Saturday, August 27, 2022

WITMonth Day 27 | A Bed for the King's Daughter by Shahla Ujayli

Note: This is another one I actually read (and reviewed) last year (in 2021), but hesitated to publish this critical review, seeing as the book is published by a small publisher and has largely flown under the radar. As I said previously: This year, I've decided to let my blog go back to being just that - MY blog. Anyways. Here's a not-so-thrilled review of a book that I didn't really get.

Confession: I didn't like this collection. It surprised me a bit, truly, but I just couldn't connect with the work. I didn't like the writing, I didn't like the supposed experimental nature/"surrealism", and I didn't like most of the stories themselves, which seemed to wash over me without leaving any sort of imprint. I actually read A Bed for the King's Daughter (translated from Arabic by Sawad Hussain) in two bursts, but forgot to set a bookmark and found myself rereading some of the stories, without even realizing it until I got to the story's end and went "wait, I read this already". This happened with three consecutive stories... rarely a good sign.

A Bed for the King's Daughter is a slip of a collection, a tiny book along the lines of Thirteen Months of Sunrise or a poetry collection. The fascinating translator's note addresses this rather bluntly, opening with quotes of "Too short. Too experimental. Not enough sense of place. Not Arab enough." that encompass the sorts of supposed limitations that prevented the collection from being published, per different editors. Hussain's note is extremely successful at showcasing Ujayli as a unique, talented voice, whose experimental short works are important reading for anyone trying to break free of ingrained expectations and assumptions. But this same (understandably glowing) endorsement ended up making me feel all the worse for not enjoying the collection. I didn't think that Ujayli's collection was any one of those quoted critiques, but I also just... didn't get it. 

There's certainly something special in Ujayli's writing, a little sing-songiness to how these stories flow, something that makes them a little ethereal and fairy tale-like (and indeed, a few of them directly reference or play with fairy tale tropes). I can see how this might be a very unique book, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it; the writing grated on me within one story, and the tendency to end the stories on some sort of half-conclusion largely left me irritated. Short story collections often struggle in needing to find the balance between having a strong overall style, while also maintaining clear individual boundaries for each story (that is - individual stories ought to be memorable enough on their own). A Bed for the King's Daughter did reasonably well at having a unified tone without stories fully bleeding into each other, but none stood out either. I can remember only fragments from different stories, less than I might take away from a poetry collection of a similar length. 

Obviously not all books will click with all readers, but the briefness of A Bed for the King's Daughter made me all the more baffled by the collection. Some of the stories are barely a full page in length; they must want to say something, but they don't always seem to do something with their ideas. Or if they have a good message, they don't seem to have a particularly smooth wrapping for it. Take "An Incident in Town". Under a slightly different layout, this story would probably span just one page. It utilizes beautifully poetic language in its opening paragraphs, setting the stage for the town in question with eloquent descriptions of storefronts and children. And then... there are two additional paragraphs, one of which details what I can only describe as the story's "plot" in similarly poetic terms and the latter of which provides an almost whimsical/dry explanation for the previous paragraph. The conclusion is meant to draw together the different pieces of the story to a message about corruption, but it ends up ringing hollow. There's a tonal shift that is probably meant to invoke a wry understanding of the absurdity of the situation, but instead just left me scratching my head as to what the story wanted to do versus what it did.

Other stories left me similarly bemused. There are all sorts of topics in this collection - xenophobia, racism, war, violence, corruption, sexism - but they all feel a little empty. The closest I felt like I got Ujayli's style was in the extremely short "Lilith" (basically one paragraph long), which felt like it would have been at home in a poetry collection rather than a short story one. And maybe that's the point? Maybe Ujayli's greatest experimental contribution is her tendency to play around with form and stylistic expectations. But the moment I didn't particularly like the writing, it was inevitable that I wouldn't really enjoy the collection as a whole.

I can't especially recommend this collection, but I wanted to. I wanted to appreciate Ujayli's tricks and stylistic quirks. I wanted to appreciate the topics raised. I wanted to come away with something that I could hold onto from the collection, but I didn't. And so I sign this review with an uncomfortable shrug and handwave. I cannot say I liked this book, but maybe you will? Maybe you can even better explain to me what it is that I'm missing.

Friday, August 19, 2022

WITMonth Day 19 | The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk | Review

Note: This review contains mild spoilers for The Books of Jacob, and references to the real-world figures described within the novel.

I first learned of The Books of Jacob in reference to the English-language translation by Jennifer Croft, whose work on Flights I had quite enjoyed (and whose other translations I have also liked quite a lot). But the first edition of it I considered purchasing was actually the translation into Hebrew, which came out before the English. I ultimately decided to wait, and then wait again for the US hardcover edition to come out. If I was going to read a massive, almost-1000-paged book, I wanted it to be a comfortable reading experience. Hardcovers are ridiculously heavy, but they can be placed flat on a surface and their pages easily propped up. Plus, they're prettier.

So it came to be that I had already heard a lot of opinions about The Books of Jacob before I ever began it, from fellow English-language book bloggers and "casual" Hebrew-language readers alike. The consensus was that the book is massively impressive, immersive, and interesting. And yet I came into the reading extremely skeptical. While I had quite enjoyed Flights when I read it several years ago, my experience reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones) was anything but. I found that novel to be tedious and wholly overrated. Almost everything about it irked me, even in the parts where I could again recognize Tokarczuk's literary talents. Against all odds, I found a novel so beloved by so many other readers to be thoroughly mediocre. (When has that ever happened to me?? Not on a bi-weekly basis, surely not.) What guaranteed that this wouldn't be the case with The Books of Jacob?

