Showing posts with label translations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label translations. Show all posts

Saturday, April 6, 2019

"Translated literature", here and in the world

One of the biggest questions I ask myself when thinking about WITMonth and the women in translation project at large is whether or not I am helping or hurting. This, after all, is a project I've been working on for years; I have dedicated countless hours to assessing the state of women in translation in English. But that question of "in English" is another one that I think about quite often. After all, I am not monolingual, I also read in Hebrew (albeit less frequently than English). And I often think about how my efforts maybe segregate women in translation; if people are only reading WIT during WITMonth, doesn't that entirely defeat the purpose?

On Twitter, Tim Gutteridge responded to a tweet by Vagabond Voices (quoting Katy Derbyshire's desire to see an end to the segregation between original and translated literature), asking: "I wonder if this is a peculiarly English-speaking way of thinking about things. I don't think Spanish readers, for example, self-consciously read "translated literature" in this way. Any thoughts from those familiar with other reading cultures? I also wonder (I'm in a curious mood!) if some of the brilliant ways in which we promote translated literature - and the kinds of books we seek out - inadvertently strengthen the boundaries between translated and non-translated, rather than breaking them down."

These are extraordinarily valid questions that sit within an extraordinarily complicated realm.

Several responses addressed the complexity of the issue. Some noted that in certain countries, "translated" literature may be obvious simply by author name; I would argue that a similar "foreignness" metric (which was raised in relation to the French perspective) applies to English as well, though it is no guarantee of whether or not the book is in translation or originally in English. Others still responded to the way that segregating translated literature has created the perception that only "certain" types of books are actually translated into English, in essence removing the majority of "middlebrow" literature that originates in other languages.

I can't speak to every language or culture, of course, but I can speak to the situation as I see it in both English and Hebrew, as well as stories I have heard since embarking on this project.

This past WITMonth, I received some gentle disagreement from an Israeli blogger (Shiri, from Books on Buses) who felt that my insistence on defining translation (for myself) as originating from languages other than English was unfairly exclusionary. Examining the bias from a translators perspective, it seemed to her than translations from English were no less worthy of attention. I continue to maintain that translations from English need no help; English-language books are constantly translated (into Hebrew and just about every other language on Earth...), often regardless quality. Hebrew in particular seems to have as many books translated from English on the bestseller lists than books originally written in Hebrew... often more, in fact. Books translated from languages other than English, while still relatively more common than in English (remember that the Hebrew book market is significantly smaller), are far more rare. Yet I concede that not all translations from English are made equal - for an Israeli reader (as well, I imagine, for many non-Anglo/European readers), a translation of an Indian or African or Native English-language writer (for example) can often be as enlightening in its diverse perspective as a translation from a "foreign language". Sometimes more so. (See: European/Western dominance in translation.)

I have no doubt that the situation in English is unique. Viewing "literature in translation" as a concept that we need to focus on stems from a unique lack of foreign perspectives. English seems perfectly content to define diversity through the lens of English alone, often failing to recognize that different languages thoroughly shape different experiences. This is true not only of literature, but culture at large. While the rest of the world absorbs Anglo-American culture from birth (whether through television, movies, music, or books), many Anglo-Americans feel uniquely comfortable entrenched in their own limited perspectives.

Defining what "literature in translation" means in other languages does become more complicated (as that Israeli blogger noted), because literature in translation simply isn't rare in other languages. Everyone reads books translated from English, from the US, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia... and there are also relatively more books translated from other non-English languages. And while in Israel, many bookstores do distinguish between original and translated literature (most bookstores, in fact), the translated shelves are almost always significantly larger than the originals. That's just how it goes.

The question about the types of books translated, meanwhile, feels like it strikes right to the heart of everything I have been trying to do with the women in translation project these past six or so years. Tim is absolutely that the current market for literature in translation is highly defined: we view literature in translation as a genre, rather than a description. Literature in translation is disproportionately published by independent publishers, and this too defines how these books are received by the wider public. Like it or not, independently published books are not going to be available to the vast majority of readers, regardless questions of their literary style. Small town public libraries cannot afford to purchase largely unknown books, nor will certain chain bookstores (e.g. Barnes & Noble) carry them either. Nor is the marketing of these books ever intended for mass consumption, meaning that even people who predominantly purchase their books online are unlikely to stumble across these titles.

This is not to say that I'm satisfied with the current situation. On the contrary, my constant pleas for the women in translation movement to go "mainstream" is exactly meant to push back against this frustratingly niche constraint. The fact that on top of the practical accessibility constraints, much of literature in translation is more experimental and as such does not appeal to many "average" readers. With the exception of Scandinavian thrillers (which boomed in the early 2010s), most genre literature from around the world simply doesn't get translated. More than that, children's/YA literature and even contemporary literature are rarely translated, removing exactly the sorts of books that are most popular in the English-language market today.

As such, there are a lot of misconceptions about literature in translation. For every passionate fan, there are a dozen or so readers who bemoan cultural differences "lost in translation", without any attempt made at bridging those difference. The primary faces of literature in translation (overwhelmingly men, typically of a certain background writing with certain literary quirks) do little to dispel these myths. The framing of literature in translation as its own category is also a double-edged sword; I steadfastly believe in the importance of promoting diversity and believe that literature in translation provides this in a unique form, but this should not "other" or exoticize it.

This leaves us in a tricky position. In English, we have to emphasize literature in translation because there is so little of it, even as the distinction becomes murkier in other languages. But the very act of defining translations also limits us in what we are given, with perceptions often defined by those publishers brave enough to devote themselves to the more experimental/diverse sides of translation, which then leads to fewer mainstream publishers embracing literature in translation in their genres. The self-feeding cycle means that, yes, we're not quite breaking free of problematic boundaries and assumptions regarding literature in translation.

And so... there's no real bottom line here. Yes, "literature in translation" is a highly context dependent term. Yes, we are limited by what that phrase has come to mean. Yes, there is a global lack of mainstream literature in translation and a particular lack of literature in translation across a wide range of popular genres/designations. But also: No, I don't believe that these are fixed states. More and more books in translation are becoming popular in English-speaking spheres. As bookish communities embrace diversity of literature in a variety of forms, I believe that the market for more international literature will also grow. And ultimately, I can also hope for that ideal future that Katy speaks of, when literature in translation (and women in translation in particular!) does not need to be defined as such, because there is nothing odd or rare about it.

We're just not quite there yet.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Friday, January 25, 2019

An open letter to Elena Ferrante | Frantumaglia

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It's a little odd for me to be writing this post in the form of an open letter. I could, after all, just write a real letter, I suppose, but it feels so unlikely that it would ever reach you (and thus, anyone) that I find myself more inclined towards simply writing an open letter, sending it out into the void known as the internet, and hoping that maybe (maybe!) you'll see this letter someday and find it interesting or worthy of your time.

