Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

Yesterday Olga Tokarczuk was announced as the winner of the (delayed) 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m not going to linger on the reasons for awarding the 2018 and 2019 prizes together – or about why I’m only focusing on Tokarczuk and not the 2019 winner – you probably already know them. There are also issues surrounding diversity, with many people criticising the 2018 and 2019 awards for being euro-centric and white (despite Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee, saying in the week before the announcement that “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature and now we are looking all over the world” – as if looking is enough, a gesture towards inclusivity before falling back into old habits). These criticisms are valid points, and it’s important to make them: we can’t champion women in translation without considering how other forms of bias intersect with gender bias. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have liked the 2019 winner to have been… different (in so many ways). And I’ll come back to Olsson later, because he had some pretty inflammatory things to say about women too…

Regular readers will already know my admiration for Tokarczuk’s work – for the incandescent, challenging Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) and for the gloriously fatalistic Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and also longlisted this week for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation). These were both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who form part of a wave of brave, outward-looking independent publishers resisting narratives of nationalism and isolationism, and who we need in these insular times. But though Tokarczuk may have exploded on the Anglophone literary scene with Man Booker International-winning Flights a couple of years ago, this was not an overnight success story. Rather, it was the result of years of work: Croft had been trying to get her translation of Flights published for ten years, and Lloyd-Jones, who translated Tokarczuk’s House of Day and House of Night back in 2002 (published by Granta Books), has championed Tokarczuk’s work (and Polish literature) tirelessly for years.

So yesterday’s win didn’t come out of nowhere. Tokarczuk has been widely read in Poland and in other European countries for decades. We’re the ones who are late to the party: it took fifteen years between the publication of Lloyd-Jones’s translation of House of Day and House of Night and Croft’s translation of Flights, which coincided with Poland being the guest of honour at London Book Fair, and the first time that Tokarczuk was tipped to win the Nobel prize. Then there was the Man Booker International win in 2018, and Fitzcarraldo’s nurturing of Tokarczuk’s œuvre (as well as the 2018 publication of Drive Your Plow, they will publish Croft’s translation of The Books of Jacob in 2021). I’m not suggesting that Tokarczuk won the prize because she was translated into English; that would reinforce the Anglophone dominance of the Nobel. But I do think that, for those of us celebrating the award in the English-speaking world, congratulations should also be extended to her brilliant translators, who have made her accessible to so many people who otherwise would not have been able to read her.

So there is much to celebrate. But there is also much still to do. Back in May, I was interviewed by a journalist who, when I mentioned some of the factors above, insisted that “Olga would have been published in English anyway” because she is a brilliant writer. I agree that she’s a brilliant writer – erudite, quick-witted, philosophical, and shrewd – but that isn’t the only reason her work is available for me to read. Indeed, attributing everything to a writer’s innate “brilliance” plays into the myth of meritocracy that so often excludes women and other marginalised groups from the top table. Chair of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee Anders Olsson also said in the lead-up to the announcement that “Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers who are really great, so we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”

Wait, what? Now we have so many female writers who are really great? Ah, so THAT’s why only 14 of the previous 114 laureates were women. There just weren’t many women writers. Or not many great ones.

No. No. No.

They were there, they just weren’t seen. They were great, they just weren’t recognised. If we blindly and glibly accept that the gender disparity is about quality and not about visibility, then we are complicit in a system that privileges white Eurocentric masculinity. I’m delighted that Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 prize, not just because of her brilliance, but also because of the way she resists borders, embraces diversity, and, in the words of the Nobel committee themselves, “represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Note to the academy: Be More Olga.

Review: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Wild Woman

Translated from Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorič (Istros Books, 2019).

Wild Woman is set in 1970s Yugoslavia, and we meet the narrator on the third day after the end of her marriage. She is holed up in her apartment, mess and disorder turning to filth and despair around her as she contemplates the three days that have passed since this cataclysmic event, and ponders her ability to leave the apartment and begin living again. Two stories unfold at once: the real-time story of a woman “falling apart at the age of twenty-six” and the story of her past self, the one who brought her to this place of abjection and whose life clings to her “like an amputated limb that still hurts.” The narrator is brittle, defensive and angry – and this makes for an explosive narrative that pulls no punches either in its exploration of human grief or in its indictment of a social system that leaves women without agency or autonomy. She falls in love and marries young – against her mother’s advice – but soon finds that the charming, attentive and soulful man she fell in love with was something of a con. Before long he is disappearing for long stretches of time with no explanation, and she is imprisoned in a marital role of acceptance and silence. When he falls ill, she discovers that a secret has been hidden from her, but by now she is shackled to a him, “a prisoner of this relationship,” forced to care for him and provide for him – she writes articles under his name – even though their relationship was built on deception.

