Category Archives: Tilted Axis Press

Women in translation: the best of 2018

End-of-year compilations are abundant at the moment, and after an exciting year – generally, with the Year of Publishing Women, and personally, with the development of this blog – I want to round off the year with my top picks and recommendations of 2018. I’m going to start by sharing my four Books of the Year as revealed in the interview I did with Sophie Baggott for Wales Arts Review, then talk about four more books that I’ve loved in 2018, before looking ahead to some exciting things coming our way in 2019.

Part 1: My top four

In order of publication date (to avoid any other form of “ranking”), here are my four favourite picks of 2018.

First up is Soviet Milk, the story of three generations of Latvian women based on author Nora Ikstena’s own life, published by Peirene Press. I mentioned in my review of Soviet Milk that it intertwines with my family history, and it’s fair to say that I read much of Soviet Milk through misty eyes. But Soviet Milk is heart-wrenching whether or not you have a personal connection to the history, and is a fine example of how literature can reveal the immeasurable consequences that historical tragedy can have on the life of the individual. The mother, always “striving to turn out her life’s light”, cannot accept the impact of Soviet rule on her homeland, and in rebelling against it condemns her daughter to relative exile, unable to give her maternal affection. It is the daughter – Ikstena herself – who offers this devotion back to her mother in a poignant tribute to a woman whose despair consumed her ability to love. The translation by Margita Gailitis strikes a perfect balance that rages and laments without ever descending into melodrama.

Don’t fall over with shock, but my next choice is Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup. I know, I’ve raved about it (repeatedly), but with good reason! This is not only an excellent collection of stories and novellas, but also the kind of writing that carries you back and forth between desperate wincing and uncontrollable giggles. It offers a snapshot of what the author describes as a “Latin American universe”, but also has a universality in terms of female experience, unromantic realities, adolescent frustration and the weight of tradition that will have broad appeal (particularly when recounted with such caustic humour, beautifully replicated in Charlotte Coombe’s glorious translation). You might have read about my meeting with Margarita, and I have to say that discovering Charco Press, reading Fish Soup, and interviewing Margarita are right up there in my 2018 highlights. Fish Soup is utterly brilliant and uncompromisingly hilarious, and I recommend it unreservedly.

After starting the year in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, Olga Tokarczuk has become something of a household name for literature lovers. Although I enjoyed her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Jennifer Croft’s translation, it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that really stood out for me (you can read my full review here). Tackling issues of ageism, animal cruelty, environmental damage and individuality through the lens of a pseudo-noir murder mystery, this was an unexpected page-turner, offering plenty of insights into the human condition and several moments of sheer hilarity, all brought together in an immaculate translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (again for Fitzcarraldo). Drive Your Plow is a delight from beginning to end: it’s a tale of philosophy, astrology, fatality and retribution, all recounted by a unique, oddball and utterly brilliant narrator who will sweep you up into the banalities of her daily life and the enormities of the universe.

And finally, a book I have yet to review, though I have mentioned it in a previous post: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. If ever you should be disappointed that more publishers didn’t commit to the Year of Publishing Women, then just read this book and you’ll soon feel instead that a small take-up produced great things. The Remainder is a tumultuous riot of a road trip (in search of a dead body that’s gone missing in transit between Berlin and Santiago de Chile) that, in amongst a series of hilariously inappropriate events, tackles the serious issues of historical memory and the generational transmission of guilt. Three main characters struggle with the burden of their parents’ suffering, and bond over death, grief, and nicotine. Throw in a rickety hearse, winding mountain roads, and more than a few bottles of pisco, and it’s a literary treat. The translation by Sophie Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Part 2: another four brilliant books

There have been several other releases that I’ve greatly enjoyed this year. Since And Other Stories were publishing only women this year, the odds were high that I’d find a few I liked, and though The Remainder was the one I loved most, I have to mention two others that I’d highly recommend. Firstly, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, which experiments with genre and drifts between the microscopic detail of individual life and the immensity of polar expeditions, framing everything within an ice metaphor which might seem improbable but which Kopf pulls off deftly. Living with an autistic brother (“a man of ice”) and negotiating relationships in the modern world don’t seem like obvious counterfoils for discussions of polar explorations, but it works brilliantly. Brother in Ice started out as an exhibition, and it is a startlingly luminous multi-genre work of art. I found the translation overly literal in several places, and although this did not prevent me from enjoying Kopf’s daring, creative debut, I’d like to read her own translation into Spanish at some point.

