“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!

A Transnational Network of Women Translators

Today I’m delighted to welcome to the blog manu escrita,a translator and art historian from Lisbon. You can find out more about manu on our Guest Contributors page, and here she is sharing some inspirational thoughts on creating a transnational network of women translators.

August is here and we are celebrating Women in Translation Month in the year of the centennial of women’s suffrage in the UK. 2018 is the year Kamila Shamsie called to be a Year of Publishing Women: three years ago, at the Hay Festival,  Shamsie challenged publishers to publish only women authors in 2018, both as a form of celebrating the centennial and to highlight the issue of gender imbalance in the industry. Historically, and not unlike in other spheres of life, it has been difficult for women around the world to be taken seriously as writers and even harder to get published. But nowhere in the literary world is gender disparity sharper than in the translation of works, particularly into English, the dominant language of the publishing industry. And yet, it seems to me that it is the English language that could provide the most viable bridge between various other languages and facilitate a flow of translations that could effectively close that gender gap. This being the age of technology, networking and crowdfunding, if we can decrease the gender gap in the number of translated works to English it will then become easier to create women’s routes in publishing and translation that will help close that gap in other languages too. The question is: how do we go about creating our very own transnational network of women translating women with that purpose in mind?

Stock image: freerangestock.com

In the last few years, we have witnessed an upsurge of interest among women readers, writers and translators to promote women’s literature. Although it was widely acknowledged that women read more and that they read male and female authors equally, something that does not happen with male readers, it was not until 2010 when the association VIDA for women in the literary arts was founded, that an actual count of gender disparity in the publishing industry exposed how far we still have to go to close that gap. In 2013, author and translator Alison Anderson delved farther into the matter and, in an article published in Words Without Borders, asked the poignant question: “Where are the women in translation?” Basing her question on statistics revealed by the Translator Database, founded in 2008 by Three Percent and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester (USA), which calculates that only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations, Anderson estimated that of those 3%, only 26% were by women authors. Like Anderson, I was never sufficiently interested in Math to be good at it, let alone be able to divide 3% by 26%. But it certainly doesn’t take a genius to conclude that whatever that number is, it amounts to practically nothing.

Keeping in mind that the English language is dominant in the publishing industry and that even so, women authors translated into English are only a quarter percentage of 3% of all published books just in the United States, what is the scenario in other countries? As a Portuguese translator working in Brazil at that time, I knew the situation was grave. In an article about Literatura de Mulherzinha, the Brazilian version of Chick Lit, journalist Bruna de Lara refers to a 2005 study by Regina Dalcastagnè from the University of Brasilia, where the researcher found that of the 165 authors published by three major Brazilian publishers between 1990 and 2004, only 27.3% were women. In Portugal, I myself attended less than a year ago, the book launch of the first ever translation to European Portuguese of A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, published in English in 1792 by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. One of the founding texts of feminist thought had to wait over two centuries to be “of interest” in a country where the first doctorate in Gender Studies is about to launch next September. Present at the panel, which also included the editors and translator, was feminist art historian Filipa Lowndes Vicente. Speaking of the state of the intersection of gender/feminist studies and translation in Portugal, she painted a dispiriting picture: search for example “author Mary Wollstonecraft” in the British Library and you’ll retrieve 270 results both by or about the author. Do the same in the Portuguese National Library and you’ll get six entries. Well, seven now that the Vindication has finally been published in Portugal.

This new focus on statistics and gender bias became the fuel for the social movements that followed. Various campaigns and initiatives were launched: in 2014, Meytal Radzinski, an Israeli science graduate student and literature blogger, created Women in Translation Month, dedicated to all women writers in translation, regardless of the gender of the translator. That same year, writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh launched the #readwomen campaign, a step followed this year by InterVarsity Press. As for Kamila Shamsie’s challenge of making 2018 the year of publishing solely women authors – taking into account diversity so that it wouldn’t become the year of publishing only “young, straight, white, middle-class, metropolitan women” – one single publisher only took it on: And Other Stories, an independent publishing house based in Sheffield and London (UK) and created in 2010. And Other Stories was already a committed publisher of literature in translation, and one with an operating model that may very well become an inspiration to a projected transnational network of women translating women.

