years, I've politely reached out to publishers to get their statements regarding the dearth of women writers in their catalogs. Archipelago were one of those that ignored me most frequently, rather outrightly. Eventually, I got a placid reassurance that they are working on the matter. That was 2019. Now, in 2021, I can rest assured that the benefit of the doubt that I gave them at the time was unwarranted. Enough is enough.

I have purchased plenty of books from Archipelago Books over the years. I have also recommended them plenty, seeing as one of my absolute favorite books of the past decade is from their catalog (Scholastique Mukasonga's Cockroaches, and yes, you should read it if you haven't yet). I am also on their mailing list, and as such frequently receive their self-laudatory calls for donations and support. But we'll get to that shortly. The point is that I'm not writing this post out of a sense of cancelling Archipelago. I have no interest in folks no longer buying their books and penalizing their authors (particularly not their brilliant women writers), I am interested in Archipelago getting their act together and acknowledging and addressing their bias against women writers.

Here's the deal: I tallied up all of Archipelago's publications. Both in translation and not (though the overwhelming majority are in translation). Archipelago and their children's imprint Elsewhere Editions. All the books, of all times per the website. And the conclusion is stark: Archipelago Books apparently does not have any interest in publishing women writers. Among their publicly cataloged books, they have 153 books exclusively written by men, 1 anthology written by both men and women, and only 27 books exclusively written by women. For those who don't want to do the math, that's 15%. Or, in visual terms:

And at Elsewhere Editions, their children's literature imprint? Well, going by authors (which is how I judge the women in translation project), Elsewhere Editions has published a grand total of 15 books by men authors...

...oh, sorry, were you waiting for the number of books by women writers? You'll have to wait until they publish one. (Reminder: Elsewhere Editions was founded after I began the women in translation project/WITMonth and after several attempts to contact Archipelago about their massive gender imbalance in the parent catalog. They knew.) Let me reiterate this point: A children's literature imprint has somehow managed to publish 15 books of which none are by women writers. Children's. Literature. No women.

If I sound exasperated, it's because I am.

Archipelago are a disaster when it comes to publishing women writers, plain and simple. Across the board. No matter how generous I would like to be, it's simply impossible to come away from this data and not recognize that something very rotten lies as its core. Moreover, I have little desire to be particularly generous, given the ways in which Archipelago seem either willfully unaware (or cynically mocking) of their astonishing gender gap. Last year, I was stunned to receive an email regarding Elsewhere Editions, that, in their words, "respond[ed] to the urgent need for diversity in children's literature". This email was a call for donations, and possibly a successful one, based on the subsequent donation requests I have received since. It is difficult to express how unsettled this email left me; how, I wondered, could a publisher of all men writers from a majority Western/Northern European countries (overwhelmingly white, otherwise) cite diversity without feeling at least the tiniest bit of shame and self-awareness?

It's not the first time this sort of cynicism has emerged, at least on my part. Against all odds, Archipelago are sporadically involved in WITMonth, with occasional promotional tweets and discounts. Just this month, I received an email regarding their ongoing WITMonth discount, attached with what looks like a very respectable list of women writers, until you realize they included works with women translators, and also that the list is actually way shorter than the 80 or so which would bring them close to the parity mark. Women, it seems, are perhaps not worth actively seeking out and publicizing, but excellent as a marketing device?

I'm writing this all with the knowledge that my individual post won't make a difference. It's not as though I haven't reached out to Archipelago in the past. In the first few years of the women in translation project, they simply did not respond to my queries. In 2019, they gave me the laundry list of individual case studies, without acknowledging the broader picture and existing imbalances. And it is clear that they did not make any active effort to change matters. As of writing this post, the latest catalogue on Archipelago's website is their Fall 2020/Spring 2021 collection, which has 1 English-language work by a man writer, 8 books by men in translation, and 3 books by women in translation. 25%! Elsewhere Editions remains woman-less, though there is at least one woman illustrator (huzzah...?). At this point, I see little point in personally reaching out again.

As I mentioned at the top, Archipelago have published some of my favorite works of the past few years and have a remarkably interesting catalogue overall. It's important that we as readers acknowledge the good alongside the bad. But we as readers have to seriously address when publishers are simply not up to snuff. And we have to do something. We have to make sure that Archipelago understand that this isn't acceptable. The cherry-picking of individual women writers is not an acceptable response to a catalog of bias and omission.

I ask readers of this blog (and all WITMonth aficionados) to make your voices heard. Tweet at Archipelago. Write to them. Make clear that your support of their publications (whether during their donation drives or otherwise) is contingent on them actually publishing women writers. #PublishWIT, as far as I'm concerned, should go viral. While Archipelago are far from the only publishers out there to stumble in this regard, they are one of the most egregious. It's time for this to change.

