Monday, August 22, 2016

WITMonth Day 22 | The pipeline | Thoughts

We're losing women writers in translation.

We're losing women writers in translation at every stage: in biases back home in native languages, in reviews, in the pamphlets sent out to foreign-language publishers, in the books the publishers sample, in the books they ultimately translate, in the books they then promote, in the books then reviewed by foreign/English-language papers, in the books made comfortably available to average readers in libraries and bookstores, and then straight back to the books that even seem plausible for acquisition and marketing (based on sales).

It's a frustrating realization because it almost feels as though it's out of my hands. I've talked about what roles we all play in terms of actively supporting the women in translation project, and how I believe the problem is too complex to reduce to a single responsible party. Yet seeing how many stages exist before a book can even get to readers makes me wonder at the structural changes that would need to occur.

Should we maybe talk about quotas for awards or review pages? Is it time to discuss those publishers that maintain abysmal rates of translating women writers and ask ourselves what leads to such imbalances? Should we ask ourselves who are the people in charge of review pages or award panels that manage to ignore women writers in translation so thoroughly, and what might be the reason? Are there further institutional biases at play that we need to be considering? Is there something we can be doing differently?

I have often presented the facts and huge disparities between men and women writers. Every post - about awards, publishing, reviews, etc. - feels like I'm uncovering another leak in a pipeline from which women writers are far more likely to spill. Sometimes it feels like we're doing a great job of bringing in new water containers (book recommendations! WITMonth! an award for women in translation!), but the pipes keep leaking because we haven't actually gotten to them yet. Much as I'm grateful for all the new water (and I am)... wouldn't it be great if we could just fix the pipeline itself?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

WITMonth Day 21 | The Happiness of Kati by Jane Vejjajiva | Review

Jane Vejjajiva's The Happiness of Kati (translated by Prudence Borthwick) is a strange sort of children's book. The simplicity of the storytelling reminded me of several similar books I'd read around middle school (aged 11-12 or so), where heavy topics are handled in an almost deliberately simplified manner alongside surprisingly complex prose. These sorts of in-between books (not quite kid-lit, not yet YA) can often feel like with just a bit of editing they'd work better in either direction: simpler language and vocabulary to serve as pure children's books, or slightly more nuanced storytelling to serve as a YA/adult-friendly novel.

The language in The Happiness of Kati felt a bit overblown at times, with fancy vocab words and elegant sentences. I didn't always feel like it sat so well with the simplicity of the sentence-structures, and the very straightforward way protagonist Kati tells her story.

The plot too is very simplified. This isn't exactly the story of a child dealing with a missing parent, or a disabled parent, or adjusting to a new normal. There's no blatant beginning-to-end narrative that is usually found in children's books. Nor is the book simply a series of Kati's observations. Kati's story remains fixated around her - whatever she's going through, so goes the story. It's a bit messy from a storytelling perspective, but it also makes the ending more thought-provoking. It also means that if you find yourself drawn to Kati - which I did - you'll be able to appreciate anything the book throws your way, because you appreciate Kati and her thought process.

There are a lot of ways in which The Happiness of Kati might challenge a young reader's thinking. First and foremost, the book is not written to explain Thai culture in any explicit manner. Instead, readers can learn that different cultures are the natural order of things without any of the exoticism that many adult-geared novels employ in order to bridge the culture gap. The book is also interesting in its rather bleak focus on ALS. Kati's introduction to ALS (and serious illness in general) may serve the young reader as well, with its frank examination of disability and death. It's not the most sensitive way to talk about such big issues and would likely require further critical examination outside of the narrative itself, but it can serve as a reasonable base for some readers.

Kati's simple approach to life (and happiness) is warmly appealing, and even alongside some of the structural flaws, The Happiness of Kati is a pleasant and thought-provoking little book. Though I think it might be an awkward fit for some children (in terms of advanced language not always meshing with the simple storytelling style), I enjoyed it reasonably enough and imagine I would have found it very interesting as a child.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

WITMonth Day 20 | Home by Leila S. Chudori | Review

Home by Leila S. Chudori (translated by John H. McGlynn) is exactly the sort of book that I had hoped the women in translation project would lead me to. Not only am I basically illiterate when it comes to Indonesian literature, I know very little about Indonesian history or culture. Home - written in large part from an expat perspective and examining the culture of leaving - naturally delves into many of the introductory topics an uneducated reader like myself would benefit from.

