Exquisite self-portraits in a digital age: Sylvie Weil, Selfies

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Selfies is a thoughtful take on a modern obsession: in it, Sylvie Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory, which she describes before giving us a glimpse of its importance in her life.  This creates an intimacy and familiarity, explaining the detail not only of the photograph itself, but also of all the concomitant personal memories and anecdotes that the image evokes for the storyteller.

The subjects of the selfies range from milestones in Weil’s life to recollections of incidents that might seem more minor, but they all have in common a quick wit, a keen sense of irony, and an immense capacity for compassion. A heady love affair comes to an end with a big decision and a faint hint of regret for a life imagined that will never now be lived (“I’ll watch the dawn break over the red bricks of Harlem. I’ll fasten my suitcase and put water in the kettle to boil. I’ll hastily drink a cup of Nescafé, sparing a brief thought for the students for whom I’ll never pour tea”); Weil’s feelings of irritation towards a pair of American friends surface when they make a selfish decision about their pet (“When you take a dog to the vet to have him put down because he’s guilty of swallowing a plastic duck, he’s obviously got no chance of making it”); the joy of friendship is explained with the brief yet poignant comment that “she gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging.” These incidents are connected to more significant revelations about Weil’s life: her need to belong and her passionate attachments belie hints of tragedy elsewhere in the snapshots. In ‘Self-portrait as a Visitor’ we find out that Weil’s Jewish family fled France in 1941 to escape persecution, and learn that Weil’s mother, despite coming from a distinguished family, is always haunted by the “refugee” tableau and passes on to her daughters “nostalgia for a childhood that was not ours.” Later, ‘Stabat mater’ deals with Weil’s son’s mental illness, and ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’ reports his disfigurement after a hate crime: the son recurs repeatedly in Weil’s tableaux, exposing Weil’s helplessness as a mother who cannot protect her child from history, from the present, or from other people (perhaps most piercingly evident in ‘Self-portrait with portrait of my son’).

Ros Schwartz conveys all the atmospheric melancholy in her beautifully measured translation, eschewing superfluous detail and offering the fragments of Weil’s life as just that – never a complete picture, but a series of connected representations. Often when reading translations of languages I know, I imagine the translator grappling with a particular choice of phrase, and sometimes wonder why this one was chosen over another. With Schwartz, every time I start to think “I wonder whether X would have worked”, I have the impression she already thought about that, weighed it up, and discarded it in favour of what I’m reading on the page. There is a carefulness to her work, a commitment to elegance and timbre: for example, in a couple of instances, a past participle starts the sentence (“Erased, the photo I wish I could have shown”; “Forgotten, the selfie with the bear”) – these sentences are not typical of English syntax, yet starting them with a subject (think “the selfie with the bear was forgotten”) would lose both the emphasis and the poetry. Schwartz’s rendering is more controlled and evocative, and you know straight away that it’s a choice, not a calque.

The vignettes offer intimate insights into Weil’s personal life but are never self-indulgent, and Weil also weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of life: in ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ she shows how a longed-for friendship can turn on a seemingly innocuous comment, and in ‘Self-portrait as an author’ demonstrates how even a celebrated writer can feel humiliated, always dependent on people buying the books and being polite. Perhaps my favourite example of these reflections is the one Weil makes on selfies themselves, noting that “Everyone takes selfies, it’s a way of going unnoticed.” In the act of taking a selfie, what Weil is photographing goes unnoticed because people think it’s “just” a selfie like the millions of others. But Weil is using this 21st-century obsession in order to do something far more important: she is capturing a moment or an observation, or creating a longed-for memory. She is not just a tourist taking a clichéd snapshot, or a mildly hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with snapping photos of “three scrawny roses with crumpled petals”, a cloud formation, or a family gathering, and yet this is how she wants to appear so that no-one notices her true objective, or realises what she is really capturing with her camera.

With her present-day observations, Weil reaches back to the past: to the women in the self-portraits, to her mother, and to generations of her family who have gone before. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic, with her acknowledgement that “the past is real and alive.” Unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Crossing over from the visual to the verbal, this book is everything that selfies should be: it is not posed or contrived, not about looking her best or showing an over-the-top perfect life. Rather, it is vulnerable, sensitive, beautifully crafted and exquisitely displayed.

Sylvie Weil and Ros Schwartz will be in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson at the Institut Français in London TONIGHT (Monday 17 June) for the official launch of Selfies: book a ticket here.

Review copy of Selfies provided by Les Fugitives; pre-order your copy here.

 

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.