In case anyone was wondering a bit more about the placement of the pen and the underlined line in the photo above, those represent the ten titles written by Karl Ove Knausgård. Alone. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

WITMonth Day 16 | The backlog, or, the Classics

No, women did not begin writing in 1950. No, women writers in translation didn't only come into existence in the early 2000s. No, women writers weren't always anonymous or writing under a pen name. No, early women in translation weren't all just European...

Before I ended up formulating the idea for the DailyWIT, one of the thoughts I had for something I could do for WITMonth this year would be a list of classic women writers in translation, all of whom predominantly lived and wrote prior to the 20th century. The term "classic" is hardly fixed, of course, and numerous women writers are (finally!!!) being welcomed into the hallowed halls of that definition, but it remains deeply gender-divided. And it remains a category that is largely devoid of women writers in translation, at least when compiling lists in English. Remember the impetus for crowdsourcing the 100 Best WIT? Remember the fact that from the onset, the original 100 Best Novels in Translation set a cut-off such that it simply could not count The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel (which just happens to have been written by a Japanese woman)?

Let's start with the usual disclaimers: There is no guarantee that older works by women writers are good, but it is worth noting just how many works by women writers in translation have been lost to time, while mediocre works by men writers remain firmly part of "the canon". It is also difficult for me to ascertain whether a certain writer belongs to the canon, seeing as I am not really engaging with the whole of literature in any way and really don't want to make any grand claims as such. I'm not coming to say that Tolstoy or Cervantes or Dante shouldn't continue to be read and admired (I have, in fact, read all three!). What I'm saying is that maybe it should be better known that The Tale of Genji was the first novel, and Murasaki Shikibu the first novelist. Maybe it should be better known that the first named writer in human history was a woman - Enheduanna. (And no, I haven't read the fragments of her work yet! I only just learned of her this year.) Maybe it should be better known that there were extremely popular and well-recognized poets who just so happened to be women across modern-day China, Vietnam, Nepal, Korea, Cambodia, India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and more. Maybe it should be better known that women have written across minority and today-marginalized languages throughout history as well, such as Glikl Bas Leib, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawage Zhikaquay), Mwana Kupona, and many others. 

And maybe those works that are known and publicized deserve a lot more recognition from readers. As we saw from the 100 Best WIT, readers tend to skew toward newer titles. That makes sense, of course, but it's worth asking why we're not leaving space for the backlog. And I can't absolve myself of this either! With only one exception, all of the books I've finished this past year have been originally published in either the 21st century or the last two decades of the 20th. But that one exception was notable - Moderata Fonte's The Merits of Women, a short proto-feminist treatise on womanhood and women's rights from the 16th century. Like other works of its kind, it both strikes the reader as an important step in European feminist discourse throughout the centuries, but also challenges in the ways in which it very clearly is not applicable or relevant to modern conversations. 

Other classic women writers in translation on my TBR challenge me in other ways: Anna Komnene's The Alexiad seems to be a historical text to rival Herodotus, Glikl Bas Leib's memoirs a work that may be as close to a glimpse of some of my ancestors' lives as I'll ever get, George Sand's Indiana a novel of the sort that enlightens, entertains, and engages... and then, of course, there's the book I've been reading since the start of the year - The Tale of Genji, that most exhausting and fascinating and intriguing and angering and emotionally inspiring work that, again, just so happens to be humanity's very first novel. (And first historical romance? Go figure.)

And these are just the start. The backlog is mostly unavailable to me and the vast majority of readers across pretty much all languages, because classic women writers remain woefully under-translated (not just into English). In compiling the DailyWIT, I have encountered so many pre-20th century women writers who were highly acclaimed in their times and appear to have been forgotten. Sometimes this is an English-specific amnesia, but not always. A lot of women writers have been forgotten in their native languages as well, or deliberately erased. My hope is that the few classic WIT I have promoted so far (and will continue to promote until the end of the year!) will someday have their moment of recognition. There are so many new books to read, yes, but can't I take a break to read the old ones too?

Monday, August 9, 2021

WITMonth Day 9 | 4 WITty science books

Those of you who have followed this blog for many years know that I'm a scientist as well as being an avid book lover. So it should come as no surprise that one of my very favorite WITMonth activities is reading science nonfiction by women scientists from around the world! While I eagerly await new volumes and books to hit my shelves, here are four great (if rather geographically limited...) books by women scientists in translation!