I've finished reading the collection of letters and fragments published in English as Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (translated by Ann Goldstein and a few others). It was, I have to admit, a bit of an odd, at times unsettling read for me. The first section was perhaps the least interesting, to a certain degree, because I have yet to read Troubling Love. I know, I know, what sort of fan am I? (I also haven't read The Lost Daughter, and I've had that on my shelf for almost four years! I am soundly ashamed...) I definitely want to read it now, but it complicated my ability to read Frantumaglia, since I tried to skim through the early section and had to skip entire portions. I suddenly feel as though I'm missing a whole lot of necessary context to understand and engage with your writing, but there you have it.

The unsettling part for me, though, wasn't so much in the content. I've thought a lot about narratives over the past year or so, specifically the degree to which modern journalism is built around the idea of building narratives from nothing and then perpetuating them by giving them more and more airtime. So it becomes easy to craft a narrative about, say, a certain politician. Or about a certain demographic. Or even craft a narrative about a complex conflict or disagreement. It's enough to suggest that there is a narrative, and then build a whole story around that suggestion.

And as I read your repeated, almost exhausting (frustrated?) responses to journalists and readers persistently questioning you about your "identity", I grew angry. Truly, I grew angry for your sake. I realize, rationally, that these journalists weren't coming from my perspective of reading your interviews/letters/responses one after the other and could thus see with cold clarity the degree to which you have explained your stance over the course of almost thirty years, but it seems to me honestly shocking how persistent they are in disregarding your obvious wishes. Why every interviewer felt the need to re-ask the same questions that they knew (and cited!) from previous interviews about information they felt they deserved to know... I'm sorry, I truly am.

I was struck by your response and how it ties into this question of narrative that I've been obsessing over for so long. You say it exactly right - the story comes from the fact that the media wants there to be a story. After all, many writers don't engage in much publicity of their works. There's nothing too shocking about wanting to stay out of the limelight or writing under a pen name. Would anyone have even noticed if you'd used a fake jacket photo and written a bland blurb about living in a fake town with your fake children and your fake dog? I'd offer my photo, but seeing as I was barely alive when your first novel was published, I don't think it'll fly.

I wish I could undo the nonsense that others have asked you. I wish I could remove the question from our lexicon. And yet you see, even without me asking the questions (because, frankly, I don't think it's necessary; my curiosity is secondary to my respect for an individual's privacy and I steadfastly refuse to read or acknowledge attempts to dismantle it), I have to address it. It's become a necessary part of the story of your works. How exceedingly disappointing and frustrating. Here's to hoping the narrative will truly die down, and with that I will leave the matter behind.

There are so many interesting points raised within the pages of Frantumaglia that it's a little overwhelming to try to address them all. I honestly don't think I can, and as I write these words it occurs to me that perhaps I also shouldn't. I'm not nearly clever enough to be able to adequately address so much of what you have written about your own works, and I'm the sort of reader who doesn't retain very much in the way of plots or individual lines from a text, rather holds on to the emotions I felt while reading, which means that I can hardly be viewed as an expert on any book I haven't reread at least a dozen times. (And I have only read each of your works once, alas. This will change soon.)

I think the biggest point of contention I have with you is about feminism. While not as ubiquitous as the Big Question That Shall Not Be Named, it's a topic that cropped up again and again in many of your interviews. The evolution of your response to the question was actually fascinating to me, particularly the way you seemed almost cautious to use the label in the 1990s, and then more confidently embrace the term (and adjacent phrases such as "the patriarchy"!) by the early 2000s. I found some of your comments disappointing, though. I'm not going to argue how you view your feminism, particularly when your writing has inspired so many women readers (young and old) from a deeply feminist perspective. Death of the author and all that. But I find your characterization of young feminists to be somewhat concerning.

Are there young feminists today who don't fully appreciate what battles feminism won in the past? I'm sure! I also have no doubt that you have encountered modern feminists who perform a sanitized, stripped down version of feminism that feels as though it is little more than a game. I certainly have! But the vast majority of young women that I know who identify as feminists are nothing like what you write. I am nothing like what you write. And I am not quite "militant" myself (though I think I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable with the term as you seem to be). I feel you have engaged in a rather serious act of oversimplification, viewing the young generation as lazy and substandard simply because you are unfamiliar with what our causes actually are. I'd also argue that the degree to which so many of my feminist friends adore your novels is an indication that we probably speak a much more similar language than you realize.

It's an odd experience, reading a book that feels so intimate while being thoroughly repetitive. I'm not saying that to be cruel, it's obvious to me why themes repeat and recur. When journalists constantly pose the same questions, it seems inevitable. Unfortunately, it does complicate matters from my own critical perspective; I can't quite say that I loved the book when I glossed over so much of it. Some of your conversations are so detailed that they also felt like an infringement upon my own interpretations of the text. As interesting as it is to read, it's not necessarily something I want to adopt. Does that make sense?

I'm glad I read Frantumaglia, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have spent this time with you. I like your writing and I like what you have to say about it, even if we don't always agree. I feel that you approach the world in an interesting way, which probably explains why I like your novels - they seem to capture a perspective that I connect with, even when I have nothing in common with the characters or the narrative. It was an honor to get a glimpse of some of the thought process behind your writing.

Sincerely yours,
Meytal (aka Biblibio)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Friday, August 17, 2018

WITMonth Day 17 | The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari

It's difficult to review a book that I know wasn't written for me. This is one of the best parts of the women in translation project, when I get to encounter a book that is so utterly outside of my comfort zone and area of knowledge that I feel my mind reaching out and growing in response to the new information. The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari (translated from the Indonesian by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed) was not written for me, for a Jewish-Israeli woman specifically who has never formally learned anything about Indonesian history or culture.

That's part of what made The Years of the Voiceless so appealing to me. I often feel like the translations I read are inherently politically framed (see this post from last WITMonth), especially in terms of which books are chosen for which audiences. So many translations feel as though they are heavily vetted by whether the English-speaking audience will be able to "handle" the text (this, I should note, is true of both very "highbrow" literature, and "commercial", but this is a topic for another time). The Years of the Voiceless didn't feel like that at all, probably because it wasn't. I didn't get The Years of the Voiceless from an indie US/UK publisher. I got it from the very excited Indonesian representative at the London Book Fair in 2016, after I told her about the women in translation project. She happened to have a copy of The Years of the Voiceless on hand and gave it to me as a gift. It may have taken me two years to get around to reading the book, but I am grateful for the gift, which was more than just a book.

