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.

 

 

From Sangria to Bloodletting: translating Brazilian feminisms

I’m delighted to welcome to the blog feminist translator Beatriz Regina Guimarães Barboza. You can find out more about Beatriz and her work on the guest contributor page; today she’s sharing a compelling in-depth discussion of her translation of Luiza Romão’s ‘book of rage’, Sangria, in a post that is particularly timely given the presidential election in Brazil next week.

When I first heard about Luiza Romão’s Sangria (doburro, 2017), it seemed to me exactly the sort of book I was looking for in contemporary Brazilian poetry: inventive, outrageous and felt with deep consciousness of sound and rhythm. So vivid that you could imagine it coming out of the page, inscribed in and for the body (for Luiza is a slammer and actress, too). It is a book of rage against the cruel History of Brazil, a past of colonization by the Portuguese and later the imperialistic forces of the USA (until today), with a gendered perspective of several forms of oppression that emerged from this process.

Front cover of SANGRIA by Luiza Romão

The book is composed of 28 poems, mirroring the days of a period cycle, and several monochrome pictures of Luiza’s own body, covered with red threads weaving different shapes that denounce violence. In the preface, Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda, a notorious intellectual and writer in Brazil, says that “the chosen path was of activating a process of continuous weaving (à la mode of female embroiderers and weavers) between the menstrual cycle, that is, parting from the female organism’s reproductive potential and the revision of oppressive episodes of Brazilian History”. Brazil’s History was (and still is) marked by domination, just as women are, because State violence is not separated from gender and sexual hierarchies (with huge influence of the Catholic Church since the colonization, and, recently, the Neo-charismatic movement), with capitalist inequalities that reflect racial segregation. Luiza Romão exposes all this and shows that women can fight, from within, and not only for their material struggles, but also for their hearts and souls, these issues brought together in a political claim of a feminist writer in Brazil.

The violence that Latin American countries suffered, with the slaughter of indigenous societies and years of slavery of people captured in Africa because of colonization, mostly came from Portugal and Spain, so we share this burden with our Spanish-speaking neighbors. Maybe because of that and to reach wider audiences, Luiza chose to publish a bilingual book: Sangria has the original Brazilian Portuguese on one side of each page, and a Spanish translation by Martina Altalef on the other.

As a feminist translator, I felt truly glad to have the opportunity to translate her book into English, but also knew the heavy responsibility of doing such a thing. Luiza came to me because she was looking for women translators from English and a mutual colleague, Isabela Rossi, introduced us to each other. People knew I was a MA student of Translation Studies at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, working with the translation of Anne Sexton’s poems to Brazilian Portuguese with a feminist approach. However, it was quite a challenge to work the other way around: from Brazilian Portuguese to English. And just a brief note: just as there is not a “standard English” that fully represents the several uses of the language around the globe, there is not a “Brazilian Portuguese” that is the same within the whole country, but this debate demands more than I have scope to discuss here. I will limit myself to making the point that I translated Sangria, published in São Paulo, one of our major cultural poles, to the type of English I could learn in Brazil, highly influenced by the USA. It was the first time I would do this, so I asked Luiza to read the translations and see if they sounded good to her. I also asked if it was possible to pay for a reviser of English, because I had the skills of poetry translation, but several uses of the language were not known by me, as I am not used to writing in English). Fortunately, Luiza knew Lâmia Brito, an excellent reviser who changed several details of my translation, questioning choices that were actually big mistakes of mine, and reassured me regarding most of what I had done. And there was one more aspect that had impact: my knowledge of Feminist Translation Studies, which helped me understand the ideological dimension of translating a book from outside the “main world literary system” (as Brazilian writers are still very little read outside Latin America), and that some things should not be rendered easy to be read in English but retain their Brazilian identity. Even more important than that, this made me aware of dealing with particular features of a language with a gendered grammatical system, like Portuguese, and how to maintain Luiza’s feminist issues still visible in English (which erases gender marks in verbs, adjectives and nouns).

At the very beginning of the book, in the poem “Day 1. Full Name”, as Luiza recounts Brazil’s History, some references are not known for people outside Brazil, for example, “dops”, the initials of the Departamento de Ordem Política e Social, that was a government agency of censorship and repression. That’s why the book already contains some footnotes for the Spanish translation by Martina Altalef, which I translated into English, and that was enough to deal with the needs in question, as I could manage to maintain the rhymes in the stanza.

Following in the same poem, the poet uses words with conceptual dimensions: palavra-mercadoria is not only a compound noun to refer to words as products, but uses mercadoria, a word very common in Brazilian translations of Marx’s idea of commodity fetichism. In Brazilian Portuguese, fetichismo da mercadoria. That’s why I translated it as commodity-word, although in Brazil commodities are generally associated with primary goods that are negotiated in stock exchanges, and mercadoria is seldom translated as good or merchandise. I wanted to keep the reference to a Marxist concept as it is known in Brazil and Luiza really approved of this, for she wanted to keep this genealogy of terms.

In “Day 2. Date of Birth”, she uses the word mestiça, used in Brazilian Portuguese to refer to women with interracial origins, hat has a whole past (and present) of gendered and racial stereotypes that suffered (and suffer) oppression. Brazil is known as a country of miscegenation, but this process was very marked by exploitation, violence, rape and prejudice, with different specificities from the process that happened in the USA, for example. So, it couldn’t be the same to translate this term into English. However, it wouldn’t sound so strange for the anglophone readership, for Gloria Anzaldúa’s use of the word mestiza (in Spanish) for Mexican women in the USA it is very know my some writers and scholars, as it is seen in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). I talked to Luiza about that, and she agreed that we would keep the word without translating, in Brazilian Portuguese (mestiça) to mark the difference from the Spanish word (mestiza), and retain the cultural specificity of Luiza’s work.

