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?


  1. I really welcome this post, as someone obsessed with The Tale of Genji (I own copies of all the translations plys a few books about it, plus read the translation into modern Japanese by Yosano Akiko, herself a very talented and sensual poet of the eatly 20th century).

  2. I'm glad I stumbled on this post. It's nice to see attention called to the great women writers of the past.

    I'm currently reading Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies (cheers for 15th century feminist works). But you've listed a lot of classic women writers I've never heard of before, so I look forward to looking into them!

    - Ally @ Separate Minds Book Blog 


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