Monthly Archives: October 2018

A retirement facility with a terrifying difference: Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy (OneWorld, 2018, 2nd edition)

As soon as I read The Unit, it went straight down as a “must-read” recommendation on my virtual bookshelf: it is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s advertised as a dystopian narrative comparable to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and comes with an endorsement from Atwood on the front cover. You may already know about my admiration for Atwood’s oeuvre, so from my perspective there’s a lot to live up to if something is compared with it. Let me give you two reasons why The Unit does this for me and more: I couldn’t drag myself away from it, and I forgot I was reading a translation.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

The Unit is a dystopian novel about the value of human life and the desperation of the human heart in which, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopia feels all too possible. It takes place in the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a retirement facility with a difference: the people who go there live their final years in comfort, wanting for nothing, in exchange for taking part in medical experiments and donating their organs one by one until the “final donation”. The only inhabitants of the Unit are “dispensables”: women over 50 and men over 60 who are childless, and who do not have a profession deemed “necessary” to society. Once they enter the Unit there is no going back, and no more contact with the outside world; their organs are donated to people “out in the community” – people more “necessary” than them.

It wasn’t just The Handmaid’s Tale that The Unit reminded me of, but also Atwood’s Positron series (brought together in The Heart Goes Last), and so I was interested to note that The Unit’s original publication pre-dates The Heart Goes Last, leaving no doubt that there is nothing derivative about Holmqvist’s dystopia. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I found The Unit so impressive: for a debut novel to be this perfectly observed, I can’t help but pinch myself. It is no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t put The Unit down: often when I only really had time to read one chapter, I found myself reading another and another, and then rushing late and breathless to whatever I needed to do next. I didn’t even consciously decide to read more and make myself late; it just happened. It’s very rare that a book can have this effect on me, draw me in and shut out all else as books could do in a time before I had responsibilities, internet, and a mobile phone.

“It is only on the edges of human experience that Dorrit understands what it is to belong”

Dorrit enters the Unit just after her 50th birthday: she has never had children, and never had a stable relationship. Her last relationship was with a married man, who eventually made it clear to her that he would never leave his wife and children. With no-one but her dog to care for, and with her economic position becoming untenable, Dorrit decides to have her dog adopted, live her final years in peace, and enter the Second Reserve Bank Unit. What Dorrit hadn’t anticipated is that inside the Unit she would fall in love, and that this love would make her want to cling to life at the very time she had resigned herself to it drawing to a close. For the first time in her life, she experiences what it is to be “part of a couple, not always the fifth wheel on the wagon, but regarded and treated as someone who belongs with someone else.” The connection between her desire to hold onto life because of the discovery of what it is to belong and the awareness of the inevitable tearing asunder of the “final donation” is exquisitely expressed when she describes herself as “throbbing like a heart that has just been cut out of one body and is about to be inserted and stitched into another”: it is only on the edges of human experience that she understands what it is to belong.

There are chilling references to the “dispensability” of people who have not had children, and shrewd observations about the unworthiness of some of those who have, and who “live a needed, worthwhile life, showing off with [their] offspring and spreading [themselves] out all over the streets and squares and public transportation, pushing everybody else out of the way with [their] stroller and all the rest of the stuff [they] find it necessary to carry around with [them].” More than this, there is the boundless grief of older members of society who would have liked to become parents but did not have the opportunity – because of their sexuality and the strict controls of adoption, because they thought there would always be time later on, because they were infertile, or because they did not meet the love of their life until they were “dispensable.” Dorrit’s sorrow goes even deeper: she had an abortion as a teenager because it never occurred to her that she would not have another opportunity to become a parent. She spends her years grieving for the child she never had, and that your greatest grief should represent the reason you are “dispensable” to society seems the cruellest twist of all. Added to this is an acute reflection on age: the “dispensables” have been cast out of a society that values youth and procreation, and that has very narrow ideas of what is “useful”.

“The Unit is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values”

Marlaine Delargy’s translation is excellent, and so is the editing: in the whole book, there were only two minor points that niggled at me (one was the hyper-corrected “Johannes and I” instead of “Johannes and me”, and another was the phrase “when it comes to Johannes” – “when it comes to” in conjunction with a proper name sounds awkward to me). To say that these are the only flaws I can come up with is quite a compliment – I’m constantly on the lookout for such things, so if this was all I found then you know there’s not much to criticise. I also appreciated the focus on older protagonists: Holmqvist offers a blistering yet understated indictment of a society that dismisses this age group, and she gives them voices, personal lives, desires, and fears. They develop their own tightly-knit community outside the boundaries of “normal” life, supporting one another through the painful decision they have all taken to be there. They all know why they are in the Unit, and they all struggle with the fate that they have putatively “chosen”, but which in reality has been thrust upon them by a society incapable of seeing beyond prescribed values. This leads me to one of the most provocative points implicit in the novel: if you lived in a society where not having children rendered you “dispensable”, what would be your main aim before you reached “dispensable” age? And wouldn’t this create its own new, advanced dystopian society?

I’m not going to say too much about the ending as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll limit myself to one objective observation and one subjective one: firstly, and objectively, fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will see that there is nothing derivative about The Unit when they read how it ends. Secondly, and entirely subjectively, I cried uncontrollably and still think about it months later. The Unit is another triumph for OneWorld (see my previous reviews of Fever Dream and Umami): it is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values; reading it has been, for me, one of the best things to come out of this project so far.

 

 

From Sangria to Bloodletting: translating Brazilian feminisms

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

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

Front cover of SANGRIA by Luiza Romão

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tempos idos

minas não mais

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

gone times

mines never more

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

gone times

never more mines

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation: 2018 longlist announced

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

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

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

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018 longlist by country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from portobellobooks.com

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

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

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

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

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