My surprise end-of-year highlight was, undoubtedly, Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas. In a mid 21st-century dystopian Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. Maid Acilde inadvertently holds the key to future survival, but first must become a man (with the help of a sacred anemone) and travel in time to save her home. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, a social comment that never feels moralistic: it encompasses religion and voodoo, male and female, past and present (and future, while we’re at it), is a written text with oral qualities, beautifully constructed while seeming effortlessly spontaneous… put simply, it’s a psychedelic Caribbean genesis story with ecocriticism, voodoo and time travel thrown in – what’s not to love?!

Regular readers will also know how much I enjoyed the final release of the year from Tilted Axis Press, Hwang Jungeun’s I’ll Go On, beautifully and sensitively translated by Emily Yae Won. Two sisters and the boy next door take turns to narrate their childhood and adult life: they thrash out their relationships with each other, their mothers, and themselves, doomed to never truly understand one another yet committed to negotiating life together. In a world where notions of family are becoming more fluid, this quietly profound novel examines the bonds we choose, and those we cannot shake off, and offers reflections that transcend the context of the novel and become something akin to life mottos. One such favourite of mine is this: “The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known” – read the last lines of my full review to see another that you’ll want to shout out loud to everyone you meet.

I’m still sad that Granta Books is shuttering its Portobello imprint next year, but Portobello have certainly gone out on a high: the smash hit of the summer (and Foyles Book of the Year) was Convenience Store Woman, and if ever you should judge a book by its cover, this would be the one, because it’s a perfect reflection of its heroine: like misfit convenience store worker Keiko herself, the unremittingly cheerful exterior conceals a depth, nuance and everyday tragedy beneath the surface. Keiko is not like other people, but no matter how hard her family tries to “fix” her, she cannot be “cured” of her differences, acknowledging of her calling that “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual”. Convenience Store Woman challenges us not to assume that “normal” means “better”: Sayaka Murata writes a complex, loveable heroine who cannot understand the world, and in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation, Keiko endears herself to new audiences. Like Keiko, Convenience Store Woman is delightful, original, and impossible to put into a box.

Part 3: women in translation in 2019

Finally, instead of choosing another two books and making this a “top ten”, I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to for 2019.

And Other Stories will continue to bring us excellent women’s writing next year, with three women in translation titles, of which these two appeal to me greatly: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is “the account of a woman who has been trained for a life she cannot live”, and The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, represents a “fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era.”

Charco Press have a bumper year coming up, with new releases from Ariana Harwicz (whose Die, My Love was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize)  and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (if you’ve seen my virtual bookshelf, you’ll know that Slum Virgin is one of my “must-read” recommendations, so a new Cabezón Cámara translation is cause for much rejoicing here!) as well as a “Proustian love story” by Brenda Lozano, and debut novels by Selva Almada and Andrea Jeftanovic.

Peirene Press are publishing only women authors in 2019 in a series called “There Be Monsters”.

As well as the much-anticipated release of their Translating Feminisms chapbooks, Tilted Axis will be kicking off 2019 with Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting catalogue for 2019, with six new releases scheduled.

To conclude my year’s musings, I want to end with this beautiful reflection from an earlier Les Fugitives publication, Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated with great warmth by Ros Schwartz:

“In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

Thank you for reading with me in 2018; I wish you all a restful and joyful festive season, and I’ll be back in January with more women in translation reviews and reflections.

Guilt, sexuality and modernity: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Panty and Abandon

Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press, 2016 and 2017)

When I first started browsing the Tilted Axis catalogue, I was intrigued by Panty and Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay: both novels deal with themes of guilt, duty, sexuality and cultural (non-)conformity, and both present themselves as conscious narratives, playing with story-telling in original ways. Because they have a male translator (Arunava Sinha) they fall outside the parameters of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and so I didn’t read them straight away. But earlier this year I read them for my own pleasure, and am writing about them today for yours!

