Event review: Holiday Heart book launch

It was a great honour last week to chair the virtual launch of Holiday Heart, interviewing author Margarita García Robayo and translator Charlotte Coombe for a wonderful event organised by Carolina Orloff and Jules Danskin of Charco Press. I’m writing up some of the main points into a little piece here, so that those of you who missed the event can get a flavour of what was discussed, and those of you who were there can relive it! For a limited time you can also watch the interview on Charco’s website.

Charco’s director Carolina opened the live session by talking about Margarita’s “universe”, her unique mission and way of understanding the world, her talent for making us laugh with her wry, brutal humour and making us feel uncomfortable at the same time because of the way that she portrays reality. In the interview, Margarita expanded on this idea of a “universe” by explaining that her books are all pieces of a bigger literary project: whereas Latin American literature often deals with things that the region is known for, such as political violence, she made the point that it hasn’t necessarily dealt with the particular social “strip” that she focuses on – the middle class or the “in-betweeners” in terms of class. Holiday Heart is an attempt to portray the damaged and damaging Latin American middle classes by presenting uprooted characters looking for a sense of belonging, and this is the environment in which Margarita grew up: it was not an equal society, but she believes that no-one is an innocent victim of their government. Rather, we must all look to ourselves to identify the ways in which we perpetuate this inequality.

When I asked Margarita more about her main characters (the rather unpleasant Pablo and Lucía) she responded that, controversial as it might sound, she doesn’t see Pablo and Lucía as unlikeable, or rather not as purely unlikeable. They are, she suggests, simply unsatisfied people who are over-exposed – and if we were to put such a magnifying glass over anyone, we’d find flaws we didn’t suspect they had. Lucía doesn’t think of herself as racist, but is so dissatisfied with her own life that she hasn’t even noticed her son’s behaviour (which is a mirror of her own), and it is only when he makes loud racist comments in public that she is forced to confront her own behaviour. When Holiday Heart was released in Latin America, it made people question themselves and think “Do I talk/ think like that?” – and this is where its great power and provocation lies.

While Charlie did not find it difficult to inhabit the minds and thoughts of those characters as she was translating (her feeling being that their flaws come from their insecurities – their rootlessness and how they project that onto other people), there were sections that were difficult for her to deal with as she was translating. In particular, she found the sections about black people hard to translate, as well as the sections where Pablo sexualised his student and those which discussed “brown-ness”. However, Charlie noted how important it was not to dilute these issues, and to maintain that challenge to readers: though her instinct might have been how to make certain sections more culturally sensitive, her job as a translator is to convey Margarita’s intentions. Charlie also made a particularly interesting point about how a translator has to think more about who’s reading than a writer might, constantly keeping in mind the question “who am I writing for?”

When I asked both Margarita and Charlie how it felt to have this book come out not only in a time of global crisis, but also at a moment when anti-racism movements are making international headlines, they both considered this to be a good thing: Charlie feels that seeing characters with these particular flaws forces readers to confront such prejudices instead of pretending that they don’t exist, and Margarita suggested that to read a book in a negative way because it contains characters that we don’t agree with is a very limited and sad vision of literature, and went on to insist that she will never modify or erase things just because they make people feel uncomfortable. She is presenting reality: many people who wouldn’t think they are racist are in fact racist, just as many men and women who say they’re feminist aren’t really feminist – and we often don’t recognise this until it explodes in our faces.

Margarita ended the interview with an insightful observation for translators and readers alike: the absence of empathy prevents full comprehension. If we focus only on the negative aspects of the characters, then we miss some of what she’s trying to do. This to me summed up what makes Margarita such an important contemporary writer: just as in life an absence of empathy will prevent us from understanding others and feeling connected to the world around us, so in literature this absence will prevent us from understanding what a book is doing or saying, and will prevent us from understanding the context it comes from. If we only read books in which we see our ideals reflected, we will only reinforce our own sense of innate “rightness”, and never understand the multiplicity of experience and perspective that makes up our world. I truly believe Margarita García Robayo to be not just a good writer but a great one, and am grateful that with Charlie’s translation and Charco’s mission her work can reach more readers, as it deserves to.

I will be on holiday for the next few weeks, but have prepared several posts to publish automatically while I’m offline! Here’s what you can look forward to until my return:
Review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens, tr. Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Review of Three Plastic Rooms, Petra Hůlová, tr. Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)
Review of The Passion According to Renée Vivien, tr. Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2020)
Interview with Helena Buffery, co-translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Happy reading, and have a wonderful summer!