From a technical perspective, there are a lot of things I can point to in The Years of the Voiceless which are less than perfect. Bearing in mind that this is a translation done internally, published by an Indonesian publisher and likely not really meant for particularly broad international audiences, the writing/translation is not exactly stellar. There are clunky bits and awkwardness in the use of footnotes to explain certain cultural nuances (but not others). The pacing of the novel is also somewhat suspect, with a remarkably (disappointingly) rushed ending that feels like it cheated its characters out of a proper, dramatic denouement.

Yet these points feel minor in the face of how intelligent the novel is, and how much it demands of its readers. While reading The Years of the Voiceless, I kept wondering what it would be like if I knew more about Indonesian history or literature. Indeed, I've read only one book out of Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori's Home) and that was specifically about the expat experience. The Years of the Voiceless was the first time I had ever encountered Indonesia up close. The two books end up forming an interesting contrast, with Home bluntly addressing the source of Indonesia's conflicts (Suharto's authoritarian regime at its most obviously cruel) and The Years of the Voiceless quietly pointing to the seismic shifts in Indonesian culture under his influence (without once mentioning his name).

In this form, The Years of the Voiceless ends up feeling more sharply tuned than Home. Where Chudori uses exile as a narrative framing device, The Years of the Voiceless is immersed in day-to-day, village Indonesian life. Madasari exposes authoritarianism slowly, its creeping influence growing in the lives of the characters until it eventually encompasses them.

The Years of the Voiceless revolves around mother and daughter, Marni and Rahayu, each representing a different generation of Indonesian women and their own struggles with a "modernizing" Indonesia. Where the illiterate, traditional Marni builds herself up as a businesswoman and money-lender only to constantly face hatred/bigotry, sexism, and a corrupt system that only takes, Rahayu is a modern Muslim ashamed of her mother's "sins" who finds herself immersed in a political mess as her interest in Islamist teaching increases. The two encounter the power of the state in markedly different forms, but the outcomes remain the same - when Marni and Rahayu's story converge, the full tragic implications of authoritarian regimes may be seen on full display.

One of the things I especially liked about The Years of the Voiceless was that it never offers simple explanations. Marni's business grows as a result of her money-lending, directly borne out of her hard work. Yet her wealth is deemed to be her husband's before hers, she is loathed by the very people who use her services, she is constantly forced to "donate" to the ruling party and to petty bureaucrats in order to survive, and her daughter views her with disgust. This latter point is of particular interest, with Marni exasperatedly trying to understand how Islam can denounce her business, while their local Islamist teacher constantly uses her services without paying his debts. Marni may be illiterate, but she has a clear-eyed understanding of business. We see most of the world through her eyes, where she largely ignores the actual politics of Indonesia and focuses predominantly on her own struggles.

Rahayu's story complicates things further. It is here that the extent of state-inflicted violence becomes apparent, once Rahayu effectively abandons her agricultural studies and becomes a teacher of Islam. Rahayu is simultaneously a reflection of Indonesia's modern Islamist leanings, but she also represents a lot of the hypocrisy that came with the shift. The novel is not explicitly critical of Islam, not by any means, but there is a quiet recognition of the way it was used (and occasionally abused) in the name of power. Much like Marni's interactions with the Islamic teacher from their village, Rahayu finds herself as a second wife (unrecognized, effectively no more than mistress) in a way that seems to emphasize the hypocrisy of several men of faith taking advantage of their position and the women around them. That her relationships and their consequences ultimately drive the drama of the last portion of the book feels especially meaningful. The personal becomes the political; the political is inherently personal.

All in all, it's hard for me to assess The Years of the Voiceless in a truly objective way. From a technical perspective, there is a lot to criticize (as I mentioned earlier), but the technical feels absolutely secondary to the story and the message. But how much of my response to the story is driven by the fact that I personally have hardly been exposed to these sorts of narratives? Would The Years of the Voiceless feel as intelligent and sharply critical if I had read significantly more Indonesian literature? Perhaps it would simply feel like another narrative describing the creeping onslaught of authoritarian horrors. (And I can't possibly imagine that being relevant to any of the political situations in the world today, not one, nope.) I feel as though I lack the proper context and understanding to give The Years of the Voiceless its proper due.

But as it stands, with this reader being the uneducated, ignorant boor that she is - I found that I really appreciated The Years of the Voiceless, learned a lot from it, and was emotionally engaged. This wasn't a mere technical exercise - I truly got angry for Marni on a number of occasions, at one point even directing my anger aloud and declaring that she should just leave her village behind. It's far from a perfect book, but it worked for me and it provided me with a fascinating perspective on Indonesian history that I don't think I could have gotten in any other way. I have a feeling it might do the same for other readers as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

WITMonth Day 16 | ...languages other than English | Thoughts

One of the common misconceptions during WITMonth is its English-language exclusivity. This is an understandable mistake: Everything on this blog is in English, as are most of the books that I discuss. The statistics I present are all about translations into English, the publishers I promote/discuss/criticize are for the most part working in English, and it's difficult for me to share content from languages that I don't know how to read or understand.

But as I've said before, WITMonth is not actually limited to English. On the contrary, I would very much like to see people having the conversation about publishing, promoting, and supporting women writers in just about every language and country on Earth; I don't think it would be out of place anywhere.

There is a single exception, though, and that's when people use WITMonth to promote books by women written in English and translated into other languages.

This is a bit like the translations versus translators issue (also in the fact that I won't police how people interpret WITMonth, no matter how frustrating I find it). At its base, I'm not against promoting women who write in English. There is a reason the #readwomen movement exists - women writers have notoriously been sidelined by critics, awards, and prestige. This is a phenomenon that crosses borders and languages, apparently.

That being said, women who write in English do not have a problem when it comes to translations. In general, English-language books are among the most translated in the world, even when they don't really deserve it (see this old post). Translations from English dominate SFF and YA book markets almost entirely, and aren't lacking in other genres. And I have seen little evidence to suggest that English-language women writers are translated into other languages less frequently than men; my gut feeling tells me the numbers are about equal, though I obviously cannot commit to this statement without actual data.

There's a reason WITMonth exists. That reason is that hardly any books by women who write in languages other than English get translated into other languages. Evidence suggests that they are also underrepresented in their own literary cultures, often ignored in favor of men writers. The purpose of WITMonth is to promote women writers from exactly those parts of the world that don't typically get attention, whether in English or not. Promoting Margaret Atwood translated into German... just doesn't do that. Yes, Margaret Atwood has faced barriers because she is a woman, but she has never faced barriers for not writing in the marketable, "universal" language of English, or being a woman in a country in which writing is considered immodest, or being a woman in a country that has a small literary tradition that rarely gets attention beyond its borders and only has a few million potential readers, or... the list can go on. It's really not the same thing.

