Monthly Archives: August 2018

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.

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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!

Review copy provided by Charco Press.

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?

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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.

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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.