Once I began reading this massive book, though, my concerns began to morph a little. And by the time I was well on my way, I realized that my concerns were much more about what the novel was about than what the novel was. And they were really more about myself than anything else.

There are a few things that make The Books of Jacob fairly remarkable. Beyond its size, its status as a massive opus from a Nobel-prize winning (woman!) author, and its stylistic quirks (all of which I'll discuss momentarily), The Books of Jacob is one of the first books I've ever read, I think, that so clearly focuses on religious Jewish life without having been written from within that community. Jewish stories are often narrowly limited in terms of their scope, particularly as written by non-Jews. And even when there are representations of Jewish life or Jewish characters, they are often stripped of their faith and traditions. There really aren't that many books today about Judaism.

The Books of Jacob is... not quite that either, because The Books of Jacob is only nominally about Jews. It's a book about Jacob Frank, a messianic cult leader in the 18th century who was born to Jewish followers of the earlier messianic cult leader, Shabbtai Zvi (this spelling is per the Hebrew convention; there are many alternate spellings). I was familiar with Shabbtai Zvi before reading The Books of Jacob, but had never heard of Jacob Frank himself - until well into reading The Books of Jacob, I had not realized that he was not a fictional leader but based on a real historical figure. This did little to temper my hesitation, to be perfectly honest. The problem - and this is certainly not Tokarczuk's fault! - is that I myself (as most of you probably know) am Jewish, and more importantly, observantly, deeply anti-mystical Jewish. I grew up in a tradition that firmly rejected precisely the sorts of religious leaders who could ultimately become someone like Jacob Frank. From almost every perspective, the traditions, behaviors, and choices carried out by Frank's followers within The Books of Jacob are anathema to my life.

Suffice to say, I had to grit my teeth a lot throughout this book. But it was not always a bad thing.

It was an odd feeling, no doubt. Tokarczuk very clearly lays out the premise of her story and the narrative she wishes to share. This is a story of a particular cult leader and a particular religious denomination, through the lens of that group. While Tokarczuk does, on occasion, give the perspective of the "Talmudists" who reject Sabbatean/Frankist ideology as heretical, I kept wondering how this novel reads to someone unfamiliar with the nuances of Jewish faith and tradition. Most of those reading this novel are likely not Jewish. While Tokarczuk is never judgemental in her perspective (one way or another; this is actually somewhat remarkable, I must say), it does feel like the reader is supposed to look upon Frank and his followers in a skeptical light, at the very least. It's hard not to. The reader is privy to all of his flaws and to the trickling effect of his actions. But does a non-Jewish reader recognize just how much of Frank's decisions and actions go against even the Jewish traditions from which he claims to emerge?

There are other aspects that left me wondering whether the text was truly explicit enough. Unsurprisingly, The Books of Jacob includes a lot of antisemitism. Some of it is voiced by point-of-view characters; some of it is merely referenced. But it's constantly there, humming under the surface. There is a recurring discussion of blood libel, in particular, with the Frankists using that ancient and terrible antisemitic trope to try to discredit their Talmudist opponents and strengthen their own position in relation to the Christian authorities. The same leveheaded, non-judgemental approach that Tokarczuk employs throughout the novel began to feel extremely uncomfortable. Does Tokarczuk believe that her readers - particularly her Polish readers, coming from a country where antisemitism never really left and where there is a profound refusal to acknowledge a responsibility for antisemitic violence - can read these casual explorations of blood libel and know for certain that the Frankists are the ones who are lying? I mean, yeah, probably, but I could not shake off my own discomfort throughout those sections. The cruel and casual antisemitism of so many different characters, the almost cheerful pogroms incited... they all reminded me of my own family's Jewish history in Poland. That history is pockmarked with violence, culminating in the Holocaust. Even knowing that Tokarczuk herself surely does not mean to perpetuate these harmful myths, reading them on the page was painful and difficult. I cannot pretend otherwise.

Yet even with these personal doubts and discomforts, I could barely set this book down. For all its size, for all its breadth, for all its sprawling massive messiness as it alternates between dozens of different characters (many of whom end up having two names - Jewish and Christian), for all its feeling of being oddly incomplete and also somehow way longer than any book reasonably could be (though it's hardly the first long book I've ever read, and also hardly the longest...)... The Books of Jacob is good. It's good in how it shifts its focus at just the moment where you start to feel exhausted by the current narrative thread. It's good in how it makes you hate and care for a dozen different characters, the vast majority of whom emphatically do not deserve to be appreciated as characters. It's good in how the writing does, against all odds, maintain a very distinct external narration (alongside the explicit in-story external narration; the two somehow feel distinct) and a cool detachment from a thoroughly engaged text. It's good in how it travels, both as a literal narrative and as a figurative one, starting as one sort of story and ending up as a thoroughly different one. Like in Flights, Tokarczuk does an excellent job of showing that there is more than one perspective, experience, or narrative to a given story (in this case, an individual). It's a good novel and a good translation and a worthy piece of fiction, despite its flaws. I could not possibly recommend this strange, expansive novel to every reader, but certainly if you've seen The Books of Jacob and contemplated reading it, I would say you should. You'll find the pages flipping by rather quickly...

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

WITMonth Day 17 | The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana | Review

Note: I actually read (and reviewed) this book last year (in 2021), but hesitated to publish this critical review. This year, I've decided to let my blog go back to being just that - MY blog. Promotional work and such can have a different home. So. Critical review ahoy.