And Other Stories uses editorial crowdsourcing by allowing both readers and translators to recommend books to translate, creating reading groups and fostering a community to pre-fund their publications by buying multi-book yearly subscriptions. There are aspects of this model that I find useful and expandable to a transnational translator network. Like a spider web, women translators worldwide could weave a worldwide network of localized reading groups, formed by women translators who would collectively recommend translations for other groups to translate and seek local publishers. In many cases, for languages other than English this could prove difficult. I don’t know many women translators of Portuguese who could translate directly from the Hindu, or Korean, or Urdu. But translations via English to third languages could certainly speed up the process of getting more women authors out into the world, since English prevails as the dominant language of the literary industry. True, problems of meaning and interpretation could arise. But being part of a network of translators would permit communication with the source language native translators in order to resolve such issues.

The first step would be to create community: a database of translators and language reading groups networking between themselves to recommend and accept recommendations to translate, actively seeking alliances with local publishers, editors and literary agents. Self-publishing, crowdfunding, and public subscriptions for pre-funding are important and viable alternatives to corporate publishing. Groups can experiment with different models, even create small translation presses, or form local collectives and associations. From the point where we form communities of support, anything is possible. Ideas behind models like those of And Other Stories or Amazon-Crossing can be inspirational and help translator groups to design their own models. After all, it is our passion to read, to translate, to publish women authors. Forming our own communities around the world, using technology to network among ourselves, borrowing and adjusting operative models from publishers as needed may very well finally fast forward gender equality in the publishing industry. So, let’s weave that web and let those awesome women writers loose into the world for all to access in as many languages as we can.

 

“Since I’d been born I’d been trying to get my mother to connect to life”: Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk

Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis (Peirene, 2018)

I’ve read a number of books published by Peirene (you can see them all in my virtual bookshelf), and I’ve enjoyed them all, but Soviet Milk was on an entirely different level for me. David Hebblethwaite has aptly described it as “a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture”, as Soviet rule is experienced through the eyes of three generations of women, two of them old enough to remember a time when “we had our own state and flag.” The story is told alternately from the points of view of the two younger women: the mother was born in 1944, just after Latvia was liberated from the Nazis, and the daughter in 1969, when Latvia was under Soviet rule. Though neither mother nor daughter is given a name, much of Soviet Milk is autobiographical: as a child, Ikstena left her grandparents’ home in Riga because her mother, a gynaecologist, clashed with Soviet bureaucracy and was sent to run a small rural clinic. Ikstena’s mother took her own life at the age of 54, shortly before the end of Soviet rule in Latvia. These difficult life experiences are recounted in Soviet Milk, and yet it is an exceptionally compassionate story of love, faith, and the ties that bind: in addition to the mother-daughter relationship, fictional female characters are woven into the narrative, always coming from the edges of society, and bringing warmth to the child’s lonely life. Margita Gailitis translates beautifully, her stark sentences containing all the pent-up rage and sorrow of the narrators without ever tipping over into melodrama or sentimentality.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Soviet Milk opens with the daughter reconstructing her birth in October 1969: her mother disappeared for five days immediately after giving birth, and came back with her milk having dried up. The original Latvian title of the novel translates as Mother’s Milk, and the importance of (non-)maternity and nurturing is key throughout. Bereft of her mother’s milk, the young girl is nurtured on Soviet narratives, and as her mother trains to be a doctor, “the smell of medicine and disinfectant replaced the smell of mother’s milk.” When the mother takes her turn to narrate, she too reconstructs her own birth in October 1944: Riga had just been liberated from the Nazis, and an epidemic of nasal typhoid fever was sweeping through the hospital, killing the newborn children. Her mother smuggled her out, and set off to Babīte in the outskirts of Riga, where they made a life for themselves in a small cottage. Yet maternal sacrifice is shown to have no effect: the grandmother recalls that “I exchanged my African fur coat for dried sugar beet. My jaw grew sore from chewing at those beets. There was nothing else. But they gave me milk to spare in my breasts. She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was a healthy, strong child. What happened to her?’” Angry and increasingly detached in the face of Soviet oppression, the mother feels no maternal love herself, and is likened to her daughter’s hamster, Bambi, whose looming presence Catherine Venner sums up as a foreshadowing of the mother’s existence and fate: “Trapped in his cage, Bambi yearns for freedom, eats his own children, and ultimately gives up on life.” The mother lives as if she were in a cage, the “Russian boot” over her head: she is monitored, forced to state that she does not believe in God and, like all those under Soviet rule, lives under censorship.

