The dark side of the planetary brain, or how a sacred anemone saves the world: Rita Indiana, Tentacle

Translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Tentacle was the final book released by And Other Stories in the Year of Publishing Women, and it smashed all of my expectations: a psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry, presided over by a sacred anemone. If you want to put a label on it, then Tentacle is probably best described as “experimental fiction”, but this doesn’t even begin to do it justice: it is both historical and contemporary, spiritual and pragmatic, science fiction and art – in short, as uncategorizable as it is exceptional.

Image taken from www.andotherstories.org

In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. We are in a time of advanced technology, when headsets function as a virtual-reality version of the internet, and yet humanity has regressed to some of its basest impulses; a modern-day plague is sweeping across the Caribbean, and affluent members of society are brutal in protecting themselves from contamination: “Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.” In this post-apocalyptic world where the plague-ridden poor are simply a nuisance for the rich to exterminate, we meet Acilde, androgynous maid to famous psychic Esther Escudero. Picking her way through the pollution and social inequality, Acilde has been plucked from a life of “suck[ing] dicks at El Mirador” because the anemone had foretold that she would be the one to save the world; Acilde thus inadvertently holds the key to future survival, and is part of a prophecy that must be fulfilled. In order to realise her destiny she must become a man, by way of a futuristic sex change far removed from any modern-day medical procedure (carried out with the help of the aforementioned sacred anemone, a contraband artefact protected by Escudero’s henchman), and then travel in time to save her home. Past, present and future lives bleed into one another as characters from the future experience past lives as 16th-century buccaneers or 20th-century artists: time, history, and legacy are simultaneously distorted and clarified, and the protagonists tormented and consoled, by the power of the anemone.

Writing from the near future allows Indiana to make a social comment that never seems moralistic, and which is all the more persuasive for being framed as retrospective. The abandonment of the plague sufferers is reminiscent of current dialogues about refugees and borders, as well as a desensitization towards tragedy that Indiana adroitly reminds us is, in itself, a modern “plague.” The recent past is neatly condensed by the description of Acilde’s room in Esther Escudero’s house as “one of those typical rooms found in Santo Domingo’s twentieth-century apartments, from when everybody had a servant who lived with them and, for a salary well below minimum wage, cleaned, cooked, washed, watched the kids, and attended to the clandestine sexual requirements of the man of the house,” and the Trujillo regime (though unnamed) is described from the future as one that “the foreign press – still – did not dare call a dictatorship.” This didactic comment does not feel forced, as it is all in the context of an environmental disaster that has not (or not yet) happened in real life (there are early references to “the day of the tidal wave” that wiped out half the population). Yet though this may seem futuristic, in a recent interview Indiana stated that this future Caribbean where capitalism and colonialism have brought on humanitarian crises “exists in the present,” and that in viewing it from the future, she offers her readers a “‘safe’ place from which to view them” – and it is undoubtedly one of Tentacle’s great accomplishments that concealed in its futuristic, fictional context is a very contemporary, very real message.

There were ways in which the crux of the story reminded me of Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, but that is not to say that there is anything derivative about Tentacle. Indiana produces a written text with oral qualities, meticulously and thoughtfully constructed but managing to seem effortlessly spontaneous. She draws together religion and voodoo, and reflects the culture of her country while defying tradition: Indiana’s influences and intertexts are multiple and eclectic, as are the possible readings of Tentacle. For all its riotous science-fiction qualities, Tentacle offers a number of social critiques, such as this one on race: “‘Black,’ he heard himself say as he breathed smoke out of his mouth. A small word swollen over time by other meanings, all of them hateful. Every time somebody said it to mean poor, dirty, inferior or criminal, the word grew; it must have been about to burst, and when it finally did, it would once again mean what it meant in the beginning: a color.” It is with reflections like this that Indiana weaves a narrative that is both deeply rooted in the traditions of her country and universally recognisable, and the translation by Achy Obejas – at once lyrical and volatile, evocative and explosive – communicates all the wisdom, energy, and artistic range of Indiana’s work.

The final page – which I’m not going to quote from, or talk about in too much detail, as I want you to enjoy it for yourself if you’re going to read Tentacle – is, in comparison to the rest of the book, quiet, tender, and calm. This is no paradox or accident – Indiana concludes her whirlwind of a story with the quiet at the eye of the storm, as all the worlds, bodies and times collapse in on one another and end together; it is a final page I have read over and over. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, unless it is the tradition that “In the Caribbean we live on the dark side of the planetary brain.” This is an urgent, electric novel, and I highly recommend that you try stepping over to this particular “dark side.”

 

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.

Women in translation: the best of 2018

End-of-year compilations are abundant at the moment, and after an exciting year – generally, with the Year of Publishing Women, and personally, with the development of this blog – I want to round off the year with my top picks and recommendations of 2018. I’m going to start by sharing my four Books of the Year as revealed in the interview I did with Sophie Baggott for Wales Arts Review, then talk about four more books that I’ve loved in 2018, before looking ahead to some exciting things coming our way in 2019.

Part 1: My top four

In order of publication date (to avoid any other form of “ranking”), here are my four favourite picks of 2018.

First up is Soviet Milk, the story of three generations of Latvian women based on author Nora Ikstena’s own life, published by Peirene Press. I mentioned in my review of Soviet Milk that it intertwines with my family history, and it’s fair to say that I read much of Soviet Milk through misty eyes. But Soviet Milk is heart-wrenching whether or not you have a personal connection to the history, and is a fine example of how literature can reveal the immeasurable consequences that historical tragedy can have on the life of the individual. The mother, always “striving to turn out her life’s light”, cannot accept the impact of Soviet rule on her homeland, and in rebelling against it condemns her daughter to relative exile, unable to give her maternal affection. It is the daughter – Ikstena herself – who offers this devotion back to her mother in a poignant tribute to a woman whose despair consumed her ability to love. The translation by Margita Gailitis strikes a perfect balance that rages and laments without ever descending into melodrama.

Don’t fall over with shock, but my next choice is Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup. I know, I’ve raved about it (repeatedly), but with good reason! This is not only an excellent collection of stories and novellas, but also the kind of writing that carries you back and forth between desperate wincing and uncontrollable giggles. It offers a snapshot of what the author describes as a “Latin American universe”, but also has a universality in terms of female experience, unromantic realities, adolescent frustration and the weight of tradition that will have broad appeal (particularly when recounted with such caustic humour, beautifully replicated in Charlotte Coombe’s glorious translation). You might have read about my meeting with Margarita, and I have to say that discovering Charco Press, reading Fish Soup, and interviewing Margarita are right up there in my 2018 highlights. Fish Soup is utterly brilliant and uncompromisingly hilarious, and I recommend it unreservedly.