The book centers on an Indonesian political exile Dimas Suryo, occasionally shifting perspective but focused in its first half on his new life in Paris (with brief flashbacks to his youth in Indonesia). In the second half, the focus shifts to his half-French daughter Lintang, who is effectively forced to confront her muddled background by her university advisor. Though the change felt abrupt when it occurred, Lintang soon overtook her father in terms of being an engaging and interesting narrator. Her story unfolds more traditionally and echoed in my mind for weeks after I finished the book.

There were moments in the first half of Home that felt simply like history lessons, recited for the sake of memorializing still ignored atrocities. Other moments felt like Cultural Lessons, though some of them oddly enough went largely forgiven by the narrative (for example: the scene in which Lintang's professor condescendingly advises her to talk about her Indonesian heritage for her thesis, as though this is all she is allowed to be - exotic).

Still, it was hard to ignore the power of the story. Dimas' anxiety over having left his homeland behind is a familiar story for those who have read enough immigrant fiction (or... those who have lived it), similarly it's hard not to feel strongly for him when he thinks about the torture and suffering left behind. The book also doesn't shy about the political ramifications even in exile, where the restaurant Dimas and his friends found is viewed as "subversive" for Indonesian nationals, and even the next generation (like Lintang) as suspect.

Home shifts gears in Lintang's section, becoming a very different sort of novel. If the first part is a classic exile/expat novel, the second is a classic return-from-diaspora story. Lintang reluctantly acknowledges her need/desire to visit the "homeland", and once there is drawn into the intricacies of daily life. She meets the children of her fathers' friends, she meets her cousins, she discovers the stain her father's name still carries (and its real-world implications on her family), and she falls into a comfortable sort of pattern. Plotwise, this part of the story was a bit too predictable in my mind, but it worked well enough and didn't drag down the narrative.

It's in this final section that Chudori also introduces Segra Alam, the son of Dimas' former lover and friend. Alam is a familiar sort of man, with a common enough sort of subversiveness and rebellion (in a subversive and rebellious group of friends). His narration usually simply complements Lintang's, but he also serves as a mouthpiece for the more liberal and frustrated youth: "[H]istory is owned not just by the power holders but also by the materialistic middle class who cuddle up to them." There's a bitterness to his narration which contrasts Lintang's more expansive view, and though I didn't necessarily love his sections, I appreciated the way they fit together with the larger story.

Ultimately, Home is an interesting and powerful novel, one worth reading and thinking over. It's a book that lingers in your consciousness, not to mention the way the characters seem unwilling to leave your mind even weeks after reading. I truly felt as though Lintang and I were close friends, and for several days after finishing Home I could hear her voice ringing in my head. The writing is clear and straight-forward, without much overemphasis or exoticism. Even as there were plot points I felt were lacking or characters that weren't developed enough (particularly near the end), I found that I liked the flow of the novel. I also liked the somewhat open-ended way the novel closed, though I recognize that many readers might walk away somewhat disappointed.

The one great flaw, however, is the edition, which is riddled with copy errors. Every few pages I felt myself thrown out of the story by a missing quotation mark or comma or period. At first I thought, "okay, it's just a few..." but then it kept repeating itself. However much I liked the content, I can't pretend that my reading experience wasn't somewhat tainted by this. One or two mistakes are to be expected. Dozens? Not so much.

Even so, I can comfortably recommend Home. This is a well-written and interesting account not only of Indonesian history, but of the exile and diaspora experiences as a whole. Well-written (if poorly edited) with intensely drawn characters, Home is a strong novel well worth your time.

Friday, August 19, 2016

WITMonth Day 19 | An interlude | #7favWITreads

Feel free to tweet your own!


DISCLAIMER: These are not all of my favorites. That's impossible, of course... These are just some, with a few recent reads that are still lurching around my brain.

  • Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin) 
  • The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schawz-Bart (translated by Barbara Bray)
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
  • The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant)
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky)
  • Home by Leila Chudori (translated by John H. McGlynn)
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Thanks to Jacqui of JacquiWine's Journal for suggesting this great idea!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

WITMonth Day 18 | Reviews of women in translation | Stats

After several years of anecdotal references, hand-waving and uncertainty, it's about time we figure out what's happening on the end of review outlets when it comes to women writers in translation. Let's dive in, shall we?


I looked at only a very small sample of review outlets, attempting more to gauge an impression of the existing situation than the sort of truly representative work that outlets like VIDA do. The four journals I focused on were Three Percent Review, The Guardian (features and reviews separately), Asymptote, and Words Without Borders. These four were chosen based on my familiarity with them more than anything and may as a result have led to somewhat biased results. All data collected is from August 2015 through August 2016 (WITMonth to WITMonth, basically).

