Friday, April 21, 2017

Liliana Ursu's poetry is all angles, all edges

My grandfather - whose second language happens to be Romanian - picked up my copy of Liliana Ursu's Goldsmith Market (translated by Sean Cotter) and examined the open, untranslated poem on the left-hand side of the page. He read it aloud, cautiously, skeptically, translating it back to me (into Hebrew, not English), then handed back the book with a decidedly unimpressed expression on his face.

That expression made sense, in all fairness. Not just because my grandfather is not quite the man for poetry recommendations, but also simply because the poem he had read aloud was weak. It was edgy and sharp, but lacking in any powerful message or particularly evocative imagery.

This isn't to say that all of Liliana Ursu's poetry is lacking. Indeed, I've found several poems in Ursu's first full-length English translation that warrant attention and care, poems with power in their angles and sharpness. Poems that breathe new life into frigid air by cutting through it. Take the second half of "A Day in Winter", for example:
A day in winter, a day in summer: same soulsame words, same list of things;only wild ducks fluttering over the frozen green riverkeeps them apart.
The sentences taste brittle, but there's this eerie strength to them as well. But most of the poems in this collection tend to fall into the first category, even with all these "angles". I've said this before and I'll say it again: poetry to me is about feelings as much as it is about language. I probably won't remember the specific words used in a certain poem, but I'll remember how I felt reading it. This means I'm a little less tolerant to bland poetry, particularly ever since I've discovered that there's so much good poetry (particularly in translation, particularly by women).

Ursu's poems aren't solidly bad, they aren't even solidly boring. They're definitely interesting, with that distinct style. There are poems that had me scrambling for air, poems that had me shivering, poems that had me smiling. But the balance tilts just a bit too strongly towards the poems that didn't really mean much on an emotionally stimulating level. Simply put, it's an okay stylistic collection: some gems, some duds. That's to be expected.

Interestingly, I find myself more impressed with the translation, perhaps because of my (very, very limited) knowledge of Romanian. The poems in Romanian had a certain beat to them, one that made some sense to me in terms of that language's style. This rhythm, interestingly, was not maintained in translation. Rather, it seems as though Cotter made a conscious choice to translate style into something English-language speakers would better understand, occasionally changing line structures and thus the poem's flow.

All in all, this collection is far from bad, but it's difficult to offer a rousing endorsement of it either. Its edges provide occasional grasping points, but I can't quite say that I connected with all of it. I can certainly see how other readers might appreciate the sharpness (occasionally harshness) of writing Ursu prefers, but only some of the poems really worked for me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Announcing WITMonth 2017

Hot on the heels of Women's History Month, I find myself wanting to look forward to the summer, to August, and to new ideas for the 4th annual Women in Translation Month (WITMonth 2017). The project has grown from year to year in a truly astonishing way, with more readers, writers, translators, publishers, librarians, and booksellers getting involved from year to year. But of course, there is always room to advance.

As we know, the imbalance regarding women in translation has not abated in recent years. Certain efforts have been made (by publishers, by translators, by bookstores, etc.) to address the imbalance, with the most recent leading to the formation of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Not only is this wonderful news for anyone seeking a comfortably curated list of recommendations, it is also a strong motivator for publishers to step up their game.

Yet despite such efforts, it's hard to look at objective numbers and not grimace. The recently released Man Booker International Prize longlist, for example, highlights the stark imbalance like nothing else, with only 3 books by women writers on a 13-book-strong list. While many have tried to downplay this (by gently, simperingly pointing out that it merely reflects the publishing imbalance), I am less forgiving. Neither imbalance should exist. It's time to do more than talk about how change needs to occur, and start making it happen.

And so, my dear friends, it is time to announce my personal goals for WITMonth 2017:

Increased exposure

Last year saw more and more readers, bookstores, translators, and publishers get involved in Women in Translation Month than ever before. However, the project itself - and WITMonth by extension - remain woefully niche. Most readers have not only never heard of WITMonth, they haven't even heard of the existing imbalance that led to its inception. As with previous years, the first goal of WITMonth 2017 must be exposure. This means contacting your local bookstores and libraries to see if they will include WITMonth displays. This means contacting publishers with abysmal track records and encouraging them to publish more women in translation. This means sharing the data - and the news - with your fellow readers, translators, bloggers, etc.

Reading the world through Women in Translation

Many of you will likely already be familiar with Ann Morgan's brilliant A Year of Reading the World project. This admirable project did a lot in encouraging readers to expand their horizons, however it was very heavy on English-language literature (often from a foreigner's perspective). Over the next few months, I'll be sharing my personal list of "reading the world through women in translation", which will seek to explore as much of the world as possible through as many languages as possible, all through works by women writers. While it will be impossible to visit every country on earth in this way, the stated goal is to read as much as possible from as many different perspectives as possible. The women in translation project - as I have stated many times - must be intersectional in all forms. While my own reading has largely kept me locked into Europe (and straight, white, middle-class narratives), my hope is that a project of this scope will enable me - and any fellow readers who choose to join me on this many-years-long journey - to break free of any preconceived notions.