When the mother is befriended by Jesse, a big-hearted hermaphrodite who is as much of an outcast as she is, Jesse proudly brings the mother a portion of a book she has found (which, from the dialogue, it is clear is George Orwell’s 1984). The book is pivotal for both mother and daughter in different ways; the mother explains its importance to her in the following terms: “Who was this Winston who was asked about God just as I’d been asked on Engels Street before going to Leningrad? I read on. The whole dialogue sounded as if the speaker was standing right beside me, in my narrow room, as if he was describing my life right now.” If, for the mother, 1984 is a balm that makes her feel less alone, for the daughter it is an uninvited evil that has pulled her mother further away from her: “We could have had a lovely last summer together, if Jesse had not brought us that portion of book […] I hated this half-book wrapped in a calendar. It had stolen my last summer with my mother and led her even further into a fantasy world, away from life, the blooming garden and the balmy river.” Once again the daughter is left on the margins of her mother’s life: the mother can find solace in her work, and in banned books, but never in human relationships.

“to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life”

The great beauty in Ikstena’s work is in her ability to give voice to the mother as well as the child; given the autobiographical element, it must have been immensely difficult to write from the perspective of a mother unable to love her child, when you are that unloved child. The warmth and compassion with which Ikstena allows her mother to tell her story are truly remarkable. For example, on a cultural history trip, when Teacher Blūms shows the students a mute church bell with its tongue torn out, the young girl reflects later that the bell reminds her of her mother. And to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life. It is the daughter who must continually find the strength to keep her mother in the world, for the mother “always seemed to be striving to turn out her life’s light.” When the daughter can do no more for her mother, she gives her one final gift: a voice of her own to be able to say that she was trapped in “my Soviet cage, where I went on living without the courage to eat my child.” That Ikstena can not only acknowledge these painful realisations about her mother, but also connect her mother to life by giving her a voice in this beautiful novel, is extraordinary.

Ikstena’s story is moving enough in itself to have a profound effect on me, but there were also very personal reasons why it affected me so deeply. My step-grandfather was Latvian: he was conscripted into the German army at 16, could not return to Riga after the Second World War, and never saw his family again; he passed away in a small end-of-terrace house in Huddersfield in March 1989. As a child I didn’t know anything about Latvia, or find his accent odd (coming from a family whose main origins were Maltese, Arab and Greek, I grew up thinking it was normal that grandparents spoke English with different accents). As a twelve-year-old more concerned with the latest issue of Smash Hits than current affairs, I didn’t know in 1989 that the fall of the Berlin Wall had any resonance in Latvia; reading Soviet Milk almost thirty years later I wept for my Grandad, who missed the end of Soviet rule by just a few months. This personal connection is far from being the only reason I loved Soviet Milk, though. The characters demand connection and compassion by themselves: the mother who cannot find a place in a society she despises; the daughter who does not understand why she is not enough to make her mother happy; the grandmother who has seen enough atrocity and would prefer to just live and not think about sorrow. This is a truly great book: a beautiful account of Ikstena’s childhood, a stripped-bare narrative of love and loss, and a beacon for Latvian literature in translation.