“I don’t want an ending like this”: Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Oneworld, 2019)

This year Oneworld Books have released four books by women in translation (see bottom of page for full details); I went to their Translated Fiction showcase at the British Library in April to hear Olga Grjasnowa and Selja Ahava talk about their newly released titles, City of Jasmine (Grjasnowa, tr. Katy Derbyshire, reviewed here), and Things That Fall from the Sky (Ahava, tr. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah). This was an event brilliantly chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, who also introduced Oneworld authors Alessandro d’Avenia (read a beautiful extract from What Hell is Not, tr. Jeremy Parzen, here), Jasmin B. Frelih (whose In/Half, tr. Jason Blake, was longlisted for the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize) and the extremely witty double act of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynsky writing the period murder mystery Mrs Mohr Goes Missing as Maryla Szymiczkowa (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones).

Image from oneworld-publications.com

In Things That Fall From the Sky, Selja Ahava writes from the perspective of a child named Saara trying to make sense of something utterly senseless: her mother’s death from being hit on the head by a block of ice falling from the sky. The premise here reminded me of the cult HBO series Six Feet Under, in which a character would die in often improbable circumstances, possibly inspired by a real-life event spied in a newspaper story. The improbable event in this case is that when aeroplanes have a leak, the dripping water freezes on the outside of the plane and, as more water leaks through, can form into an ice block. If this becomes heavy enough, it can get detached in flight and fall to the ground at a speed which, if you happened to be standing in its path of descent, could smash your head off. Ahava explained that this random absurdity appealed to her sense of humour, and this “tragicomic” element is key to the success of the story: the child’s perspective allows Ahava to make pared-down, simple and often amusing observations, crucial to the pathos that serves to remind us that however farcical the circumstances, we are still dealing with a grieving child.

Two other stories of improbable things literally or figuratively “falling from the sky” interweave with Saara’s: her aunt wins the lottery twice, and a man on a remote Scottish island is struck by lightning five times in the course of his life (only to die eventually of heart failure). The common theme is not only the improbability, but also how these chance occurrences – even ostensibly wonderful ones such as winning the lottery twice – isolate the people on whom they are inflicted, and change their lives irreparably. There are three interconnected leitmotivs that recur throughout the book: the notion of “time heals” (which is exposed as a fallacy), outlines (the white lines around dead bodies in murder mysteries, but also the outline of Saara herself, when her mother drew an outline of Saara’s body on a wall one happy day: this drawing has now been wallpapered over, leaving Saara “trapped in the wall” and unable to move on), and time standing still.

Saara is obsessed with “whodunnits” and their dénouements (particularly those involving a certain Belgian detective, gathering an audience for a dramatic scene of revelation). There is understated humour in these references, but the white outline comes to represent the far more serious issues of the intangibility of death, and the difficulty of grieving absence. This is extended in two ways: firstly, in comparison with a lottery win, which is only ever intangible and never a physical pile of money and, secondly, via the image of Saara trapped in the wall: the outline of her body as it was then remains frozen in time under the new decoration, never ageing, cut off – just as  her mother was frozen in time, cut off, never to grow older. Amidst the absurdity and humour, this is a piercing reminder that time stops when loved ones die, that the deceased and those who loved them are always suspended in that moment, as Saara explains in her understanding of time and tense:

“When Mum leans over the bed, her hair spills out from behind her ears and touches my face, along with her kisses. When I say Mum leans, she’s still here. When Mum leaned, she’s already going. Dad doesn’t talk about Mum, because he can’t say leaned. He can’t talk Mum into the past; every now and then, he starts a sentence with Mum’s name, but he stops halfway.
Mum stopped halfway.”

Time “stopping” and the image of the white outline are deftly brought together when Saara explains that “Time stopped. I couldn’t think forwards or backwards. Someone drew a thick white line round our thoughts, and the thoughts stopped, and we got stuck there.” All time becomes that one moment of loss, the little girl in the walls trapped there forever, unable to move on. Things That Fall from the Sky thus becomes, in a way, a “white outline” of its own, immortalising this period of Saara’s life and grieving process.

The simplicity of a child’s perspective crystallises complex emotions: Ahava is a playwright, and this is evident in her novel. There is no superfluous detail, and the prose is characterised by a clarity of expression that is communicated by an excellent translation from Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah: Saara’s voice is vividly and sensitively conveyed – the register and tenor are pitch-perfect in Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s translation, as are the gaps of what is left unsaid.

Like City of Jasmine, the Oneworld book I reviewed last week, Things That Fall from the Sky also has a very poignant ending, showing the inadequacy of “time-heals” for a child who has lost everything that was once familiar. If City of Jasmine offered a fresh perspective on a global humanitarian crisis, Things That Fall from the Sky is more focused on the individual: Saara is not suffering from a historical tragedy, but from a personal one that it is equally impossible to explain away with platitudes. This is a story of the extraordinary events in everyday lives, but it is also the story of a child trying to come to terms with bereavement. Saara does not want her story – and with it, her mother – to come to an end: “Without an ending, there’s no story, but I don’t want an ending like this”, she says, and so her story becomes a reflection not only on the imperative to “move on” but also on storytelling itself, and on the endurance of love.