I rather suspect I am in the minority when it comes to this book, but ouch. What a painful, unpleasant read. Intentionally so? No doubt. Intelligently crafted? In many places. An absolute torture to read? 100%. Maryse Condé's The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana (translated from French by Richard Philcox) is like one of those TV shows about a deeply unpleasant "antihero" (aka villain) where you're supposed to constantly reflect on how the story is actually challenging your perceptions about evil and heroes and villains, but all it's really doing is making you spend a lot of time with a villain, right? And at some point you're like "why am I watching this miserable show?" Or you decide not to bother from the onset.

Anyways, that's what reading Wondrous felt like.

The novel's blurb is, for once, not particularly misleading (even if it isn't exactly accurate); it describes a story about a set of twins whose lives diverge rather sharply. "Ivana's youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan walks the path of radicalization." This is the crux of the novel, and in fact encompasses a whole heap of the book's flaws without even meaning to (which I'll get to in a moment). Ultimately, Wondrous is the story of radicalization and violence. Within this, it explores racism, religious bias, political extremism, religious extremism, and different forms of emotional abuse. There is no doubt that Wondrous packs in quite a lot for a novel that's not even 300 pages long. There's no doubt that it also has a lot to say, politically and otherwise. It just does so in a way that feels like nails on a chalkboard. Again: Is some of this intentional? For sure! That doesn't mean I have to like it. And I didn't, not especially.

Ivan and Ivana's life begins on Guadeloupe, and unfolds rather slowly. Condé lingers rather elegantly on the twins' childhoods and the context for their growth and loneliness. From an early age, the two have different aspirations and expectations placed on them. As fraternal twins (though Condé's scientific descriptions here of their prenatal growth are... erm... wrong; this is very much a silly pet peeve of mine), Ivan and Ivana are very close; this closeness grows with them into adulthood into a mutual attraction and desire. It's important to note that this is not something I am plucking out of thin air. The theme of (an at times physical) desire and the internally disturbing emotions surrounding it repeat throughout the novel. This is especially emphasized due to the presence of an extremely involved external narrator. I'll get back to this more fully in a moment, but specifically on the point of defining its twins, Wondrous has a tendency to sharply point toward sexual and physical desires. And physical traits, at least on the side of Ivan. The novel is oddly obsessed with describing Ivan's specifically sexual physical appearance, with at least three instances that made me cringe. Why are these scenes necessary? Having finished the novel weeks ago, I'm still unsure.

From Guadeloupe (and after a series of violent incidents and disturbing cruelty on Ivan's part and the barest sketching out of Ivana's day-to-day life), the twins are sent to their father (a man they've never met) in Mali. Here, the same pattern that emerged during their childhood repeats. Ivan is gradually more and more embroiled in a world of violence, while Ivana... does something. (She works with kids at an orphanage. But like. In an extremely generic way.) Wondrous' very involved narrator at least has the self-awareness to admit that the story is much more focused on Ivan than Ivana, with the rather droll shift of "And what of Ivana, you are asking? What has become of her? We haven't heard from her for some time. Forgive me, dear reader. It's because she is not involved in this business as much as her brother. We were afraid that the description of her schedule at the Sundjata Keita Orphanage would make boring reading[.]" A similar self-admonation repeats later in the book, but with even less space given to Ivana's story and life. For all the split title and description, this is very much Ivan's book.

From Mali (and after a series of violent incidents and disturbing cruelty on Ivan's part and the barest sketching out of Ivana's day-to-day life), the twins proceed to France. Here too a narrative bias quickly takes hold. Despite behavior in the previous section that rather clearly lays out that promised "radicalization" from the back cover, again and again the narrator points to individual moments that serve as the linchpin or final nail. By the time the reader accompanies Ivan and Ivana to France, we have witnessed shocking (and not so shocking) choices on Ivan's part. We have witnessed cruetly that happens to him and cruelty that is carried out by him. The narrator remains generally upbeat and apathetic about these cruelties, seemingly trying to ensure that the reader maintains sympathetic to Ivan. Or if not sympathetic, exactly, then at least understanding. Numerous scenes feel entirely designed to give gentle space to Ivan's passive turmoil. While he most certainly makes terrible choices, most are only loosely linked to ideology. At every point that the narrator seems to suggest that this is the instance at which point Ivan became radicalized (and it happens... more often than it should), I found myself squinting at the page, not as perplexed by the idea that these could be radicalizing events (they certainly could...), but that they were Ivan's radicalizing events. The novel makes clear that Ivan's primary driving force is his own internal anger, shame, and discomfort, much of it (though not all!) driven by his relationship with Ivana. I repeatedly found myself wondering what purpose the narrator served, if to tell me something different from what the text was showing.

And yet those are minor quibbles. If anything, they reflect an intelligence on the part of Wondrous in its use of a narrator who is at times omnipresent and at times distinctly not, its small asides to the reader, and its willingness to break the fourth wall (in a way). The main problem I had with The Wondrous Life of Ivan and Ivana was the book desperately wanted to say something about radicalization, but did so in a... bad way. Condé makes free use of irony in her writing, with hypocrisy a favorite tool. And so in one scene Ivana is casually racist toward Arabs and Ivan swiftly calls her out for it, while only a few pages later, Ivan is angrily racist toward Jews and Ivana casually calls him out for it. The text is not wholly unaware, but the in-world obliviousness is enraging. There is a necessary amount of suspension of disbelief required across the board in this novel. Quite frankly: I could not suspend my disbelief for one moment.