It's true, WITMonth doesn't cover everyone. Nor will it ever be a perfect encapsulation of intersectionality or literature at large; WITMonth excludes many underrepresented women who write in English, after all. It's not meant to be perfect, though. For me, very simply, WITMonth is just about promoting women who write in languages other than English. Giving this attention to women writers who already have a huge movement behind them ends up, in my view, erasing those writers that do need the extra space. Women who write in English have a unique set of opportunities; let's save our August energy for those who don't.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

WITMonth Day 9 | The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

When I bought Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart (translated as Mend the Living in the UK), I had only one impression of the book - this rare negative review from Tony Messenger's blog, that described the book as poorly written, boring, and filled with bizarre writing choices. I hesitated before buying The Heart for this reason, but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me... and the fact that the book was in the bargain bin and being sold for only $4 in the hardcover.

I started reading The Heart late on a Saturday night, intending to read only a few pages to get the taste of it. I fully expected to be disappointed - after all, a reader whose tastes and reviews I quite trust seemed to dislike it so much! - but as I read those early pages, I found myself instantly swept up in the rhythm. I had to force myself to stop reading after those first few pages in order to go to sleep.

It was somewhere in the middle of the night that a thought struck me: The Heart read like a millennial had written it. Or at least, it sounded somehow "millennial" to me. It sounded like how my writing would sound, if I wasn't just writing bad reviews on a sub-par blog. The pacing and the styling and rhythm and the almost loopy thinking... they all felt like they would be perfectly at home on a Tumblr post responding to some vague, random prompt. The writing felt like something many of my friends might write. And I liked it.

As I progressed in the novel, I discovered a few more interesting points of contrast between my interpretation and Tony's. Portions that filled in a minor character's backstory felt like little side-quests, rather than pointless distractions. The constant shifts in perspectives felt like a necessary way to describe the whole. As the story spun around Simon (whose heart is in question), I felt like I was growing to care about his world, if not him specifically.

The Heart, at its core, is a novel of the characters who surround Simon. It focuses to a significant degree on his mother Marianne, but as the narrative shifts from Simon's injury to Simon's death to Simon's "rebirth", so too does the focus, to the doctors treating Simon and eventually also those who wish to save other lives using his organs. It feels like a novel built of negative space; Simon is at The Heart's center, but he does not really exist within it.

There were a few things I outright disliked in The Heart. First, there is an odd objectification of women in a number of points throughout the book. There are full paragraphs that feel utterly unnecessary to either character development or story progression, particularly ones that focus on women. The novel felt sexist in places, which ended up throwing me out of the story more than once (though I managed to get back into it quickly, which was also pretty interesting). These are short, minor fragments, but they do cast a shadow on the book and prevent me from giving a whole-hearted endorsement (pun intended). I also found myself somewhat unimpressed by de Kerangal's constant descriptions of Simon's multi-racial background, with the fawning tone occasionally bordering a bit on fetishization. It may just be a cultural difference, but there was something about some of the descriptions that felt a bit off to me.

However, to the most important point: Perhaps you noticed that I skipped over an important bit of information at the beginning of this review. Where, you would be correct in asking, is the translator's name? Well, in the version that I read, the translator is Sam Taylor, who I think did a really great job of making the writing flow and keeping the book as engaging as it was. But when I went back to read Tony's review, I realized something interesting: the quoted passages did not match the ones that I had just read. In fact, the passages that Tony includes all felt awkward and stilted in portions compared to the gently rolling text I held in my hands.

It turns out that Mend the Living and The Heart are actually not the same book, exactly, instead being that (now rare) phenomenon of two distinct translations of a modern novel that were released at the same time in different countries. Mend the Living, despite having my personally preferred title, was translated by Jessica Moore. Though I have of course not read the entire translation, the contrast with the portions I read on Tony's blog make clear that Moore's translation creates a very different effect overall.

For example: In the passage describing Marianne's meeting with the parents of her son's friends (mostly uninjured in the accident that ultimately kills Simon), Moore's translation creates a very tight, stiff vibe. Lines like "the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage" feel like they are heavily crafted. Contrast that with Taylor's version: "all four of them are aware how lucky they are, how monstrously lucky, because their children are only a little broken". There are two main word-choice distinctions: "monster's ball" replaced with "monstrously lucky", and "it's only breakage" with "only a little broken". In both cases, I find myself preferring Taylor's word choice. Of course I have no idea what the original was, but the message here is clearly the same, as is the general style. Yet Moore's translation uses somewhat weird, rare words (breakage? monster's ball?), while Taylor spins the sentence to flow with an almost childlike appreciation. One of the translations feels like a very high-brow classic novel, while the other feels loose and modern.

Of course I am biased, having read only one of these translations and generally liked it, especially liking how fresh it felt and to my own generation's online writing style. But almost each of the examples that Tony cites sent me back to the pages of The Heart's translation, and appreciating how much smoother the text flowed there. It leads me to wonder what Moore's translation is like at large, particularly since this is a fairly rare example of a modern book having contrasting, contemporary translations. I certainly liked Taylor's approach, and appreciate it even more after comparing it to an alternative.

All in all, The Heart ended up surprising me. I fell in love with the writing style, I was (mostly) able to look past the weird/unnecessary/male-gaze-y bits, and I thought that the story was extremely moving on the whole. This is not the sort of novel to keep you on your toes, but it has its own sort of pulsing tension anyways. The end in particular felt like a thriller, as the tone and narrative largely move away from Simon. It's a book I wish I could have read in one sitting; even so, I am grateful that I read it at all.

Monday, August 6, 2018

WITMonth Day 6 | Writers, not translators | Thoughts

One of my WITMonth rules of conduct is that I don't police how other readers interpret the month, but I also won't change my understanding of what WITMonth stands for. This means that I'll often find readers/publishers/whatever sharing books in the tag that I feel have absolutely nothing to do with the actual message of WITMonth or the women in translation project at large. For instance, readers who share books by Anglo women writers translated in a wide range of languages - not really what I'm fighting for.

But the most common misunderstanding about WITMonth centers around the ambiguity of the phrase "women in translation". After all, "women in STEM" means women who partake in STEM subjects. Therefore, shouldn't "women in translation" refer to women who translate? And so, many translators and publishers in particular understand this to be an equal part of the women in translation project.

Now to be clear: I am obviously not against the promotion of women translators. I'm pretty much pro-translators under any circumstances! But the simple fact is that women translators make up just around half of all translations into English in the US. While that is far from the "overwhelming majority of translators" that many (sexist) readers have attempted to tout in an effort to discredit the women in translation movement (also as though women translators must only translate books by women, and vice versa!), it is still hardly an imbalance. And when compared to the huge imbalance when it comes to actually translating women writers, I simply do not find myself as emotionally invested.

There are two additional layers to this that I want to address.