Oneworld’s women in translation 2019 publications in full:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Argentina). Full review.
Guzel Yakhina, Zuleika, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Russia).
Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Germany). Full review.
Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Finland).

Review copy of Things That Fall from the Sky provided by Oneworld Books.

The human side of a humanitarian crisis: Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Oneworld, 2019)

City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a soaring, searing representation of the Syrian refugee crisis, following the lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising. Above all, it is a superb story; Grjasnowa’s stark, gripping prose is translated with clarity and compassion by Derbyshire, making this an engaging and deeply moving read. What sets City of Jasmine apart from other European texts focusing on refugees (such as Jenny Erpenbeck’s admittedly marvellous Go Went Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books) is that Grjasnowa’s novel is not about refugees as broken individuals arriving in Europe, but as people with lives that are being torn apart, leaving them with no option but to flee. This shift in perspective challenges western readers to step outside the ways in which we receive and perceive the political situation, and to consider the human dimension of this humanitarian crisis.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

City of Jasmine is a brave indictment of the Syrian regime, and follows the entangled lives of Amal, Hammoudi and Youssef as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. Grjasnowa’s husband is Syrian, and on her UK book tour she commented that her desire to better understand the situation in his homeland was a motivation for writing City of Jasmine. It does not pretend to be a Syrian book: this is a European book, written for a European audience, with subtle explanatory details that would not be necessary for a Syrian readership. These are carefully rendered by Derbyshire in the translation: there is no information overload, no didactic or “educational” prose, but rather the detail is full and informative without being conspicuous or heavy-handed. I don’t usually go in for lengthy quotations, but this one, from towards the start of the story, is worth reading and exemplifies what I mean about the clarity, subtle detail, and lyricism of the prose:

“People were sick and tired. Amal was tired, her brother was tired, her friends, her fellow students, acquaintances, strangers in the streets, the entire vulgar bohème was sick and tired. They were sick and tired of the corruption, the secret services’ arbitrary decisions, their own powerlessness and permanent humiliation. They were sick and tired of all public libraries, airports, stadiums, universities, parks and even kindergartens being named after the Assads. They were sick and tired of their fathers, brothers and uncles mouldering in jails. They were sick and tired of the whole family having to chip in to buy the sons out of military service while the North American teenagers on cable TV were given cars by their parents and travelled the world. They were sick and tired of reciting ‘Assad for all eternity’ every morning at school and swearing to fight all Americans, Zionists and imperialists. They were sick and tired of memorizing Assad quotes in political-education classes and then filling in the gaps in the right order for their tests. They were sick and tired of being taught in military education to dismantle and reassemble a machine gun. They were sick and tired of being treated like animals. And above all they were sick and tired of not being allowed to say any of it out loud.”

The Syria depicted in City of Jasmine is a country in the grip of the secret services, where women and dissidents are silenced (“She’s full of unsaid words and she knows she’ll never speak them, not as long as Bashar al-Assad and his accursed family are in power”), where propaganda is the only news and no-one offers aid (“The state TV stations repeat the tale of alleged terrorists and show images of martyrs who died for Assad’s glory. The West does nothing, still nothing”). It is a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent, not to think we know about something just because we have seen a version of it on the news.

Grjasnowa’s subjects are neither downtrodden nor disadvantaged; their lives when we meet them are far removed from western depictions of refugees. Amal is from a wealthy family and works as an actress, but opposing the state makes everyone equal in persecution (though her father’s money and contacts ensure that she is released when detained), and indeed Grjasnowa sheds light on the status of those who make it beyond their own borders: “It’s the middle classes escaping; the poor remain behind in the refugee camps. It’s the people who once hoped for more from life than simply reaching a safe country, who once had ambitions and a future.” Yet this does not make City of Jasmine a story of privilege, but rather adds a thought-provoking, human dimension, as Amal cannot cope with being seen as a refugee, someone with nothing to her name except all the labels that come along with the situation into which she has been forced: “She hates being seen as a Muslim and a scrounger and she hates herself. The world has invented a new race – the race of refugees, Flüchtlinge, Muslims or newcomers. The condescension is palpable in every breath.”

This presentation forces us out of sanctimonious preconceptions and facile prejudices: the indictment is not only of the Syrian regime, but also of the way in which the west views the crisis and the people affected by it. Amal’s fate is loosely entwined with that of Hammoudi, a young doctor with a bright future. Hammoudi returns to Syria to renew his passport before taking up a prestigious job as a surgeon in Paris’s most elite hospital, and finds himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to leave his country even though his life is elsewhere. One of France’s most promising surgeons, he becomes an illegal war doctor, and when he is forced to flee to the west he becomes a refugee too, despite the life he already had in Paris.