The three possible outcomes

There are three scenarios in terms of review rates:

  1. The standard 30%/70% publishing ratio. While a typically low rate, this would indicate that the outlet effectively "samples at random". There is neither an attempt at corrective discrimination, nor any additional bias being taken into account.
  2. Women in translation at a higher rate than the publishing average of 30%. This would probably indicate awareness on the side of the review outlet and an attempt to "correct" the problematic rates, seeking at the very least media parity.
  3. Women in translation at a lower rate than the publishing average of 30%. This indicates an outlet that includes a further level of bias against women writers, beyond a random sampling. This could be as the result of biased perceptions when it comes to "quality literature", similar to the overall review bias found by VIDA.

The Guardian - Reviews and Features

I began by looking at The Guardian's "Literature in Translation" section first, largely because of their literary prominence and visibility in the literary world. I decided to distinguish between specifically defined reviews and features/news articles fairly early in collecting my data. This came about when I noticed that Elena Ferrante's name seemed to crop up a disproportionate amount. Indeed, I soon realized that the Guardian's results skewed heavily if each feature on Elena Ferrante was counted as a separate piece focusing on women writers: Ferrante featured in no less than seven pieces, whether discussing her popularity or her actual origins (is she a man?! no?!) or the books themselves (less common). Two other authors also featured double (superstar Haruki Murakami and Chen Xue whose work appeared twice in Asymptote's Translation Tuesday series).

Thus looking only at authors featured, we see a fairly predictable distribution: 30% women writers, 70% men writers. I soon realized, however, that Asymptote's not-quite weekly feature seemed to have more women writers than average. Indeed, the Translation Tuesday series had a 41% publication rate for women. Adjusting for this "tilt", I checked the features again without this one series: the ratio plummets to 21%.

The situation did not improve much in reviews. Out of 41 reviews of literature in translation, only 22% were of books written by women writers. Here there was no need to skew or adjust, quite simply: The Guardian reviews fewer women writers in translation than men. Beyond the industry bias, The Guardian employs further hurdles for women writers in translation, leading to reduced visibility and awareness. (This despite the fact that they have featured two articles specifically on the matter of women writers in translation, non-author-specific articles which were included in the features count.)

Three Percent Review

While Three Percent Review does not have the same visibility or popularity of The Guardian, Three Percent is highly regarded in the world of literature in translation. Furthermore, the site has discussed the imbalance in publishing women writers in translation themselves. It seemed only fitting to see how they did. It turns out that the Three Percent Review follows the industry standard almost perfectly, even including the 8% of titles by various authors. Three Percent Review is the epitome of option number one as described above: They display a perfect random sampling of the existing bias. No more, no less.

Asymptote Journal

After noting Asymptote's high translation rate of short stories and excerpts in The Guardian, I decided to check their actual reviews page. Here, it turned out, they do a significantly poorer job, clocking in at a low 22%. This result surprised me after the pleasantly corrective Translation Tuesday rates at the Guardian. Different editors, perhaps?

Words Without Borders

Finally, I checked one of the most central websites for literature in translation: Words Without Borders. WWB is the site that many consider to have launched the discussion about women writers in translation (with Alison Anderson's original piece in 2013), and they recently posted their own WITMonth reading list. The rate here is a bit dull: 35% is slightly better than the industry average, but it doesn't quite wash away the bad taste of a huge imbalance. While I didn't look at their features and every article in every issue (I encourage any intrepid readers to map that out!), my impression is again of a site that takes what is offered. Despite honest attempts to find women writers from around the world (and WWB do seek to include women writers even when looking at more "difficult" regions of the world), they're just not able to break through that ratio.

What these results mean

Once again, I should note that it's difficult to claim these results as representative when I sampled only four review outlets. Unfortunately, I do not have the resources at hand that an organization like VIDA utilizes, nor the time to fully analyze the results to the levels that I would like.

But as always, a pattern emerges that does not bode well for the women in translation movement. The fact that review outlets are not attempting at the very least to even the playing field in terms of publicity is disappointing, though it may not be their fault. We ask ourselves: what books are publishers promoting or sending for review? Furthermore, the sloppy way in which some outlets review their women writers is even more depressing. In one Guardian review, the reviewer noted with subtle sexism: "There is something about the way Hochet presents us with the mental processes of a rootless 45-year-old womaniser that suggests a writer of unusual ability. These days, authors seem to stick to speaking for their own gender more than they used to."