After starting the year in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, Olga Tokarczuk has become something of a household name for literature lovers. Although I enjoyed her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Jennifer Croft’s translation, it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that really stood out for me (you can read my full review here). Tackling issues of ageism, animal cruelty, environmental damage and individuality through the lens of a pseudo-noir murder mystery, this was an unexpected page-turner, offering plenty of insights into the human condition and several moments of sheer hilarity, all brought together in an immaculate translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (again for Fitzcarraldo). Drive Your Plow is a delight from beginning to end: it’s a tale of philosophy, astrology, fatality and retribution, all recounted by a unique, oddball and utterly brilliant narrator who will sweep you up into the banalities of her daily life and the enormities of the universe.

And finally, a book I have yet to review, though I have mentioned it in a previous post: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. If ever you should be disappointed that more publishers didn’t commit to the Year of Publishing Women, then just read this book and you’ll soon feel instead that a small take-up produced great things. The Remainder is a tumultuous riot of a road trip (in search of a dead body that’s gone missing in transit between Berlin and Santiago de Chile) that, in amongst a series of hilariously inappropriate events, tackles the serious issues of historical memory and the generational transmission of guilt. Three main characters struggle with the burden of their parents’ suffering, and bond over death, grief, and nicotine. Throw in a rickety hearse, winding mountain roads, and more than a few bottles of pisco, and it’s a literary treat. The translation by Sophie Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Part 2: another four brilliant books

There have been several other releases that I’ve greatly enjoyed this year. Since And Other Stories were publishing only women this year, the odds were high that I’d find a few I liked, and though The Remainder was the one I loved most, I have to mention two others that I’d highly recommend. Firstly, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, which experiments with genre and drifts between the microscopic detail of individual life and the immensity of polar expeditions, framing everything within an ice metaphor which might seem improbable but which Kopf pulls off deftly. Living with an autistic brother (“a man of ice”) and negotiating relationships in the modern world don’t seem like obvious counterfoils for discussions of polar explorations, but it works brilliantly. Brother in Ice started out as an exhibition, and it is a startlingly luminous multi-genre work of art. I found the translation overly literal in several places, and although this did not prevent me from enjoying Kopf’s daring, creative debut, I’d like to read her own translation into Spanish at some point.

My surprise end-of-year highlight was, undoubtedly, Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas. In a mid 21st-century dystopian Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. Maid Acilde inadvertently holds the key to future survival, but first must become a man (with the help of a sacred anemone) and travel in time to save her home. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, a social comment that never feels moralistic: it encompasses religion and voodoo, male and female, past and present (and future, while we’re at it), is a written text with oral qualities, beautifully constructed while seeming effortlessly spontaneous… put simply, it’s a psychedelic Caribbean genesis story with ecocriticism, voodoo and time travel thrown in – what’s not to love?!

Regular readers will also know how much I enjoyed the final release of the year from Tilted Axis Press, Hwang Jungeun’s I’ll Go On, beautifully and sensitively translated by Emily Yae Won. Two sisters and the boy next door take turns to narrate their childhood and adult life: they thrash out their relationships with each other, their mothers, and themselves, doomed to never truly understand one another yet committed to negotiating life together. In a world where notions of family are becoming more fluid, this quietly profound novel examines the bonds we choose, and those we cannot shake off, and offers reflections that transcend the context of the novel and become something akin to life mottos. One such favourite of mine is this: “The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known” – read the last lines of my full review to see another that you’ll want to shout out loud to everyone you meet.

I’m still sad that Granta Books is shuttering its Portobello imprint next year, but Portobello have certainly gone out on a high: the smash hit of the summer (and Foyles Book of the Year) was Convenience Store Woman, and if ever you should judge a book by its cover, this would be the one, because it’s a perfect reflection of its heroine: like misfit convenience store worker Keiko herself, the unremittingly cheerful exterior conceals a depth, nuance and everyday tragedy beneath the surface. Keiko is not like other people, but no matter how hard her family tries to “fix” her, she cannot be “cured” of her differences, acknowledging of her calling that “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual”. Convenience Store Woman challenges us not to assume that “normal” means “better”: Sayaka Murata writes a complex, loveable heroine who cannot understand the world, and in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation, Keiko endears herself to new audiences. Like Keiko, Convenience Store Woman is delightful, original, and impossible to put into a box.

Part 3: women in translation in 2019

Finally, instead of choosing another two books and making this a “top ten”, I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to for 2019.

And Other Stories will continue to bring us excellent women’s writing next year, with three women in translation titles, of which these two appeal to me greatly: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is “the account of a woman who has been trained for a life she cannot live”, and The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, represents a “fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era.”

Charco Press have a bumper year coming up, with new releases from Ariana Harwicz (whose Die, My Love was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize)  and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (if you’ve seen my virtual bookshelf, you’ll know that Slum Virgin is one of my “must-read” recommendations, so a new Cabezón Cámara translation is cause for much rejoicing here!) as well as a “Proustian love story” by Brenda Lozano, and debut novels by Selva Almada and Andrea Jeftanovic.

Peirene Press are publishing only women authors in 2019 in a series called “There Be Monsters”.

As well as the much-anticipated release of their Translating Feminisms chapbooks, Tilted Axis will be kicking off 2019 with Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting catalogue for 2019, with six new releases scheduled.

To conclude my year’s musings, I want to end with this beautiful reflection from an earlier Les Fugitives publication, Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated with great warmth by Ros Schwartz:

“In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

Thank you for reading with me in 2018; I wish you all a restful and joyful festive season, and I’ll be back in January with more women in translation reviews and reflections.

Guilt, sexuality and modernity: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Panty and Abandon

Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press, 2016 and 2017)

When I first started browsing the Tilted Axis catalogue, I was intrigued by Panty and Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay: both novels deal with themes of guilt, duty, sexuality and cultural (non-)conformity, and both present themselves as conscious narratives, playing with story-telling in original ways. Because they have a male translator (Arunava Sinha) they fall outside the parameters of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and so I didn’t read them straight away. But earlier this year I read them for my own pleasure, and am writing about them today for yours!

Images from tiltedaxispress.com

I read Panty first, for no other reason than it was on the top when I opened the parcel, and I’m glad I read them this way round. As soon as I posted a tweet about the two books, several people commented that Panty is good, but Abandon is amazing, and (spoiler) I’m with them. I enjoyed Panty, though, so let’s start with that…

First of all, if you like a linear narrative and a clear plotline, Panty is probably not for you. If you’re happy to be destabilised, to swirl around in circles as different stories unfold simultaneously and in superimposition, then it’s a tremendously fulfilling read. A woman arrives in Kolkata, to an empty and heavily padlocked apartment, and as she is acquainting herself with her new surroundings she finds a leopard-print panty in the wardrobe. She wonders about the owner of this sensuous, shameless undergarment, and when eventually she slips it on, she steps into the sexual memories of the woman who wore it before her. Her own story then ripples out alongside – or enmeshed with – these memories: the reality of a surgery she is awaiting alone and the passion of two bodies writhing in union are brought together in the unnamed woman’s relationship with a man who will not commit to her. Through the memories of the panty’s owner, she discovers what it really is to kiss: “All this time, she’d thought she knew what a kiss was. Just as she’d thought she knew what love was, what the body was, what art was. When in fact she had known none of that.” The limits of her life so far are in stark contrast with the unconditional giving and receiving she experiences through another woman’s memories.