 

Review: The Book of Shanghai

Edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li (Comma Press, 2020)

Featuring Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Dacheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiolan, Fu Yuehui and Wang Zhanhei

Translated by Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

The Book of Shanghai is the latest in the Reading the City series from Comma Press, and brings together ten stories of alienation at the heart of a busy metropolis. This futuristic city is the perfect site to show the disenfranchisement that comes with progress, and the insidious danger of replacing relationships and human contact with technological advances. The glittering façade of Shanghai’s high-rise buildings and neon lights is rejected in favour of what happens on the streets below, as we meet an array of memorable characters navigating situations as diverse as losing a mobile phone, collecting sellable waste, floating through an apocalyptic flood in a bathtub, and the end of the world. Five of the ten included authors are women, emphasising the commitment Comma Press make to aiming for gender parity in their anthologies (you can read more about that in my interview with Comma’s Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner).

The stories in The Book of Shanghai also highlight the deep rift between human experience and the advance of technology, cybernetic umbilical cords that anchor us to the future while leaving us adrift in the present. Loneliness is a recurring theme, along with a disconnection that seems ironic in a city so plugged into global networks and development. In “The Novelist in the Attic” (Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves) a writer struggles with his legacy, and questions his usefulness in a world that has left him behind (I particularly enjoyed the following lament: “Just because I, the writer, am simple-minded, my protagonist has turned out to be a dumb fool too. Imagine that, my sole contribution to this world, nothing but the passing on of my own imbecility into fiction.”) Like other stories in the collection, “The Novelist in the Attic” has a touch of the surreal, mirroring the other-worldly sense of the murky labyrinthine streets that we see from beneath the shimmering high-rises of the city.

In several of the stories in The Book of Shanghai lives cross paths in chance encounters and stolen moments, while family bonds disintegrate and are redefined: in “The Story of Ah-Ming” (Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald), an elderly woman is cast out by her family because of the lengths she goes to in her attempts to help them, while in “Snow” (Chen Danyan, translated by Paul Harris), a woman is surrounded by relatives but still feels lonely, and escapes into literature. The city comes alive (in sometimes unnerving ways) in these tales where ruptures abound, relationships falter, and individuals hurtle perilously towards solitude, shame, failure or death. In my favourite story of the collection, “State of Trance” (Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg), we accompany one man through the last night on Earth, as he decides to take “an action that will place a perfect full stop at the end of civilisation”: his mission is to go to Shanghai Library and return the book he has borrowed.

Teeming with profound reflections, offbeat humour and unsettling observations, the individual stories hang perfectly together to create a vivid panorama of snapshots of life in a fast-moving city. Enervated and visionary, these contemporary stories acknowledge the past while focusing on an uncertain future: The Book of Shanghai is an excellent addition to a consistently innovative series.

The Comma Press podcast is back! You can hear more about The Book of Shanghai in a forthcoming episode, and if you enjoyed Europa28, you might like to tune into that episode too. You can see the series 2 schedule here.

Review copy of The Book of Shanghai provided by Comma Press

Review: Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart

Translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2020)

*Details of the virtual launch of Holiday Heart at the end of this post (or click here if you can’t wait) – it’s going to be fabulous – and free!*

Meet Pablo and Lucía, two extremely unlikeable protagonists whose marriage is breaking down in the wake of Pablo’s infidelity. Although this, like everything else in Margarita García Robayo’s universe, is a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us.

Just as in García Robayo’s previous collection Fish Soup, the characters in Holiday Heart always disappoint: they never do the thing you hope they will do, the thing that might redeem them. Pablo and Lucía are quite deliberately antagonistic towards one another, and towards almost everyone else around them. Even their twin children Tommy and Rosa are not spared from this: in the first few pages the twins are described as “like two organs, easily removed”, Tommy’s irritating habit of responding to all questions with an apathetic shrug is introduced, and Rosa’s yawning mouth is “wide enough to fit a clenched fist inside.” Maternal tenderness this is not: gestating twins was, according to Lucía, akin to aliens taking up residence in her body. As for Pablo, he feels excluded from Lucía’s parasitic relationship with their children, but finds an outlet for his self-pity in energetic sex with a neighbour he doesn’t even like.