I always try to avoid spoilers, so I can’t tell you how City of Jasmine ends and the twist that moved me most; I can only recommend that you read it for yourself. I’m careful not to over-use the adjective “heartbreaking” – it comes too easily and can mean so little if bandied around. But this story truly merits the word “heartbreaking” – beautifully written, sensitively translated, a unique and welcome perspective on the refugee crisis. I loved every page of this book, and I highly recommend it.

 

Changing the status quo: the 2019 Man Booker International prize

Tonight the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize will be announced, and it’s something of a landmark year for women in translation. I want to talk about how 2018’s Year of Publishing Women, though it seemed to have a relatively small reach at the time, has had a significant impact on this prize: it’s possible that we’re witnessing a coincidence on a grand scale, but perhaps the fact that the shortlist features a higher proportion of women than is usual for literary prizes is a direct consequence of the Year of Publishing Women – partly owing to what was published last year, but also because of an increased awareness of the importance of striving for greater balance. The gender ratio on this year’s shortlist has made headlines everywhere, but even in neutral reports an unconscious bias is evident; in The Guardian it was described as being “dominated” by women, a phrasing quite rightly questioned by women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski. Her point was that no shortlist with the opposite ratio would be described as being “dominated” by men – that would just be normal, right?

Image from themanbookerprize.com

Right. Except it’s so wrong that this attitude of male “domination” being normal is still prevalent. I’ve encountered several people in the past year who have said they’re unsure about whether there should be such a thing as a year of publishing only women, and so I’m just going to nail my colours to the mast and say that at this point in history YES, THERE SHOULD: women are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and this is compounded in translated literature as women face a double marginalisation. By not challenging this, we allow it to continue. Saying that we’re not gender-biased but still having catalogues or bookshelves that are heavily weighted towards male authors is, I think, quite dangerous: there may not be conscious bias, but the bias that exists at all the stages a book goes through on its journey to translation, publication and reception is allowed to continue – is even normalised – if we ignore it by believing that not being deliberately biased against women in translation is enough to tilt the balance.

So the Year of Publishing Women was brave and necessary, and opened a dialogue about the books that get published and those that don’t. In an interview last year, publicist Nicky Smalley told me that And Other Stories (the only publishing house to commit fully to the Year of Publishing Women) had to actively seek out books by women writers to fill the 2018 catalogue; one of those books, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, is now on the Man Booker International shortlist. The Remainder is a spirited dual narrative in which three young people shackled to the historical memory of the Chilean dictatorship drive a hearse through the mountains from Chile to Argentina in search of a corpse lost in transit, and was beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories. Its well-deserved place on the shortlist represents activism at its best, and it is not the only success of the Year of Publishing Women: the more women are published, the more they will be discussed, reviewed and entered for prizes, and the more these lists might see a more lasting shift where people are no longer surprised to see the scales tipped towards a preponderance of women writers. Where this is no longer “unprecedented”, no longer a surprising “domination”, but something perfectly normal – just as it will continue be perfectly normal for the ratio to favour men on other occasions. Neither scenario should be surprising, and yet one of them is.

The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist also smashes tired stereotypes of what women write about: women’s writing is too often pigeonholed as “romance”, “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”, and it is assumed and accepted that women write for women (an attitude brilliantly challenged by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) – these kinds of facile assumptions are exactly what perpetuate the invisible bias that women writers have to confront every time they sit down to write. And yet the women-authored books on the Man Booker International shortlist are extremely diverse: as well as Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, there is the second English-language publication of last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk: the magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a witty and poignant pseudo-noir murder mystery flawlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The difference in genre and voice from Flights (Tokarczuk’s 2018 prizewinner, translated by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions), along with the sheer scope of her work, shows that we cannot pigeonhole Tokarczuk (and, with her, Polish literature or women’s writing). And the excellent, ambitious books are not limited to The Remainder and Drive Your Plow (though they are my two unequivocal favourites on the shortlist): in Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi tells the history of Oman through the women of one fictional family, translated by Marilyn Booth for Sandstone Press; Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a “collective autobiography” of twentieth-century French cultural history, translated by Alison L. Strayer for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, an excoriating account of one man’s self-indulgent journey of enlightenment, finds new audiences in Jen Calleja’s sardonic translation for Serpent’s Tail.