The narration shifts from first person to second person to third person as the stories collapse in on one another, and at times I had to re-read sections to be sure I knew who was speaking (or, at least, to think I was sure). Writing, narration, illness and the body fold together, writing coming from the body (“Was this one line all the blood that would ever flow from the wounds?) and pain being sucked out from the body through passion (“you fit your mouth to her right nipple and suck out all her suffering”) and turned into writing. Panty felt experimental, not rooted in conventional narrative expectations – it is not a snapshot of a life, but an exploration of an experience: introspective, chaotic, and yearning. The structure of Panty is, perhaps, best summed up in this reflection: “I ran away. I escaped to the centre, inside the fire that rages at the circumference of life.” The bodies unfold at the centre of the fire, a circle of flames around past and future, a moment suspended at the eye of the storm.

Sinha’s translation is refined and at times elaborate, but because this is not a novel of gritty realism, it works: though phrases such as “even if we do happen to meet, let there be no flash of recognition in your eyes. Let the portion of your heart in which I exist die this very moment. Let us free ourselves from this bond as far as is possible” would not be out of place in a 19th-century tragedy, they still work here, because it is a story of excess, of pulsing bodies and burning hearts. Trisha Gupta makes an interesting point about the poesy of Sinha’s translation resting on “a style that has a certain lushness and emotional purchase in Bengali, but can sometimes appear long-winded in contemporary English”, but because I cannot (and probably shall never be able to) read Bengali, I rather like that some features of the original language come through in the translation. In fact, in Abandon, one character comments that “there’s no better language than Bengali to pamper someone with”, and so if there is anything intricate in Sinha’s translation, it seems to me that this opens a window to the Bengali beneath the words.

Panty was a brave book with which to launch a new press, and there are some features of Abandon which echo it, particularly in the guilt about neglected children, the challenging of traditional notions of femininity, and the deliberately unconventional narrative style. In Abandon, a young mother runs away from her life and her responsibilities, only to find that her five-year-old son follows her. She is torn between the desire for solitude so that she can write a novel, and the need to protect and care for her son: this polarity of feeling is epitomised by the dual meaning of “abandon” as both neglect and unbridled passion, and in the similarly dual use of narration: “I” for the primal need to care for herself, and “Ishwari” for the mother bound by duty and love to care for her son.

There is a conscious awareness of writing within the narrative: from the opening page, I/Ishwari says that “the taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.” Throughout her narration, she points to incidents that were improbable and therefore part of the structure of her story, characters who are there because the story needed them; she recognises useful narrative devices (such as the occupation of the roof terrace as an ideal space to develop her writing) and consciously lives there so that it can be part of the story. As in Panty, the narrator destabilises the reader with regular reminders that this is just a story, and can manipulate as well as illuminate: “Ishwari’s head was about to drop in embarrassment, but such is the nature of this novel – it is sceptical and trusting at the same time, it tells the truth and also lies.” I/Ishwari repeatedly reminds us that we have chosen to enter her “novel of lies and truths”, and in doing so she exercises the power to lead us wherever she chooses. And yet she herself is powerless in the hands of the narrative force: it is a “predatory novel”, characters enter it because there is not yet anyone like them within its pages, and just as her relationships have always imprisoned her with their needs, so the novel begins to do the same. Ishwari constantly has to choose between her own survival and her son, and her survival seems to be possible only by navigating her way through this treacherous novel which, nonetheless, “understands my agony.”

Creativity and motherhood are seen as incompatible, Roo’s need for Ishwari the only impediment to her unfettered self-expression. Prenatal death is presented as the perfect murder: “When the mother’s womb kills the child, does anyone hold the mother responsible? […] Only mothers can dispense the kind of death neither nature nor civilization can question”, and though Roo has survived into infancy, he is debilitated and weakened, and Ishwari will not allow the same fate to befall her novel. In a book replete with references to gender inequalities in India (beaten wives, “wayward” women, forced sex, submission), I/Ishwari refuses to fulfil a role or meet expectations of womanhood, and yet manages to give the impression that she is doing exactly that. Her job as a companion and caregiver to the sick, grieving Bibaswan outwardly shows her displaying typically “feminine” qualities of nurturing and compassion, and yet when their relationship becomes physical, Bibaswan realises that he has no domination over her mental or emotional presence, only the physical presence that is demanded of her in order to collect her envelope of banknotes. As in Panty, Bandyopadhyay explores women’s independence and sexuality, subverting stereotype and expectation at every turn.

In both Panty and Abandon, the at times confusing, sweeping, spiralling narratives are punctuated by moments of searing beauty. In Abandon, there was one line in particular that took my breath away: “She did not realise that suppressing love is the strongest form of self-flagellation in the world.” Such insights are of the kind that stay with me, that I roll around inside my head and mouth for a long time after I finish reading. Indeed, as I/Ishwari explains, “the more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable”: Panty and Abandon are not simple, or light-hearted, or easily forgettable. They wound, they subvert, and they challenge – and that is their great triumph.

A profound, lyrical incantation: Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On

Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won (Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

I’ll Go On was the final 2018 release in my Tilted Axis subscription, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it all year. It is the story of sisters Sora and Nana and their family bonds: with their damaged mother, Aeja, who was once brimming with love but has now given herself over to grief, with the enigmatic yet tender boy next door, Naghi Oraboni, and with Naghi’s mother, who fed and sustained Sora and Nana through their childhood. The original title, Soranananaghi, binds the three main protagnists’ names together in an incantation, also incorporating the word ‘sonagi’ (meaning ‘downpour’), and both of these meanings are echoed one drunken evening in three drops of water that Naghi names as Sora, Nana and Naghi, and that join together to make one single body of water. The English title is brilliantly chosen, as it is a phrase repeated like a refrain throughout the book: “I’ll go on” is the epitome of the characters’ determination to live out their lives, resigned to not feeling happy. This is far from being the only example of Emily Yae Won’s deftness in the translation: there are many references to the characters that make up the Korean names, and her incorporation of these never feels heavy-handed or “textbook-like”. I always find it hard to imagine the translation process from a language I know nothing of and a culture I know little about, but this translation seemed to me to keep all the cultural importance of the original, and some of the linguistic features, while still ensuring it was a smooth read in English.

Image from tiltedaxispress.com

I’ll Go On is narrated in four parts: Sora, Nana and Naghi all take their turns narrating, and then Nana takes over again for the short final section. I have come to greatly enjoy stories with multiple narrators, and one of the things I like about this technique is exemplified brilliantly in I’ll Go On: viewing the same event from different perspectives. The meeting of Sora, Nana and Naghi as children is recounted by both Sora and Naghi, likewise the revelation that “single-member tribes do exist in the world, you know”; an incident when Naghi strikes Nana to remind her that “forgetting, that’s how people turn monstruous. It’s how you become oblivious to other people’s pain” is remembered by both Nana and Naghi, and tense conversations between Sora and Nana are related by both sisters.