Exploring different genres

While I have sought to include books belonging to various different genres every year, WITMonth tends to fall into a fairly predictable "literary fiction" pit. Like with previous years, I hope to encourage readers to explore genres beyond plain literary fiction or poetry, instead exploring thrillers, children's literature, science fiction, fantasy, YA, and romance as well. 

None of these stated goals are particularly new. But nonetheless, I find myself wanting to emphasize the need for diversity, within this project that is all about giving voice to those generally left voiceless. We've many months to go before August, but there's no time like the present to begin planning!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation!

On this International Women's Day eve, it's wonderful to have some truly good news on the women in translation front!

The newly announced Warwick Prize for Women in Translation - currently accepting submissions - is a wonderful step towards increasing visibility for women writers translated into English, and raising awareness of the startling global imbalance.

Prizes are more than just a monetary reward for a certain author (or in this case, author/translator team). Prizes are more than just ego boosts. Prizes are a brilliant way for many readers to identify high-quality books that might interest them. They provide authors with exposure, something sorely needed in a field as marginalized as that of women writers in translation. Prizes also encourage publishers to produce more of the thing, in this case showing many publishers of literature in translation that there is a market for women writers from around the world. This prize will help raise awareness of the problem, as well as provide many new readers with great recommendations across genres.

I cannot express how thrilled I am that this prize is happening and how happy it makes me. And who knows, maybe there'll be a longlist by next August (WITMonth!) that we can all shadow...!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dear Diego - Elena Poniatowska | Review

Will I ever cease to be surprised by the power of such slim books? Dear Diego is an especially light novella, framed with a softness of prose that makes it seem even shorter, but it has a lasting impact. Two weeks since reading it, and my mind is still turning over its quiet characterization of Angelina Beloff.

Angelina's is the sole clean voice in Dear Diego (translated from Spanish into Hebrew by Michal Shalev), a fictionalized set of letters from a lonely, abandoned, forgotten, and still-loving wife to a man whose place in history is assured. These letters are based on the real correspondence between Angelina and Diego (after he left France for Mexico), yet there is something subtly ethereal in them.

Elena Poniatowska's writing places Angelina at the forefront, writing wistfully to a husband who simply doesn't respond and doesn't seem to care about his wife anymore. At first, Angelina's messages both acknowledge this abandonment and wait for it to end - she signs off with love, hopes to hear from him soon, is eager for return letters. But as the novella progresses, Angelina's expectations seem to fade (even as her declarations of love do not). She begins to address his lack of responses more bluntly. She references rumors she's heard from other friends. The gentle tone turns almost fragile, brittle.

It's always strange reading fiction based on real historical figures. The trick to Dear Diego's success lies in Angelina as narrator. Her stories - of her marriage with Diego, the loss of their son, her arrival in Paris as a Russian ex-pat and painter, her own artistic ambitions - turn her into a living, breathing woman. Whether all the facts align with history itself is unclear, but it almost doesn't matter.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the presentation of Rivera. While Angelina's tone is often loving and gentle, she (through Poniatowska's sharp eye) paints a portrait of a deeply selfish man, whose at-times cruelty is forgiven simply because he is a "great artist".

My edition of Dear Diego came paired with another Rivera-tangent story by Poniatowska - Diego, estoy sola, Diego ya no estoy sola: Frida Kahlo. This short-story is significantly less powerful than Dear Diego, fading rather quickly from my memory and leaving behind only a very strong sense of Frida Kahlo's physical struggles. The story is somewhat uneven, though this may be a result of its pairing with Dear Diego - I have rarely enjoyed reading short stories immediately after novellas. Even so, the book presents Poniatowska as a first-rate writer, one whose works wholeheartedly deserve a revival. I can't wait to read more.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Is Awareness Enough? | How We Fight (Part 3)

I expect most people reading this blog know me from the Women in Translation project, or #WITMonth. Throughout that project, I have argued that a huge step in improving the abysmal state of translation - and women in translation in particular - must be in increasing awareness. I have argued that when people are aware of a problem, they are halfway to solving it.

This argument becomes murky in a world populated with "alternative facts" and outright misinformation. When truth itself becomes a question, does awareness of a problem mean anything?

The past few days and weeks have seen turbulence in all directions. I have often found myself speechless, incapable of even comprehending how quickly things have fallen apart. I have found words almost impossible to come by. Yet there has also been a strong backlash, one driven not by awareness but of action. "We're done being aware of the problem," these protests seem to say. "Now we're going to tear it down."

Awareness serves a critical purpose in this resistance. Without it, there would simply be no-one protesting. It is much simpler to accept a broken world if you never know/acknowledge that it is broken. This is true of all activism, and indeed is often its limiting factor. Why should someone protest that "black lives matter" if they don't know that a horrifying imbalance exists between the way white and black Americans are treated by police? Why should someone protest a lack of women in STEM if they don't realize that women go through years and years of social conditioning and at-times outright discrimination that prevents the field from being properly integrated? Or to use an example closer to home: Why should someone care about the women in translation problem if they've never even heard that such a problem exists?

Large or small, major or insignificant, activism is built on the back of awareness. On education. On exposure to different voices and ideas. But awareness only sets the stage. Awareness makes it possible for activism to go forward, and go forward it must.