Tag Archives: And Other Stories

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: 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. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

On The Remainder, equality, and throwing out the rulebook: an interview with Sophie Hughes

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Sophie Hughes. Sophie is the translator of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, which was published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. Sophie has also translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and six English PEN translate awards, and is a translator I greatly admire: the MBI shortlisting is testament not only to an excellent novel by Alia Trabucco Zerán and to the positive changes that And Other Stories have set in motion with their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, but also to Sophie’s great passion for and investment in her translations, and to the immense skill with which she carries them out.

Sophie Hughes, Man Booker International shortlisted translator of The Remainder (Alia Trabucco Zerán, And Other Stories 2018)

Helen Vassallo: How did you first come across The Remainder? Did you pitch for it, or was it offered to you?

Sophie Hughes: The writer and my friend Carlos Fonseca wrote to me saying he thought I’d like his friend’s debut novel. He knew I was translating a cult Mexican novella called El apando (The Hole, by José Revueltas, published by New Directions and co-translated with Amanda Hopkinson), which has a strangely hypnotic but relentless prose style. The first page of that novella unfolds in a single sentence; one half of The Remainder is written as a single sentence… Carlos clearly thought I hadn’t set myself enough of a challenge! So I was just lucky enough to read the book early. I then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and got it, and that paid for me to work on translating the whole novel. In the meantime, Alia got a world-class agent, and I think Stefan at And Other Stories read a sample on PEN’s dedicated webpage for the PEN/Heim grant. He was bowled over by Alia, as I had been, and asked me to do the translation. I actually pushed back my maternity leave to finish it, which is mad, of course, but love is mad, and I loved the book.

HV: What was it about The Remainder that you found particularly engaging, and that you think readers and the MBI judging panel have enjoyed in it?

SH: It’s impossible to say why the judges or other readers enjoyed it – I’m just pleased they did. I fell for Felipe, one of the novel’s three young characters living in the shadow of the Chilean dictatorship and who take a madcap road trip in a hearse to retrieve the body of one of their ex-militant mothers. Felipe is a rambler, a serial overthinker, an accidental virtuoso spewing his past and present out in one long sentence – it’s not always easy to read, actually, and can feel quite exhausting with all the constant digressions, but it was fun to translate! It meant I could throw out the grammar rulebook and just listen and try to improvise consonant cadences in the English (we look for close approximations all the time as literary translators, but more obviously so with semantics: jokes and sayings, etc.). More so than with other books I’ve translated, this was an exercise in close listening: translation as an infinite canon. One annoying detail when translating the book was the Spanish noun “el muerto” – “the dead man/person” – which comes up all the time. In the plural it’s easy – if inescapably Joycean – “the dead”, but “the dead man” is a clunky old phrase that didn’t work in lots of instances. I had to come up with some snappy alternatives and use them sparingly. ‘Stiff’ is a good word, but you can have too much of a good thing.

HV: You obviously have a very special connection with Alia. Do you work closely with all your authors?

SH: I’ve said it before, but it is true that to know Alia is to love her – she is humble and has a healthy irreverence for the literary world, yet is also incredibly gracious, generous of spirit, and infectiously passionate about reading and literature. She thinks and cares deeply about humankind, about histories and stories (historias – it’s the same word in Spanish), about what is right and good, and why we behave in ways that are neither right nor good. She’s funny but never flippant, and this comes across in La resta (and I hope in The Remainder). I love it when there is understanding between me and the authors I’m translating. I am from the school of: an author’s input can improve a translation. It’s not detrimental to the translation if you can’t rely on it, of course, but I always suss this out early and if they want to be involved in the translation process, I welcome it. In truth, I suppose I feel like some of the responsibility becomes shared. There is always some guesswork involved in translation because good literature necessarily contains ambiguities. When you read a novel, you read it with all of your history weighing on your interpretation, but this doesn’t really matter. When you translate, it does matter, because you will share that interpretation with others. Actors put on accents and so must we. To spend time talking with the author is one way I shed my accent and get closer to theirs. All this being said, some authors really just want to leave it to you (this will sound terrible, but I definitely would if I were an author), and in such cases I merely send a list of questions and never bother them again. So I’m lucky that I now count Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún and Alia among my best friends. Close reading is as beautiful a basis for a friendship as I can imagine.

HV: It seems that women’s voices from Latin America are being heard much more in English than before. Do you think there are specific reasons for this?

SH: Women’s voices in many fields and in many languages and places are being heard louder. This probably explains the phenomenon you describe. But let’s not beat around the bush: it is thanks to the concerted efforts of women that women are being heard. And the problem has not gone away, of course. Many have pointed out the blatant gender-ghettoization in the literary world, and I don’t have the answer for how to create gender parity without playing the numbers game, without employing positive discrimination: separate women writer lists, prizes, panels, blogs and projects and so on. But I do think that, in some cases, somewhere along the way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own” has been taken detrimentally literally.