Women represent half of history, half of the world, half of life – let them fill half your bookshelf, and then we won’t need a Year of Publishing Women or see women’s success framed in terms of anomalous “domination”. I’ve mentioned the scales tipping, the balance shifting, the ratios changing: the theme for International Women’s Day this year was “Balance for Better”, and I believe that the Year of Publishing Women has done exactly that. Shamsie noted that the real point of interest would be what happened in 2019:

“Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?”

2018 may not quite have been the “radically transformed publishing landscape” that Shamsie had hoped for, but the Year of Publishing Women did shake up expectations, complacencies, and resignation about the “unchangeability” of gender bias. The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist is testament to that, and as both gatekeepers and readers we need to carry on balancing for better so that the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women is not limited to one year, but carries on challenging the status quo until the status quo itself is changed.

Desire, disgust, maternity and monstrosity: Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press, 2019)

Ariana Harwicz was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her first novel Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for Charco Press), a ferocious account of a woman rejecting stereotypes of domesticity and maternity. Feebleminded reprises similar themes, depicting non-conformist women who reject traditional relationships, wrestle with the everyday, stagger at the edge of reason, and are hurtling towards a violent climax. Harwicz is an extremely talented writer, and I was fortunate to meet her during her tour to promote Feebleminded, so shall include in my discussion some of the things I learnt there (for a full review of the launch event I attended, you can read Jackie’s write-up).

Image from charcopress.com

Feebleminded is a turbulent voyage that lurches from the banality of everyday country life to the abjection of monstrous and potentially murderous relationships. The blurb of Die, My Love claimed that it is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but when, and how violent a form it will take, this is equally (perhaps even more?) true of Feebleminded. The narrative lunges towards a cliff edge, and pulls back only to run headlong at it again, as Harwicz describes in Hotel magazine: “There is a moment in which you think you are going to be saved, a moment of relief, and immediately after comes the moment of extreme tension where no doubt that bullet, that kiss, that caress, that sexual act, will turn into the bullet that is going to kill you.” Obsession and deliverance are blurred in Feebleminded, as are love and violence (“kissing was a steady advance, knife raised high”), all detonating in my favourite line: “I raised the machete with all my love, with all my dying heart.” Such contrasts abound: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it?

The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, a “women’s den” from which the mother rarely emerges, and the daughter only to go to a mundane job in a clothing store or meet her lover (presumably they also occasionally go out on the kind of debauched carousal that led to the mother conceiving her daughter and the daughter meeting her lover, but the how and why of encounters are dispensed with: Harwicz resolutely omits superfluous detail). The women are constantly at loggerheads with one another but cannot exist apart; whether by choice, fate or circumstance they are bound together.

While there are similarities in subject matter between Die, My Love and Feebleminded, they are nonetheless very distinct stories. The press release description of Feebleminded as the second instalment of an “involuntary trilogy” that began with Die, My Love (and will be concluded with Precocious in 2020 or 2021) led me to spend an inordinate amount of time developing conspiracy theories about how one of the characters in Feebleminded might be an older version of the narrator of Die, My Love – but it turns out I had it all wrong. Harwicz described the trilogy as more like a musical suite, with sonatas that repeat the same refrain but each have their own separate identity, and when she read aloud this musicality became evident. Rather than the characters, the themes they represent are the connecting thread between the stories, and the deliberate absence of any character names locks them in their roles as “wife”, “husband”, “lover”, “mother-in-law” and so on, to better explore those tropes.

Common to the first two instalments of this “involuntary trilogy” are rebellious anti-heroines who represent the antithesis of a maternal instinct, and although this is mostly depicted in violent terms, we are offered sporadic glimpses of the human misery that engenders it. In Feebleminded, the narrator knows that her mother almost tried to abort her, and that she “lowered” rather than raised her, and the narrative depicts a carnal, almost cannibalistic relationship between the two women. In both books, the narrator is obsessed with a married man – one has a child, the other is expecting one – and so both are bound by obligations elsewhere. Love is all-consuming (joy “creeps up through my body like an illness”), desire is animalistic, bodies are abject and responsibility is an encumbrance: the women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love). The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation, such as the mother’s recognition of her failings (“I should have given you a proper education, stopped you from sticking your fingers into your shell and pulling out the slug”) and the daughter’s anticipation of meeting her lover (“Here he comes. He’s getting closer. And it’s like letting go of heavy suitcases after a long journey, watching my fingers throb”).

The dialogues in Feebleminded are also brilliantly translated: it is not always clear from the punctuation who is talking, and this is a deliberately destabilising technique – but each woman has a distinct voice, and these come across in the translation. In fact the dialogues are very funny, violence and humour colliding in the mother and daughter’s apparent ignorance of how hilarious their interactions are (look out for the mother describing an “unprepossessing” man who just might have had the nefarious intention of raping her, hacking her to bits, and leaving her dismembered body in a bin bag by the roadside, and the daughter questioning the accuracy of the mother’s exaggerated “son of uncountable whores” curse until she modifies it to the rather less excessive “son of a bitch”).