So how did Lucía and Pablo make it this far? Depressingly, because they just couldn’t be bothered to do otherwise. Their relationship amounts to nothing more than an accumulation of time which has made them strangers to one another: “The first symptom is disinterest, something miniscule that then becomes normal, and then both people stop wondering why they’re still there, oozing with indifference towards one another, agreeing with what the other says as a formality: the time long gone when what they said seemed interesting. Or worth listening to.” Neither Lucía nor Pablo can move beyond where they are, even as they believe in the impermanence of everything; their relationship represents no more than “piles of dead time, which nobody has bothered to clear away.” So don’t be fooled by the deceptively romantic title: a “holiday heart” is not a summer fling, but a life-threatening illness. The Spanish title, Tiempo muerto (“dead time”) focuses on this notion of relationships as simply an accumulation of time spent together – wasted time, time that is over. The English title is the one García Robayo had originally wanted to give Tiempo muerto, and works brilliantly; not only does its artful frivolity hint that nothing is as it seems beneath the family’s facade of success and happiness, but its focus on Pablo’s condition – the single event that crystallises all of this “dead time” – shows how everything is brought to a head and the veneer cracks irreparably.

Lucía and Pablo are caught in the in-between space: they left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but its sad and sordid reality is mercilessly exposed (even the fruit is too bright and shiny to be real). They are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but have never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped; they are stagnating in their location, in their social status, and in their marriage. Middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, Pablo and Lucía’s most irredeemable characteristic is that they are, quite simply, racist. It’s uncomfortable at times: I winced at a particular word, which I can’t even being myself to write here. But such words exist, and are used, and if we don’t feel uncomfortable reading them then I think we need to ask ourselves why. That itself is one of García Robayo’s particular talents: she holds a mirror up to her readers, makes us ask how complicit we are in the perpetuation of these loathsome attitudes even as we denounce them. For this is not the overt and brutal racism that makes headlines; rather, this is the insidious everyday racism that allows those vile events to happen by perpetuating a status quo that needs a radical shift. It’s the perspective that is so unsettling: this is not a book that gives voice to black characters – in fact those who feature are portrayed negatively, because we see the story through the eyes of people who have already judged them. It’s disturbing, and it’s meant to disturb, because it’s all too real and recognisable. I was reminded of images in the news five years ago, of groups of Latina women holding placards stating that “the silent majority stands with Trump”. I found this perhaps even more chilling than the rallies – this man despised the “silent majority” for their race, their gender, their class – and yet they lifted him on their shoulders to become a volatile and divisive world leader. Harmful views expressed publicly can be taken down publicly; it’s the silent ones that go unnoticed, and these are the ones García Robayo tackles. The real disease is not Pablo’s “holiday heart”, but rather the transmission of these attitudes to the next generation: Rosa and Tommy are as apathetic and depraved as their parents – rejecting Lucía’s attempt to spend some time with her, Rosa doesn’t want her mother to read, but rather to die, or at least to get very sick, and Tommy screams in public that he doesn’t like black people. I cringed reading these things, but I think that’s the point.

In a recent interview, director Carolina Orloff talked about Charco’s efforts to pair authors with the right translator for their work, and nowhere was this more evident than in Fish Soup. Coombe’s connection with García Robayo’s narrative voice continues in Holiday Heart: she explores a wide range of slang both contemporary and (for purposes of characterisation) out-dated, and maintains the delicate balance of García Robayo’s prose, which switches seamlessly from the understated to the exuberant, the base to the profound. Holiday Heart is acute, provocative, concise and raw, and is a short and powerful novel about many things – time, relationships, identity, infidelity, apathy, parenthood, class, race, gender – but above all it is a warning: do not be complacent, do not accumulate “dead time”, and do not accept harmful attitudes and stereotypes just because they exist. It offers, like one of the housekeeper’s foot massages, “a combination of pleasure and revulsion”, an opportunity to look inside ourselves and think, with every reaction we have – what would Pablo and Lucía do? And then do the opposite.

Don’t miss: the (online) launch of Holiday Heart on 7th July! I’ll be talking to Margarita García Robayo and Charlotte Coombe about writing and translating this gem of a novella, and you can book your (free) virtual ticket here.

Review copy of Holiday Heart provided by Charco Press

Review: Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams

Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams is the latest offering from Tilted Axis Press, and part of a very strong 2020 catalogue for the publishing house: this collection of short stories offers a wide-reaching study of class and gender in Thailand and represents a key contribution to the intersectional feminism Tilted Axis Press embodies. Written with a carefully controlled rage and a deep well of compassion, these stories of solitude and stifled dreams are at once dark and witty, subverting narrative expectations and moving smoothly between the everyday and the magical. In the title story, a man becomes obsessed with a beautiful masseuse, unaware that she has to sell her body to survive, and his observations of her are simultaneously whimsical (“If I knew her any better, I’d ask her to run away with me”) and clinical (“When I really thought about it, she was one hardworking woman. She took care of the guesthouse in the morning, and in the afternoon she worked as a masseuse. When night fell, she sold her services. And on top of that, she had to look after her mother who was sick in the hospital”). Elsewhere, men fight for their own honour, which is conferred on them by the docile (or wayward) behaviour of their women, and the women do not always get to speak for themselves (one notable example is when a man reflects that “For the first time, it hit him how much faster women wither than men”, but does not modify his observation when he realises that he has been looking at a woman older than the one he thought she was). Nonetheless, their voicelessness – or their powerlessness when they do have a voice – is presented in such a way as to condemn it, and to offer space within these pages to give the women characters a voice even when they are silent.