The bad taste Wondrous left behind did not fade quickly. It took months. This is, again, to Condé's credit as a writer, showcasing her ability to create a lingering, real world even in fiction. The problem is just that it's a world I would much rather not have entered in the first place. Its deliberate bleakness, anger, and shallow approach to radicalization ended up making me angry, and disappointed over the book that it could (should?) have been. In a world where so many young people are radicalized (and not in any one way, nor even just in Ivan's specific way), a novel exploring its insiduous beginnings should be welcome. It's just that in its sly cleverness, Wondrous undos so much of its own critiques. The closing remarks from the narrator only emphasize this, as though the book is an exercise by the writer to get under the reader's skin. If so - good job! I hated it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

WITMonth Day 16 | Selling women in translation

The world of literary translations - like all industries - ultimately boils down to one thing: Sales. Whether we're talking about a nonprofit, an academic press, a stable indie, or one of the major publishing houses, the bottom line remains the same. Books are published with the assumption that they will eventually be sold, at least in part. It may not be the only (or even primary!) motivation behind the work, but it is still one of them. And selling books also means that there's marketing. And marketing also means that there is a need to "sell" the books onto the readers. How do you convince readers to pick up your book specifically?

I'm not in the publishing industry (as you probably already know...), but I've spent enough years adjacent to it to have picked up on some of the tricks. The best known is also the one most frequently critiqued - the comparison. Whether in general design, blurb-styling, or direct comparison, books are often sold on the basis of "here's something that reminds you of this other thing that you like". It's a tried and true method because it's generally quite appealing. "[X] meets [Y]" is the fastest and easiest way to hook someone on your work. Shorthand and visual reminders as well.

The problem (as you probably guessed from the title of this post, and the fact that I'm writing it during August) is that these are occasionally very sloppily done. Many comparisons rely on the same few easily recognizable authors, regardless of whether or not it has any bearing. Japanese writer? Murakami! Italian woman writer? Elena Ferrante and Natalia Ginzburg! Are there even any other Italian women writers? Does it matter if they cover completely different styles and perspectives? 

The narrow scope that women in translation are permitted is maybe not the most important matter on the table, but it's still something worth thinking about. How do we sell women in translation? How do we frame women in translation? The above examples are specifically comparisons, but of course the question of how publishers frame women writers in translation for English-speaking markets (in this specific case, though I've seen similar issues across other languages as well...) extend to other marketing forms. Recall, if you will, Léonora Miano's criticism of the University of Nebraska's marketing/framing of her novella, translated into English as Dark Heart of the Night (a title she was unhappy with). Here was a case of a writer pigeonholed to fit what the publishers thought a book about African violence should be, rather than what the book actually is. Then, of course, there's the eternal problem of "the first book by a [X] woman translated into English", or "the first [X] woman author". Firsts are easily marketable and easily framed, particularly when there's an expectation of "otherness". They are often also misleading or extremely vague. (For example: I was and remain baffled by the marketing that claims that Duanwad Pimwana is the first Thai woman novelist to be translated into English, given that Jane Vejjajiva was translated quite a few years back; children's novel, yes, but... still? It's a question that has bothered me... Perhaps I'm simply missing something.)

Women writers in translation deserve, of course, to have their books sold. That means that one way or another, publishing will need to find some way to frame their works. In some cases, this will inevitably draw comparisons to the few women in translation who have paved the way before them. In other cases, it may be a regional divide. Sometimes, there will be racial biases and stereotypes that shape how a book is marketed or sold. (Black womens' silhouettes. Asian women from behind. Red cover for books about China.  The acacia tree for books from Africa. Burkas and hijabs for works relating to women across either the Arab or Muslim worlds.) While some degree of marketing is of course necessary, it's important that we ask at what point these do extreme disservices to the works themselves. And it's important that we recognize the extra damage inflicted upon writers already starting from disadvantaged positions.

Monday, August 15, 2022

WITMonth Day 15 | If Not, Winter by Sappho (tr. Anne Carson) | Minireview

It seems strange, in retrospect, just how long it took me to read Sappho's Fragments. It seems stranger still, in retrospect, that I own an almost 400-paged edition of these fragments, which often comprise of a few words on an otherwise blank page (with the original Greek on the opposite side).

This is a difficult book to review, in part because it's poetry and I always struggle to review poetry, and in part because it's so very... minor, while also being massive. Sappho's poetry has meaning across many different contexts, from the literary to the musical to the cultural (specifically, queer-cultural). It's hard to read this should-be-small work without that extra understanding. It's harder still to review it.

I didn't linger over most of these poems/fragments. Here and there, I found a line that was revelatory, like fragment 50: "For the man who is beautiful is beautiful to see / but the good man will at once also beautiful be." It's a line that feels fresh and resonant, even though the language of it is obviously worked in order to achieve a particular rhythm in English. I'm totally fine with that. Most fragments, though, felt precisely like that - fragments that glided over the surface of my brain, with little to grasp. I'm not a scholar of classical poetry and I cannot properly gauge whatever impact three words scattered on a page might have. And once I don't have that, pretty much all that's left over is my emotional response to the poetry (because, as I've said many times, that is how I personally read poetry - through a deeply emotional, personalized lens; it may not be "correct", but it is what it is) and there can't really be all that much of one when... there's isn't really all that much to grasp.