Neither Die, My Love nor Feebleminded is what you’d call an “easy read”; they challenge and subvert, revel in ambiguity, and cannot be easily categorised. But why should we want to categorise them? Writing does not have to be a product of the author’s geographical origins, or fit into neat descriptions of being “about” a particular subject. Even if both texts deal with madness (both narrators are sent away for psychological treatment: the narrator of Die, My Love is sent to a sanitorium by her husband, and in Feebleminded the narrator notes that she has only ever visited cities for medical appointments and electroshocks), they are not about “madwomen”: if these women disrupt reality and society – in their language, their passions, their abjection and their actions – then they are simply breaking through a veneer of “normality” that masks the madness and disruption of reality and society themselves. Both Die, My Love and Feebleminded are subversive, electrifying, and highly original, and the closest I could come to defining these books is that they are a sublime, savage explosion via literature of all that women are not allowed to be in reality.

Review copy of Feebleminded provided by Charco Press.

Stories of intimacy and alienation: Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise

Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s no secret that I’ve been excited about Thirteen Months of Sunrise, the first major translation into English of a Sudanese woman writer. Rania Mamoun’s writing has a cultural specificity that offered me a window into a culture I know shamefully little about, but the themes in her short stories are universal: the collection is urgent, thoughtful, and occasionally surreal, reflecting on themes ranging from love, contingency, and broken promises to despair, religion, alienation and corruption. I don’t believe that authors should be yoked to a moral imperative of having to “represent” or “speak for” their country or culture in their writing, and though Thirteen Months of Sunrise is described in the press release as “a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan”, it is also a rich, complex and moving portrait of humanity. Indeed, there is so much in here that pushes us to rethink lazy neo-colonial stereotypes: for example, although ‘In the Muck of the Soul’ presents a woman whose poverty and fate might seem to conform to clichéd expectations, the story is presented as though through a video camera, a pseudo-documentary that gently reminds us that what we think we know about Sudan is nonetheless always edited: “Tears tumble from her eyes. The camera pans down to a fallen tear, the focus sharpens and it fills the screen.”

Image from commapress.co.uk

The translation by Elisabeth Jaquette is very accomplished; Jaquette also translated another book I enjoyed recently (The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, a Kafka-esque nightmare set in Egypt), and so I already knew that she was an excellent translator. She brings the same sensitivity to Thirteen Months of Sunrise, and there are echoes of the bureaucracy that haunts The Queue in ‘In the Muck of the Soul’. But Mamoun is also playful, and Jaquette communicates that equally well: Mamoun shows a wicked sense of humour in ‘Stray Steps’, with pithy comments about family relationships that made me laugh out loud (“What was the point of going home, where there was nothing but tap water and my mother, who I only like sometimes when I have all my wits about me, and she only half her wits, maybe even a quarter. They disappear and reappear at random, only she knows when they’ll be there or not.”/ “My uncle works as a driver for a taxi company, but he also has a job as a first class drunk, so what he does with his salary won’t help me.”) ‘Stray Steps’ brings together the tragic and the humorous, the real and the imagined that co-exist in Mamoun’s stories, leading us to a surreal conclusion but always foregrounding the most recognisable of human emotions.

In the short stories we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. The bonds Mamoun explores range from desire, friendship, sexual attraction and family love to connections rooted in a place, a history, or a shared sense of belonging, as in the relationship between a Sudanese woman and an Ethiopian man in the title story (incidentally, I shan’t spoil the meaning of the title by telling you what the ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ refers to; you can save that enjoyment for your own reading!):

“He found in me someone who understood him, and I found in him a window into Ethiopia, and oh how I loved it. […] The Blue Nile, which passes through Khartoum, originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. That’s what makes our bond so strong, I thought: we were nursed from the same source.”

The Blue Nile is also beautifully depicted on the cover of the book, highlighting the importance of origins to this collection; there may be no obligation for Mamoun to educate us about contemporary Sudan, but this does not mean that her stories lack roots. The two I enjoyed most were a painful one about poverty, and a passionate one about love. In ‘One-room Sorrows’, a mother cannot feed her children, and we see her misery in the face of their hunger: “‘Mama, me hungry,’ says the little boy of four, begging his mother. She looks at him, her heart so torn to shreds by hunger, sadness, pain and defeat.” You might think that this is the clichéd representation of Sudan I was trying to step away from earlier, but it’s so much more than a reductive view of poverty – it is a tale of relationships and responsibilities and survival, and ends with a line that takes a social problem and shows its most personal side: “‘Mum, are you gonna eat us when you get hungry?’ asks the boy of four, and she smiles, tells him no, hugs him, and sadly considers his need to ask.”