Extraordinary Insects (aka Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects) was a rather astonishing discovery for me as a reader. I'm not particularly fond of insects (in fact, I'm rather notoriously terrified of one type...), but Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson's excellent treatise on them (translated from Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt) completely swept me away. It's heartfelt and detailed and passionate in the very best ways, without forgetting to be informative and interesting. It's one of those books I've been gushing about since the moment I read it, and suffice to say that I was extremely excited when I learned that a new followup was being released! (Tapestries of Life)

Diving For Seahorses (aka Adventures in Memory), meanwhile, seems to plead a slightly better "popular science" case for itself. Cowritten by writer and scientist sisters Hilde and Ylva Østby (respectively, translated from Norwegian by Marianne Lindvall), the book is a smooth, literary-feeling scientific exploration of the brain and memory. While more anecdotal than heavily research-based, something about Diving for Seahorses nonetheless manages to tickle that scientific urge... particularly to learn more!

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon is, interestingly, yet another Norwegian popular science book! (Goodness, what is it with Norwegian popular science and where can I get more?) (This translation is by Barbara Haveland.) Here, the rather weird and wondrous world of mushrooms is merged with a culture of mushrooming and a larger story of grief. The book does a lovely job in balancing these three threads, but never sacrificing any one; you come out with a feeling that yes, you did just learn an awful lot about the lives of mushrooms and their different species and their growth and their prevalence and their biology. You just also learned a lot about humans. Isn't that cool?

Finally, Finding Our Place in the Universe is the (non-Norwegian!) astrophysical response to the world of popular science literature. Hélène Courtois's book (translated from French by Nikki Kopelman) may be relatively slim, but it's no lightweight, giving a surprisingly detailed background to the universe in its short span. This is a book that gives you a taste of what astrophysics (or rather cosmology!) is really like, in discussing both the observational aspects alongside the modeling/computational parts that are extrapolated from those observations. If you (like me) are a tiny bit obsessed with cosmology, you are bound to adore what this book does, as well as how it does it. There are lovely personal touches to the book that make it a fascinating read overall.

These are just a taste, of course, and I continue to seek out more scientific WIT titles! I look forward to the day when my list might comprise of titles from more countries and regions of the world (...sorry Norway...), but continue to delight in the science I have been exposed to for now.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

WITMonth Day 8 | Night Birds and Other Stories by Khet Mar | Review

I sometimes grow nervous over the books I choose to read. In my desire to read writers from across the world, there is always the risk that I may forget that the works that I'm reading are, above all else, works of literature with artistic value and meaning beyond their meta-narratives, and often very good works of literature. After all, consider the hurdles writers of particularly marginalized/"underrepresented" backgrounds must face just to get translated, and what that typically means in terms of someone's very strong insistence that this particular work be published. By virtue of having been translated, it reflects an often-extraordinary effort to see the work make it across linguistic borders. But the fear lingers. 

I came into Night Birds and Other Stories (translated from Burmese by Maung Maung Myit) with threads of this concern. Night Birds is the first Burmese work I have ever read, having been introduced to Khet Mar while compiling the DailyWIT. The short collection piqued my interest and I purchased it not long afterward. I finished it yesterday; this review is far more fresh than my typical ones, in which I usually prefer having some space to process the text and my reaction to it. But somehow, that feels mildly unnecessary with Night Birds. Simply put: It is a solidly good book. Not an excellent one, but a good one.

The titular novella - Night Birds - reads almost like a young adult novel (even though its main characters are adults, full stop, despite the brief introductory paragraph which describes them as teenagers...), with a quiet emotional bond and a slowly unfolding understanding of the world. The novella is direct. Even without that odd introductory blurb expressly pointing to how the story is a metaphor for prison and oppression (thus explaining why it was banned by the government), the story reflects a tense claustrophobia and pervasive oppression. The story opens with violence and locked doors and isolation, slowly opening up as the two deeply lonely main characters share their stories with each other and the reader. It is, as I said, fairly direct. There's poeticism and beauty in the writing, in the integration of the musical theme, and in the hopes and dreams that these young people struggle to fulfill, there is subtlety in the choice of metaphors and even pacing, but generally speaking: The story unwinds clearly.

There's a deep melancholy to it, of course. It's impossible to read a story from an effectively imprisoned youth without feeling anguish and loneliness yourself. Khet Mar does a brilliant job of capturing how isolation and loneliness can feel for the different characters. One sings and smokes to herself, the other seeks conversation and company. Their lives intertwine and touch, without quite managing to breach each others' bubbles. The closeness and distance is sharply crafted, particularly by the story's end. It works. And it will also feel oddly familiar, given the events of the past year.