At the heart of the story is Nana’s pregnancy: Sora, the older sister, has always looked after Nana, and now feels that Nana has betrayed her, bringing another life into their family unit. Sora resents the pregnancy but tries to be kind; Nana resents Sora for trying to be kind. Sora’s only concept of motherhood is painful: she addresses Nana in her internal monologue with the musing:

“Has Nana set her heart on becoming a replica of Aeja?
Is that it, Nana.
You want to be another Aeja?
Fall in love like she did, and make a baby, and then have the baby, all so you can turn into an overbearing mother?”

As for Nana herself, she struggles with her (lack of) emotions towards the baby growing in her womb: she likes the father well enough, but does not want to marry him, and does not want to form an attachment to her child:

“When it comes to love, that seems about the right amount of emotional involvement: to be able to soon get back on your feet no matter what occurs. Where whether by mutual agreement of by one-sided betrayal or because one of you vanishes into thin air overnight, the other can manage to say, in due time: I’m fine. That seems about right. Even once the baby is here, Nana has decided that that will be the extent of her love for the child and for Moseh ssi.
Pouring all your heart into love as Aeja had done – that level of devotion is what Nana wants to guard against.”

Love is an emotion that can turn sour, that can become overwhelming grief, that can leave you a husk, and neither Sora nor Nana want this kind of love to befall them. They prefer recognisable parameters: companionship, shared memories, walls around the heart. And yet, it is in her attitude towards her unborn child that Nana realises with horror how like her own grief-hardened mother she is becoming: “It dawned on her that having been so intent on her own pain, it hadn’t occurred to her to consider the unequivocal anguish now presented before her. And that this made hers the closest likeness to that heart which Nana wholly detested, namely, Aeja’s heart.” The selfishness of Aeja’s pain, the way in which it closed her off to the pain of others, including her own children, is replicated in Nana – and yet this is not portrayed in some moralistic, daughter-understanding-the-mother way, but rather to show the terror of a child whose mother would prefer to leave the world than care for her, on realising that she too has allowed herself to become so consumed by pain that she cannot see the pain she is inflicting on others. And so we see a cycle: of life, love, resentment, and of the ways in which all three main characters are trapped in a past they cannot set free. This is reflected in Aeja’s repeated questioning of Nana about her pregnancy: Aeja chants “Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?” without waiting for an answer, and Nana listens to “the question that’s being repeated over and over like a curse.” Aeja’s lack of happiness in her own life did not prevent her from wanting happiness for her children, but she fails to see that it is her own behaviour that has wrung out all possibility for happiness from them.

The main emotional connection the three narrators share comes through food: they were all nourished through childhood on the food prepared by Naghi’s mother, Ajumoni, a hardworking widow whose only desire in life is to have a grandchild. Just as it was Ajumoni who fed Sora and Nana through their childhood (“They were the plainest of lunchboxes. Plain and commonplace. And yet to have contained so much in such a compact form is nothing short of immense”), so it was also Ajumoni who gave Sora and Nana the maternal love they lacked in their own home, and it is her food that sustains them even as adults, when they gather together to make dumplings, setting their differences aside as they work together to prepare a feast, the taste of which embodies for Nana “The longing, the delight, the tenderness, the fear, the loneliness, the regret, the joy – all muddled, all at once. All one big mess.” Ajumoni’s food defines both childhood and home for Sora and Nana, to the extent that “no matter what delectable and fine food they may come across now, anything that’s not of this home is simply – for Sora and Nana both – other, the taste of not-home.”

Hwang is adept at crafting profound philosophical reflections in the quietest of ways: the fleeting nature of human life within the vastness of history is made evident in the assertion that “the world’s end will only befall us gradually, and this will give Nana time to think properly about things”; the overwhelming nature of pain is given shape in Naghi’s description of Aeja’s widowhood, when he acknowledges that “over a lengthy stretch of time, she has steadily, inaudibly, fulfilled her pain and become whole. She has hauled her pain over herself, covering herself entirely with it, like a carapace”; the physical depth of love is evident in Naghi’s claim that “This sensory memory is a yearning, and will never be erased. If it is to be rubbed out, it will be the last memory to go, It will leave me only in my final moment”, and perhaps Hwang’s characters are best defined by Nana’s conclusion about human life: “People are trifling, their lives meagre and fleeting. But this, Nana thinks, is also what makes them loveable”. These are some of my favourite lines from the novel, and show the lyrical beauty to be found within it. What could be a fairly depressing story is raised to a thing of crystalline incandescence because of the sensitivity and humanity with which both author and translator craft this work.

The line that most struck me and lingered on in my memory is one that I wish I could shout out to everyone I pass, to those who are close to me and those who are not, to friends and foes, to world leaders, the people who vote for them, and the people who oppose them. And I’m going to leave this line as the last word, in the spirit of the #WiTWisdom pledge that I mentioned last week: “Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.”

 

On borders, encounters, and #WiTWisdom

Borders are on my mind right now. I live on an island, and so the borders of my homeland are physical; more importantly, they are also in the hearts and, recently, on the ballot papers of many of my compatriots. Everything about my identity, my work, and my beliefs rejects borders, crosses them, perhaps even aims to transcend them, and so in a time of great uncertainty, I find comfort in encounters that break down borders: I had two particularly uplifting “Translating Women” encounters recently that I want to share with you today, but I also want to reflect further on connections, crossing borders, and the wise, witty and downright wonderful things we can find in translated women’s writing.

Clockwise from top left: publicity shot for BookSHElf podcast; Fish Soup in Caravansérail; in conversation with Margarita García Robayo

I was thrilled when Carolina Orloff, director and editor at Charco Press, invited me to host an evening in conversation with Margarita García Robayo at the Caravansérail bookshop in London on 31 October. It was part of Margarita’s European book tour to promote Fish Soup, and it was a great honour to meet her in person; re-reading Fish Soup on the train to London, I was struck once again by the profundity of its caustic reflections (as well as finding it mildly surreal to be reading one of my favourite books while en route to meet its author). After spectacularly losing track of time in the excitement of meeting Margarita and Carolina at a tea salon in Brick Lane, we trooped to Caravansérail just in time for the event. It was my first time there, and I fell entirely under its spell: it’s a small premises, with the back area packed floor to ceiling with French books on one side and works in English and translation on the other. In the front area there is an intimate interview and audience space, where we gathered for our conversation.