These intimate portrayals of people at the edges of life, society and reason are where Mamoun excels: my other favourite story, ‘Edges’, exposes passion and desire, and plays with madness. The narrator describes waiting for love in an intensely poetic way: “I had waited for him so many years. For him to come mend my cracks and fissures. He came to dismantle, disperse, and then assemble me, to rearrange my parts and pieces, to shape me anew.” The protagonist is, however, deemed to be mad, her all-consuming passions considered a negative loss of control of the senses. But Mamoun reclaims these passions, casting in a positive light the memories of a great love that is both rooted in a time and place and collectively human:

“I remember the evening the damp sandbar lay between us and the Blue Nile, when he reached out and said, ‘Give me your hand.’
I lived a lifetime in the space and time between when I lifted my hand – it moved through the air, reached its apex, began its descent – and when it settled in his palm. I experienced a whole lifetime, parallel to my own, in those moments.”

Mamoun writes with a sparse clarity, eschewing melodrama: if her narrator here lives a lifetime in a moment, so Mamoun herself writes a life in just a few pages. She displays great gentleness towards her characters – the diabetic woman dragging herself along the road and encountering an unlikely saviour, the woman on a bus who feels a wave of compassion towards a pair of flies, the beggar woman who sits at the foot of the mosque’s east wall, “a black mass gathered in the dark”, who even the dogs were afraid of – and offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable.

Review copy of 13 Months of Sunrise provided by Comma Press. Released in the UK on 9 May 2019; available to pre-order here.

For more by Rania Mamoun, read The Book of Khartoum or Banthology, both also published by Comma Press.

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

On The Remainder, equality, and throwing out the rulebook: an interview with Sophie Hughes

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Sophie Hughes. Sophie is the translator of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, which was published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. Sophie has also translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and six English PEN translate awards, and is a translator I greatly admire: the MBI shortlisting is testament not only to an excellent novel by Alia Trabucco Zerán and to the positive changes that And Other Stories have set in motion with their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, but also to Sophie’s great passion for and investment in her translations, and to the immense skill with which she carries them out.

Sophie Hughes, Man Booker International shortlisted translator of The Remainder (Alia Trabucco Zerán, And Other Stories 2018)

Helen Vassallo: How did you first come across The Remainder? Did you pitch for it, or was it offered to you?

Sophie Hughes: The writer and my friend Carlos Fonseca wrote to me saying he thought I’d like his friend’s debut novel. He knew I was translating a cult Mexican novella called El apando (The Hole, by José Revueltas, published by New Directions and co-translated with Amanda Hopkinson), which has a strangely hypnotic but relentless prose style. The first page of that novella unfolds in a single sentence; one half of The Remainder is written as a single sentence… Carlos clearly thought I hadn’t set myself enough of a challenge! So I was just lucky enough to read the book early. I then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and got it, and that paid for me to work on translating the whole novel. In the meantime, Alia got a world-class agent, and I think Stefan at And Other Stories read a sample on PEN’s dedicated webpage for the PEN/Heim grant. He was bowled over by Alia, as I had been, and asked me to do the translation. I actually pushed back my maternity leave to finish it, which is mad, of course, but love is mad, and I loved the book.

HV: What was it about The Remainder that you found particularly engaging, and that you think readers and the MBI judging panel have enjoyed in it?

SH: It’s impossible to say why the judges or other readers enjoyed it – I’m just pleased they did. I fell for Felipe, one of the novel’s three young characters living in the shadow of the Chilean dictatorship and who take a madcap road trip in a hearse to retrieve the body of one of their ex-militant mothers. Felipe is a rambler, a serial overthinker, an accidental virtuoso spewing his past and present out in one long sentence – it’s not always easy to read, actually, and can feel quite exhausting with all the constant digressions, but it was fun to translate! It meant I could throw out the grammar rulebook and just listen and try to improvise consonant cadences in the English (we look for close approximations all the time as literary translators, but more obviously so with semantics: jokes and sayings, etc.). More so than with other books I’ve translated, this was an exercise in close listening: translation as an infinite canon. One annoying detail when translating the book was the Spanish noun “el muerto” – “the dead man/person” – which comes up all the time. In the plural it’s easy – if inescapably Joycean – “the dead”, but “the dead man” is a clunky old phrase that didn’t work in lots of instances. I had to come up with some snappy alternatives and use them sparingly. ‘Stiff’ is a good word, but you can have too much of a good thing.

HV: You obviously have a very special connection with Alia. Do you work closely with all your authors?