The problem was that I never felt fully emotionally involved. I was moved, yes, but from my own distance. Which is good for a story about isolation and oppression! It just wasn't quite what I wanted. Nor was the writing style always my favorite, occasionally irritating me with its pointed quality. It's not remotely bad writing, but it didn't always fit my own style.

These two flaws, however, disappear in the following two works housed in this English-language edition. Night Birds - published in 1993 - is clearly the main course in this "collection", but it's extremely well served by two additional nonfiction pieces. The first is "Life on Death Row", a slip of a story that I initially read as fiction because of its tight writing and economy. In less than 5 pages, Khet Mar manages to tell a surprisingly whole story of injustice, oppression, and imprisonment. Is it the actual whole story? Obviously not. But it does an excellent job as a "slice of life" story that also showcases so many casual horrors.

The second nonfiction story is "Night Flow", which sees Khet Mar writing about Iowa, Burmese kindness, crying, and environmental justice. The piece is a short personal essay, but it flows beautifully and seems to gently stir so many different topics and themes. The naturalistic tone is absolutely lovely and feels like it follows a wholly different style from the two works that preceded it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's interesting, maybe even a little jarring. More frustrating is the publisher's choice to bold the sentences and paragraphs that the Burmese government ultimately censored from the original piece. The political implications are stark (and fascinating!), but it's hard to read the essay with a clear head when it so loudly seems to tell me where it wants me to focus. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think, though of course it's hard to say what is the right way to address such a complex editorial choice...

All in all, Night Birds and Other Stories is a good, short collection. There is little to write against it and quite a bit to write in its favor. And from the meta-perspective of my fears as a reader, it strikes me as an excellent jumping off point for my own exploration of Burmese literature. I cannot view this as a single story that encompasses every narrative Myanmar has to offer, but I can still learn from it about a region of the world with which I am less familiar. I can still appreciate that through this (good) work of literature, I have a greater understanding of small nuances of Burmese life and culture (and music! Oh how I loved the musical touches) and a greater toolbox with which to keep learning. Pretending that I am not also learning from the literature I read is foolish in my mind; this need not be the reason for which Night Birds was written, nor even translated, but I can appreciate it nonetheless. I can find other avenues to explore and to learn. And I can go back to those scenes of isolation and linger on them in my own way...

Saturday, August 7, 2021

WITMonth Day 7 | Identities | Thoughts

I am precisely halfway through Nina Bouraoui's Tomboy (translated from French by Marjorie Attignol Salvodon and Jehanne-Marie Gavarini), not only practically in page count, but at the novella's shift in location. This seemingly semi+-autobiographical work (the main character is named Nina Bouraoui, and like the author is the daughter of an Algerian father and a French mother, first growing up in Algeria) opens in Algeria, and then moves to France; I have paused reading just at the onset of the "Rennes" section. The book is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of the most obvious is how it is making me contemplate identity and authorship.

From the onset, Tomboy makes a point of discussing identity. It's an integral part of the book, one I imagine I will discuss in more depth once I actually review it. For now, the part that struck me was that this novella - half of which takes place in Algeria, written by an author who is clearly blurring the lines between her own experiences and that of her narrator, explicitly discussing the feeling of being neither here nor there (neither Algerian nor French) - was published in the US under a series titled "European Women Writers". While Bouraoui's author blurb makes a point of emphasizing her origins (see my above description of the author/Tomboy's narrator), there's something a little off-putting in how the book's meta-narrative places Bouraoui firmly in the French camp. She is a European author! Perhaps a European author who struggles with her identity, but still.

Author identity and origin is something that I personally find fascinating (maybe it's my own history that drives this...?), but it can often feel like a game in which we cherry-pick identities and definitions for our own means. Do immigrant writers represent countries and cultures left behind, or those new homes they have embraced? Refugee writers? Those who comes from multiple backgrounds all in one, who shuffled around during childhood, whose families have always fallen across borders? Can identities be mixed and contradictory and all-encompassing?

I began to think about other authors who similarly straddle different identities. I thought of Scholastique Mukasonga, whose Igifu I finished reading just before starting Tomboy. Mukasonga is framed as a French Rwandan writer, but of her four books translated into English so far (which you, dear reader, should absolutely read, immediately, right now), none are particularly French. France features in parts, yes, as do other countries, but her work strongly centers Rwanda and a Rwandan Tutsi identity. Yet Mukasonga lives in France and has done so for decades. Is there any identity I can choose as a reader that will not be an imposition of sorts?

It rarely matters, not in any way that means something to my life. But even something silly like the #WITMonth Bingo I came up with (which I increasingly find flaws with) seems to suggest clean-cut author/book identities. Am I able to check off the "North African" box by reading Tomboy, belonging as it does to the "European Women Writers" series? And of course this question of identity extends to other fields as well - how do I reconcile the gendered nature of WIT with my desire to include non-binary writers? Identities can also shape how I interpret a work as a reader, whether I want it to or not.