“An elegant surpassing of the truth”: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2015)

I’m delighted to welcome another guest contributor to the blog today: Katie Brown has been a great supporter of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project since its launch (and was the one who urged me to read Umami!), so you can imagine my joy when she recently accepted a job in the Modern Languages department here at Exeter. Today she’s writing about a fascinating author-translator collaboration that offers new perspectives on the creativity of translation acts and which is, I hope, the first of many collaborations with Katie. You can find out more about her on the Guest Contributor page, and on her blog.

*NB: there will be a 3-week break from the blog after this post, as I am taking my summer holiday. We’ll be back mid-August!*

How do the stories we tell influence the value of objects? Are authors’ and artists’ names any more valuable than other people’s? These are just some of the questions addressed by Valeria Luiselli’s third book, The Story of my Teeth, both through its content and its collaborative creation.

The Story of my Teeth is a genre-defying book. Critics have referred to it variously as a novel, an essay, autofiction and biofiction, or a mixture of them all. The book begins as the relatively straight-forward life story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway”, a picaresque old man whose talents include impersonating Janis Joplin and interpreting fortune cookies. In the first of seven chapters, titled The Story (Beginning, Middle and End), Highway recounts his life from childhood, his work at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City, his failed relationships, how he became an auctioneer, and his quest to replace his malformed teeth. Then through a series of chapters referred to as hyperbolics, parabolics, and allegorics, we see Highway firstly purport to sell the teeth of famous essayists throughout history and later auction a collection of objects stolen from an art gallery through tangentially related stories. The Elliptics then retells Highway’s story from an outsider’s point of view, making us view the first story in a new, much more poignant light.

An unusual protagonist, Highway brings charm and heart to questions about art and literature which might otherwise risk being seen as “too clever.” He explains his “hyperbolic” auctioneering model in this way:

“As the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.”

Luiselli implies that the methods of cheeky auctioneer – inspired in part by Luiselli’s uncle who worked in the giant street market in Mexico City – are not that different from those of international art dealers, only Highway is more honest about it. The Story of my Teeth began life when Luiselli was approached by Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, curators of the exhibition “El cazador y la fábrica” (The Hunter and the Factory) at the Jumex Gallery, to write a story for their exhibition catalogue. The gallery houses the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America and is funded by the profits of the juice factory. The curators reportedly planned the exhibition as a response to questions about urban isolation and the separation of the gallery from its surrounding area, although the exhibition itself gave few clues to this. Luiselli agreed to write a piece for the exhibition catalogue on the agreement that the workers of the juice factory could be involved in its creation. A group of workers met regularly in the factory to read chapters sent to them by Luiselli, discuss them and give feedback based on their own experiences, which was recorded and sent back to Luiselli in New York, who would then incorporate this into new drafts. Luiselli insists that the story is as much theirs as it is hers, in what Aaron Brady in the LA Review of Books calls “an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius.”

The idea of the artistic genius is questioned throughout The Story of my Teeth, as we see everyday characters given the names of Latin American writers, such as newspaper seller Rubén Darío or policeman Yuri Herrera. Luiselli even makes an appearance herself as a mediocre high school student whose parents send her to elocution classes. At the same time, Luiselli makes canonical thinkers part of Highway’s family, such as Miguel Sánchez Foucault or Marcelo Sánchez Proust. This caused uproar among literary critics in Mexico, who claimed that writers’ names are somehow sacred. I find this use of names as “readymades” in the style of avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp quite ambiguous: on the one hand, it breaks down class barriers, asking readers why a writer would deserve any more respect than a factory worker; but on the other hand, it only really appeals to those who keep up-to-date with the Latin American literary scene, as this is necessary to get the joke. While I really enjoyed spotting names of writers whose work I love, when I teach the book to my undergrads, it went over their heads.