It's disappointing to see this imbalance, but it represents another area in which we simply need to try a bit harder. For literature in translation reviews inherently pick from a smaller pool of books than those that are written in English. We know that the good books by women are out there (and indeed I noticed that many fan-favorites among WITMonth book bloggers did not make the "official" review cut in these outlets) and we know that it's possible to reach 20 excellent books by women writers alongside 20 excellent books by men writers. Parity - at this stage, at least - is entirely possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

WITMonth Day 17 | The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto | Review

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Michael Emmerich) joins the too-long list of books with woefully inaccurate book jacket descriptions. The blurb on the inside flap makes The Lake sound like a book full of distant, unloving characters and a pervasive mystery. It's makes it sound like a dark thriller lurking behind a facade of a "quirky" love story.

It's not. And it is much better for it.

The Lake is actually a genuinely sweet story, framed by the "mystery" and oddness Nakajima, its male lead. Told from the perspective of the somewhat lonely - but otherwise kindhearted - Chihiro, the book tracks the two's slow and somewhat tentative love story. I use the word tentative to contrast "hesitant" (as used in the book jacket description) in large part because it's not that there are any indicators that either Nakajima or Chihiro are actually hesitant about entering a relationship, rather that their relationship progresses somewhat awkwardly and non-traditionally.

As a love story, there's something oddly endearing about it. Chihiro is constantly asking herself when exactly she fell in love (whether she fell in love), but her actions and behavior display how strongly she feels even when she can't quite figure it out herself. It's harder to understand Nakajima, and not just because he isn't the narrator. Nakajima is, as Chihiro notes, odd. He doesn't share everything and Chihiro knows that there are parts of him he's hiding.

But I loved the moments in which both are just normal young adults fumbling in love. The discussion the two have about their careers (Chihiro is a painter, Nakajima a biology/medical student) was almost laugh-out-loud refreshing for me, in how naturally the conversation flowed (and felt eerily familiar; the question of whether people are capable of understanding what scientists do is a conversation I've had many times...). The book also carefully examines Chihiro's relationship with her parents, a piece of her history that is complicated and difficult at times, but doesn't weigh down her story.

There were other little things that I liked a lot, too. Unlike The Briefcase, where I felt that the characters were all so cold and distant, Chihiro and Nakajima both felt living and breathing. More than that, I loved the small characterization of Chihiro as someone who cares for children. While it may seem like a minor detail, it was the sort of tiny character piece that made her seem more human and... warm. I was able to care about her. And even though Nakajima is a distant character by definition, I found that I cared about him as well, from the small moments where he reveals insecurities (despite how difficult it is for him), to more simple scenes like when he and Chihiro discuss food.

The book flows pretty well, though the writing at first felt a bit jerky and out of place. On the one hand, the bulk of the story can be condensed into a pretty short piece, but parts of it felt like long, quiet meditations. The book overall is quite short and quite a quick read, balancing these two effects out for the most part. Though I felt that the beginning and the focus on Chihiro's family didn't always fit in with the later pieces (and that the ending came on just a bit abruptly and info-dump-y), the writing is clear and simple and never quite stops. It feels like the book could have gone on for another hundred pages (or another thousand) just as easily. And though I would have wanted about five more pages of denouement and a slower final reveal, it feels like the story ultimately ended at pretty much the right place. The right feel.

The Lake isn't a loud book. It doesn't try to shout any message, and it sometimes fumbles its own plot just a little bit. It's not the most lyrical writing you'll find and it's not the most staccato storytelling and it isn't filled with the most sharply "quirky" or unique characters you'll ever meet. But I liked it. I liked it a lot. It's sweet and warm in just the right way, emotionally engaging without being overwhelming. This might not be the book for everyone, but if you're looking for a fairly quiet love story with questions of self and the nature of love itself, The Lake is a pretty good choice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

WITMonth Day 16 | Segu by Maryse Condé | Review

I picked up Maryse Condé's Segu (translated by Barbara Bray) at the library book fair a year ago, a tattered copy with about three annotations at the beginning and little elsewhere. (There was also a bookstore business card stub as a bookmark.) This wasn't an example of a novel I picked up because the content interested me very much, rather it was one of a handful of books by women in translation I collected that day and hoped would fit into my project more broadly.

I was thus pleasantly surprised by how much I appreciated Segu. I use the word "appreciated" for a reason - it's not that I especially loved the book, but I felt that it gave me a lot in return for what I took. It's a messy sort of family saga, with too many characters and narrative threads to keep track of at times (and the character list, unfortunately, doesn't do such a good job of filling in the gaps), but it also takes advantage of each and every character to tell its bigger story.

Segu is the story of Dousika Traore's family: his wives, his sons, his nephews. Each narrative thread tries to represent a sliver of African history, from the rise of Islam to the slave trade to Christian/European colonialism to tribal social changes. Some plot threads are thus more purely historical than others, which may also feel timely in their concerns (religious extremism, religious wars, white supremacy, etc.). It makes for interesting reading, even when the story gets a bit muddled.