In the same poem, one decision involved all three of us: poet, translator and reviser. Luiza played with the word minas, which is the first name of one of the first states to be explored in the race for gold, Minas Gerais, and is also a slang for “chicks” as young women, in the following excerpt

tempos idos

minas não mais

When I first translated the text, I wrote to Luiza that I could not keep the double meaning of minas, for she was talking about our country’s birth by force, the gold exploration of Brazil by the Portuguese, and also the lives of women. So, she said she preferred to keep the reference to Minas Gerais and lose the slang, because it was more important to situate this, and her whole poem was discussing gender matters linked with History. Then, the first translation was:

gone times

mines never more

In the source text, there is strong trochaic rhythm in the first verse of the excerpt and one more distended in the second. Also, the alliterative sound of [m] and the assonance of [i] between idos and minas. Fortunately, I could keep the rhythm and the sound, so important to the poetry of a slammer such as Luiza. However, Lâmia, the reviser, found the sound was too heavy at the end, “more”, and the original has the most open vowel of Portuguese in mais, the [a]. There was a partial rhyme between idos and mais, because of the plural, the trochaic rhythm and the sound of [i]. That’s why she suggested inverting the verse, and we all thought it was better:

gone times

never more mines

Just one more example, to show how questions of grammar affected her gender debate: In the poem “Day 3. Register Number”, Luiza reverses the gender of nouns and adjectives to criticize sexism, showing that “not only grammar/ suffers from gender agreement”. I could not keep that trace in English, for there was no grammatical gender I could reverse and I would have to interfere in all words to make that visible. So I chose to write a footnote, which Luiza agreed would be the better option. This kind of procedure had to happen more times, and so I suggested Luiza that it would be better if the English version had a preface talking about this topic, to explain to anglophone audiences how to notice in the source text which words are written in the feminine and which are in the masculine.

As you can see, in the very first three poems of Sangria/Bloodletting, I’ve chosen some aspects to show the deepness of reflection that the translation had to go through, and from the perspectives of three women with different relationships to the text. Questions of sound, rhythm, imagery, History, gender and class struggle all mattered. Many choices depended on the perspective of Luiza Romão and the knowledge of Lâmia Brito, and my own reflection derived from the readings of Olga Castro, Luise von Flotow, Mona Baker, to name just a few. Although indirectly, this range of readings that affected my reflections were supported and developed by our group at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, the GEFLIT (Group of Feminist Studies on Literature and Translation), with Naylane Matos and Sheila Santos, for this makes part of our own research projects and, as you can see here, impacts on my work as a translator. So, let’s keep reading, studying and translating women, together.

And, in the spirit of solidarity and inclusivity, please look at the hashtag #EleNão, and support the movement if you feel it appropriate.

 

 

 

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation: 2018 longlist announced

On Monday this week, the longlist was announced for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This is the second year of the prize, which was set up by the University of Warwick (UK) in 2017 to “address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership”. It’s a welcome addition to the Warwick Prize for Writing, highlighting the importance of promoting literature from other cultures/ languages, and of offering greater possibilities and publicity to women writers.

The winners of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation last year were Yoko Tawada and Susan Bernofsky, for Bernofsky’s stellar translation of Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Memoirs of a Polar Bear (surprised because usually I’d think that animal narrators are firmly “not my thing”, but you’ll see a review of it here before long, in which I’ll acknowledge how my own literary prejudices are collapsing!) and Bernofsky is an immensely accomplished translator. Memoirs of a Polar Bear was published by Portobello Books, whose women in translation catalogue I love almost unconditionally; I was sad to learn recently that as of 2019 Portobello will cease to exist, as the imprint will be shuttered by Granta Books. This might not be as dire as my slightly over-reactionary response led me to fear when I read the news: Granta has committed to no change in output, and still has a good record of publishing women in translation. So hopefully Portobello’s “identity” won’t be lost, though I shall miss the Portobello imprint and always feel a special connection with their list, since it was a Portobello book that kick-started this project. So, through my misty-eyed regret, I’m delighted to see that Portobello has two books longlisted for this year’s Warwick Prize for women in translation: Bernofsky features again with her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone (this has the potential to be a winning combination, since Erpenbeck and Bernofsky won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 with the magnificent The End of Days). Also on the longlist is Han Kang’s incandescent The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith, and reviewed here last week; this is another winning team, Han and Smith having won the first Man Booker International prize in 2016 for Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian (also for Portobello Books). Unsurprisingly, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018, is also on the longlist, and I may just eat my hat if it doesn’t make it to the shortlist with Jennifer Croft’s beautiful translation for Fitzcarraldo Editions. So these three are certainly going to be hard to topple, but the shortlist is by no means a given: other contenders are the Man Booker International shortlisted Vernon Subutex 1 (Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne for Maclehose Press), and Maclehose also have two more books on the longlist, Daša Drndič’s Belladonna, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-Glass Window, translated by the inimitable Antonia Lloyd-Jones. That gives Maclehose the numerical advantage with the highest number of entries on the longlist; Portobello books, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Norvik Press each have two, and Istros Books, Pushkin Press, Clerkenwell Press, 4th Estate, Scribe Publications and Penguin each have one on the list.

It will come as no surprise to you that I’m delighted to see some of my favourite books of the past year on this list, but I’m also excited to see some I haven’t read yet, or hadn’t previously heard of. Most notably in terms of “ooh yes, I’ve been meaning to read that one”, I’ve heard many good things about Esther Kinsky’s River (translated by Iain Galbraith for Fitzcarraldo), and I have Fiona Graham’s translation of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (published by Scribe) waiting on my to-read pile.

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018 longlist by country

There is a predominance of European writing on the longlist: apart from one book each from Argentina, Japan and South Korea, everything comes from Europe. I’ve geo-mapped the countries represented in the longlist to show this more clearly: the darker the colour, the more titles from that country. You can see that Germany features most prominently in burgundy with four entries, Croatia, Sweden and Poland are all well represented in red (two entries); the pale pink for the other countries on the longlist indicates one entry.