Identities are, of course, complicated things. This is something I've wrestled with many times over the years, in regards to different aspects of my own life. It's something I imagine I will continue to wrestle with, as my own contradictory self-identities continue to clash and change and grow. And regarding the authors that I read, I think that the simplest course of action is to acknowledge that there is no single answer. Women writers in translation are often defined in all sorts of ways that seem most likely to "succeed", simply by virtue of their general marginalization in the larger literary landscape. Herta Müller is German and Romanian by turns, depending who you ask. Scholastique Mukasonga is "French Rwandan". Nina Bouraoui can write an entire book about an identity somewhere between France and Algeria while being neither (fictional? autobiographical? neither?) and still be classified as a European writer. What are the identities of writers whose homelands no longer exist? Who are we to determine them? In a world that does have increasingly blurred borders and identities (whether nationalistic, linguistic, gendered, or otherwise), what does it mean to even define these concepts?

I doubt I'll have answers to these questions any time soon. I'm not sure I would even want to, to be honest. I suppose I just need to keep reading and thinking...

Friday, August 6, 2021

WITMonth Day 6 | No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin

No One Writes Back is one of the ultimate WITMonth books. Why? I purchased it during the first ever WITMonth - August 2014, way way back in the earliest days of the women in translation project. I recall purchasing it alongside another book from Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature (Lonesome You, a collection that left very little impression upon me), and it's languished on my shelves for years and years since I purchased it. Somehow, it became one of those books that simply blends into the background of the bookshelf. It was always there, and it gradually became one of those always there books that doesn't seem very attractive and readable. There was always going to be something newer and more appealing. Not to mention that it was never a particularly popular book to begin with, and as such was easy to ignore.

I don't know what brought it off my shelves a few weeks ago, but goodness. Goodness. I'm so glad I finally read it.

No One Writes Back (translated from Korean by Jung Yewon) surprised me from the start. Something about its tone is just so confident, so strong, and so clearly defined that I was a bit taken aback. This was the book I'd been avoiding for so long...? Okay then. The novel immediately sets its stage with the narrator informing us that he's left home, he's a traveler, and he's traveling with Wajo (his dog). Bit by bit, we learn more about who this man is, who his friends are, and what makes him tick. As he goes from city to city, motel to motel, he assigns numbers to the people he meets and then writes them letters. Letter-writing is something pivotal to this novel, reflective of an almost naïve adherence to a past that is quickly disappearing (and has disappeared even more since the novel's original publication in 2009). 

The narrator soon meets a woman on his journey, but she is not there as a love interest or narrative-altering presence. Rather, she is writer and curious mirror to the narrator. The two both travel, they both try to make peace with their home, and they both interact with their environment in a unique way that shapes (and is shaped by) their worldview. The writer seeks to keep traveling as long as she's still working on her latest work; the narrator seeks to keep traveling as long as he hasn't yet received any letters of response from his many correspondents. The two travel together for a while and their relationship is fascinating to watch, because it's always still very clearly about the narrator. He is the center of this story, someone who is lonely and yet not alone, alone at times and yet not lonely.

By the midway point of the novel, I was certain I was reading a good book, but something about it felt hollow. The writing is excellent, the character designs precise and clear, and the pacing extremely direct, but I couldn't for the life of me tell where the story was heading (or if, indeed, it was heading anywhere). I wasn't sure what was keeping me reading, but it didn't seem to be the sort of situation to quit. I resigned myself to the idea that No One Writes Back would have some sort of placid, dissatisfying ending, like so many other well-built novels.

But no, this is so much better than that. With a precision that made me feel like rereading the whole novel as soon as I'd finished it, the pieces fell together into one of the more beautiful, emotionally affecting endings to a book I've read in a long time. That sounds so cliched, but it's true - it wasn't about whether aspects of the ending were sad (and yes, aspects were), it was about the way everything fit together and completed each other. No One Writes Back not only did a brilliant job of justifying almost every one of its pages prior, it also did so in a truly uplifting, positive, and life-affirming way. I finished the book feeling like I'd just had something wonderful open up before me, and while I don't want to spoil what made the ending so beautiful for me, suffice to say that it inspired something pretty good in me.

By the end, I didn't just enjoy No One Writes Back, I loved it. I loved what it sparked in me. I loved how it made me think. I loved how it unfolded and grew. I loved how its technical pieces didn't mask or try to replace its emotional ones. I loved how it made me want to read (and write) so much more. I loved how much it made me feel.