Looking back, the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced some magnificent authors to the world, but its gender imbalance was scandalous. A scandal symptomatic of the times, yes, but scandalous nonetheless: women writers in Latin America were – and to some degree still are – the collateral damage of the deafening acclaim received by its entirely male cast. What is the opposite of boom? I can’t think what that might be. Does such a concept exist? If not, that might tell us what we need to know about how women writers from Latin America have been received, internally and internationally. Today, it’s unlikely that an analogous movement wouldn’t include women writers. But gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women.

A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance: tomorrow you could go to the library and search out, or chance upon, your favourite new author from Latin America. She might be a she. Many of us rely too heavily on the internet when public libraries represent such wonderfully democratic (cookie-free) search engines. What I mean is that every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.

There’s one last point I’d like to make with regards to the deep-seated misogyny and the physical and emotional abuses committed by too many men in the Latin American literary industry. The problem is endemic (although by no means unique to Latin America) and it has a deep impact on who gets published, publicised and read, but also on what women write, and which women write. When I lived in Latin America I was unlucky enough to see a GIF going around of an adult film star being penetrated from behind by a man, and an accompanying line referring to a contemporary woman writer and an editor, insinuating, of course, that she owed her publishing successes to offering sexual favours to influential men. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. I was sorry I had to see it. But now I’m not. A reader created that GIF for a very niche audience. Not some bored teenager trolling the girl he fancies at school. A reader of “high literature”. I use the grim GIF tale to remind me what women face whenever they sit at their desks to write: the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins. Perhaps it is our duty to do those writers the service of reading them. Relatedly, my colleagues and I have experienced unwanted and uninvited advances from male writers who seem to have trouble distinguishing our job as translators (to read them closer than anyone else) with another kind of intimacy. This rather makes you not want to be good at your job. To shrink into yourself. To evaporate on the page. To fall silent. There you go: the opposite of ‘boom’.

HV: And finally, the nature of publishing is that what we’re reading now is something that you worked on some time ago. What are you currently working on, or excited about?

SH: I’m currently translating a novel by Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, Fitzcarraldo, UK| New Directions, US, 2020). It’s a masterpiece. I have night sweats from the responsibility of translating this novel.

And I’m co-translating, with Juana Adcock, Giuseppe Caputo’s debut novel Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World, Charco Press, UK) which manages to be many things as once: a love letter between a father and son, a seething yet humourous portrait of lives lived in poverty, and a refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) honest reflection on the body as a space of pleasure and violence.

Read ‘A Bitter Pill’, Sophie’s translation of a short story by Alia Trabucco Zerán, in the April 2019 issue of Words Without Borders.

Sophie and Alia talk about their Man Booker International shortlisting on the Man Booker website.

The Remainder is published in the UK by And Other Stories, and will be released in the US by Coffee House Press in August 2019.

The Man Booker International 2019 longlist: picks, celebrations, and regrets

The picks

Last week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and with it a remarkable and welcome surge of women in translation: more than half of the thirteen books selected this year are by women writers. The two books I was particularly delighted to see on the longlist were Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a funny, subversive and insightful pseudo-noir murder mystery translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions (full review here), and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a glorious tumult of historical memory, friendship, guilt, families and death, with raining ash and a lot of pisco, translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories (short review here, a more in-depth one to follow). Drive Your Plow and The Remainder are very different narratives, with distinct preoccupations: an elderly woman struggles to be taken seriously in rural Poland in Drive Your Plow, and three young Chileans weighed down by a past they can never experience go on the road trip of a lifetime in The Remainder. But these two books also have plenty in common: they are both brave, distinctive, brilliantly translated, and a window onto the culture they represent.

The celebrations

As you can imagine, I find it immensely heartening to see a clear move away from the some of the biases that have traditionally prevailed in literary prizes: in an article for In Other Words, Daniel Hahn wrote of the 2017 Man Booker International prize that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too).” Hahn goes on to note that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and so this leads me to wonder whether the tipping away from gender bias and eurocentrism on the 2019 longlist might also reflect moves in this direction more generally. Nine languages and twelve countries are represented in the thirteen books, and here’s where they’re coming from:

Europe is not quite as dominant as in previous years, which suggests the beginnings of a shift towards greater diversity and globalisation. As for languages, Spanish is best represented with three of the thirteen books:

All of the books translated from Spanish are from Latin America rather than peninsular Spain, which also partly accounts for the more diverse geographical spread. Arabic and French tie for second place, and of the remaining six, two are Asian and four European.

It’s not only women writers who make up the majority of this list: independent publishers are the big winners, with eleven of the thirteen entries. The year when gendered and eurocentric biases are less evident is the same year that independent publishers dominate the longlist, suggesting a direct correlation between the activism of smaller presses and increased parity in the translated literature market. As MBI judge Maureen Freely noted in an article in The Guardian, “the really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts”, and The Remainder and Drive Your Plow are stellar examples of this: The Remainder is a debut novel published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and Tokarczuk was discovered by Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions because of his determination to seek out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The regrets…

Though there is much to celebrate, I can’t offer a reaction without mentioning the books I wish had been on the longlist. I am fully aware that I have not read all thirteen longlisted books, and that my opinions are necessarily inflected with my own subjectivities, but for what it’s worth, I am baffled that these two did not feature on the longlist:

Disoriental (Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover for Europa Editions): this is not just one of the best books I’ve read for this project, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, Disoriental is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe. It’s ambitious, witty, wrenching, and the translation by Tina Kover is exquisite.