The first is the question of a gender gap when it comes to translating women writers. A cursory glance at the data regarding translator gender shows that women translators are more likely to translate women writers than men; this ultimately isn't so surprising, but it does not bode well in terms of reaching gender parity. Translations shouldn't have to depend on the translator gender, nor should the task of translating women writers fall entirely to women translators, as though women alone are capable of relating to (and thus working on) books by women writers. If we do not expect the same standard for men writers (and we do not), then we shouldn't have to for women either.

The second issue is more complicated and more critical in my mind (in both meanings of the word). One of my greatest frustrations - and sensations of failure regarding the women in translation project - is the fact that too many people use WITMonth to promote women translating men writers. And this is entirely too common, particularly among publishers who have very few women writers in their catalogs. I have seen multiple cases of publishers sharing "Happy #WITMonth!" style posts with photos of their women-translated texts, when literally all six of the books in the photo were written by men. It did not even seem to occur to the publishers that there might be something wrong with the photo, so entrenched is the understanding that women writers in translation are not the "norm".

I've seen this countless times over the past few years: The moment I am not explicit about seeking books by women writers in translation (or even if I am!), people immediately recommend books by men writers and only books by men writers. The default remains staunchly male (and typically European and white, unless otherwise stated). It is disheartening, to say the least. That people co-opt the "women in translation" movement to apply it to translators and thus get away with not actually promoting a single woman writer in translation feels like a double slap to the face.

As I said earlier: I won't police how people interpret and celebrate WITMonth. I have no problem with the promotion of women translators. But I do have a problem with the use of WITMonth to promote men authors under the cover of supporting women translators, who are not exactly underrepresented (though there is another conversation in here that I am unqualified to have). And I further have a problem equating the two matters, as though women translators and women writers face the same struggles and discrimination (both face struggles; they are not the same). In my mind, WITMonth will continue to remain focused on women writers in translation. It's okay if WITMonth means something else to other people, but let's not forget where the imbalance truly is: Women writers remain sidelined and in the extreme minority when it comes to translations into English (and other languages). This is what I would like to focus on.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

WITMonth Day 5 | The Country Road by Regina Ullmann | Brief thoughts

I had tried to read Regina Ullmann's The Country Road (tr. Kurt Beals) once before, about a year ago. The initial title story rather bored me, and I soon found myself drifting away. Like so many of the titles I review here, I set the book aside for a later date, assuming that the problem was me and not the book. As I revisited more and more books from that period of abandonment in recent months, liking several, The Country Road seemed like a good candidate for a renewed effort. Let's see, I thought, how the book fares this time, with a fresh mind.

It turns out I was even less forgiving of the book this time. Because while yes, technically I finished the book, I was bored by just about every short story. (I almost typed "episode", which I think sums up my thoughts on this book rather well.) I ended up skipping over the ends of just about half of the stories. I disliked the writing. I disliked the frames of most of the stories. I disliked the airy conclusions and concepts.

I disliked this book, and I truly was not expecting to. There's a degree to which I'm still not sure what it was about The Country Road that meant that I actively disliked it, rather than just being passively disinterested. This was a book that felt like work, and not the sort of rewarding work that is ultimately worth it. No, The Country Road was the sort of work that you realize, as you're doing it, that you don't want to be doing, there's no reason you should be doing it, and honestly... who even gave this task?

Not to my taste, certainly. Oh well.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exclusion is a choice | Bias in "Best of" lists

Several days ago, Catherine Taylor published an interesting review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, pointing out and critiquing the fact that in a list spanning the years 1600-2000, Tonkin had included only 14 novels by women writers in translation. Then, a few days later, Sawad Hussain tweeted Tonkin's defense of this imbalance: "One of the hot topics was the eye-watering lack female authors in the '100 Best Novels in #Translation' . Boyd said that we had to take into consideration the centuries of systematic exclusion of women from the institution of publishing, leaving him with not much to choose from.. He said that he would have had to skew the project to the 2nd half of the 20th century in order to get a good amount of female authors in translation to choose from."

Hussain continued by asking: "But my question is, even if, women in translation have been marginalized, doesn't that mean the books that DID [...] make it through, have probably been interrogated to a FAR high degree than any male authored novel at that time, and so, the work is maybe...possibly...more than likely...of a higher calibre and should have been considered? #womenintranslation @translatewomen"

Tonkin's response - and Hussain's dismantling of it - both seem fairly reasonable. Tonkin acknowledges that women writers have long been marginalized and removed from the canon; this in itself seems like progress. But as Hussain points out, it is very easy to poke holes in this argument. Women have long been marginalized, it's true, but their novels have thus had to pass significantly more stringent tests in order to be considered canon-worthy.

Tonkin's second argument - that he would have had to prioritize the second half of the 20th century in order to achieve a more gender-balanced list - also fails to pass muster. Since, as we all know, women did not simply begin writing after 1950 but rather have been writing fascinating, important, and worthy novels since literally the beginning of the novel-writing tradition itself (hello The Tale of Genji),  it seems rather unlikely that Tonkin would really have had to skew the list any more than I imagine it already is. Moreover, Tonkin even displays bias in drawing the definitions of his list - why, indeed, should the novel be judged only from the 17th century, when the first novel (written shockingly enough by a woman... in translation!) was written in the 11th? And given how biased translations are in general in terms of actually rediscovering lost classics, wouldn't he have been better off giving more weight to the brilliant women of the 20th century that he ultimately passed over for no apparent reason?

Here's that blunt truth: Exclusion is a choice. I'm not saying that it's easy to make a list of 100 Best Novels in Translation with 50% women writers and have it fully align with the standard canon, because it isn't. In fact, it's impossible, because the canon is inherently exclusionary. But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?

Tonkin claims that he couldn't include more women into his list because of existing bias. He's right that bias has long existed and has shaped the canon extensively, but he is absolutely wrong to have let that guide his own choices without more serious criticism or active effort. His response to criticism further demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why the canon is so problematic, so entrenched, and so ultimately pointless, and why attempts like his to "redraw" it end up so disappointing. As noble as his recognition of the problem is, it's simply not enough. We can do better.

I suppose we'll just have to make our own list.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

WIT, the feminist movement, and awareness

In the four years I've worked on the women in translation project, I'll admit that my goals, aspirations, and thoughts have evolved somewhat. In 2014, the day before the inaugural WITMonth began, I posted an essay about women in literature in general. The fight, as I saw it then, was about convincing readers of translated literature that women writers were worthy of the same space and recognition as men.

Four years later, I can tentatively state that I believe that the message has gotten across. The literature in translation community is quite small, and though many editors and publishers still haven't made any significant strides to correct their sexist approaches and biases, enough have. And more importantly, readers have clearly embraced the movement to promote more women writers in translation, with WITMonth growing from year to year. While the ratios have yet to change in any significant way, there is a clear effort on the part of many newer, younger publishers to produce only balanced catalogs. I am confident that we will begin to see the statistical progress in the next few years.