I am also ultimately grateful for how long the book spent on my shelves. I usually bemoan books that I read at the wrong times and ask myself whether I might have liked the book better at a different stage of life (or even on a literal different day). No One Writes Back probably wouldn't have meant the same to me seven years ago, when I first purchased it. I might have liked it, no doubt, but I think that initial hollow feeling would have dominated. Now? The book fit in perfectly.

As to you, dear reader? I suggest you give it a try. I think there's a decent chance you will find it as beautiful as I did.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

WITMonth Day 5 | Voices on the outskirts

It occurred to me at some point in late 2020 - just around the same time that I was formulating the idea behind what would become the DailyWIT - that there were a lot of Hebrew-language women writers that I had never read. Of course that's an obvious statement; there will always be more writers to read than time to do so, and I will inevitably miss out on a lot of great art. But the thought/realization that I had was focused less on individual writers, as much as writers of different and wildly diverse backgrounds. It occurred to me that even without the biases that are set in place in translation to other languages, I was exposed to and reading writers (men and women, to be perfectly honest) of very specific, typically quite privileged backgrounds. And of course that this was the case with the books that I was reading in translation (whether to English or to Hebrew). 

One of the things I have tried to do with the DailyWIT is include writers from all sorts of different backgrounds. That might sound a bit trivial, but the truth is that translation as a field is not always the most... let's say "generous" toward those writers who aren't already part of the mainstream. There are understandable risks associated with any translation; there is often little motivation for publishers to try to translate and publish a work that doesn't have some sort of proven track record or high chance of success. So if you're starting out from a place of literary marginalization, you're going to face steep odds when it comes to translation.

This is part of what drives the women in translation project at large, of course, but it cuts across so many different types of backgrounds and experiences. At the beginning of the year, I asked folks for recommendations of authors they might like to see included in the DailyWIT, encouraging the inclusion of writers who maybe aren't translated at all. A friend messaged me with a list of Indonesian writers, specifically, and noted a disproportionate lack of Muslim Indonesian writers translated/published in English, despite Indonesia being a Muslim-majority country. Their observation is one I haven't necessarily delved into in much depth, but it did make me think about religious, linguistic, cultural, and ethnic biases across the world.

But of course, those biases are not fixed in and of themselves. One region's dominant culture is another's minority. The question of which voices are published and translated is one that cannot be homogenized across the globe; every country and region will have its own nuances and complexities. In some countries, "immigrants" may be the most prosperous class. There are states that are ruled by regional ethnic minorities. The extraordinary range of experiences and existences across the world make it utterly impossible to set clear definitions for what the literary outskirts may be for any region.

Which is why, as always, my solution is quite simply... more. Let's make sure that there is space for all of these different backgrounds and voices. Let's make sure that we're not just letting those voices from the very top continue to filter through, but that we also recognize that there are always going to be relative outskirts and writers working there. That translation can't exist in the context of narrow definitions, but must broach more borders than linguistic alone (and also there - recognize literature from under-translated languages!!!). As ever: more.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

WITMonth Day 4 | When poetry works | The Things We Don't Discuss by Shlomit Naim Naor

My poetry reviews always contain the same disclaimer: I am not qualified to review poetry. I'm not, truly! When I read poetry, the thing that remains - more than an appreciation for the language, for the craft, or for any sense of originality - is how the work made me feel. Did it manage to make me cry? Did it manage to make me sigh? Did it manage to make me feel?

If the answers to those questions are "yes", then it's good poetry and very possibly one of my favorite books of the year, it's as simple as that. If the answer is "no", I can start to unpack the technicalities about the writing, about the framing, about the shaping of the poems themselves. But those are wholly secondary to me when it comes to how poems make me feel.

Which means that on the rare occasions that I come across a poetry book that manages to hit me right in the feels (shh, I'm a millennial, it's how we speak), I am left feeling almost speechless. How can I review a book that ends up feeling so personal? Because that's where The Things We Don't Discuss (הדברים שאנחנו לא מדברות עליהם) by Shlomit Naim Naor has left me. It's a book that punched me straight in the face with its first poem and didn't let up. It's a book that - for the first time in my life - has me itching to translate a poem from Hebrew into English. It's a book that feels like it understands me, even though very little of it is actually parallel to my life. But somehow, Naim Naor gets it. Gets me. Nothing else really matters, does it?