Images from tiltedaxispress.com

I read Panty first, for no other reason than it was on the top when I opened the parcel, and I’m glad I read them this way round. As soon as I posted a tweet about the two books, several people commented that Panty is good, but Abandon is amazing, and (spoiler) I’m with them. I enjoyed Panty, though, so let’s start with that…

First of all, if you like a linear narrative and a clear plotline, Panty is probably not for you. If you’re happy to be destabilised, to swirl around in circles as different stories unfold simultaneously and in superimposition, then it’s a tremendously fulfilling read. A woman arrives in Kolkata, to an empty and heavily padlocked apartment, and as she is acquainting herself with her new surroundings she finds a leopard-print panty in the wardrobe. She wonders about the owner of this sensuous, shameless undergarment, and when eventually she slips it on, she steps into the sexual memories of the woman who wore it before her. Her own story then ripples out alongside – or enmeshed with – these memories: the reality of a surgery she is awaiting alone and the passion of two bodies writhing in union are brought together in the unnamed woman’s relationship with a man who will not commit to her. Through the memories of the panty’s owner, she discovers what it really is to kiss: “All this time, she’d thought she knew what a kiss was. Just as she’d thought she knew what love was, what the body was, what art was. When in fact she had known none of that.” The limits of her life so far are in stark contrast with the unconditional giving and receiving she experiences through another woman’s memories.

The narration shifts from first person to second person to third person as the stories collapse in on one another, and at times I had to re-read sections to be sure I knew who was speaking (or, at least, to think I was sure). Writing, narration, illness and the body fold together, writing coming from the body (“Was this one line all the blood that would ever flow from the wounds?) and pain being sucked out from the body through passion (“you fit your mouth to her right nipple and suck out all her suffering”) and turned into writing. Panty felt experimental, not rooted in conventional narrative expectations – it is not a snapshot of a life, but an exploration of an experience: introspective, chaotic, and yearning. The structure of Panty is, perhaps, best summed up in this reflection: “I ran away. I escaped to the centre, inside the fire that rages at the circumference of life.” The bodies unfold at the centre of the fire, a circle of flames around past and future, a moment suspended at the eye of the storm.

Sinha’s translation is refined and at times elaborate, but because this is not a novel of gritty realism, it works: though phrases such as “even if we do happen to meet, let there be no flash of recognition in your eyes. Let the portion of your heart in which I exist die this very moment. Let us free ourselves from this bond as far as is possible” would not be out of place in a 19th-century tragedy, they still work here, because it is a story of excess, of pulsing bodies and burning hearts. Trisha Gupta makes an interesting point about the poesy of Sinha’s translation resting on “a style that has a certain lushness and emotional purchase in Bengali, but can sometimes appear long-winded in contemporary English”, but because I cannot (and probably shall never be able to) read Bengali, I rather like that some features of the original language come through in the translation. In fact, in Abandon, one character comments that “there’s no better language than Bengali to pamper someone with”, and so if there is anything intricate in Sinha’s translation, it seems to me that this opens a window to the Bengali beneath the words.

Panty was a brave book with which to launch a new press, and there are some features of Abandon which echo it, particularly in the guilt about neglected children, the challenging of traditional notions of femininity, and the deliberately unconventional narrative style. In Abandon, a young mother runs away from her life and her responsibilities, only to find that her five-year-old son follows her. She is torn between the desire for solitude so that she can write a novel, and the need to protect and care for her son: this polarity of feeling is epitomised by the dual meaning of “abandon” as both neglect and unbridled passion, and in the similarly dual use of narration: “I” for the primal need to care for herself, and “Ishwari” for the mother bound by duty and love to care for her son.

There is a conscious awareness of writing within the narrative: from the opening page, I/Ishwari says that “the taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.” Throughout her narration, she points to incidents that were improbable and therefore part of the structure of her story, characters who are there because the story needed them; she recognises useful narrative devices (such as the occupation of the roof terrace as an ideal space to develop her writing) and consciously lives there so that it can be part of the story. As in Panty, the narrator destabilises the reader with regular reminders that this is just a story, and can manipulate as well as illuminate: “Ishwari’s head was about to drop in embarrassment, but such is the nature of this novel – it is sceptical and trusting at the same time, it tells the truth and also lies.” I/Ishwari repeatedly reminds us that we have chosen to enter her “novel of lies and truths”, and in doing so she exercises the power to lead us wherever she chooses. And yet she herself is powerless in the hands of the narrative force: it is a “predatory novel”, characters enter it because there is not yet anyone like them within its pages, and just as her relationships have always imprisoned her with their needs, so the novel begins to do the same. Ishwari constantly has to choose between her own survival and her son, and her survival seems to be possible only by navigating her way through this treacherous novel which, nonetheless, “understands my agony.”