Interviewing Margarita was a dream. She was so open and generous in her responses, both to me and to the audience. We covered topics ranging from the autobiographical nature of her writing and the need to leave Colombia in order to write about it fully, to Charlotte Coombe’s magnificent translation and the cover art of Fish Soup (beautifully described by one of my Twitter friends, author Rónán Hession, as “like Jaws but with fuzzy felt”). The thing I most want to focus on here came about when discussing the novella ‘Sexual Education’, which was published for the first time as part of Fish Soup, and is based on Margarita’s own experience of Opus Dei sex education classes in 1990s Colombia (the “Teen Aid” course was one she was forced to attend at school). There was in her class, as in the novella, a girl who claimed to be in communication with the Blessed Virgin, and we discovered in conversation with Margarita that the teachers lapped this up, pressing the girl to find out what Mary had communicated to her, so that they could use this to further convince the female students of the merits of abstention. Margarita talked about the deep effect that such indoctrination can have (in particular, the notion that “virginity” means “preserving the hymen” which, as her narrator observes wryly, results in a generation of girls with “hymen intact […] ass in tatters”), and described life thereafter as a process of “unlearning”, a sentiment which seemed to resonate with everyone present.

So can we “unlearn” how we think about borders? I’m currently reading Go Went Gone by the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by Portobello Books. Erpenbeck seems to me to be a truly important writer of our times: in Go Went Gone she tackles the subject of migration, and I was struck by the wisdom of this reflection: “Have people forgotten in Berlin of all places that a border isn’t just measured by an opponent’s stature but in fact creates him?” How terrifying that a book reflecting on one of the great socio-political scissions of the last century is so resonant with how I feel in my country today. Borders close us off, keep people out, and create enemies: by opening a book we open ourselves, allow others in, and create connections. Charco Press are certainly creating such connections: Margarita described their endeavours as “revolutionary”, since in Latin America literary success is often limited to each individual country, with books not crossing borders in their original language, and so translation into English is an important part of literary success and wider distribution of work. At a time when “the inhabitants of this territory […] are defending their borders with articles of law” (Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone), it seems to me that promoting and celebrating work that breaks through these borders and barriers is a revolutionary act in itself. In his essay “Reflections on Exile”, Edward Said wrote that “Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity.” Familiar territory is exactly what we leave behind when we read literature in translation, as we refuse to remain imprisoned in how our particular political or cultural “time” is telling us to define ourselves. Said goes on to claim that “Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience”, and perhaps here we could substitute “exiles” with “writers in translation”: their books not only cross borders but help to break them down, reminding us that we are more connected than we can sometimes realise.

If you read Spanish, you can read Margarita’s full account of her book tour here.

The morning after interviewing Margarita I went to Oxford Circus to meet Sophie Baggott, who earlier this year made a pledge to read a book by a woman writer from every country in the world by 2020. Sophie also hosts BookSHElf, a monthly podcast for Wales Arts Review, in which each month she interviews a guest about a topic related to women in translation: as the November guest, I followed in the illustrious footsteps of Theodora Danek, writers in translation programme manager at English PEN, Jennifer Croft, translator of the Man Booker International prize-winning Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, and the author-translator duo Michelle Steinbeck and Jen Calleja. It was an honour to find myself the guest on a podcast I look forward to each month, and half an hour has rarely passed so quickly: it was a joy to talk about women in translation with someone who shares my passion for it. Aside from talking about the Translating Women project, we talked about books we’ve loved (I shared my four women in translation Books of the Year for 2018 – tune in to see which I chose and why!) and issues such as the difficulties facing women in translation, the importance of the Year of Publishing Women and its legacy, and what we might look forward to in terms of women in translation (as December approaches, my excitement for the soon-to-be-released Translating Feminisms chapbooks from Tilted Axis Press grows).

Sophie and I also discussed the “labels” we use to talk about literature: I don’t want to try to define what books from a given geographical region might be “like”, and I wonder whether, if we want to transcend borders, it’s helpful to categorise books by country or literary tradition (particularly if a writer might break with this, challenge it, defy it, or simply reject the notion of a national “literary tradition”). Or, like Margarita, they might be from one country, live in another, and be published in another – and it is precisely this porosity, this mobility (dare I utter the words “this freedom of movement”?) which make literature in translation so important to the English-speaking world. What do a gathering in a multicultural bookshop and a podcast that can be listened to on the world wide web represent, if not a breaking down of borders? Sophie asked me to identify the best opportunities to have come out of the Translating Women project, and it was easy to answer: the connections. What a privilege it is to form relationships (real or virtual) with authors, translators, publishers, and fellow readers.

English PEN uses the strapline “Literature knows no frontiers”, and if there is anything that the books I’m reading have in common, it is their ability to reach out beyond national stereotypes and physical borders, and create connections. I hope that a day will come when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because we shall simply be talking about “literature” – but the days of such equality are, I think, still some way off. Until then, I shall be celebrating the inspiring, enriching, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes quiet, sometimes exuberant, always fascinating body of work that women in translation represents.

And on that note, I’m bringing together two things I love at the end of 2018: I always find the end of the year to be a time of reflection and resolution, and I also like to share some of my favourite quotations from the books I’m reading. So each weekday from 1 December until Christmas, I shall post on Twitter a meditative or inspiring quotation from a book by a woman writer in translation, using the hashtag #WiTWisdom. Please feel free to share and follow the hashtag, and to join in if you feel moved to do so!

The books I couldn’t resist purchasing at Caravansérail


 

“No matter where I go I’m still broken”: a tale of displacement and becoming. Carla Maliandi, The German Room

Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)

The German Room is the final release of 2018 from Charco Press, and what a year it’s been for them: A Man Booker International longlisting (for Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), a win at the Creative Edinburgh Awards in the ‘Start-Up Award’ category, five new books (including one of my favourite books of the year, Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Coombe), and the celebration of their first anniversary in business. Charco Press is, without doubt, one of my favourite discoveries of 2018 – I love their attitude, their vision, and their commitment, and I have yet to read a book from them that I didn’t like. So in some ways I was almost fearful to start The German Room – I received a review copy and all I could think was “I hope it’s as good as I want it to be.” So… was it?

Image from charcopress.com

The German Room is a tale of escape and “becoming”, of nostalgia and displacement, and its central premise is particularly thought-provoking: if you flee your life because it becomes intolerable, what are you fleeing towards? And will your problems follow you there? I hesitate to call this a coming-of-age story, because I think it’s more of a reflection on the modern condition: we have infinite possibilities of where to go if we want to get away, but what on earth are we going to do when we get there? As the unnamed narrator reflects early on in her story, “even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.” Though this raises universal questions of displacement and self, the particular catalyst for the narrator’s sudden departure from her hometown of Buenos Aires is a rancorous break-up. Telling no-one that she is going away, she boards a plane to Heidelberg, the German town her parents fled to in an escape from the dictatorship in Argentina three decades earlier, and where she spent several years of her childhood. Yet a return to a place where she was once happy does not necessarily mean a return to happiness, and she finds herself adrift there, lacking purpose but yet not actively seeking it either. She takes a room in a university hall of residence, and enjoys the anonymity there: no-one knows who she is or why she is there (they all assume she is a student), and she doesn’t even have a home to keep clean – this is as much as anything an escape from adulthood and a return to a simpler time. Yet very adult concerns lie in wait for her there: an unlikely friendship with a fragile international student, a reluctant co-dependent friendship with the only other Argentine in the residence, a fleeting sexual encounter with a student she barely even likes, the pressure from the hall’s warden to enrol on a course or lose her right to remain in her room, and an increasingly sinister relationship with a Japanese woman in a state of grief. As if this ensemble cast of unlikely acquaintances didn’t provide enough intrigue, she also collides with Mario, a professor who, as a young man, lived in refuge with her family (an encounter which brings up past memories and offers a poignant insight into the traumatic consequences of a life spent in hiding), becomes sexually obsessed with the man  Mario loves, and discovers that she is pregnant – possibly by her former boyfriend, possibly by a rather vapid friend with whom she had a one-night stand when her relationship broke down.