There is also a wide variety of genres represented: as well as the genre-defying “constellation novel” Flights, the incantatory The White Book, and a selection of novels, there are also, firstly, three short story collections: Judith Hermann’s Letti Park, translated by Margot Bettauer for the Clerkenwell Press, Yuko Tsushima’s “modern classic” Of Dogs and Walls, translated by Geraldine Harcourt for Penguin, and the first translation of a recently rediscovered writer (Jessica Sequeira’s translation of Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke for Pushkin Press). The short story genre is one I’m coming round to appreciating, after years of considering it “not my thing” (since that’s the second time I’ve used that phrase today, and on the subject of adjusting my parameters of what constitutes “not my thing”, I read a very interesting review this week in the LA Review of Books: V. Joshua Adams reviewed Mark Polizotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto and pointed out some of its flaws with the magnificent maxim that “there is something wrong with confusing your lack of interest in something with its lacking merit”. This is my new motto, and I am rapidly coming round to the merit of the short story genre!)

Also on the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation are a memoir by Katja Petrowskaja (Maybe Esther, translated by Shelley Frisch for 4th Estate), a piece of auto-fiction (Hair Everywhere, Tea Tulič’s account of three generations of women coming to terms with loss, translated by Coral Petkovich for Istros Books) a work of non-fiction (Bang by Dorrit Willumsen, translated by Marina Allemano for Norvik Press), and a new translation of the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, (Selma Lagerlöff’s The Emperor of Portugallia, translated by Peter Graves for Norvik Press). This strikes me as a very diverse list – perhaps not in terms of geography, but certainly in terms of genre. On the subject of geographical/ cultural diversity, I’ve been doing similar geo-mapping for all women in translation texts published by independent UK publishing houses so far this year, and it’s fair to say that the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is reasonably representative of the general spread; the main difference is that there is more coming from Latin America than is indicated by the longlist.

As for my partisan view on which one I hope will win, I have to preface it with the acknowledgement that I have not read them all. Regular blog readers will already know which ones I have read and loved, but I think I’m going to put my hand in the fire and come out and say it: I’m rooting for The White Book. Of those I’ve read, it was the one I reacted most emotionally to, and although it’s got some tough competition (even as I write this, a voice inside me is screaming “but what about Flights?!”, and no doubt you’ll all have your favourites too) but there was something about The White Book that made me respond to it with all of my senses and with my heart, and so, as is usually the case, I’m letting my heart decide. One thing’s for sure: the judges (Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett) have a tough decision to make. Congratulations to all the wonderful authors, translators and publishers on the longlist, and don’t forget to check the official website for the Warwick Prize for women in translation in early November to find out the shortlist!

For further information about the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, contact Dr Chantal Wright at the following email address:

“I will give you white things”: an exquisite exploration of grief. Han Kang, The White Book

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2017)

The White Book is a short meditation on mourning, as Han Kang explores through words a loss that has accompanied her throughout her life: her mother gave birth prematurely to a girl who lived only two hours, and Han has lived with the knowledge that “I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.” Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book is another stunning collaboration between Han and Deborah Smith, though very different from the book with which they previously won the MBI, The Vegetarian. As you may know, it was Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian that kick-started the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and it took me a further seven months and over 40 books before I returned to another collaboration between the two. The White Book had been on my to-read list for some time, but if I’d been putting it off, it was because I suspected it was going to be bruising to read. And though in some ways it was, it is also an incredibly uplifting and beautiful book. Even the cover is stripped bare, and seems vulnerable, fragile, serene, with a raised typeface on the front making it seem like an object to touch and feel as much as to read. And it is certainly like no other book I’ve read this year: it is close to poetry with its sparseness and its short lines, its placement on the pages leaving white spaces that seem to be both a void and a possibility. There is something almost spiritual in the reaching out for a connection with a sister to whom Han acknowledges that “if you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now”. Part invocation, part incantation, The White Book explores a deeply internalised mourning and brings it to some kind of light: the two sisters were never to meet, and still cannot meet on the pages of a book, but yet there is some kind of in-between space, “the gap between darkness and light”, between the blank page and the words on it, where they can each make out the other’s face.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Smith’s translation just took my breath away. I truly believe that she is a very special translator; I do not doubt that this was a difficult text to translate, to grapple with, to absorb and to reflect, but Smith makes it seem effortless. She has that rare talent of making a translation her own without deflecting or vampirising any of the admiration owed to the original. I’m curious to read her translations of other authors, to know whether there’s some special kind of alchemy between her and Han, or whether Smith brings this kind of vulnerable wisdom to all her projects… On almost every page there was a word or a turn of phrase that was so unexpected and yet so absolutely perfect, words layered with meaning, that when placed with the other words next to them turn something simple into something dazzling. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain what I mean: “they would have felt lacerated by happiness. Which would have been life. Which would have been beauty”; “like a clutch of words strewn over white paper”: I would never have thought of being “lacerated” by happiness, yet it shows how the yearning of a soul to live, to find hope, is something close to pain. And what is the mass noun for a collection of words? “Clutch” says so much here: the grouping together of the words, the closeness of the black type on the white page – all of which is aesthetically evident in this book – but also clutching onto something intangible, desperately reaching out with words towards something that slips away… a tale that clutches at your heart.

Growing up “inside this story” of her sister’s death has clearly been a transformative experience for Han, knowing, as she acknowledges to the sister she has never seen, that “my life means yours is impossible”. So what kind of ending can be given to a book this deep, this raw? Han parts from her sister, but draws into herself everything of her sister’s life and death:

“Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.
I open my lips and mutter the words you heard on opening your black eyes, you who were ignorant of language. I press down with all my strength onto the white paper. I believe that no better words of parting can be found. Don’t die. Live.”