Resistance (Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn for Charco Press): another story of exile and an intensely poetic imbrication of the personal and the historical. Resistance is a haunting account of Fuks’s troubled relationship with his adopted brother, and the consequences of displacement. The writing is taut, subtle, and lyrical, and Hahn’s translation is flawless.

The shortlist?

I fervently hope that both Drive Your Plow and The Remainder will make it onto the shortlist. Last year’s winner and a debut author, two fantastic books and two impeccable translations. I’ll leave you with a favourite quotation from each:

“Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“the heat intensifies and I push it away and the ash is falling and I push it away and the memories come flooding back and I push them away too, and I think that I could just let go, let it all out and then leave, but no, I don’t, cos if I did that I’d get lost and I’ve already got enough missing people on my hands; I’m never going missing, never ever.”
The Remainder

Further reading:

Tony offers the Man Booker International shadow panel’s official response to the longlist

Michael at Translated Lit does a roundup of the longlist

Jess and Will at Books and Bao choose their favourites, with links to reviews of several of the longlisted books

My full reviews of two other longlisted books:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Books, 2019)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.

 

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.

Reflections on the Year of Publishing Women: interview with Nicky Smalley of And Other Stories

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of talking to Nicky Smalley, publicist at And Other Stories, about their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women. As many of you will know, in 2015 Kamila Shamsie issued what she termed a “provocation”, a challenge to publishers, to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK by making 2018 a Year of Publishing Women. And Other Stories was the only press to take up the challenge, and they have published a fantastic selection of women’s writing this year – in English and in translation. While all of them are excellent, I can’t pass up the opportunity to give a special recommendation for two debut novels: Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a literary road trip well worth taking in a sublime translation from Chilean Spanish by Sophie Hughes, and Brother in Ice, a beautiful, experimental novel by the immoderately talented Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

The 2018 women in translation publications from And Other Stories (images from andotherstories.org)

It’s widely acknowledged that independent publishing is a brave business, built on passion and commitment, and Nicky shared some fascinating insights into And Other Stories’ decision-making process for the Year of Publishing Women. Firstly, I asked Nicky what And Other Stories hoped to achieve when they made the decision to take part in the Year of Publishing Women, and she set out two very clear objectives:

“One was just to be part of a conversation and to move the conversation on, and to create, and show people that you can do this, it’s not that hard. You can make decisions about what you publish in order to effect change that you feel or be part of the change that you want to see. And it needn’t be a massive inconvenience and it’s not about disadvantaging your male authors, they’re still going to get published. Another reason for it was that we publish so much translation, and we are aware of the fact that women are massively under-represented in terms of what gets translated, and even though we have very small lists, because we publish so much translation we are able to make a difference.”

While some publishers responded to Shamsie’s provocation by saying that they had their schedules set, or that they didn’t want to disadvantage their male authors, And Other Stories rearranged their schedules with minimal disruption, putting male-authored texts back for 2019. This meant that they had to look harder to find books to fill their schedule for 2018, and Nicky cites this as one of the greatest things to come out of the Year of Publishing Women for them – discovering writers that they otherwise might not have come across. And this itself fed their second objective: being part of a change that they wanted to see.

“Men are favoured, considered more serious, considered to write better literature and so on, and so they’re the ones that get the awards, they’re the ones that get the coverage in the news that bring them to the attention of foreign publishers who might want to publish them.”

So you might think that And Other Stories was already a female-centric press, and indeed Nicky describes the team as “determinedly feminist”, but she notes that they were quite shocked when they looked at their own lists and saw that the majority of what they had published was by men. As a company, they have always challenged the mainstream and tried to be representative of diversity in society, but even so they found that the back catalogue – especially in terms of translations – was predominantly male. So I asked Nicky why this might be, and she had some thought-provoking reflections in response:

“There were a lot of different factors that have led to that, not least of which is that most of what’s submitted to us is books by men. We’ve monitored some statistics, because we have an open submissions policy, and even though we were having this year of publishing women, we still found that most of the submissions we got from men and from women were books by male writers. And we went out specifically to all the agents we know and said that we were only going to be publishing women, so agents were already submitting more women than was the general case for open submissions. But still it was interesting to us that even though we’d expressly said that we were doing this, we were still getting these submissions from male writers. The other reason why we’ve published so much writing by men in the past is because most of what gets translated has already had a level of success in its original language, and often, in a lot of cultures, more attention is given to male writers. Men are favoured, considered more serious, considered to write better literature and so on, and so they’re the ones that get the awards, they’re the ones that get the coverage in the news that bring them to the attention of foreign publishers who might want to publish them.”