And so the goalposts have moved, just a bit. If four years ago I hoped that someone - anyone! - would just become aware of the problem, I have recently realized that this problem is actually far deeper than just the literature in translation community. In places where I would expect some awareness or acknowledgement of the lack of women writers in translation, of the marginalization that women creating works (or writing feminist criticism) in languages other than English face on a larger scale, I find a tremendous, very obvious gap.

My gut has been telling me for several years that the problem of women in translation belongs, in large part, to the global lack of literature in translation available in the English-speaking world. Most countries in the world import a lot of literature (much of it from English, though this is a different matter worth discussing another time), with translations subsequently normalized. English is perhaps not unique in its assumption of lingual-cultural dominance, but it certainly ends up getting away with it on a far greater scale than most other languages. The reasons for this are vast and complicated and I will not get into them at this time. However, one thing remains certain: most native English speakers, across the board, struggle to engage with art that is not originally in English, whether it is music, film, television, or books.

It's only in recent years that I've discovered that this almost willful ignorance extends to circles I naively imagined to be more aware. Intellectuals and academics aren't more prone to reading literature in translation; on the contrary, I have found many to often use that (often irrelevant) line about how "something gets lost in translation". Among feminists - even self-identified intersectional feminists - the awareness gap seems even wider.

More problematic still is the fact that many of these so-called intersectional feminists (and can feminism really be intersectional without being international...?) will even maintain that Anglo-American cultural norms are default. I have (on multiple occasions) had to argue with "intersectional" feminists that applying USian cultural norms on another culture is not only inaccurate, it may at times be entirely contrary. Not every conversation will sound the same way in a different culture. Not every feminist act will apply to every culture. And many acts that Anglo-American feminists might scoff at as "not really feminist" may actually be remarkably radical and/or outright rebellious for another culture.

Of course this ignorance applies to literature as well. As much as certain feminists do make a point to read literature in translation, you'd be hard-pressed to find most prominent feminist critics discussing and giving weight to exactly the women who most need a space in which to be heard. When I asked feminist-identifying folk on Twitter whether they read literature in translation, a surprisingly high number of respondents said they wish they read more women in translation, but felt as though they were never exposed to those books or struggled to find them in libraries/bookstores. Several noted that with so much literary hype surrounding new Anglo releases, it was hard to make time for women in translation, who are rarely hyped to the same degree (with the rare exception, as with men in translation).

It ends up being frustrating on two fronts. The first is the feeling that I have to fight for intersectionality to include internationalism, even though this is a fundamental tenant of the concept. With literature playing such an important role in terms of introducing readers to new concepts, the oversight here feels particularly egregious. I shouldn't have to explain to readers who fight for "diversity in YA" that USian kids also need to be introduced to kids from other countries, whose culture is different from theirs (and written to match that culture, and not an Anglo-American readership). I shouldn't have to explain to feminist critics that queer feminist theory is markedly different in languages that have inherently gendered words. This should be obvious.

The second front is the sense that would-be readers - those who aren't averse to anything in translation because "something gets lost in translation" - are missing out on so many opportunities to read brilliant women who are translated because these books are never promoted to remotely the same degree as lesser books in English. (For the record, I have found this to be true also in Hebrew, where translations from English almost always win out over translations from any other language. Hype is inevitable.) Most books by women in translation are published either by smaller presses or AmazonCrossing (which, due to a lot of reasons, doesn't always end up with the best translations or do a lot of self-promotion, even if some of their books are excellent; on the other hand, they also publish a lot of genre lit, so that's something!). These books are, for various reasons, not getting into the hands of readers. They are getting lost, and readers are losing.

There's a lot that we can do to improve the situation. For me, it comes back to that original WITMonth goal: raise awareness. But it is no longer my goal to raise awareness within a closed community of those who already read literature in translation in a targeted, directed way. I now want to reach all readers and raise awareness of individual books, getting them into the hands of as many prospective readers as possible (see: #WITreviews). I now want to raise awareness among intersectional feminists, to see them embrace internationalism in the way that anti-racism has become a core tenant of the movement. I now want to raise awareness among feminist critics and academics, particularly in light of how many fascinating-seeming feminist theory papers I have stumbled across in my searches that have never been translated into English.

None of this is easy. It wasn't easy getting WITMonth off the ground, either. But I firmly believe that in a few years from now, I will be able to look back and say that I have achieved my perhaps-too-ambitious goals. Certainly, I will be able to look back with a sense of pride that I have tried.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura | Review

It feels redundant to review a book that has been praised to the skies by so many readers and critics far more eloquent than myself. I'm coming to the party so late that I can hardly imagine which readers are left unaware of this "Wuthering Heights remake" (I'll explain the quotations in a moment), and of its lingering impact. Doesn't everyone already know that A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature? Doesn't everyone already know that it is worth looking past the novel's length and reading it? Doesn't everyone already know, far better than I do, that this is a true novel, a truly good novel?

On the surface, I knew each of these claims when I began to read A True Novel. Like so many other titles on my shelf (particularly the longer ones...), A True Novel had spent a long time languishing before I bothered to actually read it. Sure, some of that had to do with the length, but the real reason I was put off every time was that allusion to Wuthering Heights. Because goodness, I hated Wuthering Heights. It's one of those novels that somehow even got worse in my memory as time went by (rather than simply fading away). A True Novel's blurbs all insist on reminding me that this is a Japanese reworking of that classic tale, and didn't you know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights, and oh! You should read this because it's an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

So I started reading, hesistantly, and found myself baffled. The first part of the novel does not remotely resemble Wuthering Heights; in fact, it's more like autofiction, with Minae Mizumura detailing a cross-cultural youth in the US and a later literary career. It was an odd, slightly off-kilter opening to a book that promised something entirely different. I kept waiting to see what Mizumura must be hinting at, the references I must be missing... but it soon became clear that this was simply a very long, elaborate introduction. Indeed, A True Novel turns out to have multiple layers to its story - a story being told, then retold, then retold, then conveyed to the reader. Yet the submersion feels gradual, possibly because this introduction ends up taking so long. And is then followed by another introduction. And then another that leads to the actual story. And not long after, I realized I had finally gotten to the point at which that Wuthering Heights parallel came from.

Here's why A True Novel works so well: By the time I finally realized how this narrative echoed Wuthering Heights, I didn't care. Sure, the cast characters had shifted several times before the resolution focused on the "main" narrative. (Several hundred pages, in fact.) And yes, once the story itself began, it was easy to recognize how Mizumura had planted the "Wuthering Heights" seeds earlier. It just didn't matter anymore, because I was hooked. Each introduction had felt like one, but once the pieces fell into place, I recognized how this novel was progressing and I didn't want it to stop. I fell in, breathlessly, and was swept up.