Frances Riddle has translated this book extremely well: there is nothing in the English that seems awkward or out of place. There are things that must have been difficult to translate (Miguel Javier, for example, is “the Tucumano”, referring to the region of Argentina that he comes from; though “the Tucumano” might not be recognisable out of context in English, there seems to me no other way of describing him, since simply referring to him by name would erase the socio-cultural references which are so important to his characterisation and the power dynamics of his relationship with the narrator). I also greatly appreciated Riddle’s translation of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press, 2017), and imagine that Charco’s Spanish-language texts are in safe hands with her.

Carla Maliandi’s debut novel meets the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Charco books: in particular, I find it quite an achievement to write a narrator who in many ways is quite unlikeable, and yet make her sympathetic. I was quite surprised that I didn’t find myself getting irritated with the narrator or finding her introspection tedious: the character is written in such a way that she seems aware of the potentially self-indulgent nature of her own train of thought, and just stops short of being grating. Perhaps the other thing that saves this from being too navel-gazing is the overlap of the present-day personal story and a more universal past history: when asked why she wants to be in Heidelberg, the narrator replies that “I don’t know, maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here, we hoped that everything would get better so that we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.” Heidelberg was once a place where her family sought refuge until things got better at home, and she is attempting to repeat this experience, even though she is unsure what she’s really doing “in this conservative storybook city, in this repulsively perfect country.”

It seems that what the narrator is seeking above all is anonymity, even invisibility: she likes living in the residence because “being there is like not being anywhere, it’s being alone but surrounded by a lot of people, having everything without owning anything, and being able to pass unnoticed.” Passing unnoticed will, she thinks, allow her the time to decide what she is going to do with her “life in shambles”, but even this desire remains unfulfilled, primarily because of her encounters with two particular characters and their families. Firstly, Miguel Javier (“the Tucumano”) wants to spend time with her because she represents for him some kind of anchor connecting him to his homeland, and she ends up being dragged into his sister Marta Paula’s life back home, a life of drudgery and self-sacrifice where Marta Paula’s only outlet is to visit Feli, a psychic who begins to destabilise and threaten all of their lives. Then there is Shanice, a Japanese student whose brash happiness is nothing more than “a horrible sadness disguised with bright colours and screeching music”, who wants to befriend the narrator in order to feel useful, and whose mother ends up coming to stay in Heidelberg and attaching herself to the narrator like a vampire. The narrator’s initial desire for solitude is both disrupted and reversed by this motley crew of companions, leading her to realise that there is no simple solution to her need for flight. Ultimately, the narrator’s plan for escape seems doomed to fail: as she notes herself, “simply returning to your childhood home is not much better than having no plan at all.” Her pregnancy pulls her back to the very place and people she had wanted to forget, and her prospects in Heidelberg are limited. The overlaps between past and present are particularly affecting here: having lived the happiest of childhood exiles in Heidelberg out of political necessity, her adult return to the place where she felt safe only destabilises her further, and in her encounters with Mario she begins to realise quite how severe the circumstances really were when she was a child. Now carrying a child herself, and reluctant to commit to motherhood, she seems to be seeking above all a solution to her rootlessness – a solution that is not neatly packaged and offered to us.

The narrative ends ambiguously, in a scene that is almost mystical: this was the only part I wasn’t quite sure about. I don’t want to give away the ending so I shan’t discuss it in detail here, but it certainly didn’t detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole. In fact, I was entirely swept away by The German Room: at the end of each chapter I kept telling myself “just one more”, and ended up racing through it in a day. 2018 is definitely ending on a high note for Charco Press.

The German Room is released on 22 November 2018; you can order a copy here.

Life through a furry lens: Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem, winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017. At first I was a bit nonplussed when I was given this book as a gift: animal narrators are one of those quirks that usually make a novel fall into the “not my thing” category (although, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to challenge my own perceptions about what is or is not “my thing”). Irrational dismissal of articulate polar bears aside, it’s hard to argue with the multiple positive reviews on the jacket cover: “enchanting”, “profound”, “beautiful”, “magnificent”, “exquisite” and “beguiling” are just some of the accolades bestowed on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and I can’t say it doesn’t merit this proliferation of appreciative adjectives. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada steps outside human narration to better observe human nature.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Though Tawada is a prestigious writer in both Japan and Germany (she was born in Tokyo but moved to Germany in her twenties, and writes in both Japanese and German), Memoirs of a Polar Bear was the first of her novels to be published in the United Kingdom (she has since  published Last Children of Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Tawada’s translator from German, Susan Bernofsky, was also the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (another Portobello Books jewel), and if you read my review of that then you’ll know how much I admire Bernofsky. I have not yet read a single Portobello book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I hope that when Granta Books shutters the Portobello imprint next year, the magnificent women in translation catalogue continues to grow. Neither Portobello nor Bernofsky disappoint here; Bernofksy’s prose in her translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is just beautiful. There were sections that I read over and over, so that their beauty could sink in fully (“Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again. Of course it was perfectly possible that I’d never have been able to see him again even if he’d remained alive. But I would have gone on thinking now and then: Maybe I’ll see him again after all. This ‘maybe’ is what human beings call hope. My ‘maybe’ was dead.”) There is no unnecessary flourish or embellishment: the prose is lyrical but not florid, poetic but not melodramatic. In a novel of 250 pages, there were only two words that struck me as imperfect; it is truly a remarkable feat to translate so much with such beauty.

The polar bear protagonists are shown in all their humanity, while never losing the characteristics that make them bears.  The humans are observed close-up, their smells giving away their feelings and their body language belying their intentions: as it turns out, the polar bears are able to observe the human characters more accurately than any homo sapiens narrator could. It is through the eyes of animals that the complexity of human relationships and historical progress are brought to light: from the restrictions of the Communist regime to concerns about climate change, human history and characteristics are observed and questioned, without ever moralising or turning to propaganda. The three bears – the unnamed exiled memoirist of the first section, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut – are as flawed and as fallible as the humans they seek to understand, but their characterisation and narration is close to divine.