And so most of this book... just sort of existed for me. I enjoyed the reading process and I'm delighted to have gotten a chance to finally read some of Sappho's works, but I was a bit disappointed in the edition (it felt pointlessly padded, sorry) and mostly felt like this was a technical exercise rather than a true, nuanced poetic reading. Maybe some day I'll be wise enough to gain more from the text. In the meantime, I can simply say: That was cool. Onto the next.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

WITMonth Day 13 | Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin

I appear to have never written a full review of it on the blog, but when I read Notes of a Crocodile several years back, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Qiu Miaojin's novel (translated from Chinese by Bonnie Huie) was tightly written, insightful, and ultimately extremely rewarding as a general reading experience. It's a book I've frequently recommended, and one that I will likely continue to recommend. It also guaranteed that I would purchase Qiu's other book available in English - Last Words from Montmartre, translated from Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

Last Words is a harder book to classify. For starters, it hardly reads like fiction, with a deeply up-front first-person narration that is hard to separate from Qiu the author, though it also very much reads like a novel. The idea that any book with biographical elements must be a memoir is, of course, ridiculous, but there's something intensely intimate in this text that I could hardly separate what I knew of Qiu from the narrative unfolding on the page. (It's hard to call it a story, exactly, but there is certainly a narrative.) Maybe it's possible to read Last Words without the meta-knowledge that Qiu committed suicide not long after the novel concludes. Maybe it's possible to truly shuffle these letters and separate the art from the artist, but I often couldn't. Even as I read the letters that form Last Words as fiction, they somehow felt colored by Qiu's own life and, sadly, her death. When read linearly (as I did), it feels even more like a narrative that is pushing toward this final conclusion that can only be reached by the external reader. And since the book is comprised of letters which the reader is basically intruding upon (or being invited into?), there emerges this sort of unique conversation between author and reader that both defines the novel and breaks it down into little pieces.

I liked Last Words, though I cannot say I liked it nearly as much as Notes of a Crocodile. In many ways, it's a much more complex work, certainly in terms of what it demands of its reader. As translator Ari Larissa Heinrich writes in the fascinating and insightful afterword, it's an almost relentlessly dark book, challenging its readers and raising extremely difficult, ugly topics. If Last Words is meant to be a conversation with the reader, it is one that is shaped by the narrator's anguish, depression, and even violence. Slim a work as it may be, it is heavy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a bleakness to the entire reading experience that I don't think existed in quite the same way as in Notes of a Crocodile.

It's also a fascinating text in how it addresses relationships and sexuality. For a work written in the 1990s, it feels astonishingly modern in its approach to bodies, sexual desire, and romantic love. Parts felt like they could have been written just a few weeks ago, and shared on a Tumblr blog. Qiu also delves into cultural topics, frequently looping back to discussions of particular films and artistic narratives that the narrator admires. It's one of the few spaces in which the book gains a little distance from the internal darkness that dominates it. It wasn't necessarily my favorite part (I can't say that I really understood what Qiu was going for, not being familiar with many of the films cited), but it provides an interesting dimension to an already complex, multifaceted work.

Ultimately, this isn't as easy a book to recommend as Notes, because it's much less straightforward. At the same time, this is probably what makes Last Words such a unique, lasting piece of art: I can't think of many other novels, memoirs, or even poetry collections that managed to convey such intimacy and depth in so short a time. On just about every technical level, it's hard to find fault in Last Words. Its brutal honesty can be uncomfortable at times, and there were certainly aspects that I didn't connect with as much, but that has little to do with how the book is built on the whole. No, it's not easy, and no, I can't say that I found it to be as globally rewarding a reading experience as Notes of a Crocodile, but I did like and admire the work. I suspect others will too.

Friday, August 12, 2022

WITMonth Day 12 | Why is WIT *still* so European?

Look, I don't have a better way to say this, but: The world of women in translation into English (and definitely among other languages I've screened) remains steadfastly, stubbornly Euro-centric. Why?

In the near-decade since I began work on this project, the matter of Eurocentrism in translations of works by women writers has always been very near the surface. The question posed in the title of this post is an echo to a question I started asking myself all the way back in 2013 - why are there so few women writers in translation? And as I started to collect data on that lack, I kept encountering another one: Among the relatively fewer women writers who were translated into English, the easy majority were consistently European women writers.

This pattern has persisted, even as overall rates of women writers in translation have ticked upward and there is now a much greater understanding and appreciation for the importance of including women's voices in translation. Somehow the newfound respect that many publishers and translators have for women writers from around the world only seems to extend so far as Europe, and occasionally Latin America (I'll delve into Latin American translations in a bit more detail soon...). Ironically, it is some of the worst-performing publishers (when it comes to actually bothering to translate women) who seem to have a greater appreciation for women writing outside of the confines of "traditional" European expectations. 

The imbalances aren't consistent, either. While literature from the (vast) continent of Asia is certainly lacking (both proportionally and just numerically), women's writing from countries like South Korea or Japan have actually done quite well. South Korea in particular is well-associated with women writers at this point, to the degree where I'm hard-pressed to think of a handful of books by Korean men which have been translated in recent years, but can easily come up with more than a dozen by women. This comes alongside the persistent lack of widespread translations from the Indian subcontinent (marketed outside of the subcontintent, at least). South and Southeast Asian literature in translation is woefully lacking across the board, and women writers suffer from this in equal measure. The situation grows even more concerning for African literature in translation, which remains frustratingly limited. African women writers working outside of English are still almost entirely invisible. Why?

I won't get into my theories on the matter, but the bottom line is the same no matter what: Publishing needs to do better on this front. While there is some positive movement (things like Tomb of Sand winning the International Booker), it is simply not enough. This year's WITMonth new releases list is disproportionately European. And while there is a thankfully impressive range of diversity within that European category (it's important to remember, as always, that Europe is not a cultural monolith!), it's still disheartening to see just how few books there are translated from any South Asian languages, translated from African women writers (also an incredibly large, diverse group that is simply not recognized in translation!), and so on.

I don't have much say in this, unfortunately, but I can continue to do what I've done until now: Make noise. In the same way that we fight for women in translation at large, it is crucial that we fight for the women who aren't getting translated. That we address these other imbalances and biases that have shaped the publishing industry. I can simply say that as a reader, I am desperate to read more literature from all across the world, reflecting all these different experiences. I want to buy these books, I want to read these books, I want publishers to publish these books.