Confirmation of this bias within the global publishing industry is sobering, and highlights how important it is to do something about this in the UK. Though And Other Stories cannot change this single-handedly, it’s certain that their being part of this conversation made others take it more seriously. Even if large publishers or other large independent publishers didn’t take up the Year of Publishing Women, other things have happened that may well have been a result of And Other Stories doing so. As Nicky puts it, “unless someone had come out and said ‘yes, we’re going to do this’, other people would have allowed it to slide away. So it feels good to have done it.”

The impact of the Year of Publishing Women

Despite negative article titles at the start of the year, such as “2018 won’t be the ‘year of publishing women’ after all” and “What became of 2018 as the year of publishing women?”, a high-profile backlash on diversity from Lionel Shriver, and a general reluctance within the industry to make significant changes (evidenced by the low take-up of Shamsie’s “provocation”), there has still been some progress. It may be too early to know what the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women will be going forwards, but Nicky made some interesting reflections about potential effects that I’m going to expand on here:

Firstly, and in response to my musing above about the importance of English-language gatekeepers actively promoting change, one key change is the message being sent to literary agents: if more women writers are sought, then this might have a knock-on effect on the gender hierarchy in the publishing industry in their own countries. As Nicky explained, “Publishing is a market, and literature generally is subject to some market forces, even if not always in the same way as some other more commodified things, but if this conversation is happening in the UK, and if we’re saying that we want to see more books by women, then that potentially has an impact on the possibilities for women writers in other countries as well.”

Secondly, in terms of what gets submitted to prizes such as the Man Booker International Prize, And Other Stories usually submit around 8 books. Ths year, all of their submissions will be women writers, and that makes a significant change to the statistics. We all know the difference that the exposure of a Man Booker win can make: look at Han Kang and Deborah Smith, or Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft, for example. But the shortlisting and longlisting can make a difference too: La Nación recently published an article on Argentine literature in the UK, making reference to MBI longlisted authors Samanta Schweblin and Ariana Harwicz, and the exposure these two authors gained – along with the others on the lists – is considerably greater because of the prestige attached to the prize.

So this brings me to wonder: how do we measure success? By literary prizes, by sales figures? At the time I spoke to Nicky, it was too soon to tell whether sales were up or down for 2018, though it seemed fairly consistent with the same period the previous year. But one wonderful outcome is, quite simply, the books that And Other Stories have identified and published. They have expanded the scope of their list, and published things that they may not have come across otherwise, all while maintaining their own ethos and commitment to diversity in the publishing industry. I mentioned in an earlier post that small changes can make a big difference, and it seems to me that this small publishing house is making an enormous difference to the literary scene. One of Nicky’s comments that has really stayed with me epitomises the importance of openness, at a time when the UK is perceived to be closing itself off:

“The more you show willingness to find these things, the more they emerge. And also readers, who want to read these books, suddenly become aware that they’re there. I’m sure there are lots of readers who’ve always known it’s there, but the gatekeepers, the publishing industry, haven’t let the voices through, so the readers haven’t been able to encounter them. They shouldn’t have to search that hard. It should be there, they should be able to find it, and it’s about being part of helping that, increasing the availability of great literature, that also represents a wide range of experiences.”

On this last point, Nicky did tell me how they struggled to find books that were representative of a diverse range of society, and so there is clearly still work to be done towards true equality and diversity in publishing. But none of it can happen without a starting point, and And Other Stories have certainly given us that: in the long-term, they will continue to work with some of the writers they’ve published this year, which shows that the Year of Publishing Women hasn’t been a passing phenomenon, but one that is set to keep influencing the literary translation market in the UK over time. Not to mention the political stand they have taken: And Other Stories depends on subscriptions because of their publishing model, and this means that all subscribers this year have received exclusively books written by women. And Other Stories have made headlines in literary magazines and mainstream press, and anyone reading those cannot fail to receive the message they are sending out: Bring us your women writers. There is no compromise on quality because of this decision. I call that a success.

My two top picks from And Other Stories this year

 

 

 

Holiday reads 2018: One Night, Markovitch; We That Are Young; The Dead Lake; Pure Hollywood

I took four books on holiday with me this year; though only one was a woman writer in translation, I wanted to showcase the diverse stories that accompanied me through the glorious heatwave of 2018…

I chose one novel from an author I already liked (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch), one debut novel (Preti Taneja, We That Are Young), one recommendation (Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake) and one that came as part of a subscription (Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood).