“The story behind The Story of my Teeth encourages us to question terms like ‘original’ and ‘fidelity,’ and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation.”

So, more than for its thought-provoking subject material, I love to teach The Story of my Teeth as an example of the collaboration between the author and the translator. Valeria Luiselli speaks fluent English, but prefers to work closely with a translator, not to translate, but to rewrite the text with help from fresh eyes. Luiselli and Christina MacSweeney spent time together in New York working on the new text, and while MacSweeney was translating, she even listened to the same music Luiselli had been listening to as she wrote. The Story of my Teeth was the very deserving winner of the prestigious Valle Inclán Prize for translations from Spanish in 2016, whose judges, as well as many reviewers, were particularly impressed by how MacSweeney challenges the traditional invisibility of the translator. Most notably, she has added a new chapter, called “The Chronologics,” to the end of the book, a timeline which places Highway’s life within Mexican and Latin American history and makes it clear to English readers that the names which appear through the text are those of contemporary Latin American authors. MacSweeney told me that she didn’t want “dry as dust translator’s notes”, so instead set out to provide information which could help orient foreign readers in a creative way.

Beyond this most visible change, comparison with the Spanish reveals a whole series of edits to the book, which substantially alter its interpretation. The Spanish epigraphs, for example, are an anonymous quote about death and teeth and a line from Johnny Cash, whereas the English has a series of epigraphs from semioticians placed before each chapter, making it clear to readers that this book is about meaning making and the significance of words. Similarly, the English version makes the link between Highway’s auction of random objects (a stuffed toy, a false leg) and the art gallery much more explicit. New scenes are added in which Highway and his accomplice steal these objects from the gallery, and whereas the Spanish simply gives the stories inspired by the objects, the English gives the artists’ names – slightly altered of course (Doug Sánchez Aitken, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson) – as well as an exorbitant listing price for each, which is mocked when Highway sells the whole lot to a junkyard for 100 pesos.

Such changes have already been included in translations into other languages, and are expected to be included in the second Spanish edition of the book. The story behind The Story of my Teeth – from its collaborative inception to its continuing evolution in translation – encourages us to question terms like ”original” and ”fidelity,” and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation. Like Highway’s stories, each new version is an “elegant surpassing” of the former.

 

“Where are the women?” Voicing contemporary Russian womanhood in Before I Croak

I’m delighted to kick off a guest writing series on the blog today, and welcome my brilliant colleague Muireann Maguire to discuss her experience of translating Anna Babyashkina’s Before I Croak (Glas, 2013). You can find out more about Muireann in the Guest Contributors section and read more of her work on her blog, Russian Dinosaur.

“Finally, at the ripe old age of sixty, I’m writing my first book. All my life I’ve dreamed of this and never managed to make it happen. And now, before I croak, I’ve finally found the time to turn my Lifelong Dream into reality – to commit to paper sixty thousand words of coherent text in my own voice. I can write about what I’ve always really wanted, not whatever the editor-in-chief or the advertisers want to read […]. So now, before I croak, I, as a woman in full command of her faculties, born in the year 1979, still able to recall what life was like before mobile phones, the Internet, Putin and electric cars, sit down at my computer and, with a glow of profound satisfaction, open a new Word file […].”

It’s strange for me to read over the opening paragraphs of Russian author Anna Babyashkina’s novel Before I Croak (in the Russian original, Prezhde chem sdokhnut’), five years after writing them. After all, the words are mine; the narrator was born in the same year as me (and Anna); it’s as if the voice is my own. Yet, after a gap of half a decade, it feels as if someone else wrote this book. Which is no more than the truth, because she did.