Mui Poopoksakul has translated these lyrical short stories with great sensitivity and alertness to both the language and the context. I loved the interesting and unexpected collocations that proliferate in her translation: a little chick is “withering” in a cardboard box, and a potential chancer could be “whisking about” in the vicinity. Poopoksakul’s translations of the more poetic sections are gorgeous (“Ribbons of clouds glided over the moon, strand after strand”), and she does not shy away from leaving certain terms in the original Thai. She judges this perfectly so that a rough understanding is clear for those of us who have little or no knowledge of the language and culture (“During the monsoon season, our ears could pick up the sound of storm winds over a hundred rais away”). Poopoksakul also wisely refrains from adapting set phrases, with sentences such as “I just stared at him blankly, my mouth hanging open, feeling as heavy as a stone pestle” giving a subtle flavour of the original Thai and bringing a richness to the English-language version that works superbly.

Watch my video review to hear more about the variety of short stories, along with readings of some of my favourite sections (don’t forget: if you’re reading this review in your email, you’ll need to click through to the website to view the video, or watch it directly on Vimeo!)

 

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

In the final instalment of my mini-series of interviews about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small, I talk to translators Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paula Gordon about the importance of translating this book, its challenges and its joys.

Catch up on my interviews with author Olja Knežević and publisher Susan Curtis, and order Catherine the Great and the Small directly from Istros Books here.

How did you come to this book, and why is it significant that it will now reach an English-language audience?

Ellen Elias-Bursać: I was approached by Diana Matulić of the Corto Agency, asking if I would consider translating the novel, which had won the VBZ novel of the year award. As soon as I read the first few chapters, I saw that the novel had promise and would be wonderful to work on, but I was overwhelmed with other commitments at the time. I proposed collaborating with Paula Gordon: she is an excellent translator and has had experience translating Montenegrin writers in the past, which I have not had. The thought of collaborating with Paula made it possible for me to take on the project.

Paula Gordon: This might well be the first novel by a contemporary woman author from Montenegro to be translated and published in English. I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does. And not only the individuality of the heroine, but of every woman and girl who crosses the page and at every age and stage of life. It acknowledges our fantasies and even fulfils them in its pages, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences of getting what we wish for.

Where do you perceive your responsibilities to lie when you translate? Do you prioritise the “foreign-ness” of the original text or aim to bring the text closer to English-language readers in your translation choices?

EE-B: My responsibilities when I translate lie first with the author/text. Of course the reader is always part of my reading, because I’m a reader. In this case there were two of us reading together. My first step is to understand the nuances in the novel, the voices, the emotional intensity, the humour, the tragedy, and find ways to feel them clearly enough to articulate them.

PG: I don’t have a hard and fast rule on fealty, it depends on what I’m working on. In the case of Catherine the Great and the Small, my loyalty changed over the translation process. When I started, I was focused on the text – on bringing out the meaning, what’s happening in the story. Once we had a draft, attention shifted to making sure our understanding of the text matched the intention of the author. Finally, no matter how attached one is to a turn of phrase or thinks it expresses the meaning of the original text in just the right way, if readers don’t get it, then we have to adjust. So when editing the translation, we kept the reader in mind. Not only in terms of meaning, but also how the text flows – we don’t want to bring the story to a halt because of our insistence on a description of, for instance, the smell of a wild plum that grows nowhere else but in a specific village on the Montenegrin coast.

What were the greatest challenges of translating Catherine the Great and the Small? Did the translation of context – specifically the glimpses into the troubled recent past of the Balkans – have an impact on you, or pose any particular challenges?

EE-B: We decided to leave references to politicians and historical events in the translation and then see how to communicate them. In some cases we added a word or two to clarify the reference, such as referring to the name Podgorica as the city’s ‘new old name’. We also decided readers might find an afterword handy in which we could provide an explanation in greater depth of some of the more arcane references. Hence, in the afterword, we explain the change of name of Montenegro’s capital city from Titograd, in the first part of the novel, to Podgorica in the second part. But in general, my approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance. I see it as my job to translate the cultural references that are in the novel with either internal glosses or explanations in the afterword (I don’t like footnotes in translations of fiction), and it’s the editor’s job, once he or she has the translation before them, to decide whether some of the cultural references are, perhaps, too local to be of interest to a reader of the translation.