Image from pushkinpress.com

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press, 2015), translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Earlier this year I read and loved Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, so was fairly certain I’d enjoy her first novel, One Night, Markovitch, and chose it to kick off my holiday reading. One Night, Markovitch is the tale of two friends – the eponymous and “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch, a man no-one looks at twice, and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg, lover of women, teller of tales, owner of a magnificent moustache. Whereas no-one remembers Markovitch, Zeev Feinberg leaves legends in his wake: he is a man “whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country.” The two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel when the butcher discovers that Zeev has been sleeping with his wife, and so Zeev’s friend, the deputy director of the Irgun, secures them places on a boat bound for Europe, where they and eighteen other men will marry Israeli women fleeing a world on the brink of catastrophe. Once safely in Israel, the new couples are to divorce; Yaacov Marcovitch, however, falls in love with his new wife, Bella, a beauty who belongs to “the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.” He refuses to go through with the divorce, and this decision sets in motion a chain of events that unfold over decades, weaving together the destiny of all the characters and the choices they make. Lovers and foes are entangled and underestimated, and tragedy is never far away: “Bella Zeigerman’s mistake was more terrible than Yaacov Markovitch’s. For she was like someone who wants to cross a river she knows, saying, ‘I know it flows slowly’ and, taking no care, walks into it and drowns because it is winter and the water has risen.” Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos – I laughed out loud at some points, but was choking up at others – and the storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Sondra Silverston’s translation. I can see why it’s described as a fable; there is a lot about it which is a little fantastical, and on a bad day I might have found it slightly twee in places. There were no bad days on holiday, though, and so I found it utterly charming. I shall be keeping a close eye on what Gundar-Goshen publishes next.

Image from galleybeggar.co.uk

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017)

Next up was the debut novel from Preti Taneja, who won the 2018 Desmond Elliott prize for this modern-day re-telling of King Lear, set in the palaces and slums of India. I can only speak about We That Are Young in hyperbole: it’s epic, turbulent, majestic, furious… Jivan Singh returns to India after more than a decade spent in America. He is the illegitimate son of the right-hand man of Devraj Bapuji, the head of “the Company”, a powerful corporation at the core of Indian life; on the night of Jivan’s return, Bapuji announces his shock retirement, dividing his company up between his daughters. The two eldest are the power-hungry Gargi (“Such a shame she’s getting so plump these days”) and PR-savvy Radha, ”polished to a Delhi-girl shine”, and Jivan watches on security monitors as the family is brought together to celebrate the arranged engagement of the youngest daughter, Sita, “a barefoot girl in loose, rolled-up jeans”, the most beautiful of the three daughters, and Bapuji’s favourite. But Sita absconds, for her heart lies with environmental issues and women’s education, not with the corrupt Company that pollutes India both literally and figuratively.

Taneja has grappled with every aspect of Shakespeare’s King Lear: nothing seems forced, despite the centuries and cultures that separate the two stories. In fact, the attention to detail is so meticulous that if you thought you might be spared the scene of eyes being gouged out, think again – even that gets worked in. We That Are Young will sweep you away into another world, but there is one small thing that gnawed at me: there are a number of typos and editing errors, and these dragged me back into the everyday, taking away from that glorious feeling of being transported elsewhere while the book is open. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and urgent novel, and an incredible debut: We That Are Young is dark, frenetic, chilling, and it swept me along like the floods in the Napurthala basti, where Jeet (the legitimate son; Edgar to Jivan’s Edmund) is reborn. Taneja is one to watch.

Image from peirenepress.com

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Peirene, 2014), translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

I discovered Hamid Ismailov’s work earlier this year, when I read The Devil’s Dance: when I was talking to my husband about it, he mentioned Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, which he had read and greatly enjoyed while judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 (The Dead Lake was longlisted). He recommended that I read it, and I pass on that recommendation unreservedly: The Dead Lake is haunting and understated, and pulled me in right from the opening line (“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible”). Yet there is nothing remotely prosaic about the story of Yerzhan, a young boy growing up in a small village on a bleak steppe in Kazakhstan, right at the heart of Soviet nuclear testing sites. Yerzhan is in love with his neighbour, Aisulu, and one day, on a school trip, to impress Aisulu he undresses and walks into the forbidden Dead Lake – a pool of radioactive water. Although nothing happens immediately, Yerzhan has cursed himself by entering it: he will never grow, and will remain trapped in his twelve-year-old body forever. We meet Yerzhan at the age of twenty-seven, a man in a child’s body, playing violin on a passenger train making its way across the steppe. The unnamed narrator is travelling on the train for reasons unknown, and Yerzhan tells the narrator his story; the narrator then re-tells the first-person story in the third person (from the two novels I’ve read, Ismailov’s original use of narrators seems to be a feature of his writing). The short introductory section ends on this reflection: “‘Does anything make any sense?’ he retorted, suddenly prickly again, and his question seemed to be addressed, not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness, which…” One individual’s experiences are set against the immensity of a majestic yet rapacious earth, and from this introduction Yerzhan’s story is set out in three parts: “Before”, “The Destiny”, and “The Salt of the Myth” – each with an alternative title composed of musical notes that echo both Yerzhan’s prodigious skills with a violin and dombra and his onward march to the final act of his story. It’s impossible not to admire Ismailov: The Dead Lake is tragic, yet never descends into melodrama, it’s a horror story without the hamming up, a star-crossed romance that has nothing trite about it. Andrew Bromfield’s translation is sensitive and stark, and Ismailov a force to be reckoned with.