But because this is a review (of sorts), I'll try to explain why. First, there's a technical matter - Naim Naor's writing style is diverse and varied within this single slip of a collection by itself. While she revists certain themes more than others, the poems don't bleed into each other. Several even manage to stand out, bluntly unique in both style and tone, though they do not clash with the rest of the works. The collection isn't one of those smooth poetry books I'm so often gushing about, it certainly feels like a collection of smaller sub-collections, but it straddles the line between having its poems stand out and also not having them discordant with each other. 

Naim Naor also does an admirable job of playing with different ways of writing in poetry; a frequent criticism of Israeli poetry is that all one has to do to write a "poem" is slap the vowel symbols on a few staggered lines. This criticism is really just a critique of pretentiousness that markets itself as poetry, but there is a universal truth behind it when it comes to bad poetic styles suffocating potentially good poem ideas. And simply using a common poetic style is not enough to turn a string of words or sentences into a good poem. Naim Naor easily side-steps this criticism by not limiting herself to a single, standard poetry style. I don't mean that she's particularly experimental (she is not), but more that she is willing to have poems that have very different rhythms and flows set alongside each other. It's a mix of different standards, in a way, and I actually rather liked it. Her poems do feel a little more natural for this mix, and a little less... performative.

The truth is, though, that I loved The Things We Don't Discuss because of its poetic topics. Naim Naor is one of the only observant Israeli women writers I have had the pleasure of reading, and her writing is clearly steeped in that experience. That first poem - the one that punched me in the face - kicks things off without a moment of hesitation, describing the loneliness of being a single religious woman on Shabbat, asking "And what will I do with all the Shabbat leftovers from my singlehood?" The poem references traditions and experiences that will be instantly recognizable to any observant Jewish-Israeli woman, but more than that it includes the struggles behind a lot of normalized dating traditions surrounding Shabbat meals. In one particularly gut-punch-y line, Naim Naor writes "There is no room for who I want to be" - I started crying. And that was only the beginning. (The second poem is the one that absolutely consumes me and I would love to translate, if only because I wish I could feel it even more deeply. Does that make sense?)

Naim Naor is true to the promise of her collection's title (which, I should note, is female-gendered in Hebrew - that is, the things that we women don't discuss), raising topic after topic after topic that are too rarely discussed. She writes of her struggles with her past singlehood, with motherhood, with grief at the loss of a parent, with giving birth... These are poems that seem determined to be straight-forward in precisely those topics that often get glossed over, particularly among religious women. It's this, I think, that made The Things We Don't Discuss such a unique collection for me. The concept of taboo-breaking poetry is hardly new, and there are many who would likely read these poems and scratch their heads at the supposed taboos Naim Naor is breaking. Because that's not what she's doing. It's not about being loud and deliberate, it's not about making some sort of point in writing about unknowable subjects. It's just about being able to get out those small, painful pieces. And for me, at least, seeing enough of myself in those small pieces and feeling understood was revelatory. 

So yes, The Things We Don't Discuss hit me emotionally. It worked technically, with good pacing and technical flow and diversity of tone (but not too diverse). It worked thematically, broaching different topics without being overly defined by one (even if certain themes hit closer to home for me personally). And it worked on a whole other dimension as well - I want to share these works, while at the same time keep them to myself. I want to share them in Hebrew and I want to share them in English, wanting to dive into the heart of the poems and find myself on the other end. I loved this collection with every drop of my existence and I loved the reading experience too (including the crying and the parts that I read on the beach that were interrupted by the very noisy guys who decided to sit very close to me, sigh). I don't know that this review will even mean anything (my review of Hebrew-language books very rarely do...), but nonetheless: This was easily my favorite book of the past several months.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

WITMonth Day 3 | Filling the gap

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine in the lab gaped a little when I told her about this project and WITMonth. It's something that usually catches my labmates off guard; I am a passionate about my love of the sciences and I suspect that for many it seems like an extremely odd balance of interests. But the true surprise isn't in my love of literature - that surprise fades away relatively quickly - but the feminist nature of this project I manage. The questions started immediately. They were nothing I haven't heard before, but that doesn't make them less exasperating; why do you do this isn't this sexist but what about all these authors don't you think you're making up a problem where there isn't one. All sentences that reflect a profound lack of awareness regarding A) the problem itself, and B) the fact that I'm a person who's been working on this for coming on eight years now. But let's set aside B and focus on A, because the truth is that outside of a small slice of the internet, the vast majority of people still are not aware of the Women in Translation project, its offshoots, its impact, or its importance.