This inscription of love and loss onto the white paper, imprinted there with “all my strength”, gives life to the sister; pressing down onto the paper, rather than writing on it, transfers the deep emotions in a near-transcendental way. Within the pages, “within […] all of those white things”, writes Han, “I will breathe in the final breath you released.” And so rather than imprisoning a barely-caught memory of her sister within the pages of a book, Han uses the book – both the writing of it, and the artefact of black on white – to bring her sister into herself, and give her life not by writing for her, but by living with her. No easy “healing through writing” is offered up – though right from the start Han acknowledges that she is writing to transform her pain: “the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” But to say that articulating pain means that it disappears is to simplify human experience in a way that Han resists, as she explains that “learning to love life again is a long and complicated process.”

There is depth and complexity on every page of The White Book; this is a book that aches and meditates, not one that offers answers, unless it is simply that “nothing is eternal”, not even suffering. It is both a journey and an endless circle: neither birth nor life is posited as the opposite of death, but rather they are all exposed with unflinching honesty as part of the same continuum. Just as white and black are not depicted as opposites, nor are life and death. Instead, life is plural, endless, twisting – and so is death. What struck me most of all – whether it is intentionally in the text or just my interpretation of it – is that this book is about love. “I will give you white things” writes Han, and offers to her sister, in writing, the breast milk she never lived to drink, the snowflakes she would never see, silence condensed into a pure white pebble, the candles that are lit to her memory. And in so doing, instead of living with the spectre of a dead girl, she offers her life from within herself, the white cloud of breath escaping on a cold morning. This is not a book to read if you want a story, a plotline, or a formula, but if you want to read something incandescent, then this is for you.

“Can a man write a feminist book?”: Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).

Image from lesfugitives.com

Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.

The “spider woman”

I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:

“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”

Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.

Alternatives to Patriarchy: Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Waitress in Fall (Carcanet and Partus Press)

I’m delighted to welcome Laurie Garrison to the blog today, with a review of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Waitress in Fall. Laurie is the dynamic organizer of the Women Writers Network, and you can find her full bio here.

In Iceland, Kristín Ómarsdóttir is about as famous as poets can be: she has been nominated for or won a long list of awards, including the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize; she is a successful dramatist; and one of her novels has been translated into English. Until now, however, none of her poetry has been available in English. It is therefore exciting that a selection of poems written across her entire career has now been translated as Waitress in Fall by fellow Icelandic poet Vala Thorodds, founder of Partus Press. These poems take the reader into another world, one that is rebellious, unexpected, humorous and that (I think) has more in common with French surrealism than most of the poetry being written in English at the present moment.

Image from partus.press

Take the poem “Lemon Breast”, for example. The mundane genre of cooking instructions is transformed into an erotic absurdity:

Slice the lemon into two equal halves
on the kitchen table but take
one half into your room
and squeeze a little of the liquid
over the brown
soft
half-asleep
nipple.
Lick the drops that trickle down the breast
before the lips are moved
to the top.

Lick first then suck.

When the taste fades
repeat.

Slightly cringeworthy, slightly humorous, reading Ómarsdóttir’s poetry takes me right back to my undergraduate days of studying French surrealism, especially the surrealist theatre where the odd and the unnerving were also comical and entertaining.

As I worked my way through the collection, I decided to remind myself of some of the authors and titles of surrealist theatre that Ómarsdóttir seemed to have so much in common with. So I consulted my prized collection of French books, which I knew to be basically intact despite a transatlantic move and a post-academic career purge. As I looked through the titles, I remembered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Roger Vitrac’s Victor, ou les Enfants au Pouvoir, and Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve surprisingly vividly. Ómarsdóttir’s poems do indeed have much in common with their style of writing: the characters’ absurdity, the seemingly subconscious associations and swift shifts of attention. But…where were the women writers? I started scanning to see if there was a single woman writer on my French shelf, let alone a surrealist. Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour was the only text by a woman on my shelf.

I don’t know if undergraduates are taught a more diverse curriculum in French literature classrooms these days, but we are certainly facing a similar problem in the world of translation. If we consider just how few texts become well-known enough or popular enough to be translated into English and then that women have only authored one quarter of translated texts, there is a glaring woman-shaped hole in the translation-publishing industry. This is precisely why we need a translation of poetry like Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s in the English language. She has taken a historically male-dominated form and made it very female. Her explorations of female identity do not so much challenge the status quo as annihilate it in order to rethink everything about the structure of the world.

Ómarsdóttir has virtually said as much herself in an interview with The Rumpus. In reminiscing about the types of things children read at school, where people behave as expected in a highly constructed, conservative reality, she asserts that her work as a whole is written in opposition to this: “I’m against the reality, the designed reality. I am against the structure of our world, which seems to be raised by violence”. In so many of Ómarsdóttir’s poems, violence either lurks in the background or we see clear evidence of it. In the eerie poem, “Three Poetesses”, for example, partially clothed women sitting around a table are joined by a man in a “pirate sweater”. We do not see literal violence but there is a confident possessiveness about the arrival of a man who joins them without a word.

He touches one of them and we are told that they are all dead, “though they await his kisses”. The waiting and the expectation of affection suggest a commentary on patriarchy: they are bound by the awkward relationships created by this structure. They are dead because their roles under patriarchy are prescribed and unrealistic. The man ominously carries the “touched one” off: a simple touch establishes enough dominion that he can do what he wants with her body, her mind being conveniently elsewhere. The oddity of the scene forces the artificiality of the underlying patriarchal structures to the surface: violence is not openly visible, but its consequences are clear. Significantly, the women are “poetesses” now silenced in death, their bodies at the mercy of a man.