PG: The most challenging parts of the book for me to translate were the descriptive passages that referred to times gone by and the “party scene” in the hair salon, where everyone has an attitude and a motive, not always voiced. The descriptive passages are full of nostalgia and emotion, but they are also very specific. The author could use just a few words, mention certain specific ubiquitous items from the time period to evoke a feeling in her readers. But for readers who never experienced a town square farmers’ market in 1980s Yugoslavia, we have to strike a balance between wanting the reader to have a clear picture of the scene but also wanting to retain that hazy veil of nostalgia.

I found the context of Montenegro and Serbia on the brink of war fascinating. This book sheds light on what that time looked like from a woman about my age, someone not involved or interested in politics. The most affecting parts of the book for me were not war-related. They were scenes in which I put myself in Katarina’s shoes in order to understand and express in English her physical experience and emotional state.

What are the challenges of translating a text so rooted in a culture that may be unfamiliar to many English-language readers?

EE-B: As this novel moves back and forth between England and Montenegro, and part of it is about bringing Katarina’s children for the first time to see the country where their parents are from, the narrative includes many explanations of cultural differences. Indeed, the protagonist’s position in between these two worlds means that she has a heightened awareness of these differences and is constantly negotiating her way back and forth among them. This made the need to explain these points less of a challenge than it might be in some novels. As far as syntactical differences go, a great deal is implicit in inflected languages like Montenegrin. The relationships of the parts of the sentence are made clear through the grammatical endings, while these same relationships need to be made explicit in English where we organize our syntactic material through word order. In Montenegrin, for instance, you can have a sentence in which you have the actions of two women or two men described—one the subject and the other the object of the sentence—and, using only pronouns, you’ll be able to tell which of the women or men is the doer of the action and which is the recipient of the action, because the case each pronoun is in will tell you who is doing what to whom. In English one of these women or men will have to be referred to by name or you’ll be lost.

PG: This book depicts a time of transition from a closed culture to a more open one. The characters themselves, right at this time – late 1970s into the 1990s – are living through changes in their culture brought about by more interaction with the West and by the West seeping into their everyday life: television, music, film, travel, books. But I think that all readers are capable of making the leap into the world of a novel, whether it is based on true events or is science-fiction fantasy. In a book like this, I think our job is to keep the reader engaged and in that world, with only as much explanation as is absolutely necessary.

Did you have any contact with Olja Knežević while you were translating, and how did you approach the co-translation?

EE-B: Olja was an enthusiastic participant in the process, but Paula and I worked to resolve absolutely everything we could on our own before we went to Olja for clarification. Paula translated the rough draft, and then I went through and edited her translation. Then we went through the whole book, reading it to each other for three hours a day for a week, and discussing every twist and turn of the narrative. Paula has the sharpest editorial eye I have ever witnessed in action and I’m humbled and grateful at the quantity of issues she spotted which I didn’t notice.

PG: Regarding our approach to co-translation, Ellen suggested that I produce the initial draft and that she would edit. This worked with our schedules early in the process. We knew that we would send the drafts back and forth and that in the end we would read the translation aloud (an idea Ellen credits to translator Daniel Hahn). And we did just that. I sent her a translated section, and I continued translating while she reviewed my work. When she sent her edits back to me, I was able to spot patterns in her changes and I kept those in mind as I moved forward in the initial draft. In hindsight, I felt much freer to put my stamp on the translation than I would have with the roles reversed. Given the chasm between Ellen’s level of experience and my own, I believe I would have followed Ellen’s lead and interpretation had she originated the text, and I don’t know that I would have been as creative with my editing input as I felt empowered to be in the translation.

Did you deliberately give the characters distinctive voices that meshed vulgarity with a more formal register? Do they speak like this in the original, or was it a choice regarding their characterisation in the translation?

EE-B: The original has a great richness of voice, humour, cadence, intonation, colloquial usage. Some of the characters are cranky elderly people, others are small children, or young adults steeped in the drug scene in pre-war Belgrade, and they all have distinct ways of speaking. We chose to bring a like variety and richness to the English. We translators often say that if a joke, or quirk, or cadence can’t readily be replicated at exactly the same moment in the narrative, the point is to find somewhere else where something along those lines will work. This breathes life into the characters and keep the narrative vital and engaging.