It's easy to forget, but most folks in the world do not necessarily engage with art and media the same way that the most hardcore fans might. I run a book blog specifically because I am deeply passionate about books and wanted an outlet to write about them (erm... was encouraged to do so by an insistent sister who was tired of hearing me ramble to her). The folks who read my book blog are, for the most part, also folks who are deeply passionate about books and as such read book blogs. The same is true for BookTwitter, Booktube, Bookstagram, BookTikTok or whatever other social media platform you may use. It's not even that this is the exclusive place for readers; I'm in a non-book-specific Facebook group that has some extraordinarily avid readers, none of whom engage with what I would call the express "book community". Not to mention that there are multitudes of different literary communities in this shared online space. Readers who love James Joyce don't necessarily overlap with readers of Leigh Bardugo (though you never know!), and readers of WWII historical texts aren't necessarily the same folks who are going to gush about the latest Inspector Harry Hole thriller (but again... you never know!). Readers are not a monolith. Nor are feminist readers and nor are activist readers.

I've written before about the awareness gap in WIT, on multiple occasions. I'm not naive to how highly specific this project seems and how broadly unimportant. That reaction from my coworker is one that I've heard countless times from people who simply cannot fathom why I spend my time doing all this work to promote women writers (voluntarily!), and moreover women writers from all these "random" backgrounds that nobody has ever heard of. I often voice my belief that readers cannot be expected to read that which is not available to them, but the same is true of folks outside of these especially focused literary communities. People cannot be expected to care for a problem they neither see nor understand.

This is a huge part of why I've tried to build a Women in Translation website for the past two years. My hope has always been to be able to provide resources for those who are aware and engaged, but also an open door for exactly those who ask the standard question: Why? Huh? Why? There's a lot of work left in order to fully fill the awareness gap, yes, but it's a process. More and more readers are aware of WITMonth and its source. More and more readers are becoming aware of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. More and more readers are being exposed to bookstore and library displays that showcase women writers in translation, and not just the same six authors. We are in the eighth year of this process, but it's moving. Maybe, hopefully, someday my coworkers will not gape at me, but instead give me a piercing glare and ask, "Shouldn't you be doing more to ensure equitable translations of women writers?" Touché.

Monday, August 2, 2021

WITMonth Day 2 | Explaining myself | Thoughts

This will be a musing sort of blog post.

One of my great struggles over the years has been explaining to people what the women in translation movement is. I have tried - and often failed - to convey what exactly we're trying to achieve here with this work. The truth is that most people who are not avid readers have never quite been able to understand what WIT is. Tomorrow's post will delve into this in a bit more depth; today I simply want to explore what it even means to explain myself. Because it often feels like that's all I do.

I explain that WIT isn't necessarily about translations into English, but it's not about translations from English. I explain that WIT is about women writers, not translators. I explain that WIT is about having fun, not a burden or expectation on readers. I explain the origins, I explain the credits, I explain my role. My explanations never quite feel like enough.

Part of the problem is, of course, that I embedded far too many ambiguities in the original project title. "Women in Translation" is contextually snappy and accurate, but it gets extremely confusing when, well, translated. More than that, the original meaning behind the project seems to get lost and watered down. I have had extremely lovely readers reach out to me (in private and in public) asking as to the "rules" of WITMonth. One likened it to a readathon, asking whether it was okay to read books from regions or genres not mentioned in the bingo card I recently uploaded. I found myself in the rather odd position of explaining that WITMonth carries absolutely no obligations with it and that the ultimate purpose is awareness and enjoyment. I suppose it's inevitable that the project origins will get a little muddled as it moves further and further away from me (which remains a good thing! even if it occasionally leave me melancholic), but that doesn't mean there is no hope, right?

I will continue to explain myself. Tomorrow, the day after, and every day to come. With the new website and here and everywhere else. But I hope that I can find the right words.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

WITMonth Day 1 | A new home

After years of trying to get this off the ground, the Women in Translation - - is now live. This has been an extraordinary effort, and rather like this blog, would not exist without the concrete support of my sister (who in this case literally built the website). 

This brand-new WIT site is still very much a work in progress. It has only a few of the projects that I hope it will someday have, as well as resources, links, and information. But it is a start. If you're looking for a single place with all of the WITMonth resources (buttons, bingo cards, miscellanea), this is your site. If you're looking for the annual book lists, this is your site. If you're new to the project and just looking to understand what the heck I've been rambling about for years, this is your site.

Today is the first day of August. For the past several years, I have tried to have daily posts throughout August; this year, I am not certain that I will make the same effort that I usually do. But I do so with the sense of satisfaction and relief that readers will not lack for WITMonth resources and information. With time, will grow to include many of the topics I have covered on this blog, and I am grateful for the chance to simply enjoy WITMonth as intended. I plan on spending this month contemplating the matter of women in translation, discussing it, reading books by women writers in translation, review books by women writers in translation, and most importantly... as always... just having fun.

Happy WITMonth, everyone!