Such are the paradoxes of a translator’s life: the words are your own, and not your own; you can’t take any credit for the book’s success, but you can be blamed if it tanks; some translators aren’t even mentioned in book reviews, or worse still, not named on the title page. (There is a limited print run of Before I Croak with the translator named as Arch Tait rather than me; hopefully, one day these copies will trade for millions, like the 1918 run of US ‘Inverted Jenny’ postage stamps printed with an upside-down aeroplane…). On the bright side, translating an author can make them your lifetime friend (as I hope will be true for Anna and me), and it connects you to something bigger than the book which you are (hopefully) getting paid to work on. When I was asked to translate Before I Croak for the Glas New Russian Writing Series, I completed a three-woman team: a female editor-publisher (Natasha Perova), and a female author (Anna).

Image taken from inpressbooks.co.uk

Before I Croak is in many ways a very female book. It explores contemporary Russian womanhood from the unusual perspective of Sonya, a rebellious sextuagenarian. Newly resident in a shabby nursing home outside Moscow (her pension fund failed!), Sonya is determined to write a Great Novel that will transform her from a retired journalist to a superstar. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed by colourful personalities and lurid secrets. Eventually she learns to re-evaluate her past life choices – especially her failures as a daughter, wife, and mother. Most of the narrative concerns love and sex, and many metaphors draw on female physical experiences, especially birth. Sonya eventually realizes she’s lived an unfulfilled life, like most of her generation, dodging catastrophes which were never going to happen: “We didn’t vote, we didn’t write declamations, we didn’t invent utopias, we made no demands, we didn’t build barricades, we invented nothing, we boycotted no-one, we had no heroes. […] We were much too afraid”. Ironically, just as she pledges to live out her life sincerely and without fear, she realizes she is about to die: from throat cancer (hence the title). I translated the book during a happy but fraught period in my life: my first son was an infant, and I often balanced my laptop beside the feeding baby as I typed; my temporary job was due to finish soon after my maternity leave, and I had no certain prospect of another. So I worked as fast as I could, emailing Anna (who reads English) for comments and clarifications, entering into and empathizing with the often febrile story worlds of her characters. Despite its future setting, the novel has nothing in common with the Russian trend for near-future dystopian sci-fi; the retrospective narrative ensures that all its scenarios are familiar to women of Natasha’s and my generation.

By translating Before I Croak, I briefly became part of the wonderful initiative which was Glas (an archaic Russian word for “voice”): essentially, a one-woman publishing house that brought Russian writers – including some Soviet names, but primarily contemporary and often young and female writers – to Anglophone audiences abroad. Authors first “launched” in English translation by Glas include Viktor Pelevin, Ludmilla Ulitskaya, and Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I discovered the great and obscure Soviet absurdist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii through Joanne Turnbull’s translations in the anthology Seven Stories (Glas, 2006). Joanne went on to restore Krzhizhanovskii’s reputation by translating his major works for NYRB Classics; I later translated one of his stories myself. My first commissions as a literary translator were for two Glas anthologies of contemporary Russian fiction, Squaring the Circle and Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia. Each of my translatees was young, female, and disconcertingly original; I remember learning the Russian for “boa constrictor” from one short story, and in another draft, coming terrifyingly close to translating the Russian word illuminator (porthole) as “light-switch”. I learned to double-check constantly with my dictionary. Natasha edited my final drafts, catching errors and suggesting smoother formulations. I never re-read Before I Croak in book form; I worked so rapidly on it that I still fear finding typos or mistranslations in the text. (Even today, I’m afraid of scrolling through the corrected draft in case I see orange font, the colour of Natasha’s interventions, everywhere.) In the end, I had one regret; I never liked the title, which was a literal translation of the original (and semantically quite effective, because of the double meaning of “croak” as “to die” and “to speak hoarsely”). I proposed Chain Mail, to reflect both the novel’s subplot of chain letters and the emotional armour that Sonya, the narrator, assembles around her true self. But although Natasha and Anna were receptive to my suggestion, the publicity was already fixed, so we kept Before I Croak.