The thing that ultimately frustrated me most about Segu was its treatment of women. While in many regards the narrative tries to build the women up (through the idolizing eyes of the sons, husbands, and lovers), they are nonetheless always framed as mothers or wives. The women rarely present the story from their perspective, and even when they do it feels specifically crafted around the men's narratives. It made me wish that there was another version of Segu, one that followed the women. Not just as mothers and wives, but as women with their own agency and struggles. Stories about the women raped by our main characters. Stories about the women who give birth to and raise these men. Stories about women who hear the call of the imams and are drawn to a new religion. Stories about women who continue to practice their ancient traditions and fight the new order in their own subtle ways. It is of course unfair to ask of a novel to transform itself into a very different story, but that was the strongest feeling I walked away with.

But not the only one, by any means. Segu's density is offset by how very interesting most of its aspects are, and by how simply readable it is. It's the sort of novel that just... continues. As much as there are moments that might drag the narrative down a bit, there are no truly dull patches (since the story skips around between its characters a little too freely...) and it's the sort of book that you really can immerse yourself within. And you should, because it's interesting and different and fascinatingly full.

Monday, August 15, 2016

WITMonth Day 15 | Transit by Anna Seghers | Review

My father recently told a story about how my grandfather's name came to be spelled the way it is. As he told the story, he referenced my grandfather's papers. "You see," he turned to explain to me, "your grandfather didn't have a passport at that point, what he had were transit papers."

But of course, I knew all about transit papers. I had, you see, just finished reading Anna Seghers' Transit (translated by Margot Dembo), a book so thoroughly steeped in the bizarre and complicated politics of transit papers that the book is literally named for them.

I feel like Transit was too hyped for me. Or perhaps this is another NYRB classic that isn't entirely to my taste. It's not that I disliked Transit or even that I struggled with it especially. I didn't. The book ambles along pleasantly and certainly has what to say. There were moments in the book that felt thrilling, almost. The writing generally worked and I managed to polish the book off in two fairly long sittings.

It's just that I didn't understand at any point why I should care for the narrator. Or any character, for that matter. The book is - by design - representative of a sort of time-suck, with the narrator frozen in place as he navigates a bureaucracy that he has little interest in. The book loops lazily, purposefully, cleverly, but it was hard for me to appreciate the technical chops when I just couldn't care about why I was tracking this story.

The descriptions of the book as one dealing with "boredom" and "anxiety" seem a little off to me as well. Yes, there was plenty of boredom here (some of it mine...), but it's a lazy sort of boredom. The narrator is ultimately not interested in leaving. His anxiety - while real - is backstage and a bit passive. Weirdly - or perhaps intentionally? - the main set of characters in Transit are actually the ones with the least explainable motivation for wanting/needing to escape. It's the small stories that Seghers' introduces alongside the narrator's that display the urgency of fleeing, of refugees, of desperation and anxiety. While the narrator has some aspect of this in his legitimate refugee status, his personality seems to erase any urgency.

I'm simplifying things here a bit. After all, the narrator's identity drama is actually quite funny (in a somewhat tragic way). Then there's the almost breezy comfort in the writing, which makes the dull sections slightly easier to read. There's the powerful, real-time description of the war and its many tragedies (though its main victims seem oddly erased from the narrative...), the masses of refugees fleeing in hopes of life (a message that still, sadly, resonates today), and occasional quiet moments of contemplation that display warmth on behalf of the narrator.

But as always, I read books first and foremost with my heart. How did the book make me feel, did I relate to the characters, did I walk away with the sensation that the book contributed intellectually and emotionally? All metrics fell short in some form or other. Even intellectually, I felt as though the "boredom" aspect (as the blurb calls it, though I think it's more "laziness") didn't quite live up to its potential and there was little to actually justify this being a "literary thriller" - a few thrilling moments do not a thriller make. And emotionally, the book felt like we never clicked. Transit is far from a bad book, but it didn't quite work for me as I expected.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

WITMonth Day 14 | On the need for intersectionality | Thoughts

One of the things I've found that saddens me most within this women in translation project is when people ask me about intersectionality. "You've mentioned it..." they'll say. "You raised it when comparing overall translation rates..." "Is it something you care about?" "Do you feel this is important?"

These questions hurt not because there's something wrong in them. On the contrary. These are exactly the questions that need to be asked. No, what saddens me is that I've done a poor job in expressing the need for intersectionality. Because here's the thing: a project like women in translation cannot exist without intersectionality. It is meaningless without intersectionality.