In other poems, such as “headless morning” there is much more overt evidence of violence:

early one morning you receive in the post
the head of a man
damp with blood
on the doorstep

Being an English-language reader of these poems, I cannot help but make the connection with the sagas, where beheadings, revenge killings and other forms of violence are simply part of the fictional landscape. The poem is written in the second person, pushing the reader to consider themselves to be in the place of the receiver of the head: “who wishes me ill?/ you think at the same time as you/finger your neck”. At the end of the poem it is unclear what fate “you” have met: “the sun and the morning songs of the birds/empty what’s left of the consciousness”. The emptying of consciousness could be permanent or it might not be. In societies that are founded on revenge killings and vigilante justice, it is unclear what the fate of either the transgressors or innocents will be. Let’s bring this into a more recent historical moment, where the “you” of the poem must live since the head is delivered by the post that also brings “morning papers” and “letters in envelopes”. Iceland may be celebrated as a democracy that established the first parliament in Europe, but violence was very close to the surface at that time and remains a part of its history.

For me, Ómarsdóttir is at her most feminist when she explores relationships between lovers and between married couples. In “Protein” the speaker obsessively prepares food for her lover in a disturbingly submissive relationship where she “see[s] to it that my man has the guts and the vigour to love me”. Feeding her lover is followed by sex where the protein she has fed him is given back to her in the form of an ejaculation: “I tiptoe along his sated body until I get my portion of the workings of the energy wad/ From morning till night I look forward to the moment when he squirts into me the fluid that I do all I can to co-produce”. No mention is ever made of her role in reproduction or her pleasure in sex other than as the receptacle for his semen. She scoffs at single women: “They never prepare food, they don’t have any boyfriends”. The oddity of these associations—food and reproduction, eating and sex—again brings the artificiality of patriarchal structures to the fore.

One of the most impressive qualities of Ómarsdóttir’s poetry is her ability to envision alternatives to the relationship in “Protein”. In “Mountain Hike on a Summer’s Day”, for example, multiple women share a fiancé:

Female relatives who share a fiancé sit down on the mountain
crest, find dice in their backpacks and throw:
“He is mine, he is mine. He is yours, he is yours…”
But they don’t care who gets him. Chance rules the throw.

The women are in charge here and they subvert gendered behaviours. The relationship between husband and wife is based on chance. Patriarchal and heterosexual structures are undone: women decided the fate of a man and they undermine a presumed possessiveness of monogamous, opposite-sex relationships. There is also the strange conflation of birth and marriage in “ode” when a bridegroom is released from a minke whale:

the armpits of the lads, who on the beach
open the bride with man-sized scissors,
bawl with rage

what I remember as I tore the membrane
off my bridegroom
with long, colourful nails

The bridegroom is born from the whale, which seems to be a bride, but the speaker tears ”the membrane” off her bridegroom. The poem shifts quickly in point of view, disorienting the reader and shocking her with the graphic scenes of birth. This is a sort of group marriage, human and animal, more than two involved, carried out through a gruesome sort of violent act. We are led to ask, is this what marriage is like: a rebirth that is painful, bloody, almost too terrible to contemplate?

We need a female poet like Kristín Ómarsdóttir in the English language. She tears down the usual social structures as if they were nothing, letting us see just how odd they are in the context of other endless possibilities of unfamiliar ways of being, living and relating to other people. I hope the ‘minor’ female surrealists that I’m sure were out there, back when I was an undergraduate studying French, are now taught regularly in university classrooms. And I hope the students are taught to recognize how this form is so effective through its refusal to come to heavy, solid conclusions, preferring instead the playful, unpredictable and occasionally humorous. Indeed, for all her undoing of our comfortable reality, Ómarsdóttir leaves us with laughter in the final words of this collection:

I lie down on the ground
mmm
and laugh with the sky
mmm
laughter

A murder mystery with a difference: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

Man Booker International prizewinner Olga Tokarczuk returns with this crime-mystery-noir novel set in rural Poland. Translated by the immensely skilled Antonia Lloyd-Jones, recipient of the 2018 award for promoting Polish literature abroad, it was a pretty safe bet that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was going to be amazing. Indeed, the translation is virtually flawless, and the book itself a page-turning extravaganza of understated tragi-comedy. The narrative is much more linear than that of Tokarczuk’s prize-winning Flights, and instead of the “fragments” and vignettes that peopled Flights, this is a more traditional story-telling. However, there is nothing predictable or formulaic about it for that, and it is not even “just” a story. There are philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders, all of which are brought together seamlessly in a tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution in which “everything is connected with everything else, and we are all caught in a net of correspondences of every kind.”

Image from fitzcarraldoeditions.com

If you felt so inclined, you could easily read Drive Your Plow simply as a murder mystery; there is no didactic obligation to read it differently. But through her narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk also offers up some profound insights into the human condition (“The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us”), the lack of equality for women (“nobody takes any notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags”), the elderly, (“once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us”) and the non-conformist (“suddenly I saw the four of us in a different way – as if we had a lot in common, as if we were a family. I realized that we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless.”) She is scathing about the hypocrisy of social structures (including the police, the church, and the education system), but Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, a reminder not to stand in judgement, not to dismiss those who are different from ourselves, and not to underestimate those we disagree with. Yet this is not a “preachy” novel (indeed, those who use pulpits – whether religious or hunting ones – tend to meet a sticky end); on the contrary, it’s thoughtful and thrilling.

As in any murder mystery, we are given several clues that we might gloss over. However, one overt clue comes after the discovery of the first dead body:

Only his right index finger refused to submit to the traditional pose of politely clasped hands but pointed upwards, as if to catch our attention and put a brief stop to our nervous, hurried efforts. ‘Now pay attention!’ said the finger. ‘Now pay attention, there’s something you’re not seeing here, the crucial starting point of a process that’s hidden from you, but that’s worthy of the highest attention. Thanks to it we’re all here in this place at this time, in a small cottage on the Plateau, amid the snow and the Night – I as a dead body, and you as insignificant, ageing human Beings. But this is only the beginning. Only now does it all start to happen.’