Creativity and motherhood are seen as incompatible, Roo’s need for Ishwari the only impediment to her unfettered self-expression. Prenatal death is presented as the perfect murder: “When the mother’s womb kills the child, does anyone hold the mother responsible? […] Only mothers can dispense the kind of death neither nature nor civilization can question”, and though Roo has survived into infancy, he is debilitated and weakened, and Ishwari will not allow the same fate to befall her novel. In a book replete with references to gender inequalities in India (beaten wives, “wayward” women, forced sex, submission), I/Ishwari refuses to fulfil a role or meet expectations of womanhood, and yet manages to give the impression that she is doing exactly that. Her job as a companion and caregiver to the sick, grieving Bibaswan outwardly shows her displaying typically “feminine” qualities of nurturing and compassion, and yet when their relationship becomes physical, Bibaswan realises that he has no domination over her mental or emotional presence, only the physical presence that is demanded of her in order to collect her envelope of banknotes. As in Panty, Bandyopadhyay explores women’s independence and sexuality, subverting stereotype and expectation at every turn.

In both Panty and Abandon, the at times confusing, sweeping, spiralling narratives are punctuated by moments of searing beauty. In Abandon, there was one line in particular that took my breath away: “She did not realise that suppressing love is the strongest form of self-flagellation in the world.” Such insights are of the kind that stay with me, that I roll around inside my head and mouth for a long time after I finish reading. Indeed, as I/Ishwari explains, “the more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable”: Panty and Abandon are not simple, or light-hearted, or easily forgettable. They wound, they subvert, and they challenge – and that is their great triumph.

A profound, lyrical incantation: Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On

Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won (Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

I’ll Go On was the final 2018 release in my Tilted Axis subscription, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it all year. It is the story of sisters Sora and Nana and their family bonds: with their damaged mother, Aeja, who was once brimming with love but has now given herself over to grief, with the enigmatic yet tender boy next door, Naghi Oraboni, and with Naghi’s mother, who fed and sustained Sora and Nana through their childhood. The original title, Soranananaghi, binds the three main protagnists’ names together in an incantation, also incorporating the word ‘sonagi’ (meaning ‘downpour’), and both of these meanings are echoed one drunken evening in three drops of water that Naghi names as Sora, Nana and Naghi, and that join together to make one single body of water. The English title is brilliantly chosen, as it is a phrase repeated like a refrain throughout the book: “I’ll go on” is the epitome of the characters’ determination to live out their lives, resigned to not feeling happy. This is far from being the only example of Emily Yae Won’s deftness in the translation: there are many references to the characters that make up the Korean names, and her incorporation of these never feels heavy-handed or “textbook-like”. I always find it hard to imagine the translation process from a language I know nothing of and a culture I know little about, but this translation seemed to me to keep all the cultural importance of the original, and some of the linguistic features, while still ensuring it was a smooth read in English.

Image from tiltedaxispress.com

I’ll Go On is narrated in four parts: Sora, Nana and Naghi all take their turns narrating, and then Nana takes over again for the short final section. I have come to greatly enjoy stories with multiple narrators, and one of the things I like about this technique is exemplified brilliantly in I’ll Go On: viewing the same event from different perspectives. The meeting of Sora, Nana and Naghi as children is recounted by both Sora and Naghi, likewise the revelation that “single-member tribes do exist in the world, you know”; an incident when Naghi strikes Nana to remind her that “forgetting, that’s how people turn monstruous. It’s how you become oblivious to other people’s pain” is remembered by both Nana and Naghi, and tense conversations between Sora and Nana are related by both sisters.

At the heart of the story is Nana’s pregnancy: Sora, the older sister, has always looked after Nana, and now feels that Nana has betrayed her, bringing another life into their family unit. Sora resents the pregnancy but tries to be kind; Nana resents Sora for trying to be kind. Sora’s only concept of motherhood is painful: she addresses Nana in her internal monologue with the musing:

“Has Nana set her heart on becoming a replica of Aeja?
Is that it, Nana.
You want to be another Aeja?
Fall in love like she did, and make a baby, and then have the baby, all so you can turn into an overbearing mother?”