PG: The characters in this novel are fully formed, and the way they speak in Montenegrin or Serbian, or English in the case of the children born in the UK, oozes personality. The decisions in this regard were taken with the goal of bringing the characters to life in English, to be as true to them as possible. Vulgarity and formality are part of everyday expression in the lands of this novel, and the characters’ manner of speaking reflects this. In giving voice to Granny, for instance, it helps that I know a few women of her generation, including a “city grandma,” who used to surprise me with the vehemence of her opinions and the language she used to express them, all the while performing the formal rituals of  hospitality. In the novel, these slips into vulgarity, or intentional provocations, provide glimpses into the inner lives of the characters, and it’s to Olja’s credit that she gives such depth to the characters – they seem to exist in the world of the novel apart from their contributions to the plot.

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small

It’s my great privilege to bring you the second instalment in my three-part interview series about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small. Today author Olja Knežević talks about her book and its journey to publication in English with Istros Books (translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać). Catherine the Great and the Small is published TODAY, and you can find out more, or purchase it, here.

You self-published your previous book (Milena & Other Social Reforms) in English; did this help to circulate your work in the English-language context? How has it been different working with translators and an English-language publisher?  

Olja Knežević: Milena & Other Social Reforms was my first novel, published in 2011, and what an unusual path it had! It was originally written in English, obviously not my native tongue, because I developed it from a 20,000 word dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in London. The dissertation won Overall Prize as the best MA dissertation that year, and I went on, wind in my sails, to write the whole novel in English, from the point of view of Milena, a rebellious young Montenegrin, who had to escape to London to save her life. I was hoping to find a UK publisher. It was taking time, so in 2011 I gave in to the pleas from Montenegro, my home-country, to publish that novel there, but in Montenegrin, of course, so I had it translated into my own native tongue by someone for a modest fee. It was published by the only publisher who was independent from Montenegrin Government, because Milena is a politically engaged novel, inspired by a true story. I knew that the book would have to travel just by word-of-mouth publicity, but it seemed enough at the time. It was sold out in three weeks after its release, and is still selling. Milena has found her place in the world, an underground place, so befitting for the type of character she is. I decided to put the English language version online, and just leave it there, to find its own path.

Catherine the Great and the Small is my fourth book, and the first one to win a big regional prize, be finally noticed and picked up by its UK publisher, Istros Books. It’s a completely different world from the one of self-translating and self-publishing; with editing, proofreading and the details of translation paid close attention to, and seriously discussed between professional team members. I think the English language version of Catherine is phenomenal, and, now, that I see how it looks when a novel is professionally translated and edited, I feel sorry for Milena.

Catherine the Great and the Small is a book about women – their emancipation, their restrictions, their relationships with each other, themselves, their country (and some pretty useless men) – do you consciously view your writing process as a feminist act?          

No, I don’t consciously, deliberately, view my writing as a feminist act. Not long ago, however, I realised that I have lived a feminist life since I was a young girl. First, of course, through my mother, who instilled in me the standpoint that a woman can desire to belong to herself first, to be ambitious, outspoken, a leader and an organiser, a proud owner of her own time to even rest, to even have fun. My mother’s actions and character have shown to me that a woman can venture into men’s territory, and remain authentic there – all this while staying married to a man’s man, who she loved passionately and fought with for equality at home on a daily basis. This has formed me, and then let me travel my own road, to make my own choices and mistakes. My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself. In there, in my consciousness, I’d find strong and interesting women, their relationships with each other, their community, their men. And I’d write down their stories, in order to keep belonging to my true self.

Catherine the Great and the Small is rooted in a particular time and place; how important was it to you to keep Montenegrin culture and recent history – and particularly the loss that came with the wars in the Balkans – at the centre of Katarina’s story?        

I was going to write about a woman whose life is parallel with mine, so, yes, it was important. She was not going to be me, but she should be like a close friend, with a similar destiny. In a way, writing about her life, I was writing down the collective memories of the country I have known. That’s why I wasn’t going to experiment with the form, because there are no novels on the subject as simple as a contemporary woman’s life, written down intimately and sincerely, from Montenegro. It has always been so inspirational for me, how we lived in a socialist community where, in what was then the Republic of Montenegro, we had this mixed Balkan and Mediterranean mentality, where everyone knew everyone, we lived outside, and felt free there, on the streets, socialising passionately, loudly, judgmentally, with candid vulnerability. Yet never in history were we institutionally free. Having been somewhat “in the middle”, we knew how things were in the West and in the East, and we liked our kind of “free.” Our women, after WW2, when they had become revered as true heroines, had equal rights, had equal pay for equal work, until the 1990s, when everything fell apart. Now, I’m not saying it was perfect. It was a one-party system, after all, but women could be optimistic that the future was going to bring more and more progressiveness in their social status. It never happened. Instead, enter the 1990s and the war. Women were pushed down the ladder. Always the first victims of war, women, because we don’t want it, but we immediately regress into being seen primarily as reproductive organs that bear and support the real heroes – men. That’s such a difficult and interesting conflict, a personal and political one, which makes for great material.