For those who aren't familiar with the terminology: Intersectionality (sometimes referred to as intersectional feminism, though the concept is not limited to feminism) is a theory that seeks to study feminism (or any other social order) at its intersections with race, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, class, physical ability, etc. The theory argues that it is impossible to separate one social order from another, effectively demanding of its proponents to seek all possible intersections when looking at a certain problem.

And so it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I feel the women in translation project is meaningless without intersectionality. To talk simply about a lack of women writers in translation without noting the huge gaps between translation rates from different countries (namely: European countries versus the entire rest of the world) becomes almost silly. What does it mean to replace one imbalance with another?

I want to make it very clear: The stunning disparity in countries of origin for literature in translation is not something that can be shrugged aside. There are obvious practical and cultural reasons for the huge imbalances (for instance: traditions of teaching French, Spanish and German literature in English-language universities due to an age-old Euro-centrism), but that doesn't mean we can ignore what the stats are telling us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for equality - and at the very least awareness - on all fronts. Similarly, the difficulty in finding queer narratives (or books by queer authors) is not coincidental and also cannot just be swept under the rug.

The 2015 statistics displayed fairly clearly that there was no significant demographic bias when it came to translating women writers (that is, you cannot simply blame those "other" parts of the world). However, the overall publishing bias towards Western Europe is deeply disturbing. French is the 18th most spoken language in the world, yet it makes up the decisive leader in literature translated into English. Even within Spanish - the second most spoken native language in the world - a sizable chunk of the books translated are only from Spain, and not the much more populous Latin America.

Even within Euro-centrism, Western Europe dominates while Eastern Europe languishes. Asian languages - among the most spoken languages in the world! - seem like an afterthought relative to their actual strength. And this is simply regarding country and language of origin. Now look at ethnic groups. Social class. Religious minorities (or majorities...). LGBTQIA+ authors and narratives. Physical ability.

When we talk about women in translation, it is critical that we don't forget these other factors. That we don't simply start translating more French and German women writers, while leaving Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, and Bengali women behind. That we don't exclude queer narratives by women. That we understand the marginalization that non-binary or transgender writers face (and that we fully include them in this project, despite use of the word "women"), rejecting a purely binary world and giving space to these writers. That we examine stories from different backgrounds. That we recognize stories that represent all social classes and castes. That we truly explore the world in all its glorious multitudes. Including writers from every single one of these groups.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

WITMonth Day 13 | Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi | Review

If I had to give Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi (translated by Catherine Cobham) a one-line review, I'd probably say that it was an interesting (if forgettable) book that didn't really move me much in any direction.

That makes writing a review a bit difficult, particularly in light of the long gap between when I read it and the time of writing this review. I recall the feminist message of Memoirs of a Woman Doctor fairly clearly (particularly the fact that it doesn't always resemble "Western" feminism), as well as the relationship the narrator had with her brother. But that's about it. It's only by browsing now that I recall the narrator's failed marriage, the struggles she has in establishing her practice. The way the role of a woman within Egyptian culture is central to the plot. Even the narrator's musings on the failings of modern medicine in relation to her own desires.

This sort of amnesia doesn't bode very well for this novella. Truthfully, it's not all that good on a technical level. That is... conceptually, it's a powerful, interesting narrative, with a strong message about women's roles and feminism in an at-times unyielding world, alongside a central theme of mother-daughter relationships. But the writing is awkward, the story is that weird balance of not-fully-fleshed and poorly-padded. Parts of it felt like they were written too directly, thoughts to page without any literary adjustments along the way.

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a great example of a book that is improved by its context. Under normal conditions, there is little to recommend here (especially since the book is extremely slight, and the font surprisingly large...), yet the content - and the complex world this content lives within - is almost important enough to justify giving the book a second glance. No, it's not particularly well written (though there are a handful of beautiful lines and images), nor is it an inherently moving text. But its position as a frank literary piece chronicling a somewhat unique position alongside a rarely heard feminist worldview makes it interesting. And also, yes, important. Its voice may wobble, but it has something to tell.

Friday, August 12, 2016

WITMonth Day 12 | Comet in Moominland - Tove Jansson | Mini-review

It didn't take me long into Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland (translated by Elizabeth Portch) to figure out that I had perhaps chosen the wrong book. The characters were never introduced, the plot seemed to bounce just a little too quickly, and the vibe was quickly that of... a sequel. Oh dear.

Of course, this being a children's book, the order of the stories doesn't seem to have mattered all that much. Possibly because the plot doesn't really make much sense anyways. Comet in Moominland is more of a silly romp than a complex narrative. I was, however, surprised by how text-heavy the story is. For some odd reason, I'd always assumed the Moomins stories to be mostly in comic form. This being my first foray into their baffling world, I'm still not really sure.