This is a novel of fate, of fatality, of fatalities, of fatalism. When you reach the end, you know there was no other way it could have gone: as Mrs Duszejko would say, it was all governed by the stars. It is not up to us to deem some things unimportant, Tokarczuk reminds us – the most insignificant detail or person may prove to be the key to enlightenment. I commented in my review of Flights that I believed we are given prompts for how to read it within the book itself, and this happens again with Drive Your Plow: the narrator tells us that “one must keep one’s eyes and ears open, one must know how to match up the facts, see similarity where others see total difference, remember that certain events occur at various levels or, to put it another way, many incidents are aspects of the same, single occurrence. And that that the world is a great big net, it is a whole, where no single thing exists separately; every scrap of the world, every last tiny piece, is bound up with the rest by a complex Cosmos of correspondences.” That this assertion is, primarily, about astrology, is no coincidence: Tokarczuk describes her writing as “constellation novels”, things that she throws up into space, and which the reader’s own imagination clusters together. And sure enough, when I went back over my notes, I realised that I had highlighted all the keys to the murder mystery, yet I had not managed to decode them until the end. For though we are given these clues, they are destabilised even as they are laid before us, as Tokarczuk makes a wry comment on writing itself, and on its ability to mean something other than what it says: “In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences: in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility.” I’ve noted before that Tokarczuk gave me the unsettling feeling that every original thought I might come up with had already been foreseen by her in the writing of her book, and this feeling was with me again as I thought about my reading of Drive Your Plow.

There is something deliberately old-fashioned about Drive Your Plow: certain nouns are given capitalisation (“Souls”, “Night”, “Person”, “Anger”, “Dusk”, etc), and there are near-archaic turns of phrase such as “whence they came” fairly regularly throughout. There is no mimicry of writing style, though; rather, it seems to be a nod to influences (such as William Blake, whose poetry stands by way of epigraphs to each chapter, and from whose work the title of the book is taken) and timeless subjects (such as corruption, prejudice, justice and compassion). Tokarczuk shows that inhumanity in all its forms, towards any living being, should not be commonplace, with Mrs Duszejko asking “what sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” Yet Mrs Duszejko does not distance herself from this “us”, though she is on the edges in so many ways. Indeed, the thing that most interested me in Drive Your Plow (apart from the murder mystery itself) was the reflection on marginalised people. The narrator is an older woman, living alone, and her love of animals and belief in astrology lead those around her to label her as a “silly old bag”, “crazy crone”, or “madwoman”. She observes how the law enforcers, either incompetent or corrupt, dismiss her easily because they need no excuse other than her age and gender. Though Mrs Duszejko is undeniably individual, Tokarczuk uses her to expose universal issues of gender inequality, ageism, and the human condition, with other characters on the margins either reinforcing or contradicting her position. Take, for example, this philosophical reflection from her elderly neighbour, an invalid lesbian author:

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’
There was some truth in what she said.

Though other characters are allowed to pontificate, Mrs Duszejko has the last word on where truth lies, what is truth and what is not, what is partial truth and what is nonsense. But be careful not to trust such a narrator and believe her blindly: as she herself reminds us, “One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.”

Tokarczuk is a gifted writer, and the translation by Lloyd-Jones is excellent. I’ve been truly impressed with Fitzcarraldo’s publishing choices and the quality of their translations: on the whole, they are not “light reading” – indeed, they are mirrors of Mrs Duszejko’s description of the universe, “a complex Cosmos of correspondences”, but those I’ve read so far are the kind of books that stay with you, and to which you return. Necessary books, groundbreaking books, brave books. Mrs Duszejko says that “I love crossing borders”, and that is exactly what Tokarczuk’s work does: Fitzcarraldo director Jacques Testard actively sought out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the UK following the Brexit referendum, and so in reading Olga Tokarczuk, we are not only enriched by this extraordinary author, but we are also resisting xenophobia and the narrowing of borders.

Holiday reads 2018: One Night, Markovitch; We That Are Young; The Dead Lake; Pure Hollywood

I took four books on holiday with me this year; though only one was a woman writer in translation, I wanted to showcase the diverse stories that accompanied me through the glorious heatwave of 2018…

I chose one novel from an author I already liked (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch), one debut novel (Preti Taneja, We That Are Young), one recommendation (Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake) and one that came as part of a subscription (Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood).

Image from pushkinpress.com

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press, 2015), translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Earlier this year I read and loved Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, so was fairly certain I’d enjoy her first novel, One Night, Markovitch, and chose it to kick off my holiday reading. One Night, Markovitch is the tale of two friends – the eponymous and “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch, a man no-one looks at twice, and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg, lover of women, teller of tales, owner of a magnificent moustache. Whereas no-one remembers Markovitch, Zeev Feinberg leaves legends in his wake: he is a man “whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country.” The two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel when the butcher discovers that Zeev has been sleeping with his wife, and so Zeev’s friend, the deputy director of the Irgun, secures them places on a boat bound for Europe, where they and eighteen other men will marry Israeli women fleeing a world on the brink of catastrophe. Once safely in Israel, the new couples are to divorce; Yaacov Marcovitch, however, falls in love with his new wife, Bella, a beauty who belongs to “the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.” He refuses to go through with the divorce, and this decision sets in motion a chain of events that unfold over decades, weaving together the destiny of all the characters and the choices they make. Lovers and foes are entangled and underestimated, and tragedy is never far away: “Bella Zeigerman’s mistake was more terrible than Yaacov Markovitch’s. For she was like someone who wants to cross a river she knows, saying, ‘I know it flows slowly’ and, taking no care, walks into it and drowns because it is winter and the water has risen.” Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos – I laughed out loud at some points, but was choking up at others – and the storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Sondra Silverston’s translation. I can see why it’s described as a fable; there is a lot about it which is a little fantastical, and on a bad day I might have found it slightly twee in places. There were no bad days on holiday, though, and so I found it utterly charming. I shall be keeping a close eye on what Gundar-Goshen publishes next.