Our wild woman is introspective enough to be self-deprecating: she wanted to make a man fall in love with her by the sweep of her skirt and the intensity of her expression – but simultaneously wanted this to be a true meeting of minds, a relationship that (as any self-respecting young existentialist in the 1970s would wish) emulates Sartre and de Beauvoir. Lofty ambitions, and she is not above poking fun at herself for having had them: “But like all stupid twenty-year-olds I had decided to get my way, because you’re indescribably stupid when you’re barely twenty and haven’t yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours…” With the perspective of her newly single state, she is able to see every point at which she was naïve, oblivious or overly forgiving – but this is not a story of self-flagellation, for her greatest disdain is rightly reserved for her “beloved”, her “one and only” – a man never named, but only called by various terms of endearment which, with the benefit of hindsight, are dripping with irony and contempt.

The first thing that struck me about both the story and the translation was the length of the sentences: there is a breathlessness here – not a vapid one, but rather one that conveys the narrator’s need to vent her anger after a lifetime of censorship, an outpouring which mostly happens in multiple clauses that crash urgently towards a conclusion. This must have been quite a challenge to translate: the information structure as well as the syntax may shift between languages, and content-wise there was a lot to keep on top of within each sentence. Christina Pribichevich-Zorič has pulled it off superbly, though, keeping the narrative voice consistent in both cadence and tone and revelling in a variety and depth of vocabulary that was a joy to read.

Another strength of this novel is the cast of unremittingly loathsome supporting characters. From the widowed mother – beleaguered by poverty under communism and the loss of her deceased husband’s meagre pension – who can summon up compassion for almost anyone but her own daughter (“Poor man, my mother whispers in my ear, my mother for whom everybody is always poor except me”) to the excruciatingly awkward best friend hopelessly in love with the narrator and the feckless, self-absorbed man she chooses to marry, there is a humanity to every character (though mostly showcasing the less pleasant side of humanity, it must be said). Even the memory of the narrator’s dead father is no comfort: he beat her throughout her life, and after his death she promptly moved her husband into the family home “as if I couldn’t live without being hit.” But don’t feel exasperated with her if a negative cycle is perpetuated, for in her world “women don’t choose.” Trapped into silence by an older generation that thinks she must simply keep quiet and endure, she maintains the façade of a happy marriage and a fulfilled life even though her internal monologue reminds us that this is far from a truthful representation. She even goes as far as to call herself a madwoman – though to any discerning reader, it is clear where the real madness lies. Šur Puhlovski is not afraid to point this out, and has a penchant for doing it in a flash of lucidity at the end of a lengthy tirade: “My sense of direction is so bad that I wouldn’t know where I was even if somebody dropped me down in the middle of Republic Square, I’ve been known to say. People answer by saying that most women are like that, they have no sense of space. Interesting, because that means something, except, I wonder, why don’t women have a sense of space, or of time, because time is space, so maybe it’s because they have a sense of eternity.”

I was expecting the narrative to unfold in a slightly different way than it ultimately did: the hints at “going wild” had made me anticipate some sort of feral twist or return to nature via a rejection of “civilisation”, but in fact this is not what the “wildness” represents (and the story is better for that). The narrator is constrained in the society of her time, but must “shed the self-image they slipped on me like an invisible dress,” and  Wild Woman is the start of that transformation: it is a whirlwind ride inside the mind of a woman let down by society and by her own role within it – a ride with an uncertain destination, for she does not know if she will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her past life, or simply turn to dust and disappear – but it’s well worth accompanying her for the stage of the journey she invites us to share.

Review copy of Wild Woman provided by Istros Books

Building Bridges interview series: Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner, Comma Press

Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner work at Manchester-based publishing house Comma Press, where Becca is Engagement Manager and Zoë is Publicity and Outreach Officer. Comma Press is dedicated to publishing books that transcend cultural boundaries, and is known for an activist commitment to commissioning short story anthologies and literature in translation.

The translation imprint of Comma Press was set up in 2007. How has it evolved over the last decade?

Becca Parkinson: We started off with regional anthologies, which looked at predominantly European cities and had different themes. More recently, we’ve developed the Reading the City Series and we have a commissioning arm for projects such as the + 100 series which is Arabic science fiction. We’ve done Iraq + 100, a collection of short stories imagining Iraq 100 years after the American and British-led invasion, and Palestine + 100, stories set 100 years after the Nakba. The idea of these anthologies is to find authors, and in most cases these anthologies have led to us publishing single authors: for example, with Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East we found Hassan Blasim who is now one of our most successful authors; he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 (for The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright). With The Book of Khartoum, we worked with Raph Cormack, an editor and translator who we knew was deeply embedded in modern Arabic literature and who helped put together the project. We got PEN funding for The Book of Khartoum, which is very important, and we found (author) Rania Mamoun. This year we’ve published her single-author collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette); we might not have found her if it hadn’t been for that anthology. Our translations are what we’re known for and recognised for with other publishers, the press and the public. As a small independent publisher we can work around one-off events and we can commission in response to modern societal problems – as we did with Banthology, which was commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban – in a way that a lot of larger corporate publishers perhaps can’t.

Do you have a specific quota of translated work in your catalogue? And are there specific areas or writers that you prioritise?

Zoë Turner: There isn’t a specific quota, but it’s just so ingrained now. Annually we publish about 50% translated works. And we prioritise languages that aren’t often translated; we haven’t done The Book of Paris, just because there are so many translations from French. And even if literature translated from Arabic might be fairly common, Sudanese literature isn’t.