It's always hard to review children's books as adults, but I try to read them through the eyes of childhood me. And I realized pretty quickly that childhood me would have probably rolled her eyes very early. The book didn't make me laugh enough to justify its silliness (a comparison that popped to mind was the absolute absurdity of Penguin's Progress, one of my childhood favorites), but I couldn't help but enjoy its lighthearted tone and the playful drawings. There's a reason this one's a classic of the genre.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

WITMonth Day 11 | Parity versus equality

In October 2015, the night after the women in translation panel I took part in at ALTA, I spoke to my sister about something that had somewhat bothered me on the panel. "They kept saying 'parity'", I complained, "and it sounded like 'parody'!"

But the truth is, the word parity carried with it a lot more discomfort for me.

Parity is in the present tense. It looks at the current state of women writers in translation and says let's do the simplest thing. Let's reach 50:50. It's a goal I love, a goal I champion, a goal I've been pushing for quite emphatically since beginning this journey three years ago. Parity is great. But parity is not equality.

This is something that many feminists note frequently, that having equal representation from a certain (usually very delayed) point and onward is not actually equality. Many feminists will further argue that it's not enough, sparking accusations of misandry and man-hating, as it were. These sorts of attacks seem to force "moderate" feminists to settle in many cases, not wanting feminism to be framed as something other than equality. This leads to demands of parity as the fair solution to gender imbalances.

It's a question I struggle with. On the one hand, I firmly believe that our ultimately goal should be gender parity. Feminism means equality in its simplest terms, and that means that in an ideal world, men and women would be translated at equivalent rates, published at equivalent rates, recognized by awards at equivalent rates, and read by men and women alike at equivalent rates. In an ideal world.

The world is not ideal. 31% women writers in translation is thus far the highest I've seen, with historical rates obviously far lower. VIDA counts which place recognition of women writers in the 35% range as well are also in our modern, "post-sexism" world. If we look at history as a whole, women have been severely underrepresented. To take the political example: Electing a woman for president of the United States every other election from now until 2100 will not be equality. Equality would be electing only women presidents from now until ~2280.

This seems like an unreasonable demand, and maybe it is. The goal is, after all, true equality. Perhaps that demands parity. But on the smaller scale, I wonder if it isn't asking very little. Let's say publishers only translate books by women writers for three years... that still won't make a dent in the overall historical imbalance! Or even the imbalance from the past four years. "Settling" for parity now will be wonderful going forward, but the gaps in the backlog will remain forever.

We seem to have decided that parity is the right way to go. Don't rock the boat. Don't upset those who would call you a misandrist (and they will, rest assured). But I also choose to view it through the positive lens: Let's look forwards and not backwards. Let's do what we can. Let's make every effort to reach our optimal goal, even if it can never be "perfect".

In an ideal world, I want equality. But in this imperfect world, parity will have to do.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

WITMonth Day 10 | The Vegetarian - Han Kang | Review

Pretty much everyone in the world of literature in translation has heard of The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) by now. Rightly so. The novel won the Man Booker International Prize and has appeared at the top of quite a few reader's WITMonth recommendation lists. It's a good book, deserving of praise and recognition in circles well beyond just "literature in translation".

I'll start by pointing to the image on the left: this is the cover that I have. My first introduction to The Vegetarian was through a comment focused on the cover (I honestly cannot remember where I saw this, unfortunately), noting that while the flowers initially look pretty and elegant, the image quickly becomes grotesque and rather disturbing. And this was what happened when I got the book and finally read it: The story at first seems like it could progress normally, but it slowly loses bits and pieces and forms a very different puzzle. The more toned-down later covers (like the rather noble-looking US cover below) lose some of that creep factor, but they also find a way to present the book more wholly to a wider audience. The original cover... well, it's really uncomfortable to look at. The book might be uncomfortable in many ways, but it's a more subtle form.

I won't bother to summarize the story, not least because dozens of far more insightful readers have unpacked the plot and the morals and the ideas. Suffice to say that The Vegetarian is very much about the notion of rebellion, about feeling wrong in your skin and losing yourself.

The book is comprised of three sections - novellas, really. They follow Yeong-hye's gradual loss of control - first in her repulsion to meat (a shock to her family in a culture in which vegetarianism is largely non-existent), then her discomfort in her physical form, a gradual aversion to food of all sorts, and finally a physical and mental state that hovers on the ethereal.