“I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators” (Natasha Perova)

Glas was wound up in 2014, after almost twenty-five years and 170 authors, because of falling international sales. Natasha is still active as an editor and has, in fact, just published Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature (Dedalus, 2018), an anthology of stories by eleven major Russian female authors. When I reached out to Natasha for this blog post for her views on women translating (and publishing) women, here’s what she said:

“When the subject of women’s writing and women in translation comes up I always recall the start of Glas (1991). I was so proud of the first two issues until in all the reviews I read a remark that startled me: ‘Where are the women?’ I looked at the contents and yes, indeed, there were no women. The thought had never even entered my head. I felt ashamed and started looking for women authors. So the third Glas anthology was devoted exclusively to women’s writing. I discovered for myself very vibrant, emotional, and perceptive literature which was definitely different from men’s writing but in no way inferior. Since then I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s writing and followed its exciting and productive evolution. Among my modest achievements I see the fact that we published a great number of beginning women authors (they were all beginners in the early 1990s) whom nobody wanted to publish at the time, and thus helped them to become known abroad.

I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators. As a long-time editor of translations I’ve repeatedly noticed that when it comes to expressly female issues men often miss the point or misunderstand the context and connotations because they are not really interested enough in the women’s world with its specific problems which many men simply find annoying. This is still a very much man-dominated world, even  to some extent in Europe as well. Many things are still harder for women to attain, and this also refers to being published and translated. They say readers are mostly women, so I assume that women readers are more interested in men’s lives while men are have always been interested in themselves, naturally.

I think women make better translators as a rule because they are more attentive to detail by nature. Women with children in particular need extra support to establish their careers. They really need jobs which would allow them to work from home and stay with their children as much as they can. Writing and translating are among the jobs which provide an excellent opportunity for combining self-realization with career development. Another achievement of Glas is that we gave many budding translators a platform to showcase their first efforts and be noticed by bigger publishers.”

Anna Babyashkina agrees that women translators almost certainly do a better job of conveying female themes. She writes: “I doubt whether a male translator would have had so much empathy for Before I Croak, a book about motherhood, family, and women’s careers in contemporary Russia. As a woman, Muireann was well-acquainted with many of the ordeals and scenarios depicted in the book. I think this was an important factor in the translation’s success. For example, at one point I wrote (about Caesarian sections) that no woman can give birth naturally after having had one. Muireann looked at this in detail and clarified that a natural birth actually is possible. (At least in theory, although in practice in my country it rarely happens. Evidently they do things differently in Great Britain.) Would a man have paid any attention to this passage?” [my translation, from a personal email]. I remember this point in Anna’s novel, where a character becomes a writer’s muse, helping him to produce three novels. When they are separated, he overdoses on alcohol and pills, unable to write without her help. In summarizing this relationship, Anna twists the familiar, elegant metaphor of the writer’s muse acting as midwife to his novel; she suggests that this muse acted like an egotistical surgeon, forcing herself into the writer’s creative process, and forever “denying him the chance to give birth by himself”, i.e. to finish a book without her intervention. While I liked Anna’s metaphor, I pointed out that it broke down once you stopped assuming that one C-section precludes future natural births. Anna was impressed – but the passage stayed in. I don’t agree with Anna and Natasha that only a woman translator can give women’s themes due attention – surely a talented translator, like a talented author, is characterized by universal empathy – but I would have to agree that at that point in my own life, all aspects of motherhood were at the forefront of my mind. As they remain: my next research monograph will be about how and why male authors write about pregnancy and birth!

I will end this post with some excellent advice from Natasha Perova: “My own example as a woman publisher in post-perestroika Russia is not typical because it was a time of dislocation and constantly changing rules In Russia. It was hard for all those who launched new projects in conditions of wild capitalism, but harder still for women whose business experience was largely limited to managing family affairs. So my advice to all aspiring publishers and translators everywhere is to persevere and keep going forward no matter what, to be inventive and creative, and listen to their own inner voice for guidance”.

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.