Becca Parkinson: We do survey our readers annually, which is part of our Art Council remit, and gives us a chance to ask our readers what they want to see. We also have to go with our own instincts: for example I worked on The Book of Tbilisi, and bringing ten authors from Georgia into English is a fascinating process. I’d never read any Georgian literature before that project, or any Latvian literature before I worked on The Book of Riga. It just shows that there’s a gap there; there’s a wealth of literature from these countries that could be brought into English. And short stories are inherently portable and fairly easy to translate. It doesn’t require vast amounts of context either to establish a story or for the reader to understand it culturally, nor vast amounts of backstory or history, and as such it travels light. Historically, the short story has moved across geographical boundaries and been very transnational in its influence. The short story is, as our editor Ra Page says, the most “smugglable” form of literature, the most transportable form of literature. And it means that we get a diversity of voices in terms of age, gender, and outlook on life. It also means that we can have established authors alongside emerging authors in our anthologies.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature or in the publishing industry more generally, and how might we overcome these?

Becca Parkinson: Women are underrepresented in every way, whether it’s in publishing, reviews, translation… There are initiatives like the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the Women’s Prize for Fiction which are trying to rebalance that, but it still exists. As you know, translated literature only makes up 3.5% of the market, which isn’t a huge proportion, but it’s growing, and in an ideal world women writing in translation would have an equal footing with men. It’s something we’re very conscious of when we’re commissioning. With our Reading the City anthologies, we try to find a 50-50 split of men and women with the authors and the translators if it’s possible. It’s not always possible: there are some countries or cities where we go and we simply can’t find the women writers, sometimes because they’ve been so suppressed, or because they’re scared.

Zoë Turner: The bias isn’t to do with women translators, that’s quite healthy; it’s more the authors who are being translated. Much of what makes its way into English translation does so by connecting with something in the news, so it’s something that the target market understands, but that’s a very media-generated appetite and feeds into the fact that men dominate the news and the media. So people end up seeing a country through a male gaze in terms of politics, and then end up looking for men writing about that.

Becca Parkinson: We’re seeking to redress that bias in any way we can. We’re working on a new project with Hay Festival and Wom@rts: it’s called Europa 28 and it’s the biggest anthology we’ve worked on; it’s scheduled for publication in March 2020, and launching at the Hay Festival. It’s being edited by our colleague Sarah Cleave and translator Sophie Hughes, and it’s an anthology by 28 women writers from Europe, writing about their vision of the future of Europe. We’ve never done an all-female anthology before so we’re very excited.

As a team, we’ve discussed ways of overcoming bias, and we think that if literature festivals are leading the charge as well as publishers, they can do the most to help address it. We know this from working with Hay Festival and working with Edinburgh International Book Festival for the last few years. In the UK many book festivals aren’t international, because festival organisers can see all the difficulties of bringing over authors from other countries. But Nick Barley at the Edinburgh Festival has helped us enormously with getting authors into the UK. We’ve had visa applications rejected time and time again; for example last year we applied for a visa twice for (Palestinian author) Nayrouz Qarmout. It was rejected by the Home Office, so the festival brought in a big group of politicians and journalists; the visa was granted, and Nayrouz made the festival and had an amazing event with Kamila Shamsie. Edinburgh was leading that; they got more than twenty visa rejections overturned. And if more festivals invited over authors who aren’t from the UK and fought those visa battles, there wouldn’t be a news story about visas getting turned down. That shouldn’t be news, it shouldn’t be happening in the UK, but this insular atmosphere at the moment is focusing on British authors. It’s wrong, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing. So Edinburgh and Hay help us by having a diverse programme, inviting authors who have been translated into English – or even if they haven’t yet been translated, inviting them over to the UK so they can have that platform. We fear it may become increasingly more difficult to bring authors over, which will discourage publishers from publishing work from those countries. So there are things that festivals and publishers can be doing with authors that could help redress those biases by having women in translation events in the UK. But we need the infrastructure to support that.

Zoë Turner: And we need to publish these works, to shake people out of their comfort zone, because otherwise they’ll never seek out these books. Two of our recent books, The Book of Khartoum and Thirteen Months of Sunrise, just made The Guardian’s list of top ten books about Sudan. That’s great, but why can’t they be on a “normal” list of top ten books? It’s the same with separating women writers – why put women’s writing in a separate category? People will automatically go for something that they think they will relate to. And if we’re not being shown that we can relate to these works from other cultures across the world, if they’re being “othered” in our narratives, then without even thinking about it people won’t pick them up.

Do you perceive an increase in the number of translated works making their way into English?

Becca Parkinson: Yes. I’m quite optimistic. I think people are being more exploratory. We need to get people over the idea that if a book is translated it’s going to be difficult. Bookshops and libraries could give us a bit of a hand in the marketing: you need a bookseller or a librarian or a reviewer to pick a book up and say ‘this is special’ and add their voice to yours. But especially as an indie, you’re going up against much bigger dogs in the industry, and then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got a lot of people fighting against you. You’re not getting your books on the Waterstones front tables, you’re not on the Amazon homepage, so how do people find you? But the audience is there, and it’s growing.