A True Novel certainly has several callbacks to Wuthering Heights, but to market it as the "Japanese Wuthering Heights" is to undersell the novel by an almost catastrophic degree (and not simply because I don't love the original). A True Novel contains within its pages a unique take on the story-within-a-story model, one that manages to make each layer even more worthwhile by being just meta enough to make the withdrawal its own almost-story, challenging how stories are told and the concept of narration itself (in parts). Remarkable still is the fact that A True Novel does all of this without ever straying into the dull gray zone of having technical innovation at the cost of narrative and writing. The writing threw me off a bit, at first, with a sort of straight-forward roundedness that I couldn't quite place as being either modern or old-fashioned; it's somehow both simultaneously. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bottom line: A True Novel does a lot of wonderful things within its (many) pages. It's not only an expansive modern history of Japan, but also a personal drama/tragedy and even a meta narrative about storytelling. It's written in a convincing style and ultimately kept me absolutely hooked. It's intelligent and clever (yes, those are different things!), emotionally engaging (even in the most Wuthering Heights-like plot moments that had me on occasion wanting to slap the characters, but with much less vitriol against the novel itself than Brontë's text), and well-written.

If like me, you've been put off by the length or the Wuthering Heights comparisons, do me a favor: Pick up the book and just start reading. Just start. I think, like in my case, you'll find yourself finishing the book before long...

It by Inger Christensen | Review

I basically put it on my reading list the day after I finished reading Inger Christensen's phenomenal alphabet. I positively raved about alphabet, and even four years later, I stand by those words. That poetry book (book, I emphasized then and again now, not collection) took my breath away (literally, at times) and enchanted me. It was gorgeous and intelligent and perfectly translated by Susanna Nied and I loved every piece of it. Obviously, I would have to read every one of Christensen's books available in English! And again one translated by Nied! So I promptly placed an order for it.

Not quite it
Here is the uncomfortable truth: I began it in the summer of 2014, certain that I would again fall in love with Christensen's words and unique writing style. But I didn't. In fact, I found myself largely bored and disconnected from the text, recognizing much of the technicality that made alphabet so wonderful, but none of the passionate beauty. I set the book aside, fully expecting to return to it within a few days. It (somehow) ended up in the back of my closet (?) and I forgot about it until three weeks ago, when I found it hidden underneath a pile of misfolded shirts.

The bookmark was still buried where I had remembered it being, around a third of the way through. I flipped through the earlier "poems" halfheartedly, seeing the blockish texts that had so turned me off back in the day. But I decided to resume reading, and more importantly I decided to resume reading the book from the point I had stopped. I didn't go back and reread the earlier portion of the book, despite the fact that it is as clearly a whole text as alphabet was. Yet something told me that it would be better to leave the past there, and move forward.

Getting back into the rhythm of the text was difficult. The first few poems felt disjointed, a reminder that I was effectively reading this book from the middle (though I was surprised by how strong a sense from the first part I still had, lodged away in my memory). Some of the context was clearly missing, but not so much that I couldn't keep reading. That, of course, is the beauty of poetry (even book-length, narrative-style poetry) - the vibe, for me, always wins out. How do the poems make me feel? Does the writing move me? Does the writing inspire me? Does the writing transport me? Amuse me? Enrapture me?

Even given this second chance, it largely failed in this regard. Certain poems or segments were gorgeous, trembling with power and eloquence and a sharp eye for reality. And occasionally the loopiness of the writing revisiting certain themes and phrases again and again made me feel like I was getting close to understanding what Christensen was trying to tell me, deep down. But I was never able to move past a general disinterest. For a book designed around a concept, it never got its rhythm down entirely. Most of the repetitions ended up feeling trite and dull; this was made worse by the fact that I didn't connect to some of the themes in the first place, and then having them rehashed over and over ended up leaving me even cooler on the book than beforehand.

It's not that it is bad, because it's not. As a concept, there's a lot to admire in Christensen's definition-breaking writing. There is also no doubt that Christensen had the eye for describing beautifully powerful scenes and images (the "happiness" poems were particularly moving, in my view), and it is all fantastically rendered into English by Susanna Nied. I imagine that had I read this as an independent work, I might have rated it just a bit higher - still not a great book, but a worthwhile poetry book. Yet I had already read alphabet, I already knew that Christensen would someday hone the raw talents displayed in it (a relatively early work) and go far beyond.

There is not so much of Christensen's work available in English, however, that I can ultimately be so picky. I may not have loved it, but I still found plenty to admire within its pages. There is no doubt that Christensen was a stellar poetry experimentalist and her works deserve far greater fame. There is also no doubt that even with this relative disappointment, I will be seeking out Christensen's few other works translated into English. Even if they don't come close to alphabet, they're still much more likely to leave me musing and inspired in all sorts of ways...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

Truthfully, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) feels like a few books in one. Here is a chunkster novel that tells the story of an individual woman, main character Minette, alongside an important portion of Haitian history. Like many books of this sort, Dance on the Volcano ends up feeling a little overwhelming at times (and a little poorly balanced between Minette's personal drama and the wide-reaching cultural implications of her personal life), but there's no doubt that overall this is a fine, fascinating novel and one well worth reading.

Dance on the Volcano sets its tone early. Minette, her younger sister Lise, her mother Jasmine, her effectively foster brother Joseph, and the entire cast of black (free) characters are swiftly placed in contrast to the island's whites. The plot begins with Minette (and her sister Lise, to a lesser degree) "discovered" by their white, Creole neighbor as the two teenage girls sing at home. Mme Acquaire is instantly in awe of their raw talent and decides to teach the girls in the early mornings, despite the general taboo against it. As Minette grows more and more talented, it becomes clear that her future is on the stage, and indeed Minette soon becomes an outright phenomenon as the first "colored" woman to sing on the white stage.

From here, Dance on the Volcano follows Minette's numerous struggles in becoming accepting as a successful stage singer. While there is little doubt at her talent, her color influences the entire conversation surrounding her art, indeed defining everything from her paycheck to her participation in particular concerts. Thus begins Minette's more general social awakening. Though still effectively a teenager, Minette begins to realize just how cruel the world around her is, simply on racial grounds. She learns secrets about her mother's past, she learns secrets about her brother's present, and she begins to wish for a more just world. She begins to fight for her own rights, using her immense talent as leverage against racism. She also becomes involved in efforts to rescue slaves, and to advocate (albeit privately) for their general emancipation. The story tracks much of Haiti's tumultuous history through Minette's eyes and experiences, often with tragic implications.