Why is WIT still so European? Because we haven't finished our work.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

WITMonth Day 9 | Far From My Father by Véronique Tadjo

Upon finishing Far From My Father by Véronique Tadjo (translated from French by Amy Baram Reid), I found myself itching to find more of her works. The additional material on Tadjo included in my edition made references to her earlier novels, as translated into English. It didn't take me long to realize that those novels were no longer in print. Indeed, despite a rather rich catalog of works in both French and in English translation, Tadjo is a fairly "under-the-radar" sort of writer. Far From My Father and her recent not-quite-novel of the Ebola epidemic In the Company of Men (translated by the author and John Cullen) are the only two of her books that I have been able to easily track down. This, again, despite many of her works actually having been translated into English (and published). Including children's books! Go figure.

It's hard not to want to keep reading Tadjo's writing after settling into Far From My Father. The novel - marketed as semi-autobiographical, though I have found myself less and less inclined toward that definition in recent years - is crisply written, with a clarity that I wish more stories has. It tells of a woman returning to her old family home, upon the death of her father. There, she untangles pieces of her history and her father's secrets, with a solid exploration of identity and selfhood.

If you're reading that brief (and wholly inadequate) description and thinking "that sounds really banal", you're right that it's a basic framework that has been written of many times throughout history. But Far From My Father is elevated by a warm directness, excellent writing, and a solid understanding of its own limits. A lot of family stories get bogged down in their attempts to explain everything and everyone; Far From My Father is thankfully a fairly brief novel and one that knows to tighten its focus when needed, even if I didn't love some of the subplots and tangents.

At its best, Far From My Father tells of the complications that arise after a man's death. There are practical considerations, but also an emotional toll from the very predictable decisions that need to be made. Not to mention, the aforementioned secrets. It doesn't necessarily feel like outright spoilers to get into the details, but ultimately it also doesn't feel necessary. Is it not enough for a novel to examine grief, loneliness, and self-identity? Is it not enough for a novel to weave together different threads without actually forming a whole picture out of them, instead leaving much open to reader to continue contemplating?

Regarding the latter, I can see how Far From My Father might not work for everyone. Tadjo doesn't linger much on her characters, who can often feel a tad hollow as they orbit the protagonist. But it also very clearly isn't their story, and some characters in particular are almost designed to be just a little... vague, I suppose. Imprinted.

This is not a long enough book to justify writing a full, detailed review. I'm not sure I'd have something particularly meaningful to write, either. I can only emphasize that initial sentiment: Reading Far From My Father immediately made me want to pick up Tadjo's other works. This is a novel that can feel a little underbaked at times (see the above-mentioned hollow characters, as well as that all-too-common blurry plot matter), but its writing is so immediately engaging that it's hard to set the book aside. And isn't that one of the great strengths of literature?

Monday, August 8, 2022

WITMonth Day 8 | High versus low versus none

I've written about similar topics before, but it came up again earlier this week (as of scheduling this post in early July), and I find myself thinking about how limited the scope is for women writers in translation. How despite women writers existing in languages across the world, writing across all genres and literary styles, their works as translated (particularly into English, but not just) are often limited.

The highbrow/lowbrow debate is one that has existed for generations upon generations, and frankly it's one that no longer interests me. There is value in different forms and expressions of art, period. And there is value in different ways of experiencing said art, which may often come out in how "accessible" a work is and how it is meant to evoke a particular response in the reader. That's all there is to it. Every iteration of this same argument is only ever a rehashing of existing claims - for and against - that often deliberately ignore the value in the other school of thought. Yawn.

That being said, I feel that this is a conversation that still needs to be had within the context of WIT. The odd imbalance between high- and lowbrow literature in the translation world in general is worthy of its own discussion, but this is a WITMonth post, and so I'll focus on the unique state of WIT in this instance. Namely: WIT is extremely biased towards fiction (particularly contemporary fiction), with a smattering of poetry, nonfiction, and children's literature (and at most a handful of plays). This is in contrast to the general, English-language industry consensus by which fiction makes up a small fraction of annual releases. Now, obviously, the world of literature in translation is infinitely smaller than that of the wider English-language market, and indeed any language-specific market on its own. There are many books published per year that are unlikely to get translated, whether in the form of extremely specific academic nonfiction works, self-help books, cookbooks, self-published treatises, and so on. Moreover, I would expect a similar trend for books by men writers in translation, though perhaps somewhat mitigated by the fact that nonfiction in translation is overwhelmingly more likely to be by men, presumably narrowing the gap somewhat. (Because my data collection focuses on women wrtiers, I can't say for certain regarding men. Maybe someday!)

So let's focus for now on those WIT, whose works are overwhelmingly fiction, majority contemporary, and still overwhelmingly European (I will elaborate on the latter point in greater detail later in the month). Many of these works are what would be considered "literary" - fiction with a particular tenor and tone, often published by particular types of independent presses. Only a couple dozen are hardcore "genre" works - fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, or romance - and even among these, there is often a softening of the genre's hard edges to make the book appear more accessible. (A personal note: I often override publisher definitions when it comes to books with "fantasy elements" that are nonetheless marketed as general fiction, especially when the description makes clear that it is, quite simply, a fantasy novel. Sorry, publishers!) Even more than genre literature, though, I am continuously baffled and stunned by the lack of children's literature by women writers in translation. How? Why?