Image from andotherstories.org

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, 2018)

There had to be a Year of Publishing Women book in my suitcase! Pure Hollywood is a collection of short stories by American author Christine Schutt. I confess that the short story genre isn’t generally my favourite (though Fish Soup may have converted me): I invest in the characters and then the page is turned on them; I start a new story still filled with thoughts about the last one; there’s always a disappointing one that I like less than the others.  I’m full of excuses for avoiding them, but I’m glad this one found me: Pure Hollywood is the antidote to vapid, happy-ever-after tales. It introduces, among others, a young widow left penniless after her (much older) comedian husband dies and leaves his wealth to his children, a fractious child whose desperate parents resort to a babysitter with tragic consequences, a snooty woman whose rudeness to a younger woman on a horse ride has (wait for it) tragic consequences, two ageing men coming to terms with the past and imminent loss of their respective wives, and a newly-wed couple who befriend a misanthropic painter with (you guessed it) tragic consequences. But though I may joke about Schutt’s penchant for eschewing a happy ending, the stories are refreshing and invigorating: they are not neat, at least not in the sense of being tied up with a pretty bow. They leave you to think and to wonder, they are written in a brutally poetic style (“He fell over the railing and cracked his skull and many other bones that gave him shape”), sharply observed (a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea”) and all too believable (“Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead”). But despite the bleak undertones of Schutt’s stories, they are far from depressing; rather, they showcase a pithy candour:

“Oh.”
The little oh was all that was left of Dan’s story, the one that played out in his head about a husband with a ponytail and his purposeful, dying wife. As far as Dan was concerned, Nancy Cork was a woman needful and deserving of more love than her self-absorbed husband could give, whereas he could give… oh.
He could not put a name to it or perhaps ever find it again.

Without a subscription, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, and so it highlights the valuable ways in which independent presses can influence reading choices.

So that’s my holiday reading rounded up for 2018. If you have any recommendations for summer 2019, I’m all ears!

Feminism is for everyone: Translating Feminisms and finding a voice

Today I’m kicking off a series of more reflective posts about women, translation, and the publishing industry: these will intersperse the review posts from time to time, to offer some context to the issues I’m researching and find interesting. I’ve also got some great guest writers lined up to contribute to this series, so I hope you’ll enjoy new perspectives on “Women Writing Women Translating Women”. I want to start the series by thinking about female voices getting lost in translation, and what we might do about this. A couple of things triggered this reflection, and I’m bringing them together here: the “Immodest Women” Twitter hashtag (and one particular response), the new Translating Feminisms kickstarter from Tilted Axis Press, and the Year of Publishing Women.

Translating Feminisms kickstarter. Image taken from tiltedaxispress.com

If you haven’t heard of the “Immodest Women” hashtag, it’s a rally for female academics to put their title in their Twitter name, because we worked hard for it and it is so often denigrated. I entirely support all those women who have done it, but I haven’t done it myself. Why? Well, you might argue that I am too conditioned to be a “modest woman”, but really I just don’t like using a title – any title. In the same way that I don’t want to be defined by my marital status, I also don’t want to be defined by my PhD. But I understand why so many women feel differently: I think we can all agree that the patriarchy is alive and well (there’s an excellent Guardian ‘long read’ by Charlotte Higgins on “the age of patriarchy” here), and that in most contexts, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, women have to do everything men do, but backwards and in high heels. This is also true of getting published: books by women are priced lower than books written by men; of the much-quoted 3.5% figure (the percentage of UK sales accounted for by translated literature), less than a third is made up of writing by women; then there is the old “I don’t read women” chestnut.

Over the last weeks, I’ve read a lot of tweets from women sharing stories of how they have been belittled despite or because of their academic achievements, and I recognised myself in them all, but the one that really left an impression on me was a thread by feminist author Meena Kandasamy. She writes: “I am feeling extremely conflicted about the #ImmodestWoman hashtag and not because of self-righteousness but because there’s so much to unpack […] For every one of us who has managed to float up and breathe from that cesspool with a doctorate degree above our heads–we must remember our sisters sent home, their dreams crushed, their futures messed up, academia behaving like one petty thug-gang to have the backs of a few men.” Powerful words from a powerful woman, and an important reminder that however belittled we may sometimes (justifiably) feel, we still have that title, we still have a voice, we can still choose to be “immodest women”. So what really stood out for me in Kandasamy’s thread is the mention of people whose voices aren’t heard, the women whose dreams are crushed, and who may never get to be “immodest” because they simply don’t have a voice.

And voice is exactly where this coincides with writing, and translating. We can speak and be heard, even if the reaction is hateful (the “Immodest Women” debate made the top three headlines on the BBC news website in its first week, and there were some pretty unpleasant reactions to it), but many women cannot raise their voice, and if they did, who in the Anglophone world would hear it anyway? As Olga Castro wrote for The Conversation last year, “even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies.” There is an obvious issue here about lack of inclusivity, even with all the positive things that are being done to counteract gender inequality in the publishing industry, and though Castro was writing in 2017, this year’s “Year of Publishing Women” (more on that in a moment!) has not yet made the significant change we might have hoped it would.