The most remarkable section of this book, in my opinion, was the final one (about a bear cub and his beloved zookeeper). As far as I can tell, this is where the writing process might have started: Knut is the real-life bear born in Berlin Zoo in 2006, whose progress was recorded in minute detail and who captured hearts worldwide while he was a cub. The relationship between Knut and his keeper Matthias moved me deeply and had me thinking about the story long after I had closed the book: the bond is described from Knut’s point of view, and he understands Matthias to be a parent to him, a person who is Knut’s whole universe and who protects him from any threats or danger. Reading this attachment through the child’s eyes was a moving experience for me, and the pivotal moment when we realise that the third-person narrative voice was actually Knut’s all along is one of great beauty. Knut’s reaction when Matthias has to be kept from him for his own safety is heartbreaking; Tawada is  skilled at observing seemingly small incidents and the magnitude of their impact on an individual (furred or not). The boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership, individual and collective experience are all blurred, erased, moved, and re-drawn, and for a book I thought would be “not my thing”, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was memorable for all the right reasons. I am glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, and I can only urge you to do the same (if you haven’t already).

The second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will be awarded TONIGHT, Tuesday 13th November, in a ceremony starting at 6.30pm BST. I’m so sad that I can’t be there, but shall be following it closely on social media – you can see the shortlist here!

Reflections on the Year of Publishing Women: interview with Nicky Smalley of And Other Stories

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of talking to Nicky Smalley, publicist at And Other Stories, about their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women. As many of you will know, in 2015 Kamila Shamsie issued what she termed a “provocation”, a challenge to publishers, to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK by making 2018 a Year of Publishing Women. And Other Stories was the only press to take up the challenge, and they have published a fantastic selection of women’s writing this year – in English and in translation. While all of them are excellent, I can’t pass up the opportunity to give a special recommendation for two debut novels: Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a literary road trip well worth taking in a sublime translation from Chilean Spanish by Sophie Hughes, and Brother in Ice, a beautiful, experimental novel by the immoderately talented Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

The 2018 women in translation publications from And Other Stories (images from andotherstories.org)

It’s widely acknowledged that independent publishing is a brave business, built on passion and commitment, and Nicky shared some fascinating insights into And Other Stories’ decision-making process for the Year of Publishing Women. Firstly, I asked Nicky what And Other Stories hoped to achieve when they made the decision to take part in the Year of Publishing Women, and she set out two very clear objectives:

“One was just to be part of a conversation and to move the conversation on, and to create, and show people that you can do this, it’s not that hard. You can make decisions about what you publish in order to effect change that you feel or be part of the change that you want to see. And it needn’t be a massive inconvenience and it’s not about disadvantaging your male authors, they’re still going to get published. Another reason for it was that we publish so much translation, and we are aware of the fact that women are massively under-represented in terms of what gets translated, and even though we have very small lists, because we publish so much translation we are able to make a difference.”

While some publishers responded to Shamsie’s provocation by saying that they had their schedules set, or that they didn’t want to disadvantage their male authors, And Other Stories rearranged their schedules with minimal disruption, putting male-authored texts back for 2019. This meant that they had to look harder to find books to fill their schedule for 2018, and Nicky cites this as one of the greatest things to come out of the Year of Publishing Women for them – discovering writers that they otherwise might not have come across. And this itself fed their second objective: being part of a change that they wanted to see.

“Men are favoured, considered more serious, considered to write better literature and so on, and so they’re the ones that get the awards, they’re the ones that get the coverage in the news that bring them to the attention of foreign publishers who might want to publish them.”

So you might think that And Other Stories was already a female-centric press, and indeed Nicky describes the team as “determinedly feminist”, but she notes that they were quite shocked when they looked at their own lists and saw that the majority of what they had published was by men. As a company, they have always challenged the mainstream and tried to be representative of diversity in society, but even so they found that the back catalogue – especially in terms of translations – was predominantly male. So I asked Nicky why this might be, and she had some thought-provoking reflections in response:

“There were a lot of different factors that have led to that, not least of which is that most of what’s submitted to us is books by men. We’ve monitored some statistics, because we have an open submissions policy, and even though we were having this year of publishing women, we still found that most of the submissions we got from men and from women were books by male writers. And we went out specifically to all the agents we know and said that we were only going to be publishing women, so agents were already submitting more women than was the general case for open submissions. But still it was interesting to us that even though we’d expressly said that we were doing this, we were still getting these submissions from male writers. The other reason why we’ve published so much writing by men in the past is because most of what gets translated has already had a level of success in its original language, and often, in a lot of cultures, more attention is given to male writers. Men are favoured, considered more serious, considered to write better literature and so on, and so they’re the ones that get the awards, they’re the ones that get the coverage in the news that bring them to the attention of foreign publishers who might want to publish them.”

Confirmation of this bias within the global publishing industry is sobering, and highlights how important it is to do something about this in the UK. Though And Other Stories cannot change this single-handedly, it’s certain that their being part of this conversation made others take it more seriously. Even if large publishers or other large independent publishers didn’t take up the Year of Publishing Women, other things have happened that may well have been a result of And Other Stories doing so. As Nicky puts it, “unless someone had come out and said ‘yes, we’re going to do this’, other people would have allowed it to slide away. So it feels good to have done it.”

The impact of the Year of Publishing Women

Despite negative article titles at the start of the year, such as “2018 won’t be the ‘year of publishing women’ after all” and “What became of 2018 as the year of publishing women?”, a high-profile backlash on diversity from Lionel Shriver, and a general reluctance within the industry to make significant changes (evidenced by the low take-up of Shamsie’s “provocation”), there has still been some progress. It may be too early to know what the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women will be going forwards, but Nicky made some interesting reflections about potential effects that I’m going to expand on here:

Firstly, and in response to my musing above about the importance of English-language gatekeepers actively promoting change, one key change is the message being sent to literary agents: if more women writers are sought, then this might have a knock-on effect on the gender hierarchy in the publishing industry in their own countries. As Nicky explained, “Publishing is a market, and literature generally is subject to some market forces, even if not always in the same way as some other more commodified things, but if this conversation is happening in the UK, and if we’re saying that we want to see more books by women, then that potentially has an impact on the possibilities for women writers in other countries as well.”

Secondly, in terms of what gets submitted to prizes such as the Man Booker International Prize, And Other Stories usually submit around 8 books. Ths year, all of their submissions will be women writers, and that makes a significant change to the statistics. We all know the difference that the exposure of a Man Booker win can make: look at Han Kang and Deborah Smith, or Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft, for example. But the shortlisting and longlisting can make a difference too: La Nación recently published an article on Argentine literature in the UK, making reference to MBI longlisted authors Samanta Schweblin and Ariana Harwicz, and the exposure these two authors gained – along with the others on the lists – is considerably greater because of the prestige attached to the prize.