And this leads me back to the topic of this post. In a nutshell: While that obnoxious debate takes place about whether it is anti-intellectual to reject highbrow books or snobbish to reject the lowbrow, women writers in translation aren't even being given a choice in the matter. While lowbrow books in English are frequently translated (and indeed, popular, widely-appreciated art from the Anglo world is a cultural staple worldwide, from literature to music through to film), there is no such equivalent space for women writers in translation. More than that, there isn't really space for the highbrow either; while it's not as if men in translation have tons of nonfiction coming out every month, women's nonfiction is just a blip on the radar, and rarely from a strictly academic bent (half of the women's nonfiction I've logged for the "WITMonth 2022 reading list" as of writing this post is in the form of memoirs, which fill a very different niche within the world of nonfiction).

The point of WITMonth is to highlight women writers from around the world. From my end, it's also an opportunity to reckon with the imbalances that also exist among the books that are translated. Particularly now, on year 9 of WITMonth and as many more publishers have gotten a lot better at publishing women writers, I find myself more frustrated by how limiting the range of books that get translated seems to be. When new readers want to take part in WITMonth and ask for "genre" type books, it's a struggle to recommend them. Want to get your 10-year old in on the action? Not all that many choices. Someone wants science nonfiction or books on history? Yeah, good luck with that.

It helps no one, to have a limited scope of books available, whether from a linguistic perspective, a cultural one, or stylistic. And WITMonth can't be limited like this, it just can't. I've said it before and I'll say it again - we shouldn't have go through all this effort, just to create other imbalances and biases in our reading. The world is rich with women writers from all walks of life, writing in all sorts of languages, telling all sorts of stories, and presenting them for all sorts of different audiences. These categories overlap and intersect in ways that are pivotal for our... existence as a culture, honestly. Even when engaging with "comfort", template-style stories, we still seek out the particular, unique twist that a new writer might bring an old story. We should continue striving toward a world in which we can actually get all of those stories.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

WITMonth Day 7 | Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge tr. Jeremy Tiang | Review

I actually originally purchased Strange Beasts of China well over a year ago. Or, rather, I received it as part of a subscription to Tilted Axis Press I had that year. Yan Ge's Strange Beasts of China (translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang) was the last book of my subscription. It arrived several weeks after publication, completely water-damaged and moldy. Suffice to say, I could not read it. One year later, I decided to buy the US hardcover edition (...I like hardcovers, sue me!). Within a couple weeks of this second acquisition, I had finished the book and could think over what I had just read.

There was a lot to consider. My gut sense of the book is that it's good - it's good! - and I stand by that. On a technical level, the novel is excellent, with a wondrous balance between its fantasy elements and its exploration of the human condition. It's hard not to appreciate any story that so cleverly delves into humanity through the lens of a fictionalized other. (Hi, I'm a giant Star Trek fan.) It's also a book that in my head rings as fairly "confident", whatever that might mean. There's something about how it flows and how neat it is that I'm not sure is present for many other books. A self-awareness and clear bit of editing.

And yet I didn't love it. Even months later, I'm still not entirely sure why. As I said, it's such a technically good book that it's hard to put my finger on what it was that didn't work for me. The writing was great, certainly. The translation too. The imagery and world-building were fantastic. So what was it? The narrator's cool voice, perhaps? The constant sense that the story was rewriting its own context as it progressed?

The thing about good, smart novels is that they often force the reader to reassess their very own reading as its happening. This happened to me a few times with Strange Beasts of China. I had, in my mind, the vague notion that someone had once commented that when they'd finished the novel, they immediately went back to start the book over again, to reframe the beginning. By the time I reached the novel's end, I could no longer be certain that I had, in fact, read any such remark about Strange Beasts of China in particular. Maybe it was about a different book altogether. Yet that was the thought that remained imprinted on my mind as I worked my way through the book. Chapter by chapter, sub-story by sub-story, I found myself trying to recontextualize what I had previously read, based on whatever new information emerged from the latest story. It made for somewhat exhausting reading, though obviously it was entirely my own fault. 

There's no doubt in my mind that Strange Beasts of China is not only a good book, but also a special one. It was clever in the way its stories unfolded and brushed shoulders. It was intelligent in its pacing and restraint, lasting exactly the length it needed to be. The book works in a way that many novels simply don't. And as a work of genre fiction, it's wonderful in the way it merges urban fantasy, folklore, and hints of horror without ever feeling overcome by any one genre. If small things ended up making me like this without loving it, it has little bearing on the actual quality of the text or whether I think someone else might enjoy it. Strange Beasts of China is a good book. More people should read it.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

WITMonth Day 4 | WIT in the curriculum

Any reader of this blog will know that I often rant about the canon. The canon is a concept that I find to be tenuous at best and largely shaped by whatever people want it mean at the time. It serves its purpose (at times), but it is often used as a sledgehammer against any "new" works, with that sledgehammer banging away even more tenaciously if the author is not... in line, shall we say, with the previously established members of that canonic elite. I've written about this more times than I care to admit, to be perfectly honest.

But today's post is less about that, and more about the parallel problem that exists alongside it. Just like the canon is often used to shape the narrative of what literature is and what it can mean, so too do academic curriculums. Whether college-level, high school, or in middle/elementary school, it is rare (in the English-speaking context, about which this post will focus) to come across literature in translation. It is even more rare to come across women writers in translation.

Now, to be clear, I have not spent all that much time in the literary-minded halls of academia. I am, in fact, on an entirely separate campus from them (my university believes in a strict separation of power: humanities/social sciences on one hill, science/math/computer science on another, and medicine/medical research on a third, and agriculture is literally in a whole different city). But I've made an effort to gain a better understanding of what is taught where, and how. And I did so rather explicitly on Twitter, not too long ago.