Image from galleybeggar.co.uk

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017)

Next up was the debut novel from Preti Taneja, who won the 2018 Desmond Elliott prize for this modern-day re-telling of King Lear, set in the palaces and slums of India. I can only speak about We That Are Young in hyperbole: it’s epic, turbulent, majestic, furious… Jivan Singh returns to India after more than a decade spent in America. He is the illegitimate son of the right-hand man of Devraj Bapuji, the head of “the Company”, a powerful corporation at the core of Indian life; on the night of Jivan’s return, Bapuji announces his shock retirement, dividing his company up between his daughters. The two eldest are the power-hungry Gargi (“Such a shame she’s getting so plump these days”) and PR-savvy Radha, ”polished to a Delhi-girl shine”, and Jivan watches on security monitors as the family is brought together to celebrate the arranged engagement of the youngest daughter, Sita, “a barefoot girl in loose, rolled-up jeans”, the most beautiful of the three daughters, and Bapuji’s favourite. But Sita absconds, for her heart lies with environmental issues and women’s education, not with the corrupt Company that pollutes India both literally and figuratively.

Taneja has grappled with every aspect of Shakespeare’s King Lear: nothing seems forced, despite the centuries and cultures that separate the two stories. In fact, the attention to detail is so meticulous that if you thought you might be spared the scene of eyes being gouged out, think again – even that gets worked in. We That Are Young will sweep you away into another world, but there is one small thing that gnawed at me: there are a number of typos and editing errors, and these dragged me back into the everyday, taking away from that glorious feeling of being transported elsewhere while the book is open. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and urgent novel, and an incredible debut: We That Are Young is dark, frenetic, chilling, and it swept me along like the floods in the Napurthala basti, where Jeet (the legitimate son; Edgar to Jivan’s Edmund) is reborn. Taneja is one to watch.

Image from peirenepress.com

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Peirene, 2014), translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

I discovered Hamid Ismailov’s work earlier this year, when I read The Devil’s Dance: when I was talking to my husband about it, he mentioned Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, which he had read and greatly enjoyed while judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 (The Dead Lake was longlisted). He recommended that I read it, and I pass on that recommendation unreservedly: The Dead Lake is haunting and understated, and pulled me in right from the opening line (“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible”). Yet there is nothing remotely prosaic about the story of Yerzhan, a young boy growing up in a small village on a bleak steppe in Kazakhstan, right at the heart of Soviet nuclear testing sites. Yerzhan is in love with his neighbour, Aisulu, and one day, on a school trip, to impress Aisulu he undresses and walks into the forbidden Dead Lake – a pool of radioactive water. Although nothing happens immediately, Yerzhan has cursed himself by entering it: he will never grow, and will remain trapped in his twelve-year-old body forever. We meet Yerzhan at the age of twenty-seven, a man in a child’s body, playing violin on a passenger train making its way across the steppe. The unnamed narrator is travelling on the train for reasons unknown, and Yerzhan tells the narrator his story; the narrator then re-tells the first-person story in the third person (from the two novels I’ve read, Ismailov’s original use of narrators seems to be a feature of his writing). The short introductory section ends on this reflection: “‘Does anything make any sense?’ he retorted, suddenly prickly again, and his question seemed to be addressed, not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness, which…” One individual’s experiences are set against the immensity of a majestic yet rapacious earth, and from this introduction Yerzhan’s story is set out in three parts: “Before”, “The Destiny”, and “The Salt of the Myth” – each with an alternative title composed of musical notes that echo both Yerzhan’s prodigious skills with a violin and dombra and his onward march to the final act of his story. It’s impossible not to admire Ismailov: The Dead Lake is tragic, yet never descends into melodrama, it’s a horror story without the hamming up, a star-crossed romance that has nothing trite about it. Andrew Bromfield’s translation is sensitive and stark, and Ismailov a force to be reckoned with.

Image from andotherstories.org

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, 2018)

There had to be a Year of Publishing Women book in my suitcase! Pure Hollywood is a collection of short stories by American author Christine Schutt. I confess that the short story genre isn’t generally my favourite (though Fish Soup may have converted me): I invest in the characters and then the page is turned on them; I start a new story still filled with thoughts about the last one; there’s always a disappointing one that I like less than the others.  I’m full of excuses for avoiding them, but I’m glad this one found me: Pure Hollywood is the antidote to vapid, happy-ever-after tales. It introduces, among others, a young widow left penniless after her (much older) comedian husband dies and leaves his wealth to his children, a fractious child whose desperate parents resort to a babysitter with tragic consequences, a snooty woman whose rudeness to a younger woman on a horse ride has (wait for it) tragic consequences, two ageing men coming to terms with the past and imminent loss of their respective wives, and a newly-wed couple who befriend a misanthropic painter with (you guessed it) tragic consequences. But though I may joke about Schutt’s penchant for eschewing a happy ending, the stories are refreshing and invigorating: they are not neat, at least not in the sense of being tied up with a pretty bow. They leave you to think and to wonder, they are written in a brutally poetic style (“He fell over the railing and cracked his skull and many other bones that gave him shape”), sharply observed (a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea”) and all too believable (“Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead”). But despite the bleak undertones of Schutt’s stories, they are far from depressing; rather, they showcase a pithy candour:

“Oh.”
The little oh was all that was left of Dan’s story, the one that played out in his head about a husband with a ponytail and his purposeful, dying wife. As far as Dan was concerned, Nancy Cork was a woman needful and deserving of more love than her self-absorbed husband could give, whereas he could give… oh.
He could not put a name to it or perhaps ever find it again.

Without a subscription, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, and so it highlights the valuable ways in which independent presses can influence reading choices.

So that’s my holiday reading rounded up for 2018. If you have any recommendations for summer 2019, I’m all ears!

A delightfully subversive feast: Margarita García Robayo, Fish Soup

Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2018)

Fish Soup is one of my favourite discoveries of 2018: in it, Charco Press brings together a collection of novellas and short stories by Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, superbly translated by Charlotte Coombe. The three sections of Fish Soup are, in order of appearance, the novella “Waiting for a Hurricane”, whose narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave, the collection of short stories “Worse Things”, snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies which won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize in 2014, and the novella “Sexual Education”, a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia, which has not yet been published in Spanish.