Tilted Axis Press are one of the pioneers doing something about this inequality: in a kickstarter-funded project challenging supporters to “smash the patriarchy”, they are proposing a series of chapbooks from women writers from Nepal, India and Vietnam. Tilted Axis already had excellent women-in-translation credentials: its founder, Deborah Smith, was the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize (jointly with Han Kang; you can find my review of The Vegetarian here), and more than half of the authors and translators published by Tilted Axis are women. In particular, Tilted Axis focuses on literature originally written in languages that are not currently widely translated into English, and the Translating Feminisms project reinforces this, showcasing “intimate collaborations between some of Asia’s most exciting female writers and emerging-star translators: contemporary poetry of bodies, labour and language, alongside essays exploring questions such as ‘Does feminism translate?’” They situate this within a wider project of decolonisation through/ of translation, showing the importance of intersectionality in activism (here, specifically of feminism, decolonisation, and translation). This kind of project promotes dialogue between women across the world (and I can’t wait to find out how they answer the question “does feminism translate?”)

The Translating Feminisms chapbooks. Images taken from Tilted Axis Kickstarter page (link in text).

Tilted Axis have understood the importance of transnational feminism, and translation has an important role here: it is a powerful means to give voice to women who are doubly silenced – first, because they are women, and second, because they do not speak a dominant world language. Recently on the Vagabond Voices blog, I enjoyed a post about literary prizes and how these affect small independent presses. Part-way through this discussion, which is worth reading in its entirety if you feel so inclined, is this rallying cry: “coming into contact with foreign cultures helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by unfamiliar voices is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity and ensure that we are not closing ourselves off from Europe and the rest of the world. It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep literary translation alive and growing.”

Though these comments are not specifically about translating women, they underline the importance of transnational dialogues. Translation is key to making “unfamiliar voices” heard, and inclusivity is equally crucial for making women’s voices heard; if the “Immodest Women” debate sprang from anything, I think it was lack of true inclusivity. But once we start to think about “inclusivity” we see it is far more wide-reaching than the academic context which was the springboard for the “Immodest Women” movement, and again it is the intersectionality that we need to be thinking about: how these voices raised in protest can join with those who struggle more to be heard. If “unfamiliar voices” can mean those from other parts of the world, it can also mean women’s voices. It’s not a huge step to alter the Vagabond Voices quotation a little and say: “coming into contact with WOMEN’S WRITING helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by WOMEN is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity […] It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep WOMEN IN TRANSLATION alive and growing.”

One publisher attempting to take on the lack of inclusivity and diversity this year is And Other Stories: back in 2015, Kamila Shamsie gave an impassioned speech at the Hay Festival, contending that books by and about women are unlikely to achieve the same kind of attention as those by and/or about men. As And Other Stories explains, “Even more incendiary than her argument […] was her proposed solution. In a provocation to all British publishers, big and small, she urged presses to highlight the problem, instigate discussion, and mark the centenary of female suffrage by publishing only women authors in 2018.” And Other Stories was the only press to take up the gauntlet. But if the recently released Brother in Ice (by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem) and People in the Room (Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle) are anything to go by, it was a gauntlet worth taking up. Kopf challenges the canon with her modern epic, and writes a book that is at once highly intimate and constantly outward-looking, while Whittle writes Lange’s twentieth-century Argentine classic of female lives into English for the first time with a translation that brings the original to life without seeming dated. I’ll soon be doing a full profile on And Other Stories and the Year of Publishing Women, so watch this space for more…

Image taken from andotherstories.org

So what can we as readers do to promote women’s writing, and women in translation? Well, I’m a firm believer that small actions, multiplied, can make a big difference. If you buy books, try to buy them directly from the publishers where possible. If you can support these kickstarter initiatives, that’s a great way to make a difference. If not, don’t underestimate the power of your voice. If you liked a book by a woman author, tell people. As many people as you can. Whether it’s a blog like this or a tweet or a book club or a chat with your friends, spread the word. One of my favourite comments about inclusivity (and the one I’m constantly repeating) is from Erin Dexter, who a couple of years ago said in a BBC news feature that “Feminism is for everybody, because sexism damages everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re either a misogynist or you need to look in a dictionary.” Feminism is about all of us working for change, whether it’s in the books we read, the organisations we support, the voices we promote, or the prejudices we reject. As Kandasamy reminds us, “Individual success is great, but collective change is urgent.” We all need feminism, and we all need to extend our concept of what this is, so that all women’s voices are represented – in literature as well as in society.

 

 

 

Being and becoming a woman: Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin

Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, 2015)

This book represents many ‘firsts’ for me: most notably, it was the first time I’ve read anything about Albania and the first time I’d heard of the tradition of the ‘sworn virgin’. I must confess, the title of this book left me entirely unprepared for what I’d read within (an insouciance for which my own ignorance of what a ‘sworn virgin’ meant was entirely responsible). In case you share this ignorance, or at least to allow me to bask in my newfound knowledge, a ‘sworn virgin’ is, in Albanian tradition, a role taken on by a woman when there is no man present to take charge of the household. The woman wears men’s clothes, socialises with men, behaves like a man – basically, ‘becomes’ a man to uphold the family’s honour. S/he must also remain a virgin. In an interview with the BBC to promote her TV documentary on the same subject, Elvira Dones explained that ‘If she didn’t want that marriage, the only way out so as not to dishonour the family and not to disobey the word of her father was to say ‘no, I’m going to become a man and I will take the oath of eternal virginity’.