SH: I’ve said it before, but it is true that to know Alia is to love her – she is humble and has a healthy irreverence for the literary world, yet is also incredibly gracious, generous of spirit, and infectiously passionate about reading and literature. She thinks and cares deeply about humankind, about histories and stories (historias – it’s the same word in Spanish), about what is right and good, and why we behave in ways that are neither right nor good. She’s funny but never flippant, and this comes across in La resta (and I hope in The Remainder). I love it when there is understanding between me and the authors I’m translating. I am from the school of: an author’s input can improve a translation. It’s not detrimental to the translation if you can’t rely on it, of course, but I always suss this out early and if they want to be involved in the translation process, I welcome it. In truth, I suppose I feel like some of the responsibility becomes shared. There is always some guesswork involved in translation because good literature necessarily contains ambiguities. When you read a novel, you read it with all of your history weighing on your interpretation, but this doesn’t really matter. When you translate, it does matter, because you will share that interpretation with others. Actors put on accents and so must we. To spend time talking with the author is one way I shed my accent and get closer to theirs. All this being said, some authors really just want to leave it to you (this will sound terrible, but I definitely would if I were an author), and in such cases I merely send a list of questions and never bother them again. So I’m lucky that I now count Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún and Alia among my best friends. Close reading is as beautiful a basis for a friendship as I can imagine.

HV: It seems that women’s voices from Latin America are being heard much more in English than before. Do you think there are specific reasons for this?

SH: Women’s voices in many fields and in many languages and places are being heard louder. This probably explains the phenomenon you describe. But let’s not beat around the bush: it is thanks to the concerted efforts of women that women are being heard. And the problem has not gone away, of course. Many have pointed out the blatant gender-ghettoization in the literary world, and I don’t have the answer for how to create gender parity without playing the numbers game, without employing positive discrimination: separate women writer lists, prizes, panels, blogs and projects and so on. But I do think that, in some cases, somewhere along the way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own” has been taken detrimentally literally.

Looking back, the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced some magnificent authors to the world, but its gender imbalance was scandalous. A scandal symptomatic of the times, yes, but scandalous nonetheless: women writers in Latin America were – and to some degree still are – the collateral damage of the deafening acclaim received by its entirely male cast. What is the opposite of boom? I can’t think what that might be. Does such a concept exist? If not, that might tell us what we need to know about how women writers from Latin America have been received, internally and internationally. Today, it’s unlikely that an analogous movement wouldn’t include women writers. But gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women.

A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance: tomorrow you could go to the library and search out, or chance upon, your favourite new author from Latin America. She might be a she. Many of us rely too heavily on the internet when public libraries represent such wonderfully democratic (cookie-free) search engines. What I mean is that every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.

There’s one last point I’d like to make with regards to the deep-seated misogyny and the physical and emotional abuses committed by too many men in the Latin American literary industry. The problem is endemic (although by no means unique to Latin America) and it has a deep impact on who gets published, publicised and read, but also on what women write, and which women write. When I lived in Latin America I was unlucky enough to see a GIF going around of an adult film star being penetrated from behind by a man, and an accompanying line referring to a contemporary woman writer and an editor, insinuating, of course, that she owed her publishing successes to offering sexual favours to influential men. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. I was sorry I had to see it. But now I’m not. A reader created that GIF for a very niche audience. Not some bored teenager trolling the girl he fancies at school. A reader of “high literature”. I use the grim GIF tale to remind me what women face whenever they sit at their desks to write: the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins. Perhaps it is our duty to do those writers the service of reading them. Relatedly, my colleagues and I have experienced unwanted and uninvited advances from male writers who seem to have trouble distinguishing our job as translators (to read them closer than anyone else) with another kind of intimacy. This rather makes you not want to be good at your job. To shrink into yourself. To evaporate on the page. To fall silent. There you go: the opposite of ‘boom’.

HV: And finally, the nature of publishing is that what we’re reading now is something that you worked on some time ago. What are you currently working on, or excited about?

SH: I’m currently translating a novel by Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, Fitzcarraldo, UK| New Directions, US, 2020). It’s a masterpiece. I have night sweats from the responsibility of translating this novel.

And I’m co-translating, with Juana Adcock, Giuseppe Caputo’s debut novel Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World, Charco Press, UK) which manages to be many things as once: a love letter between a father and son, a seething yet humourous portrait of lives lived in poverty, and a refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) honest reflection on the body as a space of pleasure and violence.

Read ‘A Bitter Pill’, Sophie’s translation of a short story by Alia Trabucco Zerán, in the April 2019 issue of Words Without Borders.

Sophie and Alia talk about their Man Booker International shortlisting on the Man Booker website.

The Remainder is published in the UK by And Other Stories, and will be released in the US by Coffee House Press in August 2019.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.