As for Nana herself, she struggles with her (lack of) emotions towards the baby growing in her womb: she likes the father well enough, but does not want to marry him, and does not want to form an attachment to her child:

“When it comes to love, that seems about the right amount of emotional involvement: to be able to soon get back on your feet no matter what occurs. Where whether by mutual agreement of by one-sided betrayal or because one of you vanishes into thin air overnight, the other can manage to say, in due time: I’m fine. That seems about right. Even once the baby is here, Nana has decided that that will be the extent of her love for the child and for Moseh ssi.
Pouring all your heart into love as Aeja had done – that level of devotion is what Nana wants to guard against.”

Love is an emotion that can turn sour, that can become overwhelming grief, that can leave you a husk, and neither Sora nor Nana want this kind of love to befall them. They prefer recognisable parameters: companionship, shared memories, walls around the heart. And yet, it is in her attitude towards her unborn child that Nana realises with horror how like her own grief-hardened mother she is becoming: “It dawned on her that having been so intent on her own pain, it hadn’t occurred to her to consider the unequivocal anguish now presented before her. And that this made hers the closest likeness to that heart which Nana wholly detested, namely, Aeja’s heart.” The selfishness of Aeja’s pain, the way in which it closed her off to the pain of others, including her own children, is replicated in Nana – and yet this is not portrayed in some moralistic, daughter-understanding-the-mother way, but rather to show the terror of a child whose mother would prefer to leave the world than care for her, on realising that she too has allowed herself to become so consumed by pain that she cannot see the pain she is inflicting on others. And so we see a cycle: of life, love, resentment, and of the ways in which all three main characters are trapped in a past they cannot set free. This is reflected in Aeja’s repeated questioning of Nana about her pregnancy: Aeja chants “Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?” without waiting for an answer, and Nana listens to “the question that’s being repeated over and over like a curse.” Aeja’s lack of happiness in her own life did not prevent her from wanting happiness for her children, but she fails to see that it is her own behaviour that has wrung out all possibility for happiness from them.

The main emotional connection the three narrators share comes through food: they were all nourished through childhood on the food prepared by Naghi’s mother, Ajumoni, a hardworking widow whose only desire in life is to have a grandchild. Just as it was Ajumoni who fed Sora and Nana through their childhood (“They were the plainest of lunchboxes. Plain and commonplace. And yet to have contained so much in such a compact form is nothing short of immense”), so it was also Ajumoni who gave Sora and Nana the maternal love they lacked in their own home, and it is her food that sustains them even as adults, when they gather together to make dumplings, setting their differences aside as they work together to prepare a feast, the taste of which embodies for Nana “The longing, the delight, the tenderness, the fear, the loneliness, the regret, the joy – all muddled, all at once. All one big mess.” Ajumoni’s food defines both childhood and home for Sora and Nana, to the extent that “no matter what delectable and fine food they may come across now, anything that’s not of this home is simply – for Sora and Nana both – other, the taste of not-home.”

Hwang is adept at crafting profound philosophical reflections in the quietest of ways: the fleeting nature of human life within the vastness of history is made evident in the assertion that “the world’s end will only befall us gradually, and this will give Nana time to think properly about things”; the overwhelming nature of pain is given shape in Naghi’s description of Aeja’s widowhood, when he acknowledges that “over a lengthy stretch of time, she has steadily, inaudibly, fulfilled her pain and become whole. She has hauled her pain over herself, covering herself entirely with it, like a carapace”; the physical depth of love is evident in Naghi’s claim that “This sensory memory is a yearning, and will never be erased. If it is to be rubbed out, it will be the last memory to go, It will leave me only in my final moment”, and perhaps Hwang’s characters are best defined by Nana’s conclusion about human life: “People are trifling, their lives meagre and fleeting. But this, Nana thinks, is also what makes them loveable”. These are some of my favourite lines from the novel, and show the lyrical beauty to be found within it. What could be a fairly depressing story is raised to a thing of crystalline incandescence because of the sensitivity and humanity with which both author and translator craft this work.

The line that most struck me and lingered on in my memory is one that I wish I could shout out to everyone I pass, to those who are close to me and those who are not, to friends and foes, to world leaders, the people who vote for them, and the people who oppose them. And I’m going to leave this line as the last word, in the spirit of the #WiTWisdom pledge that I mentioned last week: “Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.”