Image taken from charcopress.com

García Robayo writes with brutal candour, creating strong female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they reject yet cannot escape. “Waiting for a Hurricane” is recounted by an unnamed narrator, growing up near the sea and longing to move away. She is dismissive of her family and wants something different for her own future: “I was not like them […] at the age of seven I already knew that I would leave. […] When people asked me, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’d reply: a foreigner.” This longing to be elsewhere pervades the narrative, blinding the narrator – or at least leaving her insensitive – to the way in which she is hurting the people who care about her as she pushes single-mindedly towards her goal.  She has several lovers in the course of her story: firstly, there is a mildly disturbing relationship as an adolescent with ageing raconteur fisherman Gustavo, then her first boyfriend Tony, who adores her but from whom she is implacably detached both emotionally and sexually (“I put my hands behind the back of my neck, as if I was doing sit-ups, and waited for Tony to finish”). Tony wants to marry her, but all she sees is a horizon before her, and everything becomes about escaping: “Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.” With this realisation, she becomes an air hostess, and is then courted by “the Captain”, who cannot give her what she wants, for though he offers a comfortable life and a fabulous apartment, “it was very beautiful, but it was still here.” Then, when she finally realises her dream of escaping, she meets Johnny (real name Juan), a larger-than-life (and married) wheeler-dealer gringo living in Miami, who eventually becomes the latest casualty in a sequence of losing people she “didn’t even care about.”

Coombe says of the first time she read “Waiting for a Hurricane” in Spanish that: “I automatically started translating in my head as I was reading. For me this is always a good sign with any book I read in another language; it means I can hear the voice, I relate to it and I am simply itching to put it into English.” This connection between translator and text is evident: the translation is pitch-perfect, and Coombe has an incredible ear for García Robayo’s characters (there are only two minor details in over 200 pages that I could even start to criticise). Coombe has embraced the outrageously crude tone of García Robayo’s writing and communicated it in all its visceral glory, not only in “Waiting for a Hurricane”, but throughout the volume. The seven short stories in “Worse Things” are peopled with characters who, as Ellen Jones notes, are “plagued by apathy and disaffection”: from the physical description of an ageing ladies’ man (“Leonardo was balding, and sweat accumulated each side of his widow’s peak, out of reach of the handkerchief he used to wipe his face every so often”) to the summing up of a suffering aunt’s unremitting averageness (“She was neither ugly nor pretty. And, as far as Ema could recall, neither was she good at anything in particular. She was utterly unremarkable”) and the relentless resignation of a morbidly obese teenager’s mother (“She thought it was better not to make things more complicated than they were; this was what life had given them, and things were fine. Relatively fine. What could be worse? So many things. There were worse things”), García Robayo’s sparing prose offers a piercing insight into characters brimming with abjection, fury, and disgust for themselves and their lives.

Sex in “Worse Things” (and throughout Fish Soup) is never tender or emotional, but savage, detached, or barely enjoyable. In some cases it is revolting even when consensual: “Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain; he jerked himself off with his other hand. He came with a loud moan, and slumped forward onto Inés, smearing his own semen under him.” In others, it is a simple transaction or perfunctory act: “she went down between his legs and sucked him off like she’d never done before”. Characters are either physically repulsive or emotionally repellent, their bodily fluids grotesque and free-flowing. But this is not just to make you shudder or grimace: in the marvellous “Sky and Poplars”, García Robayo uses an abject expulsion of breastmilk to reveal one of the most harrowing experiences of the collection.

Bodily abjection and unpleasant sexual encounters lead into the final novella in the collection, “Sexual Education”, in which a group of senior year girls at a Catholic school are subjected to an abstinence programme designed to combat the proliferation of unwanted pregnancies, with the result that “we spent a good part of our final year listening to Olga Luz prattling on about the virtues of the hymen and the unspeakable dangers of semen.” Sexual acts are at no point redeemed as enjoyable or desirable: when the narrator witnesses a moment of intimacy between her friend and her boyfriend, she explains how her friend “pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”

Yes, it makes you squirm. But there are also moments of great hilarity, such as the way the narrator dismisses her friend Karina, who regularly converses with the Virgin Mary, when she explains that the Virgin has instructed her that as long as the hymen is “safeguarded”, the girls may make love with other parts of their body, resulting in a generation of girls with “hymen intact, ass in tatters.” This is a pitiless narrator, and no-one emerges from her observations unscathed, not even herself. In fact, she has a self-awareness that made me chuckle:  when forced to attend a party, she dresses “as if I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the party or the people there, which meant I had spent hours trying on different outfits in front of the mirror.” These adolescent concerns are offset by darker episodes such as a horrific gang rape, and showcase García Robayo’s merciless exposure of a society where women have no agency.

The narrator’s uncompromising disdain for those around her is counterbalanced by the one time that she lets herself get carried away by instinctive emotion when she sees a boy at the party, and in an instant imagines their future, sailing away together into an improbably perfect sunset. Unwittingly, she has fallen for her friend’s new boyfriend, as she discovers when the friend appears and sits down on his lap, drawing a barrier between the narrator and her projected future: “Next thing I knew, burning rocks came raining down on our boat, just a few miles off Cadiz. We exploded into a gazillion pieces that momentarily blinded me, and then vanished into thin air, like a foolish hope.” The usually sardonic narrator experiences a pang of desire and loss that, as with the narrator of “Waiting for a Hurricane”, makes our awareness of her youth painfully acute.

García Robayo’s great talent is for presenting tragedy with mordant humour, and with Coombe unafraid to replicate the crude and caustic language, the result is a rollicking, darkly funny, occasionally disturbing, and delightfully uncomfortable collection that deserves to be widely read.

Charco are offering 15% off all women in translation titles until the end of August 2018: just enter the code #WITMONTH at checkout!