Monthly Archives: May 2019

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.