Curiously, another plotline begins to invade this already loaded story. Just as Minette begins her social awakening, she also experiences a sexual awakening. This story is the least engaging (by far) of the many threads running through Dance on the Volcano, with a particularly uncomfortable message about sexual/romantic desire overwhelming Minette's own beliefs and values. Minette's black, slave-owning, slave-beating lover is presented as a complex character with contradictory aims and motives, but his violence and general awfulness as a person made it very difficult for me to care about their relationship or about him at all. There was a sense that this romance was supposed to somehow emphasize the complexity of Haiti's slave-owning past, yet it ended up feeling like a waste of space that could have instead focused on Minette's own growth.

This is not the novel's only flaw. The writing is simplistic and at times grating, with awkward transitions from very plain prose to a more lyrical style. It also occasionally felt anachronistic, with some sentences sounding outright modern and others sounding much more like they'd been written in the 18th century. This also ends up affecting pacing, in a way that makes it generally less pleasant to read the novel in longer chunks.

Yet even with its flaws, I found it hard to get Dance on the Volcano out of my mind. I can't say that I loved it, but I feel like I learned a lot from it. That probably says more about my own (lack of) knowledge about Haitian history, yet I appreciated how Dance on the Volcano framed it through Minette's personal lens. The plot density may have made reading more difficult and may have bothered me at points (again, the romance subplot), but it also gave me a lot to consider. Whether I think it worked on a literary level does not change the fact that it inspired me to think about the topic of more complex racial identities and contradictions.

All in all, Dance on the Volcano is certainly a book worth reading and one I am grateful to have read. And after years of having Marie Vieux-Chauvet's writing recommended to me, it makes me all the more eager to get to Love, Anger, Madness.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck | Review

I will admit, I first tried to read Visitation several years ago. There was so much buzz, so much praise, I was so excited for this slim novel. I started reading it and had to set it aside within six pages. "It's unbearable," I remember telling my father. "So stop reading it!" he responded, pointing to the towering stack of additional library books I had next to the couch. I followed his advice, and moved on to better books. It was my second negative experience with Erpenback, having read (and disliked) her novella The Book of Words a year earlier. I concluded, rather reasonably, that Erpenbeck simply wasn't a writer for me.

I would buy Visitation a few years later, after reading (and adoring) The End of Days, a book I can both admit to have loved and one that I think is a true masterpiece. The End of Days is such a brilliantly written novel - innovative, but not a slave to its innovation, clever, but not frustrating, emotional, but not tedious. Reading it felt like a revelation and a suggestion that perhaps I could love Jenny Erpenbeck's work. After all, I read The Book of Words at a time when I had little patience for more experimental fiction, and after all, I never actually read Visitation...

So I bought Visitation. It would take me almost a year and half before I could bring myself to read that book which still left a bitter taste in my mouth, only from those first few pages. And guess what? I couldn't quite figure out what specifically had left such a strong impression in those early, vague pages, but oh my goodness did I have the exact same sensation throughout the entire book.

What a shame.

And here's the thing: I'm not the same reader today as I was even three years ago. Every book I read adds to my consciousness and changes how I experience the books that follow. I read Visitation during a reading slump; I imagine this impacted how I interpretated the book. It felt clunky and slow, as though I was reading through tar. Even though it took me so long to get through it, it left no impression. It's been a month since I finished it, and I can hardly tell you a thing about it.

Oh yes, I can vaguely recall the novella's concept, and there is a plotline and a half that I recall. But the book felt so thin (content-wise, not just in terms of length) that not a speck of it remains. I formed no emotional attachment to any of the vaguely described characters. I didn't enjoy the loose sketching of post-war Germany. The politics felt distant and meaningless. And the book itself, for something so short, dragged. It was like a road cutting through a forest, that instead of taking a straight, logical line, twisted around itself as many times as possible before reaching the end.

I didn't like Visitation. I feel like a bad reader for admitting this. I feel like I've failed the book blogging community that adores Erpenbeck, that constantly praises her writing for its intelligence and depth. Goodness, I feel like I've failed as a reader, that somehow the problem is - again - that I didn't understand the book. Maybe I'm not clever enough, maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing here... And here's what's incredible: I wrote pretty much the exact same thing when "reviewing" Erpenbeck's The Book of Words five years ago.

Maybe, as with many books I've read in recent months, I have lost patience with books that are all style over substance. The End of Days worked, in my mind, because Erpenbeck found an excellent balance between the two; it's a creative exercise that works, crafting a character the reader can grow attached to and spinning a story that manages to both entice and challenge. The End of Days did more than just tell five versions of a character's life, it managed to make each the absolute focus. It managed to make each feel utterly consequential. Visitation fails in large part because it doesn't ever find its emotional hook. Like The Book of Words, I am left with absolutely nothing to say about it. The book has left no impression. There is only the concept and clever as it may be, concept just isn't enough for me. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

WITMonth Day 24 | An unhappy observation

One of the primary reasons WITMonth exists is in order to give voice to women writers in translation who are too often sidelined. WITMonth is in direct response to the stunningly low rate of translations of works by women. It is in direct response to the dismal rate of review of books by women in translation. It is in direct response to the global dismissal of works by women who write in languages other than English.

I don't expect everyone to know about WITMonth. I don't expect everyone who does know about WITMonth to necessarily only read/talk about women in translation during August. But I frequently find myself a little... shall we say miffed? Miffed at the way in which anything that is not directly related to women in translation during WITMonth is often intentionally overwhelmingly skewed towards being about men.

Take, for example, publishers who choose to interpret WITMonth as a means to promote their women translators. While that's not what WITMonth was intended to do, I recognize that the more the project spreads, the less control I can have of what it means to others. That's fine! But I'm repeatedly amused - and then rather annoyed - by publishers who will highlight a certain translator only with books by men. Behold this wonderful translator! Behold four or five or six books that she has translated! Oh, yeah, I suppose they're all by men, but who cares!

If I sound cynical, it's because I've seen this a few times in the WITMonth tag. I do not share these posts, on principle.

Again: I'm not going to tell people how to recognize WITMonth (I can really only speak for myself...). But I do find it frustrating that the default - the moment people aren't explicitly talking about women in translation - is men. A list of new releases in translation for August? 80% men. A list of "10 Best Translated Fiction" from the past year? Only one woman writer. And so on and so on.

The problem isn't that men writers are getting attention. I don't expect August to be a full month devoid of men. I don't believe in that, frankly, and have myself read men in translation during previous WITMonths. I also recognize that women writers are getting so much more attention in August than they would be otherwise, and that is absolutely amazing. The problem is that otherwise, women are always in the background. At the very least, can't we just have August be even? Can't we have just one month in which women represent - and I know this is wacky, but give me a chance here - half of the books that we talk about?

Hmm, maybe that's just too much to ask...