Katarina is always capable of finding the “ball of light” in the depths of misery – what message does this give for readers of your novel and why was it important to you that she should have this strength?

I’m glad you mentioned that image. That’s Katarina, her main strength. Most people don’t find the “ball of light” when they’re alone with themselves. They try, they dive into themselves, and find darkness there, or a ball of fears, so they hurry back to the surface, back to their ego, which has become a familiar mask with recognisable props and illusions. Katarina, somehow, from various reasons that I hope I managed to show in my novel, never lost the ability to believe there’s goodness at the very bottom of everything, there’s light, the wonder of life. She’ll survive anything, as long as she remembers to dive deep and find her inner strength.

Podgorica features for Katarina as a place where “untold stories” are waiting for her. How important is it to you that these stories from your home city are told – and through fiction – both in Montenegrin and in translation?         

I’m so grateful that writing down those untold stories is my calling. I also know it’s my territory. Many writers from my country, convinced that it’s such a small and unimportant country and language, and that the stories from where we are will probably never have a wider audience, turn to trends or whatever topic they think will be safer and sell better. I’ve always believed that the deeper you go into your own experiences, the more universal your writing becomes.

Katarina notes that “all of us lost our country” and that Montenegrins are encouraged to “live the lie” of strength, solidarity and a bright future – what role does fiction have in stripping bare these lies and this loss?              

It’s all true, the loss, the lie… Montenegro has this magic-like name, it had some stunningly heroic moments in history, and it’s a beautiful country, as if nature wanted to display, in a small space, the samples of all that she can do and say “Voila!” This is enough of pure praise from me. I don’t work for a tourist agency. In my mind’s eye, there is the image of my country chained onto a floating device and left in the rough sea to be saved only by luck. But many societies in the world are still closed, manipulative and patriarchal, and they all prefer tourist guides or pamphlet-like writing to the kind of fiction that is able to make fun of their see-through propaganda, to defy the authorities and refuse to be on their payroll.

Coming next week:

“I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does.”

“My approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance.”

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation

I was delighted to talk about the Translating Women project last week at Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation hosted by Caitlin Van Buren. We talked about how I choose books to read, why it’s important to read in translation no matter how many languages you speak, and the importance of intersectional feminism… all in fifteen minutes! I also got to pick three books to showcase – it was hard to narrow down hundreds to three, so I went with my gut regarding books that have particularly moved me – two that I’ve read this year and can’t stop thinking about, and one that will come as no surprise to regular readers given how much I’ve talked about it on this blog. Choosing only three did, of course, mean that I had to leave off some real favourites (and two of my three are from the same continent, so my geographical spread isn’t as even as it could have been), but check my choices and see if you agree with them – if you don’t, there are plenty more recommendations on my virtual bookshelf, and if you would have made other choices that you can’t see there, let me know!

If you can’t see the embedded video, watch it directly on YouTube here.

Alternatively, you can watch the whole day’s events, including a great interview with Carolina Orloff of Charco Press, or head to Caitlin’s YouTube channel to catch up on the full week’s programme.

Happy viewing and happy weekend!

Translating Women: the Montenegro edit. Interview with Susan Curtis, Istros Books

I’m excited today to bring you the first in a 3-part series of interviews about a new Montegrin book and its journey to publication. Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small is a tale of four Montenegrin women navigating relationships with themselves, each other, their country and some pretty disappointing men as the Balkan wars escalate. Published next week by Istros books in a co-translation by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, you can pre-order it here.

This week I’m talking to Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, about her mission and her decision to publish Catherine the Great and the Small.

Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books

Istros Books focuses on bringing into English books from a particular geographical area, but beyond that, what are your priorities in the books you commission?

Susan Curtis: I have tried to keep the number of male and female writers on our list equal and I have almost succeeded in that aim because there is only a slight male bias, which really reflects the trend in the region (though UK publishing is not immune to this either!) It seems to me that especially in terms of prizes for writing in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Montenegrin, female writers are hardly ever awarded the big national awards – Meša Selimović is a particular example. I remember when Daša Drndić was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and we were joking that she couldn’t win because the prize always went to men. I even bought her a false moustache to wear! A few years later her novel was shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize and it was again given to a male author. Daša died shortly afterwards, and since her death her reputation has grown enormously, but she never won any great literary prizes in her lifetime, either here in the UK or in her home country (Yugoslavia, then Croatia). Croatia is a prime example of a country that extols a number of male writers while neglecting its very best, in my opinion, the female authors Olja Savečević, Slavenka Drakulić, as well as Dubravka Ugrešić and Drndić. Thankfully, I have the ability to bring their works to new audiences.