The Vegetarian is Yeong-hye's story, yet she is not the narrator or its primary source. Each novella looks at Yeong-hye's descent (ascent?) from a different angle, always slightly distant and shaded by the primary narrator (her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, respectively). We never hear Yeong-hye's thoughts directly, instead getting her description of a disturbing dream from her husband, observations of her bodily discomfort from her brother in law, and an understanding of mental illness from her sister. It's a trick that keeps The Vegetarian almost in check, never getting overly emotional or sentimental. The style reminded me a bit of Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, mostly in that it's all a bit disturbing and weird, but in a really crisp way. It work.

It helps that the book is written in such a way that you can't help but want to devour it. Crisply written and beautifully translated, The Vegetarian hooks you quickly and refuses to let go. Luckily, the book is fairly short, but it's not exactly a quick read. There's a depth to this story that demands attention, care and space.

There's really not much more to say. While the book is somewhat disturbing in the themes it explores (and specifically the way it explores them), it's the sort of unsettling feeling that makes a book last longer in your taste buds. I imagine some readers might find even this level of - shall we call it? - horror unpleasant and not to their taste, but I personally enjoyed it (and I detest horror). The Vegetarian is thought-provoking and beguiling and exactly what everyone promised it would be: a really, really good book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

WITMonth Day 9 | A short interlude

A few quick links from around the web with some really cool WITMonth-related content!
...and as always, far more content. I could never do justice to you all, but check out the Twitter tag #WITMonth and see all the awesome reviews, recommendations, discussions and posts!

Monday, August 8, 2016

WITMonth Day 8 | Ancient writing and untranslated classics | Thoughts

Earlier this year, I stumbled across The Penguin Book of Women Poets in a wonderful used bookstore (it was there I picked up a gorgeous two-volume edition of The Mill on the Floss from the early 20th century for what even the bookseller admitted was way too little money). I leafed through it, expecting a text that would - like almost all anthologies -  focus on Anglo-American writers. At first glance, it seemed like the anthology was actually quite diverse and I impulse-purchased it.

It was only later when I got home that I realized how diverse this collection actually is. The collection starts in what they call "The Ancient World", but it's not limited to our typical scope of "classics" - alongside the predictable Greek poetry (and Sappho fragments), there's Egyptian, Israelite, Chinese and Tamil poetry too. The book then progresses to the "Middle Period" (600-1500), which includes writers from Ireland, Wales, England, Arabia, Sanskrit India, Japan, Germany, Korea, China, Moorish Spain... And onward in history: Italy, and Sephardic ballads, and Vietnam, and Mexico, and Sweden, and Cuba, and Turkey, and New Zealand Māori, and Native American. It's a stunning display of what the world has to offer, even when certain literary traditions (African, for example) are completely ignored.

The collection is imperfect in many regards, but the thing that struck me most was how practically every writer in the collection is by this point "classic". The collection was published in 1978 - even the contemporaries of the era are now classics. But many of them remain untranslated overall.

I talked about classics a lot last year, as well as the problem of untranslated masterpieces. There's something extremely frustrating in going through lists of women writers from around the world (and from vastly different eras of history) and discovering that only a handful have been translated. The same process happened with The Penguin Book of Women Poets - dozens of women writers from almost all walks of life, with rare collections here and there.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, in any given collection of men (or... any given collection that dubs itself generic and then has only 15% women writers), many writers will also only have recognition within the context of the collection. Women are not unique in facing almost insurmountable difficulties in getting translated, we know this already. Yet the gap seems ever more frustrating with women writers because of how senseless it remains in the modern context.

When rediscovering writers today, why don't we look at those underrepresented women writers? What's stopping us from bringing to light those classic works, those classic writers?

Women have always written: in ancient times, in modern times, in medieval times. Did they always write as much as men? Of course not, there have been periods in history where women were not taught to read and write. (On the flip side, women today seem to write more than men by most measures and yet here we are.) I could never expect perfect parity when it comes to classic translations. But I do expect basic representation. I do expect publishers of "undiscovered classics" to identify those texts that were written by women writers as well. I do expect literary and historical scholars to commit as much attention to women throughout history as they might to contemporary men.

It's this sort of discrepancy which makes me desperately want more publishers to take part in the Year of Publishing Women. Yes, you'll probably always have more classics by men than by women. Most years will probably see only one undiscovered classic by a woman writer brought to light. But can we have one year when we get some of those well-deserving classics by women writers? One year when we can focus on how women demanded rights, criticized slavery and built abolitionist movements, fought in revolutions, ruled countries, fell in love, lived lives, wrote songs and poems and stories, and existed? Throughout all of history, across the entire world?

Is that too much to hope for...?