I was surprised by the wave of answers I got, spanning decades and continents and literary traditions. But an underlying theme emerged: Most people who studied literature in an English-language context specifically studied English-language literature. Many perceive the two as entirely equivalent to such a degree that they misread my question and assumed I had asked about people who had studied "English" (I phrased my question around "literature", rather intentionally). Others thought that I meant English in the context of England-the-country, and named various Irish, Scottish, and US-based English-language writers as exceptions. I was simultaneously amused and surprised, not having expected such a vast divide.

There were, of course, exceptions. Several people responded to emphasize that their programs had a major focus on post-colonial literature. Some said that they read "plenty" of translated literature, but could not necessarily say how many works were translated compared to not. Others similarly recalled having read "lots of" women writers during their respective degrees, though there was a recurring theme of people recalling that the majority of women writers that they read had been specifically under the purview of either feminist studies modules/courses, literature-adjacent minors, or courses that explicitly focused on women's writing. Bit by bit, with over 50 different responders, I found myself acknowledging what I had long suspected:
  1. Academic, college-level literature in an English-language context overwhelmingly means works originally written in English (or proto-English languages). Even when expressly seeking to broaden horizons (particularly through the lens of post-colonial literature), it is heavily dominated by works originally written in English.
  2. Most of the translated literature students had read was European and overwhelmingly written by men.
  3. Exceptions were often from multilingual countries.
  4. While it seems that there are some improvements over the decades, even very recent graduates described gender and translation gaps. 
It's not that these were remarkable or unexpected conclusions. I came into the question assuming that these were the answers. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who could offer exceptions, but these were still largely reflective of a larger, pervasive pattern. Having, for instance, elective courses that focus on "Latin American women writers" is wonderful, but how does it wash with the fact that the mandatory course "Latin American literature" features only 10% works by women? If a student can complete an entire undergraduate degree in literature without having read a single work by 20th or 21st century writer from a literary tradition outside of English, are they truly well-versed in literature? If the study of literary works from other languages and cultures are limited to foreign language degrees (or comparable cultural studies), how can the literary tradition ever truly grow, evolve, and learn?

And of course, women writers in translation are the ones hurt the most. Their separation into women-specific courses also serves only to hurt women writers, in place of elevating them. Women's writing, after all, is not relevant only to those studying works by women. And I am hard-pressed to think of any era of literary study that cannot be filled with relevant works by women writers, whether originally in English or not. (Unless it's an author-specific course, but that's quite obviously not what I'm talking about...)

Part of the normalization of WIT has to come early, and it has to come through the classroom. A high school student in the US might read a handful of women writers in the course of their studies, but dozens of men. The vast majority will be works originally from English, but they don't have to be. Nor do they have to be by a majority of men. The literary value of a particular work is not actually intrinsic, nor is it determined by an ancient consensus. This is the part where the fuzziness of the canon comes into play. We can just decide to introduce excellent literature from around the world (and by women writers, no less!) into the curriculum, for all the value they have on an individual literary level and as an extraordinary expansion of the young readers' horizons. Christine de Pizan as a discussion on the way literature served as a conversation and statement. Simone Schwarz-Bart as an introduction to an extraordinarily rich tradition of Caribbean writing. Elsa Morante as a representation of the balance between epic history and a small-scale family story. Qiu Miaojin as a reflection of a developing literary language and cultural touchstone. Nawal El Saadawi as a voice of feminist activism and powerful narration. Svetlana Alexievich as a voice for those who might otherwise go unheard. And so many others at the college level, across every genre and literary form.

As I said earlier: I'm not a literary academic. I barely studied literature in high school. I am - as I have long claimed - just a reader. I do this for fun. But I'm a reader who knows just how extraordinary my "experiment" in reading women writers from around the world has been. Who knows just how many things I've learned and how much I've had the privilege to be able to learn them. Who knows just how many things I have yet to learn, and how many still remain out of reach due to a language gap. I spent years not realizing how many incredible women writers I could have been reading. It took years of actively trying to correct this imbalance in order to tilt the scales back. It shouldn't be so hard. Literature from around the world and literature from languages other than English or a handful of other privileged languages should be a natural part of our life, not something that we explicitly need to seek out. And women writers should not be rarities among that as well. Having women writers included in the curriculums of high school literature courses and college literary degrees won't erase the existing problems, but it can certainly go a long way toward leveling the playing field. It's time.

Monday, August 1, 2022

WITMonth Day 1 | Year 9!

It's August! Sometimes it feels like this blog only comes alive in August and that's certainly partly true, but August still remains my favorite time of year to settle down, write my thoughts about women writers in translation, and do the work. This year, I'm attending an intensive PhD-related course for the first two weeks of August, so I'm not going to be super involved the entire month, but I also don't need to be. WITmonth has grown to the point where it is wholly self-sustaining. Even without my input, announcement, or opinion, there are people who have made WITMonth plans, have their own WITMonth activities, and have spread the word. It's a beautiful thing to witness.

WITMonth is, as ever, an opportunity. It's an opportunity to remember why reading women writers in translation is important, why the imbalance is worth noting, why we need to continue striving toward parity and true equality. WITMonth is also an opportunity to read, certainly, and to promote and hype up authors who otherwise might not get a lot of attention. My own WITMonth reads this year are likely to be scattered and unexpected, though my reviews of books I've read in recent months (or last year) are going to be a bit more mainstream.

As always, WITMonth is also an opportunity in that it's not a race. It's not an obligation. There is no expectation of what anyone needs to do during WITMonth. Can't read a book by a woman writer in translation this month? No problem! Taking part in the discussion is already a huge step. Recognizing the problem, as well. I may not be able to read a book until mid-August, myself. That's okay! There is no one way to "do" WITMonth. In the meantime, I can simply say - here's to August, here's to WITMonth!