How did you come across Olja Knežević’s work, and Catherine the Great and the Small in particular?

This novel is part of a cooperation between Istros Books and the Croatian publisher VBZ. For three years we received EU funding to translate the winning manuscript from VBZ’s annual ‘best unpublished novel’ award. Last year Olja was the winner, and that’s how Catherine the Great and the Small came to Istros. It was perfect because I have published two previous writers from Montenegro (Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić) and I really wanted to publish a female Montenegrin author.

What drew you to Catherine the Great and the Small, and why do you think it is important to make it accessible to English-language readers?

Catherine the Great and Small is set in Montenegro, as it once was in the Federal Republic, and as it is now, as an independent state. Throughout the novel we not only see the main character grow and change, but we also watch the environment change, witness the rise of free enterprise, the corruption and crazy politics. The energy and bravery of the narrative voice is very addictive and inspiring – and it sheds light on a part of the world that many English-language readers are still unfamiliar with.

Did the book come with translators already assigned, or did you seek them out to commission them?

The Croatian publisher VBZ organised the translation and gave me the opportunity to work with two new translators. I have known Ellen Elias-Bursać for a while, whereas Paula Gordon was a new discovery for me. It’s always an enriching experience to work with different translators and see how they each approach their art in unique and impressive ways.

Part of your mission is to bring into English “books from unfamiliar places”, and Montenegrin literature is certainly scarce in English translation. What do you think Catherine the Great and the Small brings to the Istros catalogue, and could it open up possibilities for more Montegrin literature – particularly by women writers – to make its way into English?

Montenegro is one of Europe’s smaller countries but it does a lot to promote its culture. I have twice been invited to the Podgorica Book fair and love the city and the laid back energy of the people. Women from that part of the world are so often Valkyries and we should know more about their stories and their bravery.

On your website, you state your belief that “good literature can transcend national interests and speak to us with the common voice of human experience.” One thing that struck me in Catherine the Great and the Small was the powerlessness of many of the women, and the ways in which they either overcome or succumb to this. Do you think this is culturally and contextually specific to the text or more universal?

To follow on from my previous answer, despite their intrinsic value and strength of character, so many women from the South East Europe region are marginalised or hidden behind bullish men. The female domain has traditionally been the private one, not the public, so they are only just discovering that they can have a foothold there, too. Did you know that the only poetry allowed to women for hundreds of years were the songs of mourning that they were expected to wail at funerals? I bought a collection of these ‘tużbalice’ last time I was there… I hope to translate a few one day!

Coming next week:

“My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself.”

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small.

Pre-order Catherine the Great and the Small here.

Update on video review

Dear friends,

With apologies for sending you two messages in one day, this is a brief update to today’s post: the video review does not automatically embed in the email to subscribers (my lesson of the day). To view the video review, you can do any of the following:

Click on the link in your email (or click on this hyperlink) to read the post on the Translating Women site

Follow this direct link to the video on Vimeo, or copy and paste this link into your web browser: https://vimeo.com/423948111

I’ll know to include the link for email subscribers next time I embed a video into a blog post – thank you for your patience, and have a wonderful weekend!

Helen

 

Alternative love stories from around the world

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the lockdown would change the way I provide content on the Translating Women blog. In that open letter, I made a vague mention of hoping to include some videos in my reviews; in the back of my mind at the time was a half-formed thought of recording short videos reviews on my phone. But, as one of my favourite French expressions goes, pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué? (Loose translation: why just do a selfie video on your phone when you could add IMAGES and FADING TEXT and MUSIC and MULTIPLE CLIPS?) So… here is my first foray into the world of movie making (excuse me, I think that’s Hollywood calling…) and I’m posting it here with some trepidation, in the hope that you like it as an alternative review method. My plan is to do these occasionally, interspersed with my usual written reviews, interviews and reflective pieces.

I decided to start my onscreen adventure by showcasing books I’ve already talked about in the past, all of which offer alternative takes on the “love story”. From a murderous desire to a man who lives without love, explorations of forbidden sexuality and love that words cannot contain to a race against time and memory, I hope you’ll discover or rediscover something you love.

Here are links to all the books mentioned:

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press)

Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press)

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)

Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Olja SavičevičSinger in the Night, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books)

If you have thoughts on the video, I’d love to hear from you! Unfortunately the comment function on the blog doesn’t work because of a glitch I still haven’t worked out, but you can either comment directly on Vimeo by clicking through, on Twitter (@translatewomen), or by emailing me at H.M.Vassallo@exeter.ac.uk