So this brings me to wonder: how do we measure success? By literary prizes, by sales figures? At the time I spoke to Nicky, it was too soon to tell whether sales were up or down for 2018, though it seemed fairly consistent with the same period the previous year. But one wonderful outcome is, quite simply, the books that And Other Stories have identified and published. They have expanded the scope of their list, and published things that they may not have come across otherwise, all while maintaining their own ethos and commitment to diversity in the publishing industry. I mentioned in an earlier post that small changes can make a big difference, and it seems to me that this small publishing house is making an enormous difference to the literary scene. One of Nicky’s comments that has really stayed with me epitomises the importance of openness, at a time when the UK is perceived to be closing itself off:

“The more you show willingness to find these things, the more they emerge. And also readers, who want to read these books, suddenly become aware that they’re there. I’m sure there are lots of readers who’ve always known it’s there, but the gatekeepers, the publishing industry, haven’t let the voices through, so the readers haven’t been able to encounter them. They shouldn’t have to search that hard. It should be there, they should be able to find it, and it’s about being part of helping that, increasing the availability of great literature, that also represents a wide range of experiences.”

On this last point, Nicky did tell me how they struggled to find books that were representative of a diverse range of society, and so there is clearly still work to be done towards true equality and diversity in publishing. But none of it can happen without a starting point, and And Other Stories have certainly given us that: in the long-term, they will continue to work with some of the writers they’ve published this year, which shows that the Year of Publishing Women hasn’t been a passing phenomenon, but one that is set to keep influencing the literary translation market in the UK over time. Not to mention the political stand they have taken: And Other Stories depends on subscriptions because of their publishing model, and this means that all subscribers this year have received exclusively books written by women. And Other Stories have made headlines in literary magazines and mainstream press, and anyone reading those cannot fail to receive the message they are sending out: Bring us your women writers. There is no compromise on quality because of this decision. I call that a success.

My two top picks from And Other Stories this year

 

 

 

A retirement facility with a terrifying difference: Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy (OneWorld, 2018, 2nd edition)

As soon as I read The Unit, it went straight down as a “must-read” recommendation on my virtual bookshelf: it is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s advertised as a dystopian narrative comparable to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and comes with an endorsement from Atwood on the front cover. You may already know about my admiration for Atwood’s oeuvre, so from my perspective there’s a lot to live up to if something is compared with it. Let me give you two reasons why The Unit does this for me and more: I couldn’t drag myself away from it, and I forgot I was reading a translation.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

The Unit is a dystopian novel about the value of human life and the desperation of the human heart in which, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopia feels all too possible. It takes place in the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a retirement facility with a difference: the people who go there live their final years in comfort, wanting for nothing, in exchange for taking part in medical experiments and donating their organs one by one until the “final donation”. The only inhabitants of the Unit are “dispensables”: women over 50 and men over 60 who are childless, and who do not have a profession deemed “necessary” to society. Once they enter the Unit there is no going back, and no more contact with the outside world; their organs are donated to people “out in the community” – people more “necessary” than them.

It wasn’t just The Handmaid’s Tale that The Unit reminded me of, but also Atwood’s Positron series (brought together in The Heart Goes Last), and so I was interested to note that The Unit’s original publication pre-dates The Heart Goes Last, leaving no doubt that there is nothing derivative about Holmqvist’s dystopia. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I found The Unit so impressive: for a debut novel to be this perfectly observed, I can’t help but pinch myself. It is no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t put The Unit down: often when I only really had time to read one chapter, I found myself reading another and another, and then rushing late and breathless to whatever I needed to do next. I didn’t even consciously decide to read more and make myself late; it just happened. It’s very rare that a book can have this effect on me, draw me in and shut out all else as books could do in a time before I had responsibilities, internet, and a mobile phone.

“It is only on the edges of human experience that Dorrit understands what it is to belong”

Dorrit enters the Unit just after her 50th birthday: she has never had children, and never had a stable relationship. Her last relationship was with a married man, who eventually made it clear to her that he would never leave his wife and children. With no-one but her dog to care for, and with her economic position becoming untenable, Dorrit decides to have her dog adopted, live her final years in peace, and enter the Second Reserve Bank Unit. What Dorrit hadn’t anticipated is that inside the Unit she would fall in love, and that this love would make her want to cling to life at the very time she had resigned herself to it drawing to a close. For the first time in her life, she experiences what it is to be “part of a couple, not always the fifth wheel on the wagon, but regarded and treated as someone who belongs with someone else.” The connection between her desire to hold onto life because of the discovery of what it is to belong and the awareness of the inevitable tearing asunder of the “final donation” is exquisitely expressed when she describes herself as “throbbing like a heart that has just been cut out of one body and is about to be inserted and stitched into another”: it is only on the edges of human experience that she understands what it is to belong.

There are chilling references to the “dispensability” of people who have not had children, and shrewd observations about the unworthiness of some of those who have, and who “live a needed, worthwhile life, showing off with [their] offspring and spreading [themselves] out all over the streets and squares and public transportation, pushing everybody else out of the way with [their] stroller and all the rest of the stuff [they] find it necessary to carry around with [them].” More than this, there is the boundless grief of older members of society who would have liked to become parents but did not have the opportunity – because of their sexuality and the strict controls of adoption, because they thought there would always be time later on, because they were infertile, or because they did not meet the love of their life until they were “dispensable.” Dorrit’s sorrow goes even deeper: she had an abortion as a teenager because it never occurred to her that she would not have another opportunity to become a parent. She spends her years grieving for the child she never had, and that your greatest grief should represent the reason you are “dispensable” to society seems the cruellest twist of all. Added to this is an acute reflection on age: the “dispensables” have been cast out of a society that values youth and procreation, and that has very narrow ideas of what is “useful”.

“The Unit is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values”

Marlaine Delargy’s translation is excellent, and so is the editing: in the whole book, there were only two minor points that niggled at me (one was the hyper-corrected “Johannes and I” instead of “Johannes and me”, and another was the phrase “when it comes to Johannes” – “when it comes to” in conjunction with a proper name sounds awkward to me). To say that these are the only flaws I can come up with is quite a compliment – I’m constantly on the lookout for such things, so if this was all I found then you know there’s not much to criticise. I also appreciated the focus on older protagonists: Holmqvist offers a blistering yet understated indictment of a society that dismisses this age group, and she gives them voices, personal lives, desires, and fears. They develop their own tightly-knit community outside the boundaries of “normal” life, supporting one another through the painful decision they have all taken to be there. They all know why they are in the Unit, and they all struggle with the fate that they have putatively “chosen”, but which in reality has been thrust upon them by a society incapable of seeing beyond prescribed values. This leads me to one of the most provocative points implicit in the novel: if you lived in a society where not having children rendered you “dispensable”, what would be your main aim before you reached “dispensable” age? And wouldn’t this create its own new, advanced dystopian society?

I’m not going to say too much about the ending as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll limit myself to one objective observation and one subjective one: firstly, and objectively, fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will see that there is nothing derivative about The Unit when they read how it ends. Secondly, and entirely subjectively, I cried uncontrollably and still think about it months later. The Unit is another triumph for OneWorld (see my previous reviews of Fever Dream and Umami): it is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values; reading it has been, for me, one of the best things to come out of this project so far.