An oath of eternal virginity? Cripes. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would make for a dire, turgid, moralising story, but far from it: This brave, absorbing and deeply moving tale offers arresting reflections on selfhood, sacrifice, and what ‘being a woman’ means.

Image taken from www.andotherstories.org

Sworn Virgin is published by And Other Stories, an independent publishing house based in Sheffield which is, as far as I’m aware, the only publishing house to have taken up the challenge to publish only books written by women for ‘The Year of Publishing Women’ in 2018. Each book has a list of names in the back: these are the subscribers who make it possible for And Other Stories to keep publishing ‘the types of stories most publishers consider too risky to take on’ (indeed, in her acknowledgements, Dones praises And Other Stories for believing in translated literature, and extends particular thanks to her translator, Clarissa Botsford, who searched relentlessly for a publishing house because of her profound belief in this book). Sworn Virgin epitomises the position taken by Nicky Smalley of And Other Stories, in a piece she wrote to mark International Women’s Day in 2017: given the odds stacked against translations being published, and against women’s writing being published, if a book written by a woman makes it into translation, you can be pretty sure it’s going to be good. Sworn Virgin is good. It’s more than good. The story is fascinating, the style engaging, the translation virtually irreproachable. In an interview discussing the months she spent translating Dones’s protagonist, Hana, Botsford claims to have ‘inhabited Hana’s skin’, and it shows.

“what a heroine Hana is: fiercely insecure, endlessly paradoxical, profoundly loveable.”

In the novel, Hana Doda becomes a ‘sworn virgin’ at the age of 20, when her Uncle Gjergj (her last relative) is dying. He had wanted to arrange her marriage before his death, so that he would know she was provided for. The insight into the values held in the community described by Dones, and the conflict between the villagers’ way of life and the more metropolitan Hana (a student at university in Tirana), is clear when her uncle tells her that ‘a woman who is not married is worth nothing.’ When she argues in riposte that ‘Women are the same as men’, she is silenced by her uncle’s wrath: ‘Like hell they are. Women are made to serve men and have children. Don’t be a fool!’ Hana refuses wordlessly in the end, simply going to Gjergj’s clothes chest and finding his national uniform, then presenting herself to him as a man. In doing so, her uncle dies with his dignity intact: if Gjergj had forced her to marry against her will, he would have been sad, and died sad. If she had refused, he would have lost pride. With her sacrifice, Hana gave her uncle a few more months of life, and he died brimming with pride. Yet Hana is not presented as a selfless hero(ine): tradition and modernity, right and wrong, love and duty are all blurred, for ‘it was a gesture of love; perhaps it was also a delusion’.

The newly named Mark Doda lives alone in the mountains in the north of Albania for fourteen years, but we learn this and all of Mark/Hana’s past in flashback: the novel opens with Mark’s arrival in Washington DC. He has come to stay with his cousin Lila who had emigrated to America with her husband Shtjefën, and who lives in the suburbs of DC. The ongoing theme of whether ‘gender’ is innate or learned is dealt with subtly and without pontificating: the first section of the novel is understated, as Lila (a brittle believer in the American Dream, with good intentions and a perm that makes her look like a sheep) tries to find a way to make Hana comfortable with being a woman. Lila’s limited grasp of how to bring her cousin’s emotional turmoil to an end is reduced to insisting that Hana buy a pencil skirt in a huge mall, but Hana needs more time and more space than Lila wants to give her: Lila’s superficial notion of ‘aesthetic’ femininity is at odds with Hana’s struggles to understand herself as a woman, and attempts to whitewash the fourteen years that Hana has spent denying herself everything – even her identity.

As well as gender, language is a prominent theme in Sworn Virgin, with Hana trying to learn English, and particularly American slang (with the help of her niece Jonida, adolescent maven of colourful vernacular). It seems appropriate, then, that Sworn Virgin should be published in English, and that Hana should find her voice in the language in which she so desperately wants to feel at home. We also have an insight into the importance of language in Hana’s self-expression, and how language is inextricably bound up with gender: ‘For a while now she’s been unable to balance her thoughts out, and that makes her angry. It’s weird but when she was Mark she was better with words.’ If, in her haste to ‘become’ a woman, Hana is ‘losing something she can’t quite put her finger on’, Botsford understands what this is and offers it back to her, bringing Hana to life in a new language. And what a heroine Hana is: fiercely insecure, endlessly paradoxical, profoundly loveable.

In this beautiful novel, Dones offers a rare literary insight into Albania’s landscape and traditions, and captures perfectly the self-reflection of a person caught between two worlds and the self-doubt of a woman who has spent